With several retired defence officers commenting on the current standoff between the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China in Ladakh, there’s no dearth of views on how this issue should be resolved, both at the diplomatic and military levels. Veterans have gainfully drawn upon their intimate knowledge of the area as well as past experiences, and painstakingly corelated the same to the current situation. Resultantly, most have come out with articles that provide a reader with a holistic view of this seven-decade old problem alongwith a balanced assessment of the prevailing situation and some very judicious recommendations on what the government needs to do.
The general consensus of the erudite veteran community which is monitoring the standoff in Ladakh is that even though the crisis is far from over, the situation is being handled well and that it’s yet too early to set the alarm bells ringing. However, there are a few who think otherwise and one of them is a former Army Commander, but then, contrarian views are always welcome as they make any discussion or debate all the more interesting. Furthermore, having been the General officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C) Northern Command, his views carry a lot of weight since he had entire Ladakh under his jurisdiction.
However, whereas his piece titled “India’s Fingers have come under Chinese boots. Denial won’t help us,” (The Print, June 4, 2020), is very informative, but his premature conclusion that “China now has the upper hands in talks,” indicates the possibility of preconceived notions or anti-establishment prejudices influencing his rational thoughts. The ‘upper hands’ observation of his is based on the assumption that with PLA “Having seized the initiative by securing approximately 40-60 square km of Indian territory in three different areas, China will be negotiating from a position of strength and will try to impose unacceptable conditions–no further development of border infrastructure on the Indian side–to restore status quo on its own terms. ”
Furthermore, by adding that “If diplomacy fails, China has come prepared for a border skirmish or a limited war,” he seems convinced that Beijing won’t back-off this time and if required, will even use force to get what it wants. Coming from a man who appears to know Ladakh and PLA like the back of his hand, this precise prognosis of impending doom is extremely depressing!
Whether or not China has really succeeded in “securing approximately 40-60 square km of Indian territory” isn’t confirmed. Even if they have done so, for the former Army Commander to make the situation appear irretrievable without even awaiting Indian army’s riposte, is to say the least, not only misleading but also something certainly not expected from a person of his standing and military experience. How could this former Army Commander ever forget that just within five years of the 1962 debacle, Indian army (IA) gave a bloody nose to the Chinese in Nathu La? Even in the field of military diplomacy, the Indian army proved its acumen by paying back the PLA in its own coin during the 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) intrusion in Depsang Valley of Ladakh.
A brief mention on the 2013 DBO standoff, which occurred in an area claimed by both India and China. As part of confidence building measures (CBMs) both IA and PLA patrolled this area but didn’t establish any permanent posts here. However, in April 2013, a platoon of PLA set up a camp in Rakhi Nula and when they refused to withdraw, the IA also established a camp just 300m away from the PLA camp. While this ‘eyeball to eyeball’ stalemate continued, in a proactive action that surprised the whole world, the IA did a ‘Rakhi Nula’ on PLA by establishing its own camp in the Chumar sector, 500 km South of DBO. This area was intentionally selected because it was close to a Chinese road through Tibet. Unnerved by this move, China in a “quid pro quo”, agreed to abandon its camp near DBO in return for a similar action by IA in Chumar.
The former Army Commander’s complaint that “… rather than evolving a clear strategy and broadly sharing it with the nation, the Narendra Modi government and the military have gone into ‘denial’ about any loss of territory, attributing the present situation to differing perceptions about the LAC” is surprising. How can a government which is in the thick of a territorial dispute with its neighbour disclose even its “broad strategy” by sharing it with the nation? In a subsequent piece titled ‘PM Modi’s silence on LAC stand-off is benefiting China. India must change its script’, (The Print, June, 11, 2020) he has been more specific by demanding that the “Modi government should take Parliament and the nation into confidence within the limits of security.” He also considers it “prudent for the Prime Minister to address the nation and military spokespersons to give formal briefings, at least once or twice a week.”
When the Home Minister has already given out the government’s strategy of using dialogue to resolve the issue and the army has quantitively and qualitatively augmented its force level in the area (which is an unambiguous indication that while India is hoping for the best, it is at the same time prepared for the worst), what else is there to tell the nation? In addition, with External Affairs sources further clarifying that “This will be a long haul and small steps need to be taken to resolve the situation,” it’s absolutely clear that New Delhi is prepared to weather it out rather than look for an expedient and hasty face-saving exit. So, what more information on New Delhi’s strategy for handling this faceoff is required to be told to us? Furthermore, when bullets aren’t flying and there’s no conflict on, what exactly do we want the military spokesperson to tell us during his weekly formal briefings?
So, since we have a lot of experience as far as incursions in Ladakh are concerned and know that these are long-drawn-out affairs, let’s not jump the gun by tilting windmills and start shouting from rooftops that ‘all’s lost’!
Tailpiece: The former Army Commander is of the view that “In the current crisis, the Modi government and the military have lost credibility and the battle of perception, and have literally endorsed China’s stand.” While I have no comments on this remark as far as the government is concerned, but as a veteran, the very thought of a former Lt Gen questioning the credibility of the very army he served in is extremely distressing! One may ask what his contribution was during his tenure as Commander of the region to prepare the forces for such a future contingency. If there has been any failure, then he too is responsible for it.