Conflict was almost baked into Asia’s post-1945 international order. Taiwan’s contested status following the communist victory in China’s civil war, and the division of the Korean Peninsula are only the most obvious and volatile of Asia’s military hotspots.
Yet one of the region’s most striking features was the way in which, from the 1970s, it was able to foster a remarkably stable international environment in spite of the visible flashpoints in almost all corners of the region. The growth and prosperity enjoyed by so many people would not have been possible had the countries of the region not worked out how to manage their often vast differences.
The high altitude military stand-off between India and China at the Doklam Plateau, near the tri-border of Bhutan, India and China, is an acute example of how these old problems have been reinvigorated by Asia’s geopolitical flux.
India and China share a border in excess of 3,000 kilometres in length, much of which is disputed by the two behemoths. This has long been a source of friction, including a short and nasty war in 1962 that India lost in humiliating fashion. Most of these have occurred in India’s north on the Chinese side of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Doklam stand-off is notable because it is in the north-east of the country. It started on June 16 when Chinese PLA engineers began work to extend a road that is within territory that is disputed between Bhutan and China, but in which Beijing has been operating freely since at least 2005. The work appeared to be an effort to extend the road closer to India’s border.
In response, Indian military forces crossed the border on June 18 into what it regards as Bhutan – a country with whom Delhi has an agreement to guide its foreign policy – and prevented the road from being constructed.
Beijing’s response to the deployment of Indian forces has been incandescent rage. This is in stark contrast to previous cross-border tensions and standoffs, when China has generally approached the matter with a degree of caution and calm, in public at any rate.
The fulmination is the result of China’s belief that the PLA is operating on sovereign Chinese territory and that India has intervened in its affairs for strategic advantage. This is a particularly neuralgic issue for the PRC.
Since then, both sides have mobilised their forces with at least 100 soldiers on either side eyeballing one another, while India has moved thousands more into close supporting positions.
The public rhetoric on either side is hardening. China has carried out military drills and declared that it is easier “to move a mountain than to shake the PLA”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly stated that the standoff was entirely India’s fault, and that the troops had to get out of China.
India in turn has accused China of reneging on its agreement not to change the status quo and has rallied international support by using the standoff as another example of China acting as a disruptive force.
Neither disputes the basic facts – China was building a road towards India’s border, while India does not deny contesting PLA forces beyond its own borders – so what motivated their risk-taking?
Delhi’s reasoning is slightly easier to discern. India is at a military disadvantage in most of the border disputes with China. This area is one in which Delhi has the upper hand. It believes China was taking preparatory steps to negate that advantage.
India is also acutely aware that the tri-border area is very close to the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow strip of land that physically connects India to its eastern states that lie between Bangladesh, China and Burma. Defending the corridor is a first order priority for India.
China’s claims that it was merely road building in its own land are disingenuous. It knows that the territory is in dispute with Bhutan and is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities. This was not just a bit of civil engineering, nor was it a case of a rogue PLA unit operating without central clearance.
Many think that China’s move is punishing India for its tilt to Washington and its criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative. The timing was unmistakably intended to embarrass Modi.
It was not by accident that the incident was timed so that it would cast a shadow over the prime minister’s participation in the G20 summit and a meeting with Xi Jinping. It also signalled that, contrary to his strong-man persona, Modi is not able to control the country’s borders and core interests.
Some also see the effort as an attempt to wedge Bhutan. Beijing has been courting Thimpu in the way it has successfully cultivated other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka. This appears to be a fairly Machiavellian means of pushing another of India’s close partners into the China column.
MIT’s Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s border disputes, has argued that while China probably did intend to push some strategic agenda, it probably miscalculated the strength of India’s response.
Both have positioned themselves in ways that will make backing down quickly very difficult. This crucial bilateral relationship is now at a low ebb, and as the standoff is likely to drag on for a long time, a frosty Sino-India relationship looks set to remain in place.
When we think of difficult great power relationships in Asia, US-China and Japan-China ties tend to predominate. But the crisis in the difficult terrain of the Doklam Plateau reminds us not only that India is an Asian great power, but that the tenor of its relations with China is of crucial strategic significance.
Equally, the tension is a sign of Asia’s new contested and complex geopolitics. This is a world in which American influence is marginal – not just because US Asia policy is on autopilot – and one in which old and long running animosities have been revived by the combustible blend of ambition and wealth.
How Doklam is resolved will tell us a good deal about the extent to which Asia’s great powers can accommodate one another’s interests and recreate the stability of the past. The prospects do not look good.
In 2014, the new Indian government declared its intention to achieve 100 smart cities.
In promoting this objective, it gave the example of a large development in the island city of Mumbai, Bhendi Bazaar. There, 3-5 storey housing would be replaced with towers of between 40 to 60 storeys to increase density. This has come to be known as “vertical with a vengeance”.
We have obtained details of the proposed project from the developer and the municipal authorities. Using an extended urban metabolism model, which measures the impacts of the built environment, we have assessed its overall impact. We determined how the flows of materials and energy will change as a result of the redevelopment.
Our research shows that the proposal is neither smart nor sustainable.
The Indian government clearly defined what they meant with “smart”. Over half of the 11 objectives were environmental and main components of the metabolism of a city. These include adequate water and sanitation, assured electricity, efficient transport, reduced air pollution and resource depletion, and sustainability.
We collected data from various primary and secondary sources. This included physical surveys during site visits, local government agencies, non-governmental organisations, the construction industry and research.
We then made three-dimensional models of the existing and proposed developments to establish morphological changes, including building heights, street widths, parking provision, roof areas, open space, landscaping and other aspects of built form.
Demographic changes (population density, total population) were based on census data, the developer’s calculations and an assessment of available space. Such information about the magnitude of the development and the associated population changes allowed us to analyse the additional resources required as well as the environmental impact.
Flow-on effects of high-rise housing
In order to compare the environmental impact of the new development with the existing housing, it is useful to measure it in terms of changes per capita or unit of floor area.
The redevelopment of Bhendi Bazaar would result in a population increase of about 25%. Our research indicates that metabolism does not increase linearly (on a per capita basis) with density, but accelerates instead.
Water consumption and waste water production per capita is likely to increase by 155%, largely because of the potential for more appliances and bathrooms in the towers. Rainwater harvesting, a compulsory requirement, is likely to reduce to less than half (45%) as the roof catchment area of towers is smaller than that of the existing housing.
Residential electricity consumption per capita is predicted to increase by 30%. In commercial and retail spaces, electricity use will more than double per unit of floor area (226% increase). This is primarily because of the increased requirement for air conditioning in the towers, but also because of the need for more lighting, ventilation pumping and lifts in the common areas and basements.
Carbon dioxide emissions more than double as electricity consumption increases, resulting in a 43% increase in per capita emissions. However, emissions from transport increase by 176% per capita because the development leads to more private car ownership, with 3,000 car spaces where there were none before.
All this is happening is a city that already rations water to a few hours per day and where electricity blackouts are common because of insufficient supply. Only about 20% of sewage is treated. The rest discharges into the Arabian Sea. Landfill sites have already outlived their carrying capacity.
Verticality and vulnerability
The quest to make cities smart and liveable has been promoted alongside increased population densities and urban compaction. We argue that this planning goal is reaching a point where resources are inadequate for the functioning of a city.
Case studies such as Bhendi Bazaar provide an example of plans for increased density and urban regeneration. However, they do not offer an answer to the challenge of limited infrastructure to support the resource requirements of such developments.
The results of our research indicate significant adverse impacts on the environment. They show that the metabolism increases at a greater rate than the population grows. On this basis, this proposed development for Mumbai, or the other 99 cities, should not be called smart or sustainable.
With policies that aim to prevent urban sprawl, cities will inevitably grow vertically. But with high-rise housing comes dependence on centralised flows of energy, water supplies and waste disposal. Dependency in turn leads to vulnerability and insecurity.
Suburbia offers some buffer. Water and power can be collected from individual roofs and food produced in individual gardens. However, we argue that vertical urban form on this scale offers little resilience.
Citing Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism?, the journalist, Amit Varma, was struck by “how closely our own prime minister, Narendra Modi, matched Müller’s definition”. After enumerating Müller’s seven “characteristics” and the three “things” populists did when in power, Varma found these all applicable to India.
But can such schematic “characteristics” of populism describe the ghastly daytime murder of 15-year-old Hafiz Junaid on a moving, packed train? And what about the complicit silence maintained during and afterwards by populists, non-populists and anti-populists alike?
Located barely 20 kilometres from the scene of the crime, neither social-media-savvy Modi nor his ministers posted any tweets, let alone visited the victim’s family.
It was the “crowd” that knifed Junaid. Two of his brothers were severely beaten and injured because they were Muslim. They wore beards and skullcaps for which they were humiliated.
They were called “Mulleys [Muslims]”, “beefeaters”, “terrorists”, “traitors” and “Pakistanis”. As Junaid’s bloodied body lay in the lap of his brother, who begged for help, the crowd simply and silently watched on.
Junaid’s murder was not the first since Modi came to power in 2014. Similar instances of brutality have occurred throughout India: from Jhajjar, Jharkhand and Dadri to Latehar, Una and Alwar.
And since the government backs the lynchings through silence and inaction, and since Hindutva has created a war-like mindset among many Hindus, they will likely continue.
“Populism”, as Müller defines it, fails to articulate the experience and vocabulary of those at the receiving end of such persistent violence.
Religion and the real targets of populism
Preoccupied with the statements of populist leaders nearly the world over, Müller seldom draws on the views of those who are objectified and victimised by populism. His treatment of religion as constitutive of populism is thin at best.
Müller implies that populism is inimical to democracy. But if populists claim to represent “we the people” and therefore democracy, who do they view as their enemy? It can’t just be “the elite” – populists too are elite. The real targets of populists, then, are those non-elites who supposedly threaten the culture of the “real” people.
And who threatens the “Judo-Christian culture”, “homelands” or “ways of life” that populists uphold? In Western countries, the threat is attributed to Muslims, who are depicted as only religious – indeed the most religious of all peoples. Muslims alone are seen as a problem to “integration” and “cohesion”, as if Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus and people of other faiths lived on a different planet.
Müller reads the populist demand for Barack Obama’s birth certificate as a signification of the former US president’s status as the “bicoastal elite and the African-American other”. He leaves religion out of it. So why did one-third of Americans believe Obama was a Muslim well into his second term, after many proclamations of his own Christianity?
Anders Breivik, the terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway, also stands expelled from Müller’s text. Breivik surely was opposed to elites; but elites themselves were not his target.
The real targets were Muslims whose culture, Breivik held, elites had spread by allowing immigration, which in turn threatened Christian Europe. The title of Breivik’s manifesto is revealingly religious.
And while Müller wrote only one sentence on India in his book, Breivik promised military support “to the [Hindu] nationalists in the Indian civil war and in the deportation of all Muslims from India”. He also viewed John Howard and Cardinal George Pell as heroes defending “Christian civilisation”.
So what connects populists in the US, Australia, Europe, India and elsewhere? And what prompted the International Democratic Union in 2016 to grant membership “unanimously” to Modi’s party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite its reputation for ethnic and violent politics?
Populism and anti-pluralism in India
Accounts of populism like Varma’s mechanically assume a “secular” conception of India separate from the religious one to which populism is assigned. This separation is central to the Indian liberal story parroted by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Ramchandra Guha.
Mukulika Banerjee traces neo-nationalism (which anthropologists use in association with populism) to religious nationalism in the early 20th century and V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva.
Hindutva defined Indianness exclusively in religious terms: an Indian is someone who considers India as their holy land. Because India was not sacred geography for Christians and Muslims, they were non/anti-Indian. Indeed they were non-people.
In contrast, Banerjee presents Mohandas Gandhi’s and Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision as secular and pluralist:
It was the great achievement of Gandhi and Nehru that it took four post-independence decades for such enmity [against Muslims] to flourish.
However, anthropologist N.K. Bose, who served as Gandhi’s secretary, had this to say:
Gandhi tacitly formed an alliance with those who believed in a restoration of Hindu domination.
Gandhi’s tactical commitment to non-violence is evidenced by statements in his speeches that authorise violence:
If later they [Muslims] betray you, you can shoot them. You may shoot one or two or a certain number… We must be brave and trust the Muslims. If later they violate the trust you can cut off their heads.
It follows that Savarkar’s ethnic, anti-pluralist vision was not radically at odds with Gandhi’s.
Moreover, as independent India’s first prime minister, if secularism was the hallmark of Nehru’s ideology, why didn’t he write it into the Indian Constitution? Why was it inserted only in the mid-1970s? Nehru admitted that Hindus, including in his own party, were prejudiced and biased against Muslims. Bureaucracy was no different, he wrote:
Nearly all our District Officers and Hindus are … biased in a certain direction. It is unfortunate that so few Muslims are represented in our services now.
If the main political parties and the bureaucracy were prejudiced, where did Nehru’s secularism, then, live? Not in Hyderabad, nor in Jammu, where, with the government playing an active role, 200,000 Muslims were massacred in 1947.
Creating inhumanity in the guise of humanity
Though anti-pluralism (which Müller sees as the core of populism) in India began much earlier than Trump and the Tea Party in America, populism has undeniably taken on a new flavour in contemporary times.
The September 11 attacks marked a new phase in the definition of “the people” around the axes of “terrorism” and “humanity”. In a televised debate soon after 9/11, Modi hailed the Indian media for speaking “the truth” in using the phrase “Islamic terrorism”.
Modi opined that terrorism was innate to Islam (and less emphatically also to Christianity), for it did not consider other religions to be true. In his view, the “whole world” had witnessed terrorism “for 1,400 years” (since Muhammad’s time). Modi saw the post-9/11 era as a battle between “humanity” and “terrorism”.
The “humanity” Modi spoke of did not exist as a prior idea. Instead, it was manufactured through the disingenuous discourse on terrorism that his party enacted on the international stage. In the same debate, Modi said:
Because of India’s initiative in the UN meeting twice, we have made terrorism an issue. Due to this, we have succeeded in dividing the country into two camps: those who are against terrorism and those who are in support of terrorism.
I think that the recent incident in America [9/11] will intensify it [the division]. The world is about to be divided into two parts: those who are in favour of humanity and those who are against humanity.
While Müller does discuss polarisation as constitutive of populism, he fails to connect its articulations across countries as Modi did. Modi’s polarisation was between humanity and its enemy, which is simultaneously anti-human, non-human, sub-human and less than human.
In the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, which Modi presided over as chief minister of Gujarat, over 3,000 Muslims were killed with state complicity. He maintained a long silence over the killings; when he eventually spoke, he compared the killings to running over puppies with a car. In doing so, he transferred Muslims from human to sub-human.
The act of transference partly explains why hundreds of people at the railway station did not even see Junaid’s dead body. Surely populism itself is too wandering and too light a term to grasp the ferocity with which the crowd killed Junaid, and the subsequent weight of the public’s apathy.
When Junaid’s mother, Saira, was told of his murder after she had broken her Ramadan fast, she responded with words that did not include populism. Can democracy, then, understand the tears and moaning through which Saira spoke?
It’s worth remembering that in addition to Modi’s claim that he is chosen by God, his followers regard him as God. At Madison Square Garden in 2014, Modi described his electoral victory as divine. He pronounced: “janata jan janārdan”, or “the will of the people prevails over the world”, where the people themselves are God because janārdan denotes the Hindu god Lord Krishna.
Thus, unlike “secularism”, which Modi denounces as “pseudo-secularism”, the idea that there can likewise be “pseudo-democracy” remains unthinkable for Modi and his followers.
I tend to agree with Müller’s observation that “one implication of the analysis presented in this book is that National Socialism and Italian Fascism need to be understood as populist movements…” The question, then, is: are populism and fascism substitutes?