India and China are currently engaged in a low-intensity opaque war (LIOW), and renewed tension has been reported in recent days along the already troubled Line of Actual Control (LAC). These developments have taken place at the southern bank of the Pangong Tso and New Delhi has charged Beijing with attempting a second “provocative action” on August 31, even as talks were being held at the local military commanders’ level.
Pre-emptive action by Indian troops has evidently foiled any further Chinese intrusions. China has displayed lack of sincerity and engaged in deception. The steady build-up of troops and related inventory by both sides is indicative of heightened military tension, with a probability of skirmishes leading to unintended escalation, and a long winter vigil. For India, the monitoring and safeguarding of the claim line along LAC with China will demand a higher level of sustained military presence.
Against this backdrop, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s address, at the end of August, on defence manufacturing acquires critical salience, particularly for the candid manner in which the inadequacies and structural flaws of equipping India’s military machine were highlighted. He noted, “It is not hidden from anybody that India has been one of the main defence importers in the world for the last several years. When India became Independent, it had huge capabilities in defence production. There was a well-established 100-year-old ecosystem in defence production in India. Not many countries had the resources and potential of India. But it is unfortunate that not much attention was paid on this issue for several decades. No serious attempts were made. But, the situation is changing now”.
The PM’s statement merits scrutiny in relation to how India will manage the China factor in the long-term from a military perspective. He was right when he referred to a 100-year-old ecosystem since India’s first gunpowder factor was set up in Ishapur (Bengal) in 1787 and a modern rifle factory was established by the British in 1904. Slowly, a defence production base was created in India, but only to serve the imperial interest. During World War II, the Indian contribution was considerable by way of war goods — but they were at the lower end of the spectrum and included ammunition, clothing, footwear, animals, among other items.
When the British left India in 1947, this production infrastructure was denuded of its critical human resource and funding; further, it was irrevocably fragmented due to Partition. Lethal stores were destroyed and platforms such as bomber aircraft damaged and rendered non-operational. So the PM’s suggestion that India inherited “huge capabilities” apropos defence production at the time of Independence is not accurate. But the PM was spot on that while India had the potential to build a defence industrial base, it was “unfortunate” that no serious attention was paid to this strand of national capability for decades. The onus for this omission lies with those entrusted with the higher defence management. There has been no dearth of reports and recommendations about how to fix the problem but the under performance of the Indian defence manufacturing ecosystem has been overwhelming.
That India is among the world’s largest importers of arms is a shameful reality, and it is to the PM’s credit that he had acknowledged this fact in his first term (2014) and had sought to enhance the indigenous production of military inventory. However, the empirical truth is that, six years later, the 100-year-old “ecosystem” that the PM referred to has not enabled or nurtured any significant progress in the indigenous design and manufacture of military inventory. The most stark indicator is that India is still floundering with the basic personal weapon for the soldier — the Kalashnikov equivalent — and is dependent on Russia for this item.
Modi 2.0 has another four years to pick up the military equipment gauntlet, and having a full-time defence minister in the seasoned Rajnath Singh is positive. India has to invest in design and research and development in a far more sustained and effective manner, and not succumb to short-term measures such as urgent imports when there is a crisis. This happened in Kargil 1999, and most recently, post-Galwan. The PM has outlined India’s indigenous defence manufacturing challenge with commendable candour. The challenge is to irrigate the ecosystem in a manner that will enable India to acquire the appropriate level of military capability and confidence (atma nirbharata) to deal with the China challenge along the LAC and beyond.
To start with, how about focusing on producing an Indian-designed and manufactured personal weapon that will compare with the best in the world by August 2023? That will be the best symbolic gift for India’s national security, as the nation completes its 75th independence celebrations.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal