India’s ultra-nationalist government under Prime Minister Nahendra Modi is engaged in an aggressive face-off with China that could end in a large-scale military conflict. Although the strip of land, called Donglang, that is at the center of the dispute has long been acknowledged as Chinese territory under an 1890 agreement between China and Great Britain, the Indian authorities are trying to block a road-building project initiated by the Chinese in the region. In June, Indian troops crossed the border into Donglang and confronted the Chinese, and the stand-off continues. New Delhi claims that the road, if constructed, would give the Chinese the ability to cut off India from its northeastern provinces, where various insurgencies against the central government have been ongoing for years.
Legally, the Chinese are in the right: the 1890 agreement clearly gives the Chinese sovereignty in this area. Furthermore, previous Indian governments have pledged to uphold this agreement. But the ultra-nationalist Modi, who rose to power on the strength of a “Hindutva” movement that invokes a vision of Indian supremacy, is playing to his domestic constituency: Indian troops have been rushed to the border, and Modi – perhaps emboldened by his recent talks with President Donald Trump – shows no signs of backing down.
The 1890 treaty was primarily about the fate of Sikkim, an ancient Himalayan kingdom lodged between China, India, and Indian-dominated Bhutan, directly adjacent to Donglang: ruled by a hereditary monarch, Sikkim was ceded to the British while the Donglang region was given to China, then ruled by the Qing dynasty. Although close to India, Sikkim was an independent country until 1975, when India annexed it by force. After Indian troops moved in, an “election” was held in which over 97 percent of the 59 percent of the population eligible to vote chose union with India. Altogether, a very dicey situation: indeed, in 1978 then Indian Prime Minster Moraji Desair “apologized” for the annexation, while maintaining that it is “irreversible.”
The Indians are trying to muddy the dispute by hiding behind Bhutan’s claim to Donglang: but Bhutan is yet another case where Indian imperialism has nearly nullified an ancient state’s sovereignty. Until 2007, when Bhutan’s absolute monarchy was transformed into a parliamentary system, India exercised a de facto protectorate over the country, controlling its foreign affairs. When the Bhutanese sought to establish closer relations with China, the Indians retaliated during the 2013 elections by cutting off subsidized energy exports: the result was the defeat of then Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. India accounts for 75 percent of Bhutan’s imports and is its biggest trading partner.
India has used the same bullying tactics against Nepal, another independent Himalayan country on the long Sino-Indian border. In 2016, after Nepal adopted a new constitution that favored native Nepalese over Indian immigrants, India initiated an informal blockade, cutting off the mountainous country from vital supplies. China moved quickly into the breach, rushing in oil, food, and other necessities. Chinese investment in Nepal now surpasses that of India.
If we step back, and look at the larger picture, what is happening is another episode in the ongoing encirclement of China by the US and its allies in the region. During a recent meeting between Modi and Trump, the latter affirmed a closer military relationship with New Delhi, and the Washington Postreported that the State Department “approved the $365 million sale of a C-17 military transport aircraft to India. The administration is also set to offer a $2 billion sale of U.S.-made unarmed drones to help in surveillance of the Indian Ocean.”
The movement that propelled Modi to power in New Delhi is no ordinary nationalist movement: it is a militant and militaristic cult with a mass following. As I wrote way back in 2002, warning of the danger represented by this trend:
“The rise of Hindu fundamentalism as a political force in India catapulted the Bharatiya Janata Party to power and sought to expunge the Gandhian pacifism of the old militantly secular Congress Party tradition, replacing it with a new martial spirit. The idea of Hindutva, which energizes the Hindu activists, sees India not only as a Hindu state, but as a militantly revanchist force in the region, a nation determined to recapture its old empire. As I explained in a previous column devoted to this fascinating subject, the Hindutva movement has created a whole mythology based on the idea of ethnic Indians as the first and only pure Aryans: the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol, and has been revived by what I call the Hindu-fascist forces in India. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological center of Hindutva, has a provision in its constitution that its leader must be a blue-eyed Sarasvat Brahmin.
“I hesitate to use the term ‘neo-Nazi’ to describe a contemporary political movement, as it has become almost a ritualistic term of abuse. However, in this case, the label fits precisely.”
India, I would remind you, is a member of the nuclear club. We have to ask ourselves: would the Hindu fanatics now in charge in New Delhi hesitate to use nukes in a war with China? I’m frankly afraid to answer my own question.
As for the Chinese, they beat the Indians once before when ongoing border disputes escalated into violence – remember the Sino-Indian war of 1962? – and I have little doubt that they have the capacity to do so again. Indeed, they are evoking this memory to remind the Indians that they’re in for another beating if they don’t turn down the heat.
However, India didn’t have nukes until 1974, when it tested its first nuclear device. China tested its first nuclear weapons in 1964. This time around, in the event a large-scale Sino-Indian conflict breaks out, who plays the nuclear card first? With China’s military advantage, it is New Delhi that will have the incentive to put its nuclear ace on the table.
The world is revved up about North Korea’s nuclear testing, and the recent launching of an ICBM prototype, but that danger pales before what’s happening in the Himalayas.
The US must stop encouraging the Indians in their confrontation with China – especially if we’re expecting Beijing to intervene on our behalf with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. That arms deal with New Delhi should be nullified until and unless the Indians withdraw their forces from Donglang. And, finally, the state of Sikkim, unlawfully annexed by India, must be restored to full independence: India has no more claim to Donglang than it does to Sikkim proper. Contrary to former Prime Minister Desai, the annexation is indeed reversible – because injustice cannot be allowed to stand on the strength of brazen coercion.