Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852
It is no surprise that the political naysayers see nothing good in Wuhan summit between India and China. But the political chorus has also been joined by some out of work professionals in India and motivated US-phile academic hacks. While the later are uneasy at Sino-Indian bonhomie, the former are more prisoners of history.
Asia in General and the Indian subcontinent in particular, often seem to be prisoners of history, both ancient as well as modern. The Indo-Pak duel owes itself as much to the notion that Pakistan is heir to the Mughal (actually Mughal Rajput) Empire and since the British took away India from Mughals, now that they are gone, Mughal power (Pakistan) should return to rule Delhi from the Red Fort. This notion, howsoever simplistic it may sound, has deep roots in Pak national psyche and impacts the attitude of its ‘deep state’ as well as masses. This is thanks to the colonial historical narrative that has obliterated the Maratha/Sikh rule from public memory in collaboration with pseudo historians of Dilli.
Luckily, in case Sino-Indian relations there is no such historical burden. Throughout their long history, India and China never clashed militarily. There were cultural and trade relations through South East Asia and by and large the two ancient civilizations remained self-absorbed. By inclination, unlike the murderous Anglo-Saxons or Middle Eastern expansionists, both were content to remain within their sphere of influence. The only two exceptions were the campaigns of Sikh Empire under the able Dogra General Zorawar Singh and the Younghusband mission under the British. Indian troops participation in wars of colonial domination are more due to British Imperialism and Indians were mere tools.
The Great Wall of China is as much a symbol of great national achievement as well as defensive and nonaggressive mindset. History of India follows a similar curve. Historians have often wondered that Indians, who had powerful navies, did not intervene when Rome was tottering under the onslaught of Huns. The Sino-Indian relations suffer the burden of much more recent happenings, the 1962 border conflict in which India suffered a major defeat.
The 1962 episode had disproportionate impact on India as the losing side. It is deeply etched on Indian minds. The famous song that sums up the tragedy, ‘Aye mere watan ke logon’ sung by the incomparable Lata Mageshkar has almost acquired the status of national song! Much of Indian attitude to the Chinese, ranging from opposition to OBOR (one belt one road) initiative to Chinese foray in Indian ocean is conditioned by memories of 1962.
As someone who studied the 1962 conflict in depth, one can vouch for the fact that the disaster happened due to a combination of militarily illiterate political leadership and extraordinary military incompetence. But the exigencies of buildup of Nehru’s personality as demi God, was a requirement of the ruling dynasty, and objective account of the leadership’s follies were never made public. The Indian army also joined in the ‘white wash’ of the episode. With a result that Indians continue to suffer a mental block and inferiority complex when it comes to dealing with the Chinese. For close to three decades, wrong lessons learnt from the 1962 episode led to ignoring the role of airpower in any future conflict. This author has brought out that nonuse of offensive airpower in 1962 was one of the major blunders of that campaign. Luckily, of late the flaw has been rectified and there is buildup of airpower in the East has been prioritized.
Even the disparity in road infrastructure between the Chinese side and Indian side has been the result of this defensive and defeatist mindset. The prime example, right till 1988 (my last direct visit), the road between Bumla and Towang (built by the Chinese during their occupation in 1962) was never improved as that was thought to help Chinese, should they choose to invade Towang again! It never crossed our military minds that if we have better road communication we will be able to hold the Chinese. It is fashionable to put the blame for lack of infrastructure on politicians, but the role of defensive minded military in opposing road development is seldom acknowledged. The watershed moment in Sino-Indian military balance was the Sumdorongchu incident of 1987 and operation ‘Chequerboard’ under able General K. Sundarjee. This time India showed that the situation has indeed changed from 1962 and India is militarily a match to China on the Himalyan border. It is no wonder that next year PM Rajiv Gandhi carried out a successful visit to China that resulted in agreement on CBMs (confidence building measures).
While the 1962 had the effect of defeatist mentality on India, the Chinese PLA on the other hand continues to harbor false notions of superiority vis a vis Indians. While it is true that China is overall more powerful than India, but the strength that it can bring to bear on Himalayan front is strictly limited by geography and logistics. India is more than a match to what China can throw at it in Himalayas. It should also not be forgotten that Indian Army is battle tested entity (just as Chinese was in 1962 thanks to Korean War), while the PLA is a rusty outfit. The last serious conflict that it took part in, 1979 invasion of Vietnam, it suffered a defeat at the hands of (not regular Vietnamese Army) Vietnamese Militia!
Given these factors, time was ripe for a peace initiative with China. The obstacle in Indian co-operation with China on OBOR (One Belt One Road) is more out of caution and defeatism in military and civil bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, by its very nature tends to go by precedence and past, it needs political initiative to break such log jam. Only a confident Political leadership is capable of thinking out of box.
This is precisely what Li and Modi have done at Wuhan, as Nixon-Mao did at Shanghai in 1972! While the Korean Summit hogged the headlines, the Wuhan summit may well be seen as a major turning point in world history by future historians.