Editor’s Note: We have been meaning to write an article for some time about India’s celebrity thinkers, the self-proclaimed elite that seem oblivious to the realities of India and the world. In our opinion, the article by Gurucharan Das in the Wall Street Journal reflects the mindset of this group. We examine the views expressed by Mr. Das and provide our opinion as well as analysis.
Robert Kaplan has written a thoughtful, insightful book called Monsoon about the upcoming competition between Chinese, Indian and US Navies in the Indian Ocean. We intend to review this book in a later article. Mr. Kaplan is no stranger to readers of this Blog. Our review of his March 2009 article in Foreign Affairs about the China-India naval rivalry has become the 2nd most popular article on this Blog.
This week Gurucharan Das, a celebrity opinionator from India, wrote what initially seemed to be a review of this book in the Wall Street Journal. Read his article and you will notice that Mr. Das simply took the opportunity to express his own views about India. In this article, we examine these views.
“I nonetheless have trouble believing that the future of the 21st century will hinge on naval power”
wrote Mr. Das near the end of this article. Rather ironic given India’s recent history. A land as vast as a continent, of several hundred million people, a prosperous collection of kingdoms of rich cultural heritage, was conquered and made captive by a private English company, yes a private company.
The foundation of this conquest was Naval Power, complete control of the seas around India. Look at the map below. The British, like the Portuguese before them, landed in deep, natural harbors on India’s long coastline far away from the inner centers of power. Even when they were relatively weak, they controlled India’s trade. They forced India’s kings and self-proclaimed emperors to obey their dictates on sea.
(source – Wikipedia)
Mr. Das speaks of Emperor Akbar as one of the best periods of India’s history. Does he know Akbar had to request permission from Portuguese to get safe passage for his own family to travel to Mecca? Does he know that merely 50 years or so before Akbar, Chinese Navy sailed from China to Sri Lanka, on India’s southern doorstep and took away Lanka’s king in chains to the Chinese Emperor. The Lankan King swore allegiance to the Chinese Emperor and the Chinese Navy returned him to Sri Lanka.
We can’t really blame Akbar. Look at the map of his so-called empire below. Akbar was of Uzbek-Afghan origin. He was focused on North Western India and his old country of Afghanistan. He had no concept of the Indian Ocean, let alone any need to build Naval Power.
But we can and should blame Mr. Das. He should know better. He should know enough of India’s recent history to understand that without supremacy over the Indian Ocean, India will always be vulnerable to foreign control.
“Military Ships – they’re sitting ducks for sophisticated rocketry”
Well, this comment from Mr. Das does explain why he dismisses Naval power. We wonder whether Mr. Das knows that military ships also carry long range missiles. Does he not know that the most awesome force in the world today is a US Aircraft Carrier? It is probably the greatest offensive weapon ever created. These great ships carry long range cruise missiles, air superiority fighters to control the airspace around the carrier. The US would not be the Global Military Power without its Aircraft Carriers.
China understands this even if Mr. Das does not. The Chinese Military has launched a crash program to build at least 6 aircraft carriers for offensive force projection. With these carriers, supported by Chinese Surface Warships and Nuclear Submarines, China seeks to establish a major presence both in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
India’s military strategists understand this even if Mr. Das does not. India has acquired Admiral Gorshkov, a retro fitted aircraft carrier from Russia and launched a program to build its own aircraft carriers. India has also accelerated its own buildup of warships and acquired a nuclear submarine from Russia. India is building naval bases to build up its naval capabilities against the Chinese naval expansion.
Indian Strategists do understand that Naval Power will determine the dominance of the Indian Ocean and with that domination will come control of 50% of world trade. The stakes are so big that the US Navy will remain the biggest force in the Indian Ocean for a couple of decades at least and that is a relief to India.
What surprises us about Mr. Das is his absolute conviction and casual dismissal of the careful, thoughtful points made by Robert Kaplan. But then, Mr. Das, typical of India’s celebrity opinionator class, likes to trumpet India’s soft power and its uniqueness. This sounds so wonderful to read, but is it true?
The Vaunted Soft Power of India – Is Indian Tradition one of Hard Power or Soft Power?
Through out its history, India has been renowned for its soft power. Even during the days of absolute servility of North India, poets and scholars like Amir Khusrow created works of art, literature and music. At his time, the Persian Empire was at its zenith. But Amir Khusrow proudly proclaimed that Indian Persian was more exquisite than the original Persian. The best period of modern Indian Classical Music was the 19th century, the century under British Rule. This period also saw development of Indian English.
Unfortunately, such soft power under foreign rule did very little for India or its people, They remained conquered subjects of their invaders.
Mr. Das may not know this, but the greatest period of Soft Power of India was during the zenith of its Hard Power. The Gupt Empire of 300-600 CE has been described as the Golden Age of India. Sciences like Astronomy, Mathematics and Arts like Literature, Poetry, Drama, Paintings, Sculpture blossomed into a huge, cultural edifice that spread across North Central Asia and South East Asia. The Chinese Tang Dynasty sent emissaries and scholars to study in India’s great Universities. The Tang Dynasty launched a project to translate millions of Samskrut verses into Chinese, one of the largest publishing projects in history.
But this was not a Soft India. It was a Hard India. The Gupt Empire was an invading empire. They won military victories over the Huns, Persians, Greeko-Persians and extended their empire across to the Amu Darya river into Kazakhstan.
This was true of every Indian empire before the Gupt Dynasty. The Maurya Empire (300-150 BCE) reached its zenith during the reign of Emperor Ashok. It was Ashok who spread Buddhism to far corners of Asia. The Maurya empire was founded by Chandra-Gupt under the tutelage and guidance of Pandit Vishnu-Gupt, one of the greatest figures in world history. Vishnu-Gupt, or Chanakya as he is better known, was an ultimate hard man. His treatise, Artha-Shastra, is still a must read for any ruler, general or diplomat.
The ancient Indian Dharma was developed by Hard Men, Sages who understood that soft power & philosophy was worthless without hard power. These Sages took it upon themselves to invent newer and newer Astra, or missile type weapons, to fight more numerous enemies from a distance. The Indian Dharma believed in “Krunvato Vishvam Aryam” (make the entire world Aryan) and Indian Sages & Kings spread their Dharma to every area they could travel to.
Even the examples cited for soft power by Mr. Das were true believers of hard power.
- Akbar conquered North India with a battle hardened Muslim army inspired by the Gaazi spirit (Jihadi type will to fight to win or die). Only after completing his conquests, did Akbar turn somewhat soft. But his “soft” reign was in reality an iron fist in a soft glove.
- Ashok, one of the greatest emperors on world history, conquered the entire continent including parts of today’s Iran and all of today’s Afghanistan-Pakistan. After his last but incredibly bloody victory, Ashok converted to Buddhism. The rest of his reign is renowned for administrative works, roads, universities and spread of Buddhism all over Asia.
In other words, India has been a winner only when it embraced hard power and not when it took refuge in soft power as a palliative for its subjugation.
Somehow, India’s celebrity opinionator class wants to forget this real history of India, the India dedicated to hard power. This is the post-Gandhi generation of “modern” India, the generation that blindly followed Gandhi’s words without understanding their meaning and without understanding the hard, brilliant, tactical genius of Mahatma Gandhi.
Selective Description of India’s history by Gurucharan Das
Mr. Das mentions Ashok and Akbar as India’s best periods. Frankly, to put these two in the same category itself is a distortion. There is no comparison between them. Look at the maps below. Ashok was a true emperor of India while Akbar was just a ruler of North India, especially Northwest India.
(Ashok’s Empire – source Wikipedia) (Akbar’s Kingdom – source Wikipedia)
Mr. Das makes no mention of the great conquests of South India, the empires like Pandya empire that were the envy of Rome and traded with it (Marco Polo called it the richest empire in existence), the Chola empire that spread Indian culture as far east as Vietnam and today’s Australia (see map below right). He makes no mention of the Maratha Empire of the 17th & 18th centuries, the only modern Indian power to invade today’s Pakistan-Afghanistan. The Maratha Empire was established 75 years after Akbar and is India’s most recent Empire. It’s size was greater and covered more of today’s India than Akbar ever did. The Wikipedia maps below make the case better than we can.
(Maratha Empire in 1758 – source Wikipedia) (Chola Empire – source Wikipedia)
In his article, Mr. Das was dismissive of maps in general and of the maps included by Robert Kaplan in particular. We disagree. Maps provide rigor and you cannot write non-rigorous nonsense when you stare at the reality of the maps. So Mr. Das may not wish to admit the story told by the maps above.
We find it interesting that Mr. Das only included Akbar and Ashok in his list of best periods of India. Akbar was a Muslim ruler and Ashok was an Indian Emperor who converted to Buddhism. Apparently, in the 5,000 year history of India, Mr. Das could not find one period of core Indian greatness, not the period of ancient India, not the period of Ashok’s grandfather who founded the Maurya Empire, not the Gupt Empire that is called the Golden Age of India, not one of the great South Indian periods that spread Indian civilization to far away lands. No. The only periods he quoted were periods where the rule was Muslim or of a convert to Buddhism.
In addition, when Mr. Das wrote about India’s ideals, he only mentioned Buddha, Gandhi and Tagore. He ignored the great Indians like Shree Ram, Shree Krishna, Vishnu-Gupt, Shankar-Aachaarya just to name a few.
Is this because Mr. Das wanted to make his case of India as he calls it “pluralistic, democratic, nonviolent”? And the only way he had of making is case was to exclude core Indian greats?
“Pluralistic, Democratic, Non-Violent” Ideals of India
We have news for Mr. Das. India was a pluralistic country long before either Gandhi or Tagore. India has been a haven for immigrants through out its long history. About 1,000 years before Gandhi, Jewish refugees from Palestine landed on India’s southwestern coast. They lived in peace and tranquility following their own religion & practices.
India accepted immigrants well before the birth of Buddha. India has been the ultimate country of immigrants. Even to this day, one can recognize (from their last names) the descendants of the Sak people who came to India around 200 BCE from lands to India’s northwest. India was a pluralistic society of democratic (Gana-Rajya or self-ruled states without a King) long before Alexander came to Persia and the Indus Valley.
When India was a Winner Society, it assimilated and integrated immigrants into its own culture just like America does today. When India became a Loser Society, it could not assimilate immigrants like Muslim invaders or British, Portuguese invaders.
Speaking of the ideals quoted by Mr. Das, we remind him that there was a great man who proudly proclaimed these ideals for his India, a man much greater than Mr. Das. That man was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister who was hailed by the world as the Messenger of Peace. India is truly indebted to Mr. Nehru because it was he who ensured India remained democratic.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Nehru also believed in Non-Violence, far more than a leader of any country should. He allowed India’s military strength to wither away to demonstrate the conviction of his ideals. For the first decade of his rule, India and Nehru were admired by the world. Then, in 1962, China attacked India and dealt India’s weakened military a humiliating defeat. The world saw the spectacle of India’s admired Non-Violent Messenger of Peace Prime Minister running to America & President Kennedy in a desperate plea for military assistance.
After that humiliating spectacle, no one in the world admired the “pluralistic, democratic, nonviolent” India. All they saw was a pathetically weak India humiliated and prostrate before the world.
Today, the same aggressive power China threatens India both on land and in the Indian Ocean. India’s military leaders and India’s current Prime Minister have woken up to the danger of a much stronger, much richer and much more aggressive China. They understand that another humiliating defeat by China would destroy whatever India is trying to achieve in the world and that soft power is worthless without punishing military strength.
Are Elite Indian Opinionators Brainwashed?
We do not wish to be unfair to Mr. Das. He is simply one of India’s elite, self-proclaimed intellectuals. Today, it has become fashionable among the Indian elite to argue that wars have become outmoded. These “intellectuals” believe that countries can succeed by building economies without building powerful militaries. They seem to revel in India’s economic growth and love to proclaim India’s soft power. They travel to America and Europe to preach their perceptions of India. They criticize America and look down upon it. They seem to take it for granted that the 21st century is China’s and India’s.
We have begun to wonder whether elite Indian opinionators like Mr. Das are brainwashed. We wonder whether they remember the last 60 years of India’s history. India has lost more territory after independence than any other major country in the world. India has been attacked more often and suffered more casualties than any other major country in the world. We wonder if they have become utterly oblivious to the realities of India and the World.
Do people like Mr. Das understand that today China is the best thing going for India? Unlike India, China is a real power, the second largest economy in the world and a military power than can annihilate a helpless India with the large Chinese nuclear arsenal.
But China has begun to scare Europe and even America. They feel that India is the only country that could theoretically stand up to China. This is why India is popular today and this is why the world is willing to sell sophisticated arms to India. This is why the world keeps calling India as a potential superpower.
Unfortunately, people like Mr. Das get intoxicated by this stuff. They feel that soft power & begging the world is the right approach. This is why you see the spectacle of Indian elites beseeching the world to let India become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
They don’t understand that it is the Security Council not a Cultural, Economic Council. Each permanent member of the UN Security Council is capable of destroying its own neighborhood with its nuclear arsenal. America & Russia can destroy the entire world. China, France and England possess substantial nuclear arsenals. In contrast, India cannot even defend itself adequately, let alone dominate its own neighborhood. Just two years ago, India ran to the US when a few Pakistani commandos attacked India’s largest and most dynamic city.
India’s elite opinionators like Mr. Das do not feel any shame for India’s inability to defend itself from Pakistan, an entity 1/5 the size of India with a disastrous economy. They do not understand the world has very little respect for India. Respect comes from fear and nobody is afraid of India. The world sees India as a low cost buffer against China and an economy they can sell to. The world also knows that India is like a good little boy who can be patted on the head and told to behave.
China is very different. If you try to pat China on the head, your hand will get mangled. China is feared because China has taught the world it can act. Just look at how China treated Japan last month in the dispute over islands in the South China sea. China has built up its military might to a point that even the USA is worried about it. This is why no one can imagine a UN Security Council without China while India keeping begging the world to let it in.
There is an immortal couplet of the great poet Kalidas (of the Gupt Empire) that when a Lion walks in the Jungle, he does not need recognition or coronation from the weaker animals. His power itself is his evident rule. Kalidas used this analogy to describe the Hard, Dominant India that was an invincible military force. Today, Kalidas would have described China as the Lion of Asia, a country that is feared and respected. And China is now transforming itself into a Sea-Lion capable of extending its rule to the Indian Ocean.
The Indian military strategists understand this even though Gurucharan Das doesn’t. Robert Kaplan understands this and explains it beautifully in his book. Read it.
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