John Frum and Rafale fighters :Cargo cult or aatmanirbhar Bharat?

What has John Frum got to do with Rafale fighters? Rafale fighters landed at Ambala Airforce Base just a few hours ago. The Indian social media was dominated by the chit chat regarding Rafale since last two days.

An almost religious fervor prevailed as TV channels, analysts, political leaders and common Indians followed every small news about its arrival in India. People discussed when it stopped at Al Dharfa air base in UAE, how it was refueled mid-air, when it entered Indian airspace and how two Sukhois escorted it to the Ambala air base

The legend of John Frum

All this reminds me the story of John Frum. In the distant island of Tanna in Vanuatu, situated in the Pacific Ocean, a cult started in mid 20th century. The war of US with Japan brought many soldiers in these distant areas and along with soldiers came “cargo” or the supplies. John Frum is one of the cargo cults.

john frum and rafale

It is thought that it originated with some generous soldier named “John from ………{some place}” who was understood as “John Frum”. The soldier apparently gave them supplies{cargo} and was elevated to the status of the God.

Even today, the inhabitants make fake aircraft landing strips, do mock parades and other soldierly rituals associated with coming of John. They believe that John will come in their time of need and again provide them cargo.

Dependence on foreign countries

The Indian dependence for defence supplies on foreign countries evokes similar emotions. There is a simple belief that Russia, or France or Israel will help us when we need them the most.

The fact is that John came to Tanna because US had its self interests in fighting Japan. Similarly, we are sold arms because we pay good money for that. Harsh truth is international relations are not based on emotional bonds.

Reasons for India’s foreign dependence

There are many reasons for India’s dependence on foreign countries for arms and ammunition:-

  • Indian industry was non-existent at the time of independence. The second World War, on the other hand, made US, USSR, UK etc. giant arms producer nations. Thus at independence, it was a compulsion for us to import. Immediately afterwards, we had very less capital to start a defense industry.
  • Still public sector units were established and they tried to replace imports with indigenous production. However the products always suffered from quality issues, development and production delays and obsolescence. This continues even today. A few examples : INSAS rifle, Dhruv helicopters and Kaveri engine for Tejas.
  • The private capital was denied entry in the defense sector for a very long time. As a result, there was no incentive for public companies for innovation.
  • Vested interests stopped entry of private sector and favoured foreign platforms. There were multiple scams in defence deals starting from Jeep scandal in 1948 to Bofors and Augusta Westland.

Impact

The impact has been tremendous. Consider China. It started at the same time as India and has largely become atmanirbhar in defence matters. It produces almost all of its defence gear and also exports to other countries. Our exports often end up embarrassing India.

We have not been able to develop a decent assault rifle, pistol or long range canons. We have largely achieved atmanirbharta in missile technology, but that is an exception.

Almost our big defence platforms, be it combat aircraft, submarines, air defence systems or aircraft carriers, are still bought from foreign countries. There are exceptions in all these areas, but few and far between.

Conclusion

Do we want to be a nation of John Frum cultists? Or do we want us to become aatmanirbhar? Are we willing to follow the policies that make a country self-dependent?

The answer to these questions will determine if India will remain a regional power or if it becomes a global superpower.

This is a guest article written by Mr. Hemant Bhatt, an educator based in Dehradun. He has vast international work experience and is an almuni of SciencesPo, Paris.

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