China-India – Repeat of British EIC vs. Indian Rulers? – Part I

1. The British East India Company from 1757 to 1856

Ever wonder how a private British trading company annexed the vast Indian subcontinent and that too  with money from Indian financiers and with soldiers recruited in India. No major country, no large society has ever been conquered so easily and so smoothly. It is as if Indians did not even know they were being swallowed up. How did one British company accomplish this?

They were smart, determined people who understood Indian weaknesses and built a smart strategy to exploit the weaknesses. They implemented that strategy in deliberate well-conceived steps. The formula for each step was the same and based on the ingrained Indians attitudes:

  • the intense desire of Indian rulers to be left alone to run their own little kingdoms,
  • their assumption that if they were peaceful, others would leave them in peace,
  • the resultant tendency of not building up their military infrastructure, 
  • their complete lack of strategic understanding & tactical planning,  
  • their utter panic at being publicly embarrassed, and
  • their resultant tendency to acquiesce to invader demands to buy peace. 

The British understood these attitudes and built their winning formula to control each local Indian king/ ruler separately. It worked brilliantly. The British never had to wage a broad or long war against Indian society as a whole:

  • Be pleasant, charming and offer British friendship to a local king,
  • Lure the the Indian king into peaceful neglect of military preparedness,
  • Quietly Build up British military strength & infrastructure against that kingdom,
  • Use a convenient excuse to Create a military incursion to publicly embarrass the unprepared king,
  • Threaten the panicked, embarrassed king using their greater military strength,
  • Negotiate from their position of strength to get concessions they wanted while professing long term friendship with the panicked king,
  • Instruct the king to NOT build up his military infrastructure thus maintaining British superiority,
  • Publicly hold a congratulatory joint celebration praising the king for his wisdom and reproclaiming eternal British friendship with the Indian kingdom.

Knowing how close he came to a military disaster, the Indian king would congratulate himself at his negotiating skill. He would blame the entire incident on a misunderstanding and fall back on enjoying his kingdom. This pattern would repeat a couple of times and then one day, the British East India Company would simply annex the kingdom.

Some Indian kings saw what was going on and surrendered their kingdoms to the British East India Company voluntarily and got rewarded. Others remained supremely unconcerned and stayed complacent in their mental stupor and negligent in their military unpreparedness. It was as if the British action against the other king was a localized issue that had nothing to do with them.

Very few Indians remember the above pattern. Those who know of it contemptuously dismiss it as old history and utterly irrelevant to today’s modern India that is guaranteed to become tomorrow’s economic superpower. Notice not one solitary Indian talks about India as tomorrow’s military power. They all think that wars are a thing of the past.

What does the old admonition say? Those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it? 

2. China-India relationship from 1949 until 2012

When you talk to India’s English-Educated elite, you realize that the old Indian attitudes of 1757-1856 remain exactly the same. The India of 1757 was rich with its GDP about 21% of global GDP, the same proportion as America’s GDP today. Today’s India is dirt poor with over 600 million people without toilets or running water. So today’s India is trying hard to develop its economy or so say its elected leaders.

Engrossed in this correct goal, today’s Indian society pays no attention whatsoever to India’s military preparedness along its long land and sea frontier. Today’s Indian society desperately wants to be left alone to pursue its economic development. Like their counterparts 300 years ago, today’s Indian rulers assume that their neighbors will leave them in peace or at least they can be appeased with ceding of some territory.

This is why India’s rulers, especially during the first 15 years of independence, and, during the last 10 years, have studiously neglected upgrading or even maintaining India’s military infrastructure. Today’s Indian air force, for example, has fewer squadrons than it did in 2001.

Today’s Indian leaders have already forgotten or dismissed as old history that Chinese attack in 1962 and India’s humiliating defeat which led India’s globally renowned Ambassador of Peace Nehru to virtually beg for help from President Kennedy. Since then, a succession of Indian prime ministers have ceded territory to China in their continuing efforts to buy peace by being good, accommodating neighbors. India ceded the critical border territory to Aksai Chin, gave away all claims for Tibet without even asking for anything in return and accepted without complaint Chinese military presence in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir that Indians claim as their own. 

Just like their ancestors 300 years ago, today’s India’s leaders try hard, very very hard to not “upset Chinese sensibilities“. They go all out to ensure that the environment prior to an important Chinese visit to India is not “vitiated” in any way. How all out did Indians go in April 2013? They dropped out of a joint naval exercise with US & Japan just to avoid “upsetting Chinese sensibilities” ahead of Chinese prime miniser Li’s visit on May 19, 2013.

Another country would actually have participated in a bigger, more public way to send a strong message of strength to China. But that is not how Indian leaders think. They did not think so 250 years ago and they don’t think so now.

3. Chinese intrusion in Indian Ladakh & India’s reaction

The entire world saw that Indian leadership and India’s military were totally unprepared for such an offensive, blatant & public intrusion into the Depsang plateau, an enormously strategic region in Indian territory. This was not an attack or occupation in large numbers. That would have been met with a military response from the Indian Army. The Chinese are not dumb like Musharaaf.

The Chinese intrusion was with 30 odd soldiers, a trivially small group. This was a public in your face statement by the Chinese that required a diplomatic or non-military response from Indian leadership. Just like the British knew 250 years ago, the Chinese know that a public embarrassment from a stronger power always throws unprepared Indian leaders into utter panic.

Look at the British pattern above and notice how perfectly
it fits this Chinese tactic. The Indian leadership had never envisaged such a situation and they had no countermeasures ready. So India’s leadership went into a face-saving exercise first calling it a misunderstanding and then a localized incident. Rather than respond to the Chinese slap in the face, Indian leaders talked about protecting the overall relationship.

Then Indian leaders acquiesced. In a face saving formula, the Chinese occupiers withdrew from Indian territory and Indian military withdrew from India’s own territory leaving the border unprotected. The Indian military actually demolished Indian bunkers that were in Indian territory as a quid pro quo for Chinese withdrawing from Indian territory. So the Chinese got what they wanted, an undefended border and a virtual promise from India to not fortify its infrastructure facing China while China remains free to further upgrade its own military superiority against India in the vital strategic area that overlooks the only road that connects Chinese army to the Indian subcontinent.

Just like the British did 250 years ago, the Chinese then praised Indian maturity in not letting this incident damage the broad China-India relationship and put forth a proposal to solve the border issue. Not only did the Indian leaders lap this up as a success but so did the Indian media which is even more pathetically supine. And the rest of Indian society remains supremely unconcerned as they remained through out the 1757-1856 period of step-by-step British annexation of Indian kingdoms. 

Surely, India’s leadership must have learned the necessary lessons after this humiliating episode. They did but not the ones proud countries would. They actually relearned the same lessons their ancestors had learned 250 years ago. Why do we say so?

The Indian military asked the Indian Government to approve the 2-year old plan to raise an additional; strike corps to improve Indian military defenses in Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern corner of India that is also claimed by China. Instead of approving this plan rapidly, the  Indian Government has chosen to sit on it for fear that it would send a “wrong” signal to China. The right signal of course being India’s deep desire to not upset China by building up its military defenses.

They say history may not repeat but it rhymes. Frankly, the China-India situation seems to be a perfect repeat of the British East India Company vs India history.

What’s next? Remember such incidents were simply a part of the pattern of the overall British campaign to annex India. If history is to repeat or at least rhyme, what would be the next steps for China vs. India? That is for Part 2 of this article.

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