Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lament at the time lost after independence in indigenously manufacturing defence equipment, has escaped media attention and scrutiny.
In his last Mann Ki Baat, he declared that before Independence India was way ahead of other countries in manufacturing defence equipment. But, he claimed as usual, that not enough was done after Independence to speed up the process. As a result, he added, India is now way behind other countries in manufacturing defence equipment.
The PM cannot be faulted for stating the obvious. It is true that some of the ordnance factories were set up by the East India Company in India in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Even Hindustan Aeronautics, Cochin Shipyard and Mazagon Dock were set up before independence and nationalised later.
The PM’s statement sounds ironical because not only has his government controversially opened up the defence sector for foreign investors raising the ceiling from 49% to 74% but he himself scuttled the agreement between French company Dassault and HAL to manufacture the Rafale jet in India. The Prime Minister had unilaterally decided against developing indigenous capability by choosing a new, two-week old company floated by Anil Ambani to partner with Dassault. The Indian partner is likely to end up supplying spare parts rather than manufacture the fighter jet itself.
The PM’s endorsement of the defence capability before Independence irked several quarters. Former Union Minister Subodh Kant Sahay demanded that the PM should apologise. He was paying homage to one of the foremost adivasi freedom fighters Sidhu Murmu and Kanhu Murmu along with two brothers Chand and Bhairav and two sisters Phulo and Jhano. They had laid down their lives while fighting against British forces, leading a 60,000 strong Adivasi militia armed with only bows and arrows on June 30 1856. The event is celebrated across Jharkhand in their memory.
The fact also remains that only around a dozen countries dominate the global supply of arms and armament and have indigenous capabilities to manufacture missile systems, nuclear powered submarines, aircraft carriers and fourth and fifth generation fighter planes.
India’s priorities after Independence were different. It did not want to become the world’s supplier of arms.
However, India today does have the capability of using missiles. As many as 48 warships, including aircraft carriers, are being manufactured within the country. The Main Battle Tank Arjuna has also been developed indigenously at Avadi and HAL does make helicopters and light fighter planes. There are over 300 members of the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers.
The Prime Minister’s disparaging remarks about the country’s defence capability have upset several quarters. And former Union Minister Subodh Kant Sahay tweeted his disappointment over the PM demoralising and even insulting DRDO and other Indian manufacturers.
Preparing for war is a costly business. And it is a tough choice for a poor country to divert resources to make arms. But nobody can blame the prime minister for nursing a long-term vision.