Monday, 16 August 1999

The Thumb of Ekalavya - India's Security Interests and the U.S.

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

The multitudes who watched the teleserial, Mahabharuta and the
somewhat smaller number who would actually have read the
epic would be familiar with the fate of Ekalavya. Born of—in
today's jargon—'socially disadvantaged' parents, the boy was
barred from learning the skills reserved for the martial castes.
This did not prevent him from picking up these skills on his own,
all the while imagining to himself that the great teacher,
Dronacharya, was guiding him.

When the five Pandava brothers found out that the low-born
Ekalavya was not just their equal but in some respects their
superior in the crucial art of archery, they complained to
Dronacharya, who made Ekalavya cut off his thumb, thus
ending his career in archery.

If Ekalavya’s fate comes to mind during the month in which
India joined the nuclear club 20 years ago, it is because the
modern-day Pandavas—the five accepted nuclear powers—are,
through the United States, seeking to cut off lowly India’s
nuclear thumb through a voluntary capping of its activities and
capabilities in the nuclear and missile fields. Should the
Narasimha Rao government eventually agree to this strategic
mutilation, it would be as significant an act of self-abnegation as

Restrictive View
The mandarins of North Block, which houses the Union finance
ministry, are focusing on finance capital as the engine of economic
progress, especially the capital flowing in from abroad, This is a
rather restrictive view of development, and not just because such
financial inflows are ordinarily prone to sudden reversals in
direction. It is also restrictive because it ignores the fact that the
locomotive behind economic change has always been science 
and technology based on a durable foundation of educational with

Had the finance ministry shown the same eagerness to
buttress indigenous research and development that it is showing interest
to attract finance capital into this country, India's long-term 
interests may have been better served. One is reminded of the 
consistent western criticism of Pandit Nehru's drive to improve 
the level of scientific research in India, and to create the social 
and institutional infrastructure needed for growth. Today, this 
far-sightedness has resulted in a science and technology 
establishment that is the equal of any other power. Had Pandit 
Nehru - or his successors - accepted the western viewpoint and
choked off funds to high-technology areas (as is being done by 
today's mandarins) India would today be at the mercy of outside
powers in the sphere of defence. 

The argument used by the small but dominant body of
officials seeking to cap India's technology in the nuclear and
missile field is that the U.S. would 'guarantee India's security in
the same way as it does that of Japan and Western Europe'. Such
a formulation ignores the very real difference between India on
the one hand and Western Europe and Japan on the other. In the
case of India, U.S. policy has often been ambiguous—and at
times hostile—on basic security concerns. One example is the
recent statement implicitly accepting the Pakistani demand for
a change in the present status of Kashmir. Another is the close
American attention to 'human rights issues' in sensitive Indian

Should the finance ministry prescription be accepted, India
would be at the mercy of the U.S. on all issues affecting its
strategic interests. Should the U.S. perceive India as being 
insufficiently ready to open up its markets to American l
companies, it could up the ante on Kashmir and other sensitive 
indian states, and use the ensuing turmoil as a lever to press for 
further concessions. It is, for example, clear that Pakistan—which I
has been a client state of the U.S.—could have been compelled
by that country to desist from supporting terrorists in India. The
fact that Pakistan does not feel inhibited in carrying on such
activity and that other U.S.-friendly nations such as Saudi
Arabia also give financial help to fundamentalist organisations
within India, can be logically taken as indicative of a strategy to
keep tensions within this country on the boil.

Washington constantly speaks of its support for the territorial
integrity of India, while in the same breath derecognising
Kashmir's accession to this country. It speaks of its commitment
to regional peace, while simultaneously retaining its military
base in the Indian ocean. This brings us to one expressed
(through Paul Kreisberg, a senior American diplomat) U.S.
reason for stopping the development of Agni. According to
Kreisberg, this is essential ’in order to forestall any threat to U.S.
naval vessels in the Indian Ocean'.

War Games
The Pentagon is prone to playing war games, and not always on
computer screens, and one such 'game' could involve the despatch
of an American naval task force to the Indian waters in pursuit
of a strategic or tactical aim. Should Agni, Prithvi and such other
systems be done away with, the country would be defenceless
against such a move, one that was actually put into operation by
the U.S. navy during the 1971 Bangladesh war. To entrust the
defence of 880 million people to the goodwill of a power located
thousands of miles away, and which has had a history of putting
pressure on India to compromise its security concerns to
accommodate a hostile Pakistan, would be an act of

If the industrial revolution generated the momentum for the
development of European economies two centuries ago, the
chemical revolution during the turn of the century and the
computer revolution in the post-World War II period were
responsible for fuelling a substantial share of the progress made
in the 1900s. Today, the atomic revolution may well be the new
frontier. This is the reason why such immense effort is being
made in countries such as the US or Japan to harness fusion
energy. India lost out on the industrial revolution and forfeited
her freedom. India lagged behind on the chemical and computer
fronts this century, and missed out on prosperity. Today the
Clinton administration is asking this country to step aside once
more as a helpless bystander while others develop—and reap the
benefits of—frontline technologies.

US Intervention
Afghanistan is a nearby case that illustrates the consequences of
American intervention, an intervention not the less detestable
because it followed the equally repugnant Soviet one. Today that
country has been effectively partitioned into three states, each
controlled by a warlord who has thrived on U.S. resources and
weaponry. Cambodia is another example, a country where the
U.S. worked behind the scenes to oust the 'neutralist' Prince
Norodom Sihanouk only to welcome him back after many
millions of lives had been lost. Should the Dan Burtons and the
Robin Raphels have their way, Kashmir, Punjab—and indeed the
whole of India—may go the way of Afghanistan or Cambodia.
Only an independent strategic deterrent will curb this U.S.
propensity to intervene and experiment in third countries.

The U.S. needs to treat India not as so much avoirdupois in
the 'white man’s burden', but as an independent major power
with its own perceptions and strategic deterrents. This America
will do once India sheds the belief that only genuflection and
surrender will propitiate the gods in 1600 Pennsylvania avenue.
One hopes that the Narasimha Rao government will not go the
way of Ekalavya—or Gorbachev or Alia Izbetgovich, for that
matter—but follow the way mapped out not just by China but
also by Malaysia and even tiny Singapore. India’s strategic
independence and scientific prowess are too valuable to mortgage 
and destroy. 

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