Prem Shankar Jha

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If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture.

The Remedy to the Agricultural Crisis That No One Is Talking AboutFarmers during a protest against the new farm laws, at Ghazipur Border in New Delhi, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Five weeks after the Farmers agitation began, and a day after the Supreme Court urged the government to put the three farm bills passed in September on hold, Prime Minister Modi has finally agreed to hold talks with their leaders.

But what will he hold talks about when neither he, nor anyone else in his government, has shown any understanding of what has driven the entire community of farmers from North India to the edge of despair?

Their ignorance is writ large on his party propagandists’ attempts to ascribe political, even traitorous, motives to the farm leaders. That is the reaction of schoolyard bullies who, when they find themselves losing an argument, start hitting their opponents.

Now that Modi has decided to talk to the farmers himself, he would do well to understand the predicament that has driven them to desperation. In a nutshell, it is this: India is now a chronically food surplus economy. So while opening up the foodgrains trade to traders from all over the country will benefit rich farmers – who have the maximum bargaining power and can contact, or be contacted by, buyers in other states and countries most easily – the entire price shock of the foodgrains surplus will be felt by the small landholders who make up four-fifths of the farming community.

The government’s recent decision not to abolish the Minimum Sale Price system will cushion this shock, but no one knows to what extent it will do so if the thriving mandis of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and northern Rajasthan lose the bulk of their business to private buyers and start closing down.

Even if the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees that manage these mandis survive no one can foretell how far their straitened finances will permit them to provide the small farmers with the host of ancillary services, such as advances to buy seed and fertiliser in time to sow the next crop, that they are doing today. In sum, these ‘reforms’ will plunge the largest, most vulnerable, segment of the country’s population into a sea of uncertainty, in which they presently have no idea, of how they will stay afloat.

Liberal economists are treating this as the unavoidable price of economic development. The solution, they say, lies in product diversification. The cereals market will automatically come back into balance if farmers divert some of their land to horticulture, dairy and poultry farming. What they seem to be unaware of is that farmers have been doing this since the early 1990s. Those with small and marginal holdings were the first to attempt it.

But the world they entered was frighteningly different from the world they were leaving, for it was one in which near-complete market security was replaced by equally complete market insecurity. While cereals are not perishable and can easily be stored for six months or more (wheat) to several years ( lentils), fruit, vegetables (other than onions and potatoes),  milk and eggs perish in days. Horticulturalists have therefore found that, from the moment they harvest their crop, they are at the utter mercy of the trader.

Despite this more and more farmers have taken to growing vegetables, fruit and flowers because of the rapid and unexpected growth of exports. Since exporters offer contracted prices to ensure, and often pre-empt, supply, a degree of income stability has been given to horticulturists. As a result, the area under horticulture has more than doubled in the past twenty years to 25 million hectares, and exports have grown eightfold from Rs 8,000 crores in 2000-01 to Rs 63,700 crores in 2018-19.

Farmers protest against the farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, December 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

But only traders, exporters and well-to-do farmers have benefited from this windfall.  To manage the growing volume of horticultural produce giant cold storages that can store up to 40,000 tonnes of produce, have sprung up all over India in the last two decades. In March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold storages with a refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres, capable of storing  37 to 39 million tonnes of perishable produce.

But the small farmers, who have grown most of the fruits and vegetables, have been left out in the cold because, even today, almost three-quarters of a century after independence, there are no cold storages in the villages.

The following data from the agriculture ministry’s report, ‘Horticulture Statistics at a Glance 2018‘ shows how this single omission has chained the small farmers to poverty. In Punjab, one hectare under horticulture yields four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat, but close to 20 tonnes of vegetables.

But between 2013 and 2018, the wholesale price of onions, potatoes and tomatoes – the three principal horticulture crops – has averaged Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per tonne in March and April at the end of the growing season, when the farmers have no option but to sell their produce.  Since farm-gate prices average at most half of the wholesale price, the vegetable growers earn at best Rs 6,000 per tonne for their produce,  and a gross income, therefore, of Rs 120,000 in the year.

But the procurement price fixed by the central government for both paddy and wheat is over Rs 18,000 per tonne. So four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat a year fetch the farmer a gross income of Rs 162,000, one-third more than vegetables fetch the marginal farmers. Vegetable farming is therefore not only less secure, but also pays less than cereal farming. That is the second reason why the farmers are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills. If the present marketing structure is weakened or destroyed, all of them, from the largest landholders to the smallest, have no place to go but down.

The bitter experience of vegetable growers has shown the farmers who are surrounding Delhi today that the ‘market’ upon whose mercy Modi wants to cast them is exploitative and merciless. That is why they are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills as a prelude to negotiation.

If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture that India’s governments and intelligentsia had promised to farmers when the Congress party made land reform its first national policy initiative in 1948, but subsequently forgot.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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These “reforms” bear exactly the same stamp of hubris, lack of consultation and foresight that has characterised all the major initiatives taken by the Narendra Modi government in the past six years.

The Protests Against the Farm Laws Present a Familiar Pattern
A farmer holds the tricolor at Ghazipur border during the protest against the Centre’s agri-laws, December 15, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

If there is anyone who should not be surprised by the sustained and widespread opposition by farmers to the laws passed in September, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For these “reforms” bear exactly the same stamp of hubris, lack of consultation and foresight that has characterised all the major initiatives his government has taken in the past six or more years.

This is not the first time that Modi has announced draconian measures that have far-reaching consequences, without prior warning, let alone consultation. He did this with demonetisation in 2016; with the Goods and Services Tax in 2017; with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Population Register in 2019, and with a hasty lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in March that proved a monumental failure but inflicted untold hardship on 40-50 million migrant workers this year.

The many failures that have followed his exaggerated promises, and the unrest that many of these have generated, have sown a growing scepticism in the people. So it is not surprising that the farmers distrust the government’s assurances that the Acts will help double their earnings and are demanding their repeal.

A farmer holding a flag stands on top of a truck during the ongoing protest against the Center’s new farm laws at Singhu
border in New Delhi, December 10, 2020. Photo: PTI/Arun Sharma

What is not so easy to understand is their refusal to discuss amendments to the three lawseven after the government reassured them that it will not abolish the minimum support price (MSP) system that has existed for the past five decades. This will allow the farmers to sell their rice, wheat and other MSP-covered crops in the open market while they enjoy the security of knowing that they can sell these to the government if the need arises.

So, predictably, Modi’s spokespersons have reverted to coercion and accused the farmers’ leaders of being ‘Leftists’, ‘Khalistanis’ and puppets of the ‘tukde tukde gang’ that wants to ‘dismember’ India on the pretext of protecting its ethnic, political and religious diversity.

These tactics will not intimidate the farmers for, unlike India’s English-speaking elite, and unlike even the thousands of Muslim women and their non-Muslim supporters in the Shaheen Bagh movement, they are, and will remain, the bedrock of India’s civilisation and politics for many more decades to come. So if the government really wishes to improve the lot of the farmers, it needs to understand the causes of their stubborn resistance first.

The benefits of the Green Revolution have been exhausted

These do not spring so much from doubt about the government’s intentions, as from their doubts about their own capacity to take advantage of these new ‘freedoms’. This capacity has declined sharply in the past three decades as the growth spurt given by the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s has been exhausted and nothing has taken its place.

The Green Revolution was made possible by the development of hybrid varieties of wheat and rice, but India was able to take spectacular advantage of it only because of the immensely fertile soil of the Indo-Gangetic plain and the abundant supply of groundwater – often likened to an immense underground lake – beneath it.

By the end of the 1980s, both were being fully exploited. In 2015, 28.6 out of the 37.5 million hectares of cultivated land in these five states was irrigated, and all but a tiny part was growing both wheat and rice, or two crops of rice. The cropping intensity was greatest in Punjab and Haryana, where 7.2 out of their 7.6 million hectares of cultivated land was growing both rice and wheat every year. Uttar Pradesh was only slightly behind, with 14.5 million out of its 17.6 million hectares growing both wheat and rice.

Paddy farmers in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Feng Zhong/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Representative image of paddy farmers. Photo: Feng Zhong/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This relentlessly intense cultivation has exhausted the soil. The tell-tale indicator is the need to use more and more fertilisers for every tonne of output. While the production of foodgrains has increased by 134% – from 126 to 285 million tonnes – between 1977-78 and 2018-19, the consumption of fertilisers grew by more than 600%, from 4.2 million tonnes to 27.2 million tonnes.

This increase has turned India into a food surplus country, but caught farmers in a ‘scissors crisis’ of rising costs of production and falling market prices. To prevent a crash in the latter, successive governments have turned what used to be a compulsory procurement price in the 1950s and 60s, designed to ensure a supply of foodgrains at reasonable prices, into a support price that would sustain the real income of the farmers in the villages. This was the genesis of the MSP and Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), that the government’s new farm laws will make redundant. What this will mean for the farmer can be gleaned from the statement of their purpose as spelt out by Wikipedia:

“An Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) is a marketing board established by state governments in India to ensure farmers are safeguarded from exploitation by large retailers, as well as ensuring the farm to retail price spread does not reach excessively high levels.”

The APMCs are the farmers’ shields against the stormy winds of the free market. It is no surprise therefore that state governments have tried, albeit with limited degrees of success, to extend the MSP system to 21 more agricultural crops.

But over time, this shield has turned into a trap: the more the farmers produce, the higher becomes the cliff from which they will fall if the MSP system is abolished and they are thrown into an open market. In such a market, the better off farmers, who have the means, the leisure and the contacts to make direct sales to traders in other states, and abroad, will prosper. But the small and marginal farmers will find themselves at the bottom end, forced to sell to middlemen who have none of the obligations that the state governments have imposed upon the APMCs.

And today, 125 million of the country’s 146 million farmers own or operate, an average of a little more than two hectares of land. For them, the abolition of the MSP and with it the disappearance or emasculation of the APMCs is virtually a kiss of death. Yes, given enough time many, perhaps most, of them will learn to survive and even prosper in a free market. But time is precisely what the farm laws will deprive them of. If they are forced through even with the retention of MSPs, the APMCs will survive: farmers will have the option to sell to them. But they will become progressively weaker. Many, probably most traders will migrate out of them. Those that remain will have a much smaller turnover and will therefore no longer have the resources to carry out the many functions, from warehousing to electrification to the construction of rural roads that they help perform now in Punjab and Haryana.

This is why the farmers are not satisfied with simply the retention of the MSP. They need much more support, but as of now cannot see how, and from where they will get it, if the laws are not repealed.

Unsold stocks of wheat and rice

In fairness to the government, it must, however, be admitted that the present system also is not sustainable. The warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are bursting with unsold stocks of wheat and rice and this food mountain continues to grow. At the end of June, they held 27.7 million tonnes of rice and 55 million tonnes of wheat. Together these amounted to 42.1 million tonnes more than the stipulated buffer stock requirement on July 1. Wheat is hygroscopic, i.e sucks in moisture from the air. It cannot, therefore, be stored for more than a few months before it becomes inedible.

The only way out at present has been to export the surplus. As a result, India has been transformed from the chronically food importing country it was in the 1960s into the world’s largest exporter of rice. In 2019-20, it exported 12 million tonnes – one-third of global exports – and over 6 million tonnes of wheat, much of the latter as cattle feed after it had become ‘unfit for human consumption’ in the FCI’s granaries. There are no reports of what the wheat fetched the government, but the rice fetched 7.1 billion dollars, i.e $591, or Rs 44,325 per tonne. The MSP for rice in 2019 was Rs 1,815 per quintal, i.e. Rs, 18,150 per tonne. The net profit from paddy exports in 2019-20 was, therefore, $4.18 billion.

This is the golden apple that has prompted the government and its supporters in Big Business to pick. The immediate beneficiaries will be the large urban exporters to whom the FCI will sell its surplus stocks. No one knows how much the FCI will sell these surpluses to private traders at, but it has been selling some of its stocks at the MSP or a little above that already. So this is likely to continue. The annual bonanza may be somewhat reduced from the $4.18 billion of 2019-20 by the fall in world prices that increased supply will trigger, but it will still be huge and will come to the exporters and their political backers every ear.

Labourers carry sacks of rice after unloading them from a wagon train at an FCI godown in Jammu, April 16, 2020. Photo: PTI

I will be surprised indeed if this is not the main motivation behind this supposedly benevolent reform. But the reform itself is needed, so to be accepted, it needs to be made benevolent. The simplest way would be to levy a 10% state GST upon all sales made to private traders, and something like a 28% GST upon rice and wheat exports, and channel these back to the APMCs via the state governments to continue performing the functions they perform today.

There will be cracks, even in such a system, through which a few farmers may fall through. But the chasm that all but the richest among them are facing today will be closed.


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Starting 1980s, a considerable number of Americans in relatively poor rural and suburban America have slid into poverty as globalisation and costly wars wreaked havoc on American society.

Joe Biden's Victory: It Is High Time the Concerns of 'Middle America' Are AddressedU.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is joined on stage by her running-mate, U.S Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, after she accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination during an acceptance speech delivered for the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


Joseph Biden’s victory has been greeted with the expected exhilaration and apprehension, which every newcomer to the White House experienced before. This time the exhilaration is more striking because it marks the end of a presidency that had trivialised American democracy, and held it up to global ridicule. But the apprehension will surface soon when the hoorahs are over and the changeover in Washington has been completed. The new administration will face the same challenges that its predecessors have faced since the end of the Cold War, and failed to address them.

Three decades after winning the Cold War the American state is facing a crisis that no one could have foreseen when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Instead of bringing peace, these decades have brought incessant war; instead of creating a new global order these wars have created global anarchy and fostered terrorism.

Abandonment of Middle America

In place of prosperity that followed the Allied victories in World War I and World War II, these decades have seen the withering away of blue- and white-collar employment, the end of working class job security, status and affluence. It has also brought to fore an obscene widening of the income gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinkage of the state’s capacity, or even intention, to safeguard the health, lives and peace of mind of its poor.

black lives matter
A demonstrator holds up a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a protest over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, in Rochester, New York, US September 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid


Cruelest of all, it has created a world in which young people no longer control their future. Today more and more young Americans cannot plan to marry, cannot take out a mortgage on an apartment, cannot even think of having children, and can only buy a second-hand car, because they do not know when they will find a job, and how long it will last.

Calculated neglect over decades has caused the nation’s infrastructure to run down to a level below that of China, let alone Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. China, for instance, has constructed a high-speed rail network spanning 19,000 km of track in the past 15 years, on which it is running 2,300 bullet trains every day. America has built none.

But none of this compares with the abandonment of middle America to chronic stagnation, hopelessness and despair. This began as far back as the 1980s, and neither the Democrats nor Republicans have considered it necessary to check the region’s slide into poverty. A great deal has been written on economic, social and political consequences of this neglect, but much less on its cause, and how it can be ameliorated.

The roots of today’s Blue-Red schism lie buried in the de-industrialisation of America and northern Europe, which began with the onset of globalisation half a century ago. As manufacturing began to move from the high wage economies of Europe and North America to low-wage, skill-intensive industrialising countries in Asia and Latin America, the share of manufacturing in the US GDP fell, from 26% in 1968 to 12% in 2009. Its place, as the prime mover of economic growth, was taken by business and financial services whose share in the GDP rose from 19% to 35% during the same period.

But while the bulk of the de-industrialisation has occurred in middle America, where job losses have ranged from 8% to 75% of the workforce during the last 40 years, nearly all the increase of employment in business and financial services has been concentrated in the two coastal ‘blue’ fringes, and in the Florida-Texas sunbelt. Middle America has been left to fend for itself.

Tea Party movement

In 2009, after four decades of sustained neglect, middle America found a political sponsor in the Tea Party movement. Liberal America considered the Tea Party an embarrassment – an extremist movement that backed every reactionary cause and wanted to turn the clock back to a vanished past, because it could not connect with the future.  What it lost sight of was that the Tea Party was also a protest movement, born of desperation, among people who had been robbed of their future. The Tea Party needed understanding, not condemnation. It got none.

Donald TrumpU.S. President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a Make America Great Again rally in Johnson City, Tennessee, U.S. October 1, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 was its first major political success. Since then liberal America has done everything in its power to pretend that this was an accident and to trivialise its significance. It has taken this to the point of portraying it as the product of Russian intervention in the election campaign. But Biden’s relatively narrow win last week has shown that the new, hard-Right is here to stay, and that its rancour will continue to fester and grow so long as the neglect and injustice that gave rise to it remains unaddressed.

Enormous task lies ahead of Biden-Harris

This is the responsibility that American voters have asked Biden and Kamala Harris to shoulder. Judging from his speeches, Biden is fully aware of its weight: in his victory speech he repeated his commitment to be “a president who seeks not to divide but unify…who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States”.

But similar promises were made by his predecessors in their moments of triumph. So, what prevented them from fulfilling such promises when the hoorahs ended and the work began? One, amidst the plethora of explanations put forward over the years, stands out: it is ‘legislative gridlock’.

Intra-party discipline has never been the US Congress’ strong point, for the American system contains no penalties for cross-voting. This has allowed legislators in both houses to become representatives of special interests in their states, instead of representatives of the people of their states. To make matters worse, in only 10 of the 28 years after the Cold war, there has been a president whose party has enjoyed a majority in both houses of Congress. Thus, the American democratic system did not have the capacity for united action in domestic affairs that was needed to cushion the wrenching impact of globalisation and de-industrialisation upon those who stood to lose from it.

Costly wars and the detrimental effects on the American economy

The only area in which the gridlock has not paralysed policymaking is foreign policy. Achieving a consensus in this area has been made easier by the heady sense of entitlement imparted by victory in the Cold War. This has created a brand of liberal imperialism which is shared by both Democrats and Republicans, whose goal has been the creation of unipolar world order under the leadership of the US.

American soldiers. Representative image. Credit: Reuters

This was a democratic party goal long before President George W. Bush adopted it formally in the wake of 9/11. In February 1999, after bombing Iraq daily for 11 months till there was not even a milk plant left to destroy, and on the eve of doing the same in Kosovo, Clinton justified unilateral intervention in the following words:

“It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.”  

The significance of his declaration lay hidden in what he did not say. The right to intervene was already a part of the UN Charter.  But it had to be exercised collectively through the Security Council. Clinton’s declaration did away with the need for creating an international consensus, and therefore ruled out the creation of a multipolar, democratic, world order.

The wars that followed have bankrupted America. In December 2014, the Congressional Research Service of the US estimated that the wars the US had waged in the 13 years since 9/11 had cost the treasury 1.6 trillion dollars. ‘Continued funding’ to maintain military preparedness in the occupied added  $95.5 billion in 2014, and no doubt continue to add similar sums till today. Add Operation Desert Shield in Iraq (1998), and the war on Serbia (1999), and the figure probably exceeds $2.2 trillion.

But that is only the military part of the expenditure that the US has incurred. A 2016 study by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the total military and economic cost of America’s wars was well over 3 trillion dollars. Had this money been used to modernise the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and encourage the shift of service sector businesses to the middle of the country, the blow dealt by globalisation to middle America could have been softened, and the ‘Red-Blue rift’ might not have reached the crisis level that it is at today.

‘Leveraging’ climate change

Biden is fully aware that healing this rift is the obligation, beyond all others, that his victory has thrust upon him. And he has made it clear that he intends to meet it. Fortunately, he has a new ally in this venture, the threat of climate change.

A crowd of thousands march in a climate strike featuring climate change teen activist Greta Thunberg in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada October 25, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier/files.

Technologies that can harness the energy of sun, wind, and biomass have now matured to a point where they can supplant fossil-based energy at a competitive price. Unlike fossil fuels, these technologies need vast amounts of land, sunshine and wind. These are precisely what the states of the Midwest and the Great Plains have in abundance.  Harnessing these have already begun: In 2016, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas were meeting 20% to 35% of their electricity demand from wind. Other states like Texas and Minnesota were joining them.

The change that renewable energy is making to the lives of the people affected by it cannot be captured in aseptic data on energy generation, costs and returns. A recent, heart-warming article by Elizabeth Wiese in USA Today that describes the impact of wind farms on the farmers of Cloud County, Kansas, is worth quoting:

“In an increasingly precarious time for farmers and ranchers, some who live in the nation’s wind belt have a new commodity to sell – access to their wind. Wind turbine leases, generally 30 to 40 years long, provide the landowners with yearly income that, although small, helps make up for economic dips brought by drought, floods, tariffs and the ever-fluctuating price of the crops and livestock they produce. 

Each of the landowners whose fields either host turbines or who are near enough to receive a “good neighbor” payment, can earn $3,000 to $7,000 yearly for the small area – about the size of a two-car garage – each turbine takes up.  

The median income in Cloud County is about $44,000, according to the 2018 U.S. Census. For Tom Cunningham, who has been farming between Glasco and Concordia, Kansas for 40 years, the Meridian Way Wind Farm income has made an enormous difference. Cunningham’s lease payments allowed him to pay off his farm equipment and other loans. 

Before the wind turbines, things were rough, he recalled. Depending on the national and international economy, some years he broke even, some years he made money and, for more years than he cares to think about, he was on the edge. He had to take a job in town to make ends meet and for a time was what he calls “functionally bankrupt.”

“This isn’t money that other people would think is very much,” he said. “But it made an enormous difference to us.”

What wind is doing in the Great Plains states is what solar energy can do in arid and semi-arid states like Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska, and parts of Texas and California. Straw and other crop residues in the wheat-growing states can be converted into the transport fuel of choice through the exciting, relatively new, technology of plasma-assisted gasification in far larger quantities than it can be converted into cellulosic ethanol through fermentation.

America’s way out of the increasingly poisonous partisan politics in which it has been trapped, therefore, lies in precisely the same technologies that it needs to harness, in order to fight climate change.

America’s way out of the increasingly poisonous partisan politics in which it has been trapped, therefore, lies in precisely the same technologies that it needs to harness, in order to fight climate change.

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Modi needs to be told that while the Indian armed forces may be capable of holding their ground when attacked, they simply cannot hold on to each and every inch of the 3,000 km-long Line of Actual Control.

What Narendra Modi’s Enigmatic Silence Means to China


Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi at the SCO summit in Qingdao. Credit: PMO


Beijing’s sole English language newspaper, the Global Times, is not an official mouthpiece of its foreign ministry. But it is also not an ‘independent’ newspaper. Ever since its English version was launched in 2009, it has reflected not only official policy but also official thinking.

When the June 15 clash took place at Galwan and, presumably, took the lives of Chinese soldiers too, the Chinese government went out of its way to highlight responsible voices in the Chinese social media that were asking for moderation in the face of a tide hyper-nationalist condemnation of India. Its comment on the meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, published on Friday, September 11, was equally positive.

“The joint statement and five-point consensus reached by both Chinese and Indian foreign ministers in Moscow on Thursday evening,” the Global Times reported, “marked a substantial step in cooling down the current border situation, exceeding the expectations of most international observers and creating favourable conditions for a possible future meeting between the leaders of the two countries…”.

In India, the foreign policy analyst M.K Bhadrakumar, a former diplomat himself, also came to the same conclusion: “A joint statement wasn’t anticipated after the talks… In diplomatic terms, a joint statement signals that a “critical mass” developed through the three-hour discussion between the top diplomats”.

In their joint statement to the press, the two ministers had agreed that both sides should take a cue from their leaders’ consensus and not allow differences to become disputes; quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tension; abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs; maintain peace and tranquility in the border, and as the situation eases conclude new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace in the border areas.

The relief was palpable in both capitals, but not unmixed with misgivings: “The successful implementation of the joint statement,” the Global Times concluded, “depends on whether the Indian side can truly keep its word. Given the country’s history, it is possible that the joint statement will end up as merely ‘paper talk’.”

Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, put it even more bluntly: “We should not only observe what India says, but also what it does. For a country like India, the most important thing is how it acts. In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao held important talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before signing a joint statement by the two governments, in which both sides declared the establishment of a strategic partnership to promote peace and prosperity.”

“The two governments also signed the Agreement on the ‘Political Guiding Principles for Resolving the Boundary Issue between China and India’, in which they pledged to reduce armed forces and maintain peace. However, since Modi assumed power, the Indian government has totally neglected  (the second part of)  this joint statement. China has kept its word, but the Indian side has provoked the recent border clashes,” Hu concluded.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (right) and external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow, Russia, September 10, 2020. Photo: China Daily via Reuters


Hu Zhiyong’s remarks echo the misgivings that several China watchers, including the writer, have come to, for he too has emphasised the inextricable exchange built into the agreements China and India have signed since 1993: that as the strategic cooperation between China and India grows, the precise demarcation of the LAC will lose its salience in the relations between the two countries.

In effect this would mean that China would keep the parts of Aksai Chin it already has, but cease to claim another 100,000 sq. km in the Himalayas – something that it had already ceased to do after Premier Wen Jiabao’s meeting with Manmohan Singh at Hua Hin in 2009.

This would be a win-win outcome for both countries. Beijing has immediately acknowledged the interdependence between military disengagement and renewed cooperation on strategic and economic issues.

Sun Weidong, its ambassador in Delhi has immediately urged that ‘as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work on new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas’.

Pointing, as the two foreign ministers did, to the series of consensuses reached by Modi and Xi at their recent meetings, and highlighting their ‘basic judgment’  that China and India are partners rather than rivals, he stated: “We need peace instead of confrontation; we need to pursue win-win cooperation instead of a zero-sum game; we need trust rather than suspicion; we need to move our relationship forward rather than backward.

So all that was needed was a few words from Modi, if not of outright endorsement then at least  appreciation for his foreign minister’s achievement. But ten days have passed since the Moscow meeting and not a single such word has passed his lips.   Instead of addressing the first session of parliament in six months himself, Modi delegated this  not toJaishankar, but to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh .

In his 25 minute, 2,000-plus word statement, Singh did not mention the five-point agreement at Moscow, and did not  move one jot away from the earlier official line that it is only China that had shown a  flagrant disregard for its obligations under the 1993, 1996 and subsequent agreements, and that India is utterly blameless.

What is more, Modi has already changed China’s recent actions in Ladakh into a domestic political issue by seeking a parliamentary resolution to laud the Indian army’s sacrifices in the Galwan Valley. By doing this he has also pre-empted criticism from the Congress party, for any reminder by it that it was the UPA under Dr Manmohan Singh, that brought China- India-relations from wary hostility to  the brink of partnership, will be twisted by BJPs media machine and tame TV channel anchors into a  criticism of the army and callousness towards its jawans.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh speaking in the Rajya Sabha. Photo: Screengrab/RSTV

It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that the tone of comment on Sino-Indian relations in the Global Times has changed. On September 15, Hu Jixin, the editor in chief of the Global Times wrote a signed article titled, ‘China ready for Peace, and War’.

Two days later, in an article titled, ‘India’s sincerity key to ending conflict before winter,’ a writer warned Chinese readers once again, citing Chinese experts as saying: “By continually going back on their word, India is wasting the opportunities and high expectations that China has for peacefully settling border tensions before winter.”

“Their attitude to agreements has disappointed China, but China has not stopped its efforts to solve the crisis in a peaceful manner,” experts said, calling for India to show their sincerity at this time as well”.

Army Chief M.M. Naravane interacts with the troops while reviewing operational situations on the ground after the stand-off in the region during his visit, in Eastern Ladakh, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Photo: PTI

“…but with China it will not end well”

Prime Minister Modi has been able to get away with such perennial grandstanding in India, but with China it will not end well. The Chinese have studied Modi and concluded that he is not a reliable partner.

As Hu Zhiyong told the Global Times, “Given the country’s sluggish economy and poor epidemic control, the Modi government may continue to try and stir up border tensions to deflect the public’s attention. These border tensions are used as chips to fool the public”.

Without a drastic change in Modi’s approach, therefore, a war in the Himalayas next spring is becoming a real possibility. Beijing has been preparing for the worst ever since the 73-day stand-off on the Doklam plateau in 2017.

Satellite photos taken in January 2018 showed that the Chinese had not vacated the area, but erected several permanent military posts, a few helipads and new trenches not very far from where the two Armies had faced off. About 1,800 Chinese troops had stayed in the area through the bitter  winter.

In the following year Beijing began to reinforce the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) western theatre command (WTC) which decides PLA deployments on the Himalayan border. Apart from reinforcing its ground forces, it changed the order of despatch of its fifth generation ‘stealth’ fighter aircraft, the J-20, and put the western theatre second after the eastern theatre, instead of fourth (after both the northern and southern theatres), as it used to be.

In 2019, it sent its first “brigade” of J-20s to the WTC Air Force. A Chinese Air Force Brigade has 24 aircraft. But the WTC Air Force also has several varieties of older combat aircraft as well. In all China has around 2,150 combat aircraft.

Since 2018, the WTC has been conducting training exercises for both its ground and air forces, ‘in actual battle conditions’.

They were conducted in June this year at the height of the Ladakh confrontation and widely shown on Chinese television. It showed the movement of several thousand paratroopers of the WTC Air Force wing with supporting armour and artillery from Hubei province, more than 3,000 kilometres, commandeering every kind of civilian road rail and air transport,  to “an undisclosed location” in the “plateaus of north-western China.”

The J-20 air superiority fighter plane. Photo: Wikipedia

India’s military capabilities have also developed substantially. The PLA probably hasn’t forgotten the battle of Rezang La in 1962 where 300 Indian Jawans, knowing that they faced certain death, still fought to the last bullet and almost the last man, and killed an estimated 1,300 Chinese soldiers. So it knows that a full scale war in the Himalayas will be enormously expensive.

But Modi also needs to be told, firmly and unequivocally, that while the Indian armed forces may be capable of holding their ground when attacked, they simply cannot hold on to each and every inch of the 3,000 km-long Line of Actual Control.

The Chinese can choose their time and place of attack and they will do so where India is weakest. In addition to that, their advantage of terrain and vastly superior logistics virtually preordain the result of any pitched battle in the Himalayas. India will lose and thousands of lives will have been sacrificed in vain.

And all this will be over a war that the Chinese government has said repeatedly, and Wang Yi reiterated in Moscow, simply doesn’t want.

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China undoubtedly triggered the current confrontation but has acted the way it has because it believes India is no longer abiding by the agreements which allowed the bilateral relationship to prosper until Modi changed course.

The Key Issue Dividing India and China Today is Not the Border
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (right) and external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar have bought their two countries a reprieve from the drift towards war but will this be enough? Photo shows the two ministers on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow, Russia September 10, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

The protracted talks between  Foreign Ministers Jaishankar and Wang Yi in Moscow have gained China and India a reprieve. Before they began our two countries  were poised on the knife edge of war. Now they have moved back.  Something has been gained: a reassurance before the eyes of the  world, that neither country wants a war and that both will reactivate long dormant mechanisms to maintain a more constant contact with each other as they search for ways to find a solution from which they can  both emerge as winners.

But is such there such a solution? and if Beijing and Delhi can’t find one how long will the reprieve last? A close look at the content of the talks shows that the prospects for a lasting peace are not good. This is because  the core of the problem has remained untouched:  Wang Yi urged that the two countries should put the border dispute into cold storage and concentrate on intensifying our cooperation on the many global issues where  we share a common interest or perspective. China he said, views India as a partner , not an adversary.

Jaishankar  was equally keen on a détente but insisted that the starting point had to be a return by Chinese troops to the positions they occupied had occupied in April. Nothing less would be acceptable to his government.  So we are back at the question that has prevented a de-escalation of the confrontation since June: who will blink first?

Neither country wants a war. But Modi has never done so in his entire life and is unlikely to do so now. Xi Jinping is reported to be equally adamant, but possibly for different reasons. So there is no guarantee that war  will not break out at some time in the future, in the way that  most  wars in history have begun —  from the misjudgement by one protagonist of the likely reaction to its threats or inducements by the other.

The most we can therefore realistically hope for is that, as happened in the Doklam confrontation, the approach off winter at 5,000 metres plus will be made the excuse for disengagement now and that both countries will use the time that gives us for cooler reflection on how we have managed to get from a near-fraternal relationship six years ago to a point where millions in each country are baying for the other’s blood.

China is undoubtedly the country that has triggered the  confrontation. But it should be apparent to those not numbed by  hyper-nationalism, that it has  not done so simply to grab a sliver of additional territory in the Himalayas , whose economic  value to it is less than negligible. If  we can give credence to the statements of the foreign office in Beijing and the Chinese embassy in Delhi  it has done so because India is no longer abiding  by the understandings upon which the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Areas, and its subsequent elaboration in 2005, were signed, and has therefore ceased to be a reliable treaty partner.

China’s  change of tactics in Ladakh is therefore designed to force a reconsideration of relations between our countries. Whether we  return to peace or continue to drift towards war will  therefore depend upon whether we  can reassure China that we have  every intention of honouring the  existing agreements not only in letter but also in spirit.

What is difficult to understand is Modi’s enigmatic silence. Had he called Xi Jinping on the hotline in May, Foreign Minister  Jaishankar and hs counterpart,  Wang Yi,  would have reached the concusions they arrived  at at least three months ago. What is more , their talks  would have taken place within a framework of discussion already established by their leaders,  instead of in the policy vacuum that exists today.

Had Modi done so he  would not have been breaking protocol,  or weakening India’s position by displaying undue anxiety, because the two leaders had already agreed , at Astana in 2017 ,  to meet frequently to discuss strategies and resolve issues,  and had done so  twice already at Wuhan in 2018, and Chennai in 2019.

We can only speculate on the reasons why Modi chose not to do so? But his omission has turned  the gamble he is taking now into a carbon copy of the  one  Pandit Nehru took when he ordered the   army  to push the Chinese off the Thagla ridge in 1962. This is that if India stands firm and continues to match Chinese troop build-ups in the area with its own, China will  withdraw rather than fight India and incur the opprobrium of the world.

This is not a gamble that any leader of a country should take. Two clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers so far have been immediately controlled. But this unstable equilibrium will not last if  Delhi  is not able to identify, and address,  the concerns that   made China change the rules of the game, and find ways to ameliorate them. These  can be deduced  by revisiting the 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question and examining how far Modi’s  India has strayed from them  .

The Agreement contains 11 clauses, described as ‘articles’. The key phrase in the  first article: “The differences on the boundary question should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations… “ is  a tacit admission that,  as of 2005, the Chinese  government  had not been able to get over hurdles to the delineation of the boundary placed by one or more power centres within it. Its refusal, or inability, to provide China’s maps of the region to reconcile with India’s maps – a pre-requisite for boundary demarcation — suggests that the hurdle was the Peoples’ Liberation Army. The 2005 agreement’s purpose, therefore, was to prevent its objections  from becoming roadblocks  to widening  cooperation in other areas. Implicit in this  was the assumption that as the areas of Sino-Indian  cooperation on global political and economic  issues increased,  these internal reservations would automatically weaken and disappear.

Three other Articles  spelt out the key sensitivities of both sides that needed to be kept in mind if cooperation on global issues was to deepen:  ‘The two sides will give due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests, and the principle of mutual and equal security. ( Article iv);  The two sides will take into account historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas; (Article v), and  “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas (Article vii). The first two spelt out China’s concerns, the third India’s concern over the status of Tawang.

Today, 15 years later, China has, by and llarge,  kept its side of the bargain, but after rapidly deepening  strategic cooperation under the UPA[1], India   has completely reversed its policy under Modi and the BJP,  and gone  out of its way to trash the Indian side of the bargain.

Here is a brief account of how thoroughly he has  done so: Exactly a week after  Xi Jinping’s  State Visit to India in September 2014, Modi went to the US to attend the UN general Assembly, but also visited the White House and, apparently without any prior  discussion with the foreign office, completely and unconditionally aligned India with the US in Asia–Pacific region.  Less than four months later, on January 25, 2015, he and Obama,  who had hastened to Delhi to be the chief guest at the Republic day parade, announced a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia -Pacific and the Indian Ocean, whose immediate purpose, minus the fluff, was to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

In February 2016, India  sent four warships to join a US-Japan task force for three months to assert freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea. In the same  period  the US Consul General in Calcutta visited Itanagar and declared that, as far as the US was concerned,   Arunachal Pradesh was ‘indisputably’ a part of India. Weeks later Modi gave permission to not only the  Dalai Lama but also to Robert Verma, the US Ambassador to India to visit Tawang  for the annual Tawang festival. This was a deliberate waving of a red rag before a bull, for i China had originally claimed all of Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang, and had only stopped doing so after Wen Jiabao’s meeting with Prime minister Manmohan Singh at Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2009.

China was, at first,  reluctant to let its relationship with India worsen. It  therefore reacted with  notable restraint.  When the US Consul General made his statement Beijing contented itself with saying : “China and India are wise, and capable, enough to deal with their own issues and safeguard the fundamental and long-term interests of the two peoples. The intervention of any third party will only complicate the issue and is highly irresponsible.”

When Indian ships joined the US-Japanese task force in May it again refrained from criticizing India directly and accused the US, instead, of following a ‘divide and rule’ colonial policy towards the two Asian giants. Asked to comment, all that an unnamed    senior official of the Chinese foreign office was willing to say was “When there is some trouble in the South China Sea, India is worried. When Indian ships participate in maritime exercises in the South China Sea, of course China will show concern.”

It was only after Richard Verma’s visit to Tawang for the monastery’s annual festival that  Lu Kang, a foreign office spokesperson said in Beijing on October 24,2016 “China is “firmly opposed” to the U.S. diplomat’s actions, which will damage the hard-earned peace and tranquillity of the China-India border region… Any responsible third party should respect efforts by China and India to seek peaceful and stable reconciliation, and not the opposite”.

The statement was mild, and carefully avoided using language that could be construed as a warning to India. But Beijing’s use of the phrase “Peace and Tranquility” should have rung warning bells in South Block because language is of paramount importance in diplomacy. “The use of that  precise phrase, the heading of the 1993 agreement,  was China’s first reminder that India  was flouting solemnly entered agreements with it. If Delhi went  any further down that road China would  consider the agreement to have been abrogated.

South Block  would doubtless have heard them, but Modi either did not listen, or did not care. For between 2016 and 2018 India signed two  defence- related agreements with the USA , the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), whose goal is to enable the two countries’ navies to coordinate all their actions whether in disaster relief or in defence. Only one more agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)  remains to be signed to make inter-operability of the two defence forces complete . Had Covid not struck the world, that too would have been done earlier this year.[2]

It has also joined enthusiastically in Operation Malabar, an annual naval exercise that had been a tepid affair in the days of the UPA;  held three of its exercises in the Bay of Bengal, and actively campaigned to bring South Korea and Singapore into the original ‘Quad’ of the US, India, Japan and Australia.  One of the war games in Operation Malabar is the closing of the  Malacca straits through which 80 percent of China’s oil imports and 40 percent of its exports flow.

India has also modernised its naval and air bases in the Andamans and, in a tit-for-tat with China,  is seeking to build a port at Subang in Indonesia at the mouth of  the Malacca straits and,  supposedly,  exploring the possibility of a similar venture in Vietnam to create a pressure point at the entrance to the South China Sea. Since  the confrontation in Ladakh began,  speculation has been rife that  India is making these investments  to check the rise of China’s influence  in the Indian ocean region.

The above description shows how far Modi has taken India  from the solemn commitments it made to China in 1993 and elaborated in 2005. It therefore gives us little reason  to expect a lasting peace in the future.  The most that the  Jaishankar–Wang Yi meeting has given us therefore is Time —  a reprieve from conflict, that will last through  winter. If the  Modi government does not use it to reassess where the country’s  national interest truly lies,  put it ahead of party interest, and give China a credible assurance that his government  intends to abide by the commitments its predecessors  entered into,  not only in letter but also in spirit, then another war in the Himalayas will become a winnable bet.



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Why did the chief justice not consider Prashan Bhushan’s plea for his contempt matter to be handled by some other judge? The answer may lie in the curious fate of a sensational murder case.

The Shadow of Haren Pandya’s Case Lies Long Over Justice Arun Mishra
Justice Arun Mishra, Haren Pandya and Prashant Bhushan.

To say that the Supreme Court’s verdict of contempt of court against Prashant Bhushan has shocked civil society in India would be an understatement. There has been an outpouring of dismay and anger in which even attorney general K.K. Venugopal has joined. Most of the protest has focussed on the blow that punishing Bhushan will deal to civil liberties, notably the freedom to express an opinion,  the freedom to differ and the freedom to criticise – without which democracy cannot survive.

But one feature of the judgment has not received the attention it deserves: the Supreme Court is the court of final appeal in the country. But in this case, it is both  prosecutor and judge. As the Latin phrase goes, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, or who will guard the guardians? By filing a suo moto case against Bhushan before itself, the Supreme Court has forced us to ask this question. And to it, there can be only one answer: that task has now devolved upon the people of India. Today the Supreme Court has forced us to sit in judgment upon it. We now have a duty to perform.

Of all the judges in the Supreme Court…

Let me start by asking one question: There are 33 judges in the Supreme Court apart from the chief justice. So why did Chief Justice S.A. Bobde not even notice Prashant Bhushan’s application that another bench conduct the contempt proceedings and leave it to Justice Arun Mishra to head the bench that would  hear this case? Did he not know that Mishra had a history of animosity with Prashant Bhushan?

That animosity was evident even as recently as a year ago when Mishra had severely chastised him in his court for daring to lodge a PIL seeking reinvestigation of the 2003 murder of BJP leader Haren Pandya in Ahmedabad. The CBI’s investigation abounded with bloomers and the Gujarat high court had been constrained to acquit the 12 men convicted in 2007 of the killing by a trial court.

In the event, Mishra and his colleague on the bench, Justice Vineet Saran, reversed the Gujarat high court’s 2011 acquittal, but more about their controversial verdict later.

Bhushan, appearing for the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), had asked the Supreme Court to review the entire investigation because of the large amount of new information that had emerged –  of police involvement in various encounter killings that had taken place in Gujarat since 2003, statements of police witnesses in those cases and their accusations made on oath in various courts, without the police even contradicting these, that not only exonerated the 12 who had been acquitted in 2011 but, more importantly, pointed to others.

Pandya’s own family had consistently demanded reinvestigation as they believed the real culprits were never caught. Mishra, while reversing the high court’s acquittals, fined the CPIL Rs 50,000 for “wasting” the Supreme Court’s time.

So if CJI Bobde had wanted to safeguard the public’s trust in the Supreme Court, should he not have paid heed to Bhushan’s plea that any judge but Justice Mishra hear the contempt matter? Since the tweet for which the court wanted Bhushan to be punished concerned the CJI himself, Justice Bobde had a special obligation to ensure there would be no scope for anyone to feel the playing field was not level. Yet he did nothing, thus ensuring the contempt case would be dealt with by the one judge who was likely to ensure Bhushan would be punished.

The curious case of Haren Pandya

Why was CJI Bobde so sure of what Justice Mishra would do? The answer is that the Justice Arun Mishra bench’s reversal of the Haren Pandya murder judgment of the Gujarat high court was probably the single most egregious judgement that any court of higher judiciary, and certainly the Supreme Court, had ever delivered. To see why, it is necessary to revisit the tortured history of the Haren Pandya murder and judgment in some detail.

Pandya was killed at around 7.20 am on March 26, 2003 while sitting in his car in the Law Gardens of Ahmedabad, where he used to take a walk every morning. According to the Gujarat Police, “Pandya had gone to Law Gardens for a walk, as he did every morning. As he parked his car, Asghar Ali (a known hit man from Hyderabad) had approached his car and shot him five times through a three-inch opening in the pane on the driver’s side”.

Asghar Ali’s recruitment for the job, it claimed, was part of a plot hatched by Muslim elements – among them Mufti Sufian, a rabble-rousing cleric of Ahmedabad’s Lal Masjid – that wanted to avenge the post-Godhra carnage. The investigation by the CBI, which took over the case three days after Pandya’s murder, was headed by an Indian Police Service officer named Y.C Modi. Modi had no difficulty in accepting the police’s theory, for he soon confirmed that the CBI  had uncovered an elaborate conspiracy that included links with Pakistan’s ISI and gang lords of the Muslim underworld in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The CBI wrapped up investigations in less than six months and filed its charge-sheet on September 8, 2003.

Based on the CBI’s finding, on June 25, 2007 a special court convened under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) convicted 12 people. For reasons that no one has ever bothered to explain, but under the tendentious pretext of “security”, the entire trial was held inside the Sabarmati Jail, thus rendering it out of public and media gaze.  Asghar Ali was sentenced to imprisonment till the end of his natural life; eight of the remaining 11 were awarded life imprisonment; two others got seven years and the third, a five-year jail sentence.

High court indicted CBI for shoddy probe

Six years later, on August 29, 2011, the Gujarat high court threw the conviction out. “What clearly stands out from the record of the present case” the court said derisively, “is that the investigation in the case of murder of Shri Haren Pandya has all throughout been botched up and blinkered and has left a lot to be desired”.

It faulted the CBI for relying heavily on a single eyewitness, Anil Yaadram, whose testimony, it said, could not be believed owing to his behaviour, which it deemed “unnatural”, it detailed the inconsistency between his supposedly eye-witness account and the forensic evidence, highlighted the absence of blood in the car after a man had been killed in it with six, possibly seven, shots from a pistol or revolver  and concluded, “The investigating officers concerned ought to be held accountable for their inaptitude resulting into injustice, huge harassment of many persons concerned and enormous waste of public resources and public time of the courts”.

Notwithstanding this searing indictment of his investigative competence, Y.C. Modi was elevated six years later, in 2017, as the head of the National Investigation Agency.

Of course, the CBI and the Gujarat government immediately appealed the acquittal to the Supreme Court. But little was heard of the case after that for seven long years – till October 2018, when it got marked to the two-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra and the matter proceeded on a priority basis mid-November onwards.

Justce Arun Mishra overturns HC verdict

The bench announced on January 31, 2019 that it had “reserved” its verdict for a later, unspecified date. It was only on July 5, 2019 that Justice Mishra pronounced his judgment. This was six weeks after the Lok Sabha elections were over and Narendra Modi had been swept back to power. To the surprise and shock of the legal community, the Mishra bench took the unusual step of reversing the Gujarat high court’s acquittal, and convicted the 12 men accused of Pandya’s murder all over again.

Reversals of lower court judgments by the Supreme Court are not uncommon: A 2018 study carried out under the auspices of the National Law University, Delhi showed that it had reversed judgment in 55.3% of the criminal cases that had come to it on appeal. But the reversal of an acquittal by a high court has, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, happened very rarely. The guiding principles for a reversal of an acquittal in any court were laid down in 2008 by Justices R.V Raveendran and Dalveer Bhandari in Ghurey Lal vs State Of UP:

“We have endeavoured to set out the guidelines for the appellate courts in dealing with appeals against acquittal. An overriding theme emanates from the law on appeals against acquittals. The appellate court is given wide powers to review the evidence to come to its own conclusions. But this power must be exercised with great care and caution. In order to ensure that the innocents are not punished, the appellate court should attach due weight to the lower court’s acquittal because the presumption of innocence is further strengthened by the acquittal. The appellate court should, therefore, reverse an acquittal only when it has “very substantial and compelling reasons.” (emphasis added)

The Raveendran and Bhandari judgment laid down these guidelines in a case where the high court had found the defendant guilty of murder after the trial court had acquitted him. In the Haren Pandya case, the Justice Arun Mishra bench did the opposite. To do this in good conscience, they needed to overwhelm the immensely strengthened presumption of innocence bestowed upon the defendants by the high court judgment they were overturning. Did Justices Mishra and Saran succeed in doing so? Let us look at the record.

In their order, the judges said that the CBI had investigated the case “thoroughly and minutely” and that “the conspiracy between accused persons has been found established…It cannot be said that investigation was unfair, lopsided, botched up or misdirected in any manner whatsoever, as had been observed by the high court in the judgment which we have set aside.” The bench then sought to explain why it was rejecting the high court’s conclusions on crucial points.

How could bullets be fired through a 3-inch opening of the car window?

The high court had deduced from sole eyewitness Anil Yaadram Patel’s testimony that the right window glass of the car in which Pandya was sitting was rolled up so high that it would have been impossible for the accused to fire at him through the car window. So Pandya could not have been shot by Asghar Ali in the manner Yaadram described.

The Arun Mishra bench rejected the high court’s conclusion on the incredible grounds that the sole eyewitness on whom the entire case rested may not have been reliable on this crucial question! Yaadram, it said, could not be expected to state accurately how far the window glass had been rolled up at the time of the murder. “Even if the witness had stated so, that would be merely his guesswork,” the judgment added.

Caption: Police photograph of the car Haren Pandya was shot in, submitted to the trial court as police evidence. It can be clearly be seen that the window on the driver’s side is rolled up, leaving just a three-inch opening as the police eyewitness, Anil Yaadram, had testified, and whose testimony – on this crucial point –  the Justice Arun Mishra bench disregarded because to have accepted it would have rendered the CBI’s claim of the shooter firing five bullets into different parts of Pandya’s body, including his scrotum, a complete fiction. Photo: Haren Pandya case documents.


What Justice Mishra ignored was that the police photo taken at the spot, which police witnesses affirmed was the opening when Pandya’s body was removed, also showed the opening to be just three inches or less.

What is more, considering that the case against Asghar Ali and his 11 supposed accomplices and conspirators had been built entirely upon the eyewitness testimony of Anil Yaadram, this decision to accept his credibility selectively cannot possibly meet the need to overcome the strengthened proof of innocence test laid down by the Raveendran-Bhandari bench.

How did five bullets cause seven injuries?

The Justice Arun Mishra bench also went out of its way to discredit the forensic evidence that the trial court had ignored but the Gujarat high court had resuscitated in order to arrive at its verdict. In particular, Justice Mishra went to great lengths to explain how there could have been seven gunshot wounds on Pandya’s body, when only five bullets had been fired at him. The two extra wounds, the judges opined, were “‘communicating wounds’ that were caused when the bullet ‘razes’ the body without entering it.” (One presumes they meant ‘grazes’, as the meaning of raze is ‘to destroy completely’)

This finding is utterly incomprehensible for two reasons: it makes a supposition and then treats it as a fact and, even more seriously, simply ignores the real facts – which are that the forensic laboratory found five bullet holes with an 8 mm diameter and one with a 5 mm diameter and another with a 4mm diameter, besides an elongated gash on the wrist. So, at least two weapons had to have been used while Yaadram testified to seeing only one being fired at Pandya.

A communicating or a graze wound suggests that the bullet has grazed the skin or flesh and fallen. Or if it marks a through and through entry and exit, again it must have fallen, besides leaving a  track. But there was neither a fallen bullet nor a track. So, if five bullets were found in the body, where did the bullets causing the entry in the outer palm under the finger phalanx go? Where did the bullet that caused the graze on the wrist go? What wound was communicated and where?

How could Pandya have been shot upwards through the scrotum while seated?

The Gujarat high court had also held that Pandya could not have been shot up the scrotum through the barely open car window. To refute this finding, and in particular to explain how the bullet could have travelled upwards in Pandya’s body from the scrotum to his abdomen, the Justice Arun Mishra bench falls back once more on Yaadram’s eyewitness testimony: that when Pandya was shot, he “fell in the car and his legs went up”.

They seem not to have realised that this finding violates another guideline prescribed by the Supreme Court as recently as 2013. In Mritunjoy Biswas vs. Pranab @ Kuti Biswas, it laid down that “. The test is whether the same inspires confidence in the mind of the court. If the evidence is incredible and cannot be accepted by the test of prudence, then it may create a dent in the prosecution version” (emphasis added)

Let us see if Yaadram’s deposition is ‘credible’ and ‘meets the test of prudence’:  When he was shot, Pandya was supposedly sitting on the driver’s seat in his vehicle, which was a Maruti 800, the smallest motorcar in the Indian market. So, when he was shot through the right side window at close range, he slumped and his legs, were in the well of the car in front of his seat,. But how much could they possibly rise?

For, ten centimetres from the accelerator pedal, they would have encountered the side wall and 15 cms beyond that the door of the Maruti, which rises straight up from the floor of the well to its roof. There was, therefore, literally nowhere for his legs to go – no way for them to come out of the well, and therefore no way for his knees to have come above the steering, or for his scrotum to have risen high enough for a bullet fired downwards through the window  to have moved up in his body to enter his abdomen.

Given the fact that Pandya’s body and buttocks were found firmly on the driver’s seat and only a portion of his head touched the left seat, it should have been obvious to the learned judges that Yaadram had lied outrageously, and that Pandya had likely been killed outside the car and his corpse shoved back into it head first from the driver’s side so that his legs became, as the police claimed, under with the steering wheel.

This is, in fact, the only explanation for the final anomaly in Yaadram’s testimony to which the high court drew pointed attention: the almost total absence of any blood anywhere in the car.

Why did a man shot many times inside a car leave no blood stains?

Claiming to rely upon “medical evidence”, the Justice Arun Mishra bench dismissed the high court’s concerns about the absence of blood stains, saying that the amount of blood would depend on several factors such as the position of the person and whether the injury was internal. This finding has set a new standard in imprecision and self-contradiction. For what the forensic examiners had found was not very little blood but no blood other than an infinitesimal smear on the left seat, too small even to examine, though his body was on the driver’s seat on the right, and a little on the keychain.

And what medical evidence were they referring to that could show that a man would not bleed even a little from five .32 gauge bullets pumped into him at close range, and that all of the bleeding could be internal if the body was in the appropriate position. What is more, they had already interpreted Yaadram’s testimony to infer that Pandya’s legs were at, or above, the height of his body. So then how on earth could he not have bled into the car?

Finally, did the learned judges have any idea of how many major veins pass through the scrotum? The following diagram of one testicle, taken from Wikipedia, would have told them how many:

Scrotum diagram. Photo: Wikimedia

One of the veins connected to the scrotum is the Inferior Vena Cava, among the most important veins in the human body. It is inconceivable that a wound to the scrotum, let alone a bullet wound, would not have bled profusely all over the driver’s seat and into the well at his feet.

But hubris is a disease in the Indian judiciary. Judges have grown so used to having their verdicts not scrutinised by the public that only the best among them now bother with such trivial issues as logic, consistency and clarity.

It is, therefore, difficult not to conclude that Justice Mishra was determined to prevent the question “Who really killed Haren Pandya?” from ever surfacing again. It is not for me to speculate on his reasons for doing so.

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The Pulwama attack had faded from public discourse after the 2019 elections. So why are moves afoot to bring it back into the limelight again?

Pulwama, China and Atmanirbharta: Is Modi at the End of His Tether?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh arrives to take part in the 74th Independence Day celebrations, at Red Fort in New Delhi, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. Photo: PTI

A decade, or just seven years ago, I would have treated the recent Hindustan Times’ ‘exclusive’ that the “Pakistani government” had been “directly involved” in planning, training the perpetrators, and executing the February 2019 Pulwama attack as a scoop.

But with the PIB’s accreditation (that gave special correspondents unfettered access to officials) withdrawn from the four most important ministries; with CCTVs recording everyone who goes in and out of a government office, and with officers a reporter wants to see having to come to the reception to receive her or him, I am left with no option but to consider the report as a government plant.

This suspicion is reinforced by a propaganda video inserted as an advertisement on YouTube videos, which I personally saw several times on August 14 and 15. I don’t know who paid for or sponsored the advertisement but it refers repeatedly to the Pulwama suicide attack and carries parts of an interview with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar in which he describes Pakistan as a difficult neighbour that has used terrorism as a diplomatic tool, and refused to normalise relations with India despite several overtures by New Delhi.

The Pulwama attack had faded from public discourse after the 2019 elections. So why are moves afoot to bring it back into the limelight again?

The answer is obvious: it is because Bihar is going to the polls in October, and the single largest contingent of migrant workers, who suffered the most from the sudden lockdown and denial of facilities to travel home in March, belong to that state. With nothing to woo them with, Modi has found himself at the end of his tether and fallen back on the tried and tested weapon of hyper-nationalism.

This may be why the version of the Pulwama attack that the NIA has leaked has gone beyond the accusation that Modi and defence minister Arun Jaitley had made in February 2019, that “Pakistan had orchestrated the attack on the convoy in Pulwama”.

According to the newspaper’s informant, the chargesheet, which will be ready by the end of this month, will prove that “Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its proxy, Jaish-e-Mohammad, planned and executed the state-sponsored attack, for which highly-trained terrorists were sent to India”.

A damaged CRPF vehicle being taken away after the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI

More disturbingly, “that Islamabad i.e the elected civilian government, was also in the know of the attack. It claims that ‘strong technical, documentary and material evidence have been collected, apart from experts’ reports and evidence shared by foreign agencies, which prove that the Pakistani government was directly involved in the attack, aimed to create unrest in India”.

The strength of these extremely serious accusations will be known only when the chargesheet becomes public. But the calculated leak has raised a host of questions that, one is sure, Modi would have preferred to remain buried.

The first is, why now, when we are in a standoff with China that is inevitably bringing it and Pakistan closer together? Why bring forward their marriage, instead of seeking ways to postpone, if not prevent it?

The second is, why give your opposition within the country a chance to rake up issues and ask questions whose answers can only hurt you? For the fact is that even if everything the NIA chargesheet reveals is well founded, it will still not explain why Modi, who knew that a serious attack in Kashmir was imminent, did nothing to prevent it, either by warning Pakistan against it in advance, or by putting troops in Kashmir on high alert, and taking steps to minimise their exposure.

Let us take these sins of omission one by one: One week before the suicide attack, which took place on February 14, the Pakistani army suddenly moved to battle stations in Kashmir. This is a huge movement that could not but have been reported to Delhi and Srinagar. There could have been only one reason for making this extremely expensive and, as the radio chatter in the Pakistan army showed, unpopular move, in the dead of winter. Pakistan had planned, or had got to know of, a major attack that was imminent in Kashmir, and felt it necessary to be ready for a reprisal attack by the Modi government.

Analysts in Indian military intelligence leaned towards the view that Islamabad did not get to know of this attack till February 7, because it had received no information about any such impending move from its sources till then. But it could also be because Islamabad had been kept out of the Jaish-ISI loop till the last moment.

Whatever the truth may have been, by the evening of February 7, there was absolutely no way in which Delhi would not have been aware of Pakistan’s sudden action.

It could have been a coincidence, but the very next day, February 8, an intelligence note, marked “extremely urgent” was circulated to all branches of the Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, the Indian Army, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. It warned of a large scale attack using IEDs or improvised explosive devices.

Four days later, on February 12, i.e two days before the attack, the Jammu and Kashmir police shared another vital intelligence input. It was a 33-second video on Twitter of a similar car bomb attack on soldiers in Somalia uploaded by the Jaish-e- Mohammad. J&K police had also prepared a dummy video to explain how militants might carry out such an attack. These inputs too were shared during a meeting held on the same day and all the security and police formations were fully alerted.

On February 12, two convoys with 70 trucks carrying 2,500 soldiers were stuck in Jammu because of heavy snowfall on the Banihal pass. The home and defence ministries both knew from bitter experience that the security forces were at their most vulnerable when they were on the road. So they regularly took elaborate precautions.

The site of the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI/Files

These included sending road opening parties (ROPs) ahead to inspect the road for buried IEDs and to secure every road crossing before the convoys passed. Even had they not received the warnings of an imminent attack they would have known that such a large convoy (70 buses) would be a tempting target. So the CRPF asked the home ministry to allow it to fly the soldiers into Srinagar.

Inexplicably, the request was denied. It is inconceivable that the home ministry took this decision on its own, without referring it to the Prime Minister’s Office. If this reading is correct, then does it not make whoever took the decision not to let them go by air just as guilty of the deaths of 40-plus jawans as Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber?

This culpability is highlighted by the fact that five days after the Pulwama tragedy, the central government lifted the ban on airlifting its troops to Kashmir.

The only explanation for the timing of the latest leak to the HT is that it is designed to keep the fires of hyper-nationalism in which the BJP has thrived, warm in the run up to Independence Day and after. Modi had to speak to the people from the Lal Qila. By then he had made up his mind to counteract the immense setback to his popularity caused by his mishandling of the COVID-19 lockdown by painting an alternative, glowing view of India’s future – a future in which there would be jobs aplenty because of the emphasis on Atmanirbharta or self-reliant growth.

Indian army soldiers rest next to artillery guns at a makeshift transit camp before heading to Ladakh, near Baltal,
southeast of Srinagar, June 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

But China was on our border and refusing to go back to its pre-May 5 positions. And the China-Pakistan axis was growing stronger by the day. Thus the flames of hyper-nationalism needed to be stoked to keep the Modi myth alive till Atmanirbharta, hopefully, began to deliver results.

The Pulwama attack remained its best instrument for doing so. But a year and a half after it took place, tempers have cooled and questions have begun to be asked about why the attack had not been averted. So when the NIA chargesheet enters the public domain, there will be one acid test of its integrity. This will be whether it gives a full account not only of the warnings the government got and did not act upon, but who took the decision not to act and why.

If it does not do that it will only harden the suspicion that the government took no action because it wanted to let the attack take place in order to harvest the wave of anger that would follow.

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Going forward, it is essential that each side understand its opponent.

A Tragedy has Been Averted but the Danger for India and China Persists

Victor Gao and Prem Shankar Jha

A tragedy has been averted: Chinese troops that had entered the disputed  areas that lie between the Indian and Chinese definitions of the Line of Actual Control, have pulled back from three of them. Indian troops have done the same.

But the military build-up in their base areas outside the intermediate “grey” zone  continues.

If the talks between Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi do not yield fruit, it  is certain to increase. The clouds of war have therefore only lifted: they have yet to disperse.

Galwan and Dhola – The similarity between 2020 and 1962

To appreciate how close we came to a war last month, we only need to  remind ourselves of how the 1962 war began. Officially, it began when the Chinese attacked Dhola post, not far from Tawang, in the eastern Himalayas on October 20, and ended with a China-declared unilateral truce on November 21. In reality, it began 10 days earlier and, like the conflict in the Galwan valley on June 15, it too started over a cartographic dispute.
How this dispute arose is described in detail in the still proscribed Henderson-Brooks Report of 1963, but can now be downloaded from the internet. In August 1962, Eastern Command informed Delhi that one of its patrols had reported that the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and Tibet marked on the McMahon line did not fall on the Himalayan watershed, as McMahon had intended it to do, but four miles south of it .

McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.
McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.

The Ministry of External Affairs took this up with the Chinese government, presumably suggesting a rectification, but Beijing did not agree. So in September, Delhi decided to correct it on its own, established the Dhola post at a point between the two locations, and manned it with  a platoon of soldiers. This post was immediately surrounded by 600 Chinese soldiers with the obvious intention of starving the defenders out.

A stalemate ensued during which both sides sent more troops to the area. The first skirmish took place in early October and went the way of India. On October 10, therefore, Delhi asked the army to ‘evict the Chinese from the Thagla ridge’. What followed is history and need not detain us here.

The situation that developed at Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan valley on June 15 is similar to the one that had developed at the Dhola post 58 years earlier. On June 15, it was only the stringent protocols designed to prevent armed conflict, put in place after the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region, that  prevented the savage hand-to-hand fighting  that took place  from tuning into a bloodbath. Had those protocols not been in place,  India and China may well have been in the middle of another fratricidal war today.

Who needs another war?

Neither country wants, needs, or indeed can afford, a war in the Himalayas now. So as talks at the diplomatic level begin, it has become imperative for civil society in both countries to  understand what brought us to the brink of war and how we can get back to a durable and mutually beneficial peace.

More specifically, we need to understand why the Chinese chose to occupy these particular stretches of the LAC; why the PLA stayed broadly within the limits of China’s definition of the LAC and, having gone so far, why it has now agreed to move back from three of them and thin down its presence in the other two.

Plains in Ladakh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

The topography of the region answers the first question. The Depsang plains are the closest point on the Chinese LAC to Daulat Beg Oldi. DBO is situated on a finger of land west of the Karakoram range, at only 13 kilometres from the Karakoram Pass, and a little more than 200 kms from the  Khunjerab pass through which the Karakoram highway, which  links China to Pakistan now,  passes.

Till only two years ago, for all but a few months in summer, Daulat Beg Oldi was linked to  the rest of Ladakh only by air. But following the completion of a 450-metre bridge across the Shyok river, it is now linked by an all-weather road. DBO also has an airfield now that can take Antonov and C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Finally, it is barely 120  kilometres – six minutes in a modern fighter plane – from G219, China’s strategic link road between Xinxiang and Tibet.

Pangong lake, at the other end of the road, is 134 kms long and G219 skirts its  eastern shore just as the road to DBO skirts its western edge. It therefore provides a swift route for moving large numbers of troops, artillery and armour from deep inside Tibet to places from which they can cut off the road to DBO within hours. Occupying the heights above finger 4, can give the PLA the capacity to interdict any Indian counter-attack on Chinese landing craft in the lake. A similar dominating position in the heights above the Galwan valley can  give the PLA a second choke point from which to target  the road from Ladakh to DBO.

Daulat Beg Oldi shown in the northernmost part of Ladakh (1988 CIA map).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

These are strategic deployments of the kind usually made in anticipation of war. So why, after having made them, did China take care to remain within its broad definition of the LAC and agree to talks? The only rational explanation is that its purpose was not to annex the land but to force the  Modi government into a dialogue to clear the misgivings and distrust that its abrupt change of foreign policy in 2014 had sown in Beijing’s mind.

This was underlined by China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, who has stated repeatedly since the confrontation began that China’s goal is to forge a strategic partnership, not rivalry with India. It was also echoed by the foreign office’s spokesperson  in Beijing: “The Indian side should not have (sic) strategic miscalculation on China. We hope it will work with China to uphold the overall picture of our bilateral relations.”

But what does China mean by ‘strategic miscalculation’ and  ‘strategic partnership’? In the second part of this article, we will examine this crucial dimension of the current crisis in the bilateral relationship against the backdrop of wider region and global security dynamics.

Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.

Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and  former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).

Note: In an earlier version of this article, a zero was dropped while describing the distance from the Khunjerab Pass to Daulat Beg Oldi. The sentence should have read “little more than 200 km” and not “little more than 20 km”.

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If the two leaders succeed in taking a broad view of the bilateral relationship, the current border crisis can not only be transcended but turned into an opportunity.

LAC Tensions to Fester Till Modi, Xi Revive Prospects for India-China Strategic Cooperation
File photo of preparations made ahead of the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu in 2019. Photo: PTI

Victor Gao and Prem Shankar Jha

This is the concluding instalment of a two-part article on the continuing military standoff between India and China. The first part was published on July 23, 2020.

Beijing’s repeated use of the word ‘strategic’ is the key to understanding its military posture in Ladakh. In its view, India’s recent actions in the Asia-Pacific region had invalidated the underlying premise of India’s foreign policy upon which the 1993 and subsequent agreements with China had been based. This was that India would use  its ‘soft power’ to minimise conflict in Asia and the west Pacific, and create a multipolar, rule-guided, world order in opposition to the US goal of creating a unipolar world. This was also India’s stated goal then, and indeed throughout the Cold War. So this commitment was formalised by the creation of BRICS in 2009, and was made explicit in its Delhi declaration of 2012.

China’s misgivings began to grow when, within months of his coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacificwhich obliged its signatories to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; became a ‘Major Defence Partner’ of the US; sent a flotilla of warships to join a US-Japan task force in the South China Sea;  and began regularly hosting operation Malabar in the Bay of Bengal, one of whose war games is the closing of the straits of Malacca through which 40% of China’s exports and close to 90% of its oil imports have to pass.

When India  also signed the Military Logistics Supply Agreements with the US and  Japan and began working on one with Australia, China could no longer ignore the fact that under Modi, India did not feel duty bound to abide by the tenets of  Panchsheel, which are reiterated in  the first paragraph of the 1993 Border Agreement.

Why China wants a strategic partnership

For China, this was hugely disturbing because, unlike Britain in the 19th and the US in the 20th century, its prosperity and growing  hegemonic power did not stem from its dominance of global manufacture but from its dominance of global trade. In some categories of consumer goods, China accounts for over 90% of US imports, and nearly 20% of the EU’s total imports – probably amounting to more than half of its consumer goods imports –  come from China.

But that is only one half of what accounts for China’s pivotal place in world trade. The other half is that  an increasing proportion of its exports  contain components and raw materials that China imports from other ASEAN countries, Australia and South America. This complex web of connections,  maintained by sea,  air and digital communication, can survive only in conditions of peace. War is therefore anathema for China, because it will itself be the first casualty.

Maintaining peace has, however, become more and more difficult as the US has become aware of the speed at which China is converting its growing economic power into hegemony, through investment of its foreign exchange surpluses in developing countries. This awareness had remained dormant in the US through the ‘roaring nineties’ and the ‘dotcom’ boom  of the early 2000s, but sprang to life after the financial crash of 2008 because China’s economy powered on, seemingly unaffected by the global crisis.

Within months of its onset, therefore, analysts had begun to credit China’s immense demand, especially for raw materials, for the early end of the recession that had set in after the crash, and to talk of the US and China as the  G-2.

US reaction – ‘Containment’

President Obama reacted to the implied threat to US hegemony with his ‘pivot to Asia’ in November 2011. Its purpose was to ‘contain’  China by strengthening its neighbours but it soon became apparent the strengthening being referred to was mostly military. As a result,  by 2016 China found itself  encircled by a large number of US military installations and bases stretching from Japan through Okinawa, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand, to Australia.

China was acutely aware of the destruction that that these could unleash upon it. It had seen how a single American warship, acting without any legal backing from the UN, had destroyed nearly all of Gaddafi’s air force and radar installations in Tripoli by unleashing more than 132 Tomahawk missiles in a single night.   It was also aware that the version of Tomahawk missile that is standard equipment on US warships has a range of nearly 1,600 kms. So the 12-mile exclusion limit for territorial waters enshrined in the UN-drafted Law of the Sea  no longer offers any protection against annihilation.

China responded by building an airport on the disputed Fiery Cross reef in the middle of the South China Sea with material dredged up from the ocean floor,  and  declaring the South China Sea a part of its core security area in which it wants prior notification of the passage of non-commercial craft. This has  ratcheted up the tension another notch. Since then, there have been annual confrontations between US-led task forces and Chinese naval vessels  in the South China sea.

If not defused, such military confrontations tip over sooner or later into war – cold or hot. To avoid this, China turned to BRICS, and particularly to India with its immense ‘soft power’ for support. In two momentous meetings, between Manmohan Singh and its new president, Xi Jinping, at Durban in 2013, and between Prime Minister Singh and Premier Li Keqiang in Delhi in 2013, China  sought to consolidate  a long term strategic partnership with India. To remove hurdles in the way, President Xi Jinping  offered ‘an early settlement’of the border dispute in the Himalayas.

Enter Narendra Modi

That was the point at which the UPA government fell, the BJP came to power, Modi turned two decades of patient bridge building with both China and Pakistan on its head, and made India a partner of the US in its  effort to ‘contain’ China.

Despite that huge setback, China did not give up on India. Instead it turned to its Belt Road Initiative to continue binding the two nations together. The  BRI had assumed supreme importance for China not only because it promised to provide a number of  escape hatches through which China could carry on its international trade in the remote contingency that its sea routes out of the South China Sea and through the  Malacca straits got blocked. But more immediately and urgently, the BRI became important because it offered a way to stave off the severe recession that was enveloping its  machine tools and other engineering industries after the fiscal stimulus programme it had launched in 2008-9  to fight the global recession came to an end in 2013.

The problem it faced was  exceptionally severe because the planned fiscal stimulus – with a budgeted investment of 4 trillion Yuan ($586 billion dollars) – ended up creating huge excess capacities in steel, power generation, roadbuilding and construction, and an even more crippling excess capacity  in the heavy machine building industries that produced the equipment these projects needed.

The resulting unemployment was largely hidden, because the Communist Party ensures that there is virtually no unorganised labour force in the county outside the fringes of agriculture.  So prolonged unemployment for the workforce is not an option for the government because it will cost the party its Mandate from Heaven. Xi Jinping therefore turned to the BRI, and to a  massive redirection of domestic investment into the western  and border regions, in its 13th Five Year Plan. Both programmes were therefore outcomes of domestic politico-economic concerns, and not of the inherent expansionism of “the Middle Kingdom” that western defence analysts keep harping upon.

How Modi cut off India’s nose to spite China’s face

India’s capacity to absorb new investment in infrastructure and make it yield quick returns is greater than that of the seven next largest  countries involved in the BRI put together. While the combined GDP  of these seven countries – Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Malaysia – was $2.1 trillion in 2015, India’s GDP was $2.256 trillion.

China had hoped that India, with its huge need to modernise its antiquated road, rail and ports infrastructure, would fill the order books of China’s basic and heavy engineering industries for a decade. Therefore, when Modi opted  out of the BRI in 2017, it was an even bigger blow than his sudden abandonment of equidistance in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, even that is not the end of the story. The reason Modi gave for refusing to send even a representative to the  inaugural conference in Beijing in 2017 was China’s refusal to formally recognise Gilgit as a part of India illegally occupied by Pakistan. This gave Beijing even greater cause for alarm because it showed that Modi would respect neither history nor the commitments of its  predecessors if it suited his whim or fancy. For, in its view, not only had the people of Gilgit nothing in common with the Kashmiris of the valley, but, since 1889, the area had been ’leased’ to the British to protect against foreign (i.e Russian) invasion.

In 1947, therefore, when the British terminated their lease and ‘returned’ Gilgit to Maharaja Hari Singh, a section of the local population revolted and declared itself for Pakistan. Gilgit therefore took no part in the Kashmir war, and the question of retaking it never arose in the meetings of the defence committee of the Indian cabinet in 1947 and 1948.

What is more, the Simla agreement of 1972 and the Delhi agreement of 2005 had both explicitly accepted the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir as the de facto border between the two countries. The Modi government’s perversity therefore sowed the suspicion that it would feel few qualms about reneging from the 1993 agreement with China too, if that suited its purpose.

The effective abrogation of Article 370, the bringing of Ladakh directly under Delhi’s rule, and the near simultaneous publication of a new map of India that shows Ladakh and the whole of Aksai Chin as a Union Territory may have been the straw that tipped the scales in favour of sending a warning to India via the PLA.

Turn crisis into opportunity

The acid test of statecraft is the ability to turn crisis into opportunity. India and China can do this today in a manner that makes them both winners. The talks now going on will not serve their purpose, if they do not address the core anxieties of the two nations. Since the signal of growing disquiet has come from China, it is India that needs to take the lead in doing this.

The most important reassurance China needs is that the Modi government’s frequent claims to Gilgit and PoK are nothing more than theatre  for its domestic audience –  full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. This is supremely important for China because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through Gilgit, envisages an investment of $68 billion, which will  not only be the largest component of the BRI by far, but also China’s  most important escape hatch for continuing its trade and ensuring its supply  of oil,  should some future western coalition decide to blockade the seaways out of the South China sea.

A second way to reassure Beijing would be to lift the various bans on Chinese apps, the import of Chinese goods, the banning of  Chinese investment, and the termination of ongoing contracts that PM Modi has decreed since June 19. Since trade with India accounts for only 2.4% of China’s exports, but 14% of India’s imports, this is hurting India more than China. But the far more dangerous message that Prime Minister Modi has unwittingly sent is that since he feels no obligation to respect minor international economic commitments, it would be folly to expect him to uphold major political ones. If that impression is allowed to sink in, then for Beijing force will remain the only alternative.

The least politically sensitive way to repair relations would be for India to join  the Belt Road Initiative. Estimates of how much money China has pledged for the BRI vary. According to the US Council on Foreign Relations, China has so far committed $200 billionto projects in 60 countries. But its experience has been mixed. Since China is offering finance in the form of low interest loans and not grants, many smaller countries have over-leveraged their projects and been forced to sell off equity in them to China when demand projections have turned out to be too rosy and they have been  unable to service their debt.  In sensitive projects like the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, this has looked far too much like an engineered take-over of a strategic asset, and has made several  countries shy away from projects in which they had initially welcomed Chinese financing.

China has been trying to persuade India to join the BRI since well before its inauguration, because India has the financial reserves and markets that can ensure a more balanced funding of projects, and the deep, unsatisfied demand that  guarantees immediate returns on investment. By not doing so, Prime Minister Modi has only cut India’s nose to spite China’s face. This would be a good time to correct that error. Revisiting the BRI in the discussions being held now would therefore be the surest way of cementing peace in the Himalayas.

Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.

Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and  former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).

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