Global Affairs Desk

Tue Jun 18 2024

Is India breaking through the Panipat Syndrome?

~ By Aarush Joshi on 4/23/2023

Is India breaking through the Panipat Syndrome?

India and China were engaged in a border clash along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 2020, in which 20 Indian soldiers were martyred and, according to India’s minister for roads and transport, 40 Chinese casualties. Although the sides have reached an agreement to de-escalate the situation following the deadly fight, the accord’s details remain unknown. Furthermore, both New Delhi and Beijing have deployed troops and military vehicles to reinforce their respective positions with no signs of timely withdrawals. In fact, India has admitted to having matched Beijing’s troop concentration along the Himalayan border.

While several reports cite India’s construction of strategic roads as triggers for the skirmish near Ladakh and Aksai Chin, the clash should be viewed through a greater geopolitical lens, one that accounts for the changing character of Sino-Indian relations and India’s renewed modus operandi. It appears that India is gradually abandoning the Panipat syndrome and is willing to defend its strategic interests in a prompt and decisive manner.

What is the Panipat Syndrome?

India’s self-absorption shapes its larger awareness of the world. A famous Satyajit Ray movie aptly described the Panipat Syndrome that plagues India’s policy-making decisions. It depicted two Indian nawabs engrossed in a game of chess, while the British East India Company steadily took over the wealthy kingdom of Awadh.

Coined by the late Jasjit Singh, an Indian military strategist, the syndrome is attributed to New Delhi’s long tradition of chronic indecisiveness, sluggish response to security threats, and its inability to soberly assess the global strategic environment. In short, New Delhi only acts when the adversary is either on its doorstep or when Indian policymakers are left with diminished options.

“We rarely choose to fight when the threat is still a nascent threat. When we do fight, we fight when the invaders reach Panipat and are preparing to knock on the gates of Delhi”

When threatened, our response has been to shy away from taking the initiative and delivering a knockout punch. We tend to seek refuge in the moral high ground. Some anecdotes from India’s modern history suggest that the Panipat Syndrome has largely impacted India’s military overture and strategic calculations.

In 1948, when the Indian Army was knocking on the gates of Muzaffarabad, we took our case to the United Nations Security Council and pulled a stalemate out of the jaws of victory. Almost one-third of Jammu and Kashmir is under Pakistani occupation and it is termed an ‘issue’, and not a ‘dispute’.

Similarly, we not only rushed to recognise China’s sovereignty and suzerainty over Tibet, but failed to talk and discuss with China about negotiating the dispute of the land border as a condition for our international support. Later in 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru approved the forward policy against military advice and then ordered an ill-equipped Indian Army to push put the Chinese.

Considering another match that took place during the same series, India was the foremost advocate for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council for the People's Republic of China.

Is India breaking through the Panipat Syndrome?

India’s Foreign Policy has assumed a new character to suit itself to contemporary realities of the world, and to put forward its national interest and pursue its foreign policy accordingly, with renewed geopolitical pragmatism.

For instance, after Narendra Modi’s election, many predicted that the relations with Washington would sour due to America’s refusal to issue him a visa as required by religious freedom legislation. Nevertheless, once a prime minister, he chose not to dwell on Washington’s previous diplomatic rejection and actively engaged with the Obama administration for security reasons.

India’s Foreign Policy has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to utilise the military to balance against the Sino-Pakistani nexus. After all, Kashmir’s statehood was suspended, the Balakot airstrikes were authorised, eliminating a militant-run camp, and accelerated arms purchases both from Washington and Moscow.

India’s relationship with Japan has been elevated to a strategic level as evidenced by their joint critical infrastructure construction, India’s backing of Tokyo’s East China Sea claims, and enhancing military and technological cooperation. New Delhi also continues to actively work with Washington in the maritime domain, which includes complex naval exercises and intelligence-sharing. Once reluctant to engage with Australia strategically, Modi has recently signed two military pacts with Canberra as a direct result of Beijing’s military swaggering amidst the coronavirus pandemic. While India has significantly pivoted to the United States to balance China, it has not undermined the Moscow option.

The nations in the Indo-Pacific region have come to view New Delhi as a major strategic player able to take an action. As for the United States, there’s a growing consensus that India is poised to be a key partner in the new cold war with Beijing given the aligning strategic interests and the overall bilateral progress made in the past decade. While American strategists should remain hopeful that China’s behaviour will accelerate the demise of the Panipat syndrome, it wouldn’t be a very cleaver move to assess that Washington has New Delhi in its pockets already.

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