Dragonfire by Humphrey Hawksley, Macmillan, London, 2000
Styled as India’s Nostradamus, the BBC recently showcased Vimal Singh predicting a Confederation of India and Pakistan by the year 2015. Practising the publishing idiom of ‘future history’, Humphrey Hawksley in Dragonfire casts a line to the year 2007 when the idea of Confederation is being mooted as a survival option. It is after a catastrophic nuclear war: Pakistan has been obliterated as a nation state; India’s metropolitan centres have become contaminated graveyards of a nuclear holocaust; and China has emerged from the rites of nuclear-strike passage as a superpower. In Dragonfire, the Indian strategic nightmare of a Pakistan and China pincer strike becomes a reality. The flashpoint is Tibet, with Kashmir and Taiwan as sideshows.
It is an impressive spinning of expert fact and fiction, imparting the adrenaline rush of virtual reality video war gaming. Dragonfire is indeed a worthy successor to Hawksley & Holberton’s remarkably well-researched and chillingly-insightful Dragonstrike, about China’s war for control of the South China Sea. The defining character of the publishing idiom pioneered in the bestseller, The Third World War, is “authority, relevance and topicality”, hinging on the possibility and probability of a catastrophic event. Dragonfire, too, is based on formidable interview-based research, and comfortable expertise about a battery of weapons systems and operational strategy, enough to delight a military buff. It is a world driven by neo-realism, without any space for morality, values or ethics. The cynicism of China agreeing to a ceasefire and simultaneously nuking New Delhi, is seen as awesome; the ethical restraint of India nuking only military targets although New Delhi is about to be flattened, seems out of sync with the game of military hardball. This is a world where war is inevitable, ‘exciting, evil…but intended for the strong and active—mainly men’—to paraphrase peace researcher Johan Galtung. This is a world where force, including nuclear power, is seen as a legitimate instrument of policy. There is awe, even admiration, of China, the lead protagonist, which “obtained power by force which would have taken it generations to obtain through peace”.
As much as Hawksley claims it to be ‘future history’, his project also is a throwback to a Westphalian past, of complex power balancing games among states represented as princes/presidents—generals and diplomats. In the shadow line are people, the media and business. How little people and social movements seem to matter is evident in the author blotting out the fact of popular insurgencies in Kashmir or North-east India. In his ‘Briefing’ note, Kashmir is only a proxy war, and the US president is left to interpret Kashmir as a territorial dispute bereft of ideological issues. The Chinese military intrudes into Arunachal Pradesh (the North-east Indian state claimed by Beijing), but Hawksley does not want his elaborate war scenario to be complicated by the fact that the North-east is a bubbling cauldron of insurgencies (earlier supported by China), which presumably might complicate India and China’s military response. We do get a people’s uprising in Tibet, but it is more in the realm of shadowy cut-outs. As for the array of elite security managers, presidents/ prime ministers, generals and diplomats—they are caricatures. The real dramatis personae of the war game are the states.
Only the representation of the Chinese leaders comes through, with any degree of complexity, reflecting Hawksley’s days as a BBC correspondent in China. Clearly, the Chinese are privileged as protagonists. President Tao Jiang’s strategic vision, we are told, is derived from Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Clausewtiz. As for Indian Prime Minister Hari Dixit, you wait to be told of Brahminical duplicity and the influence of Kautilya’s Arthasastra. The Chinese had repeatedly accused Nehru of doublespeak in the run up to the 1962 border war; India’s doublespeak on Tibet is the catalyst here.
Hawksley’s framing of Indian leaders is bare-ribbed and unidimensional. It is the Chinese and largely their Foreign Minister Jamie Song who is given privileged time on the BBC and the CNN. Far from the CNN effect driving the war, here the media is used expertly by the Chinese to justify their position. India’s case doesn’t get presented. Hawksley doesn’t give Hari Dixit media access. The author’s prescience in balancing the competing pulls and pressures so brilliantly demonstrated in his earlier Dragonstrike, is surrendered here at the altar of military power and prestige. Floating by in this ‘future history’ are anachronisms like the US and the UK choosing the side of democracy. What’s an insightful author trying to feed us there?
Dragonfire’s authority rests on its impressive weapon and battle details, and its plausible war scenario. The author says that events often overtook his writing. Pakistan’s General Hamid Khan is a Musharraf clone turned rabid. But plausibility gets a little stretched at what drives the general—to get Kashmir out of the way, satisfy the mullahs and remove the ‘core’ problem between India and Pakistan, so that Pakistan, ‘a failed state’, can get on with modernisation. It presumes the jehadis will just vanish once the safety valve of Kashmir for their bloodletting is not available or that Kashmir alone makes them tick. Hawksley even offers India a deal embracing an ‘independence’ option for both Kashmirs. And you have the curious situation of Prime Minister Dixit reciting the letter of UN resolutions on Kashmir.
The author wisely doesn’t waste time on elaborating a consistent rational motive and Hamid Khan soon turns into a nuclear, trigger-happy general. (Though the first strike with the Chinese-transferred neutron bomb on Pakistan’s own soil against an Indian invading force is a master move). India’s retaliation remains conventional, and the US chips in with a non-lethal weapon, sealing off Hamid Khan’s bunker and incapacitating his nuclear trigger. No doubt the popular imagination will be seized with the chilling scenario of the dangers of nuclear India’s and Pakistan’s jingoism. But the more thoughtful reader will not miss that the much talked about CBMs—the hot lines (drawing upon the 1986-7 Brasstacks confrontation) do not work in a crisis.
Much more sophisticated and insightful is the treatment of the China-India war dynamics. It comes as a shock to discover how insulated from popular debate is India’s high risk Tibet policy. The adventurism inherent in India nurturing a Special Frontier Force (SFF), is spotlighted in the plausible armed intrusion into Tibet of a renegade unit of Tibetans trained in India, and its catalyctic effect in pushing China to attack India, ultimately with nuclear weapons. In Hawksley’s future, China (in league with Pakistan attacking on the western front) seizes this as an opportunity to cut India down to size. The historical fact of China having refused, both in the 1965 and 1971 wars, to threaten India is completely forgotten. Hawksley, however, has President Tao adamant that there can be no question of loss of face when its forces were cut off from the rear in Arunachal Pradesh even if nuclear weapons must be switched into use.
What makes Dragonfire stand apart from the nuclear doomsday books is the quality of ‘authority’ it derives from the mass of interviews and research which has gone into it. Nowhere is that authority and relevance more telling than in the projection of India’s ambivalent policy on Tibet and its destabilising impact on Sino-Indian relations. Publicly, India recognises Tibet as a part of China, and has only extended asylum to the Dalai Lama, with the understanding that the Dalai Lama not be involved in any political activity on Indian soil. But in Dharamsala, there sits a government-in-exile and the Tibet Bureau is active in propagating the thesis of an independent Tibet. It is well known that in the late 1950s, India yielded to foreign pressure and trained Khampas and Tibetans to ambush Chinese military convoys inside Tibet. But not well known at all is the fact that in the 1980s, the Indian government raised a highly paid special service unit, a 8000-strong commando group of Tibetans. Subramanian Swamy in his forthcoming book, India’s China Perspective, describes how every morning their special camps would resonate with cries of “Long Live the Dalai Lama. We shall liberate Tibet”. The commando group is still under the Indian intelligence agency RAW (Frontline 15 September 2000); the group mentioned in the book is presumably the SFF. Journalists who have accompanied Indian prime ministers and presidents to China have observed that the Chinese have repeatedly asked India to disband the force. It is this Indian ambivalence that President Tao and Foreign Minister Jamie Song castigate as duplicitous in Dragonfire.
But it is not a radical audit of India’s Tibet policy which the book is likely to encourage in strategic circles in India. At its official release in New Delhi with several luminaries of India’s strategic community present, what was picked up is the possibility of a pincer attack from Pakistan and China, and therefore the need for greater military preparedness. For Indian strategists who have been clamouring for recognising the dominant reality of China as India’s enemy, the book may come in handy to whip up popular frenzy.
Hawksley may have meant his future history novel of a nuclear war to be a deterrent, but its very logic of military power as the determinant, predisposes one towards greater militarisation and nuclearisation. China won because it had nuclear weapons. India lost, because it did not have the guts to use its nukes regardless of the consequences. Some lesson.