The scizophrenia is certain bureaucratic echelons of the Government of India and its associated academia must be palpable. The entire line of the Himalayan frontier has been ultra-sensitive terrain ever since the 1962 debacle, whence meddlesome foreigners – even scholarly innocents – were thrown out for daring just even to be there.
And yet February saw Indian Air Force Mirage and Mig fighters happily escorting US Air Force F-15 Eagles over the Western Himalaya. No worries about what the Yank pilots might see over the side, even though airline passengers at Cochin and Varanasi airports are routinely asked desist from photography at the pain of being dumped on the tarmac.
How the world hath changed. The regional superpower decides, better late than never, to cosy up to the global superpower. And there is no better way to show appreciation than take the Yanks up for a spin over terrain that for decades you claimed was your most vulnerable and closely-guarded frontier region. So Bharat-rakshak IAF engages in “fighter ops” with USAF, titled Cope India ’04. The last time the two superpowers engaged in joint exercises was Exercise Shiksha in 1963, right after the Chinese adventure.
“The purpose of Cope India ‘04 is to conduct a bilateral training ground with the Indian Air Force in order to enhance U.S. and India relationships and promote regional security and stability in the Asian Pacific area,” said Col. Greg Neubeck, 3rd Operations Group deputy commander and U.S. Forces deployed commander for the exercise. “The most immediate result will be the increased understanding of each other’s capabilities and how the two Air Forces may work together as a combined and integrated Air Force team.”
Ummm. So the idea is to promote regional security not only over the subcontinent but farther afield. And what might the F-16s and Migs do together once they get to understand each other’s capabilities?
Actually, this willingness to allow the Eagles to fly carefree ‘somewhere over northern frontier’ may well be a good thing. It means that New Delhi is getting over its paranoia over the Himalayan rimland. This is a good thing. When India breathes easy, and is unruffled by alien sonic booms over its glaciers, that means it is more likely to be your friendly neighbourhood giant than the cantankerous geezer with a chip on his shoulder the size of Siachen.
An India which for decades stymied Nepal’s efforts to build north-south hill highways for fear of Chinese tanks rolling down to the Ganga maidaan is now actually asking the Nepali government for transit passage to the Tibetan plateau. Does New Delhi know something we do not know? No, New Delhi is getting to know what we have always known. That the Himalaya is no longer the geo-strategic barrier it was since the time of Chinggis, and presents itself today as a rimland of opportunity.
Opening up Nathu La via Sikkim, the hope is that Siliguri and Calcutta will corner trade with Lhasa and eastern Tibet. Seeking transport and transit rights through Nepal to the Changthang plateau of western Tibet seems aimed at the economic surge that the high plateau will see with the expansion westward of highways and (later) railways.
A confident regional power is always better than a nervous giant who can easily turn into a bully. The waning of Himalayan paranoia may be an early indication of the ground shifting in New Delhi’s geo-strategic thinking. Less conspiracy seeking. More analysis. In which case, let the Eagles soar, even if it be on Southasian skies.