In September 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru was asked by a reporter about minor Chinese incursions into Indian territory during a stopover from London after attending the 12th Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference. He responded that he had instructed his army to throw out the Chinese. The ill-prepared and sparsely distributed Army tried to do just that but in a few days, the Chinese had crushingly advanced into our territory within reach of New Delhi. Then, mysteriously, they retreated for reasons that are not unequivocally clear 58 years later. The prevalent theory is that the Chinese were not interested in our barren land. They just wanted to chastise a globe-trotting Prime Minister who had been making arrogant and somewhat exaggerated statements about India’s capabilities. Besides, they may have needed a distraction from monumental domestic economic and political crises.
Time for self-disclosure. I am a neuropsychiatrist, not a political analyst. Far smarter and more accomplished individuals are in influential positions in New Delhi. I do, however, plead guilty to off-duty analyses of human behaviour and as my family and friends would testify, am occasionally right. Nine months ago, I began to co-author a book on the coronavirus before a single case had come to India and predicted then that the US and India would have the largest number of cases in the world. That the world’s most powerful and richest country, with the best medical facilities and by far the greatest number of Nobel Laureates would succumb to a tiny virus, seemed an absurd and risky prediction. Nonetheless, we took our chances. A couple of months later when our national tally of corona cases stood at 84 and it was believed that in a few days we would win the war against the virus, we predicted the opposite. We cautioned that we would have the largest number of cases in the world. While that remains to be seen, we hope as we often have in the past few months, that we are wrong. Meanwhile, over 25 other predictions we made about the pandemic have borne out. This newspaper recently ran an analysis about how the war against the virus was as good as lost. We pray that the virus will withdraw as mysteriously as the Chinese army in 1962 and that the Chinese will not outsmart us as the virus has.
Arguably, the four greatest generals in recent history — Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon and Rommel — repeatedly indulged in painstakingly patient deceptions. In the summer of 362 BC, Alexander calmly waited over a month on the inhospitable bank of the Jhelum. He was biding time against Porus’s large army with the most powerful battle tanks of the time, war elephants. Now and then, he needled them a little and withdrew. Porus’s troops grew more confident and got lulled into a sense of security. One rainy night, while sending a small force across from where he had camped, his main army crossed a monsoon swollen river to outmanoeuvre Porus from the rear. The Battle of the Hydaspes (as the Jhelum was then known) continues to be studied by military strategists across the world.
Today, a China 10 times more powerful than us in economic and military might than in 1962, is needling us. They have not just singled us out for aggressive posturing. Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea have all seen crowing displays of might. Analysts argue that these may come to nought and are driven solely by domestic concerns. At least three factions in China jostle for power — the military, the politburo and within it, Chairman Xi Jinping and his enemies. In the years preceding the Sino-Chinese war, Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward had been a complete disaster with 40-50 million starvation deaths. His position was in danger and he barely hung in during the 10th Plenum of the Party’s 8th Central Committee in September 1962. A month later, total victory in the war with India reinforced his power in China. Could a 2020 war with India attempt to restore Xi’s shaky position? After all, everyone adores a war-winning leader (Indira Gandhi was unfettered Durga after the Bangladesh war).
Having conducted themselves disgracefully during the early days of the pandemic, the Chinese have brilliantly outmanoeuvred the virus. For us, the worst of the pandemic is yet to come in loss of lives and livelihoods. We aren’t even thinking of the second wave of the pandemic. As we have pointed out in our book, the influenza pandemic of a 100 years ago, which killed almost 100 million people (equivalent to 425 million deaths today) had three waves, of which the first, was the smallest.
In 1962, the Chinese overwhelmed our ill-equipped frontier posts in successively large waves of troops. For many decades, our soldiers would have recurrent dreams of wave upon wave of Chinese overwhelming them. What nightmares await our troops this fall and winter? Is Arunachal Pradesh the real target? Let us hope that the bureaucrats of South Block have all the answers and that their phones have not been hacked by the Chinese.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 15, 2020 under the title ‘Two countries and a virus’. Parikh is director, Medical Research & Hon. Neuropsychiatrist, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre, Mumbai. He has co-authored The Coronavirus: What You Need To Know About The Global Pandemic
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