China’s aggression will fail to thwart India’s ambition

Source : Hindustan Times

China’s aggression will fail to thwart India’s ambition
Perhaps hardliners in China believe that scooping up pieces of territory or inflicting a military defeat will fatally embarrass the present government, and thus bring its troubling adroitness to an end. If so, they have misidentified their adversary. (PTI)

This month marks the second anniversary of the skirmishes that gravely damaged relations between India and China. What prompted Chinese belligerence in that instance remains a puzzle. But there can be no mistaking a broader pattern of growing hostility. This raises a pressing question: What do hardliners in China, who support confrontation, hope to achieve?

As the hardliners see it, because India considers itself as a great power, it expects to be treated as China’s equal. However, since it lacks discipline and unity, India will actually lag far behind China. The growing disparity between India’s ambitions and its abilities will, the hardliners fear, compel it to draw in outsiders, who will then use India to keep China off balance. This disconcerting prospect must be prevented, they conclude, by imposing punitive costs on India, which will break its will and reconcile it to its “rightfully” subordinate role in Asia.

In India, this hardline view is met with bravado (the claim that India will soon catch up with China) or tact (the promise that India will rely on bilateral diplomacy, rather than outside aid, to resolve future disagreements). Since Chinese hardliners disbelieve these claims, they have ramped up the pressure to teach India a historic “lesson”.

But is their conclusion sound — will punitive measures chasten India? If we reflect on modern India’s trajectory, which began not in 2014 or 1991, but in the recesses of the 19th century, we will see that its ambitions are a product of choices made long ago. Seen on this scale, there is relatively little that China can do to change the convictions that drive India’s ungainly but persistent rise. If anything, the use of coercion will only accelerate India’s embrace of great power politics.

To refresh our memory, consider India’s position in the early 19th century. Decades of war, initially among the remnants of an earlier era, and then between the battered survivors and the East India Company, had reduced the country to ruin. Poverty was nearly universal, famines were commonplace, hereditary vocations were endangered, and traditional authorities lay emasculated. “Men who, but for us, might have been governors of provinces”, Thomas Munro wrote, “are now regarded as little better than menial servants.”

In spite of the dispiriting circumstances, leading elements around the country began, almost immediately, to reflect upon the causes behind India’s subjugation — and to seek out the means of its salvation. Thus, it was that the earliest English language schools in India were established in Tanjore and Travancore — decades before they appeared in British India. The missionaries that operated these schools soon learnt who was using whom. The natives, they despondently wrote home, were only interested in their “temporal welfare”. Then, it was the turn of the denizens of British India. Having comprehended that it was to “the power of knowledge that we must trace back the vast superiority of England over this country”, they petitioned furiously for schools and colleges for their “mental advancement”. This is why British retrospectives would later concede that “before Macaulay set foot in India native opinion had declared so strongly for English teaching, in place of the old traditional learning, that Macaulay’s eloquent Minute merely played the part of the shout at which the walls of Jericho fell.”

After this epochal development, came the original “million mutinies”. Stubborn habits that would have otherwise defeated legislators were voluntarily shed almost overnight. Dress and diets were supplemented, irrational social and religious diktats were challenged, and then Indians, who for centuries had refused to leave their locales, flooded out in every direction—to England and the United States, to Germany and Japan — seeking new skills and expertise. From there they returned as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists, leading Bholanath Chandra, one of the great observers of the age, to proclaim, “a widely diffused enterprising spirit is always the antecedent to that widely diffused national prosperity, by means of which alone can our nation ever hope to occupy a conspicuous position in the eyes of mankind. Such was the state of India once, such ought to be the state of India again”.

In the closing quarter of the 19th century, India’s reigning intellects discerned the need for still more. India’s subjugation would not end simply by acquiring knowledge and reforming mores. A bracing summary of the missing ingredients came in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s influential essay, Bharat Kalanka (The Shame of Bharat). The long subjugation of the people of Bharatvarsha, he declared, owed to their being “devoid” of the desire for “freedom” and their utter “lack of unity”. But it could be otherwise — as Shivaji showed when he made Marathas “brothers to one another”. “If the rise of the idea of a nation in only a part of Bharatvarsha could have achieved so much”, Bankim asked, “what could not have been possible if all of Bharatvarsha had united as a single nation?” As it happened, Indians now had a chance to find out. Forcibly brought together by the British, they were inadvertently learning the value of freedom and nationhood. “The British are our beneficiaries”, Bankim archly observed, for “they are demonstrating to us how to walk on a path we have never walked before”.

This rapid sketch conveys that India’s rise stems from choices made nearly 200 years ago: To learn, to adapt, to unite. Since then these ideas have been transmitted by means that are subtle but effective: Discussions in homes, clubs, and newspapers, which have moulded minds over two centuries. This is unlike contemporary China, where the ruling ideas descend from singular events — rebellions and revolutions — and are carefully chaperoned by a disciplined Party. Topple the Party in China, and there will be immense confusion. But the same is not true in India: The sources of its conduct are not reducible to an individual or a party.

This brings us back to where we began. Perhaps hardliners in China believe that scooping up pieces of territory or inflicting a military defeat will fatally embarrass the present government, and thus bring its troubling adroitness to an end. If so, they have misidentified their adversary. The current regime is only a manifestation of a much wider awakening that has been gathering steam since the early 19th century. How exactly this awakening should proceed may be hotly contested but the broader objective is unmistakable. As Chandra observed as long ago as 1867, no enlightened Indian “thinks of anything so much” as to see the country take a “conspicuous position” among the nations of the world. Can a Chinese foray across the border overturn such a long-cherished ambition? It is far more likely to spur India to deepen alliances that will make up for shortfalls in its current ability to realise its dream. And so, by failing to understand the deep sources of Indian conduct, Chinese hardliners will bring about — indeed are already bringing about — the very outcome they so dread.

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