The Indian Army has confirmed that the soldiers — including the Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar regiment in charge of the area — were martyred while a ‘de-escalation process’ was underway. Ironically, China has accused Indian troops of crossing the border twice, “provoking and attacking Chinese personnel”. Both sides insisted that no shots were fired. Indian officials gave accounts of fighting with bare hands, iron rods and stones. There were reports of Chinese casualties, but no official confirmation.
Military officials from both countries later met to “defuse the situation”, the Indian army said. The incident follows rising tensions, and is the first deadly clash in the border area in at least 45 years. External affairs ministry accused China of breaking an agreement to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley.
General Ved Prakash Malik, former chief of the Indian army on the present scenario observed, “I do not expect the situation will develop into a full-fledged war or even major skirmishes along the length of our border. It is likely to remain localized”. He, however, added that this does not mean that we should become complacent militarily or politically”.
Why China is angry?
India and China, the two military superpowers have been on the boil for decades over territory in the high-altitude mountainous terrain which is mostly uninhabited. In recent times, the tension has further flared up due to a new road India built in Ladakh, along the Line of Actual Control which divides the sides. Arguably, this annoyed China, which deployed troops and built the infrastructure of its own in the disputed territory. The result was rising tempers and the risk of imminent clashes between the troops of the two sides.
Though uninhibited, both India and China consider this area as strategically important and vital for security. The present situation is serious, very serious because the loss of lives at such a level is first in 45 years in the border conflict between India and China. No doubt that the observation by former Indian Army Commander, D.S.Hooda that this is extremely, extremely serious and may vitiate whatever dialogue was going on, assume significance.
Lt. Gen H.S.Panag (Retd) observed in The Print that “It is a national shame that one Colonel and 19 soldiers have been killed in action while many more injured in a “fist and club” non-military action with the Chinese PLA in the Galwan River Valley”. There are unconfirmed reports of 43 PLA casualties.
Ironically, it was at Galwan River Valley, 80 km upstream from the current Line of Actual Control (LAC), near Samzungling, that a military confrontation took place before the 1962 war on 4 July when a platoon of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles was surrounded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The post remained under siege thereafter and was maintained by Mi 4 helicopters. A company of 5 Jat was inducted by helicopters from 4-12 October to relieve this platoon. On 20 October, this company fought a heroic action at the Galwan post with 36 out of the total 68 soldiers being killed in action.
The writing for the latest tragedy was on the wall. Beginning April end, the PLA had intruded at multiple points across the LAC in Eastern Ladakh with a clear strategic intent to trigger a border incident to impose China’s hegemony on India and stop further development of border infrastructure in sensitive areas, which threaten Aksai Chin.
Did India miss signals?
Did India miss the obvious signals? Lt. Gen H.S.Panag (Retd) opined that there was the deployment of regular PLA troops, build-up of reserves in the rear and precautionary build-up all along the LAC. India’s intent was to dare and call the Chinese bluff. But it is this approach that resulted in the horrendous spectacle of the commanding officer of a unit being clubbed to death in full view of his troops. The military hierarchy itself failed in its professional responsibility to advise the government to use force as per professional norms. The decision to not carry weapons was deliberate and a wrong one taken by the military hierarchy, which resulted in this tragedy.
History is replete with examples wherein the disengagement process is used as a ploy to attack the enemy. “Never trust your enemy” is a principle taught to every recruit. Every child knows the story of the “Trojan Horse” in the battle of Troy. Indian Army fell prey to the design of the PLA.
In the 1950s, obviously, lacking in economic and military resources, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had followed the traditional ‘forward policy’ to flag the frontiers using the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the Assam Rifles.
India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in March 1959. This led to China hardening its position and it came out with its 1959 claim line in Ladakh. On 25 August 1959 at Longju, in Lohit division, the PLA took a soldier from the Assam Rifles as a prisoner of war (POW). The first violent incident took place on 21 October at Kongka La in Ladakh, where nine CRPF personnel were killed, three wounded and seven taken as POW. Until then, the goings-on at the frontier regions had been secretive and public perception was managed by denial and obfuscation.
The border clashes and casualties led to immense pressure from the public and in Parliament. Nehru lost his nerve and abandoned a fairly successful strategy despite China offering a status quo settlement. All his subsequent actions were panic-driven, tactical and bereft of strategic thought. Diplomacy was abandoned. The pragmatic frontier-flagging ‘forward policy’ adopted until then was replaced by a more aggressive ‘forward policy’, which actually became ‘forward movement of troops’, to call the Chinese bluff. Less by design and more by default, Nehru blundered into a military confrontation on an unfavourable terrain and with an army that was unequal for the task. Rather than calling the bluff of the Chinese, our own bluff was called.
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s dilemma is the same as that of Nehru. Like Nehru, PM Modi relied upon diplomacy to handle China. India now knows about the inept handling of the situation on the LAC, both politically and militarily. Lt. Gen H.S.Panag (Retd) observed that there are two options – the first is to swallow the bitter pill, rely upon diplomacy, exploit the brutality of the incident that led to a large number of casualties on both sides and achieve the political aim — status quo ante April 2020 and demarcation of the LAC. In other words, extract from China what Nehru failed to accept in 1959. War is always the last resort and even a bully knows that. The second option is to salvage national pride and fight a limited war to achieve the same political aim. However, under no circumstances must we rush into a conflict or war.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) who served in the Indian Army for 40 years, was GOC in Northern Command and Central Command and post-retirement, was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal says that “In this hour of reckoning, the nation stands solidly behind the Prime Minister and I, as a veteran, place my services at nation’s disposal. Notwithstanding the asymmetry in capability, our armed forces will deliver”.
Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi have sought to project a muscular global profile despite their countries’ problems, observed Steven Lee Myers, Maria Abi-Habib and Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Times. The two leaders face a military crisis that could spin dangerously out of control. They are both ambitious, nationalist leaders, eager to assert greater roles for their countries in a turbulent world. With major challenges at home, neither wants to risk losing face, even in a dispute over mountainous territory that is all but desolate. Both did not intend to ignite a clash on the border. Yet the leaders of the two nuclear-equipped countries now confront a military crisis that could spin dangerously out of control.
Modi: Sacrifices not in vain
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi in a televised speech said, “The sovereignty and integrity of India is supreme, and nobody can stop us in defending that. The sacrifice of our soldiers will not be in vain.” “India wants peace,” he went on, “but if provoked India is capable of giving a befitting reply.” The clash, the worst violence between them in 45 years, resulted from policies both leaders have pushed to bolster forces along their 2,100-mile border and to project a muscular image at home and abroad.
Prime Minister also held an All Party Meeting via video conferencing to discuss the situation in India-China border areas. Presidents of various political parties participated in the meeting. He underscored that today all of us stand united with the soldiers defending our borders and repose full faith in their courage and bravery. He added that through the All Party Meeting, he wants to assure the families of the martyrs that the entire country stands with them.
At the outset, Prime Minister clarified that neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured. He said that twenty of our brave soldiers made the supreme sacrifice for the nation in Ladakh but also taught a lesson to those who had dared to look towards our motherland. The nation will forever remember their valour and sacrifice.
Prime Minister said that the entire country is hurt and angry at the steps taken by China at LAC. He assured the leaders that our armed forces are leaving no stone unturned to protect the country. Be it deployment, action, or counteraction, through land, sea, or air, our forces are taking the necessary steps to protect the country. He emphasized that the country today has such capability that no one can even dare look towards an inch of our land. He said that today, Indian forces are capable of moving together across sectors. While on the one hand, the army has been given the freedom to take necessary steps, India has also conveyed its position clearly to China through diplomatic means.
Ramping up border infrastructure
Prime Minister underscored that India wants peace and friendship, but upholding sovereignty is foremost. He highlighted that the government has given primacy to the development of border area infrastructure to make our borders more secure. Provision has also been made for fighter planes, modern helicopters, missile defence systems and other such needs of our forces. Through the recently developed infrastructure, patrolling capacity at LAC has also increased, he said, adding that through this, we are better informed about the developments at LAC and consequently are able to monitor and respond better. The movement of those which used to take place without any disruption earlier is now checked by our jawans, which at times leads to a build-up of tension. He noted that through better infrastructure, the supply of material and essentials to jawans in the difficult terrain has become comparatively easier.
Prime Minister emphasized the commitment of the government to the welfare of the nation and its citizens and said that be it in trade, connectivity or counter-terrorism, the government has always stood up to outside pressure. He assured that all steps necessary for national security and construction of necessary infrastructure will continue to be taken at a fast pace. He reassured the leaders about the capability of the armed forces to defend our borders and that they have been given a free hand to take all necessary steps.
Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh said that the nation will never forget the sacrifice of the martyrs. External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar gave an overview of agreements between India and China on border management, informed about the directions given by the Prime Minister in 2014 to give the highest priority to the development of infrastructure in border areas in the regions identified and approved by the Cabinet in 1999, and also shared details of recent developments.
The leaders of the political parties hailed the bravery displayed by the armed forces in Ladakh. They reposed faith in the leadership of the Prime Minister in this hour of need and expressed commitment to stand united with the government. They also shared their thoughts and ideas on dealing with the situation.
Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi said that the leaders are still in the dark about the details and questioned the government about intelligence reports and other related matters. Mamata Bannerjee said that her party stands strongly in solidarity with the government. Nitish Kumar said that there should be no difference amongst the leaders and parties should not allow any disunity which can be exploited by other nations. Chirag Paswan said that the country feels safe under the leadership of the Prime Minister. Uddhav Thackeray lauded the Prime Minister and said that the entire country is one and with the Prime Minister.
NCP leader, Sharad Pawar stressed that issues of whether soldiers carried arms or not are decided by international agreements and the parties need to respect sensitivities involved in such matters. Conrad Sangma said that the Prime Minister has been working on infrastructure in the Northeast and that must go on. Mayawati said that this is not the time for politics and she firmly stands with the Prime Minister on whatever decisions he takes. MK Stalin welcomed the recent statement by the Prime Minister on the issue.
China to avoid conflict
China pledged later to avoid a broader conflict, but its foreign minister, Wang Yi, accused India of provoking the clash on June 15 Monday night, despite an earlier agreement to withdraw forces from the Galwan Valley, a remote area straddling the disputed frontier that has been the focus of fighting before, including a war between India and China in 1962.
The timing of skirmishes is all the most ill ominous as both the countries are dealing with the coronavirus, which is still spreading in India while China tries to contain a new outbreak in Beijing. The economies of both countries are weakened and vulnerable.
The government is already facing criticism from opposition leaders. In a tweet, Rahul Gandhi said, “Enough is enough. We need to know what has happened. How dare China kill our soldiers? How dare they take our land?” It is still not clear whether China suffered fatalities.
The two sides reportedly had no firearms, according to longstanding protocols for the two militaries along the Line of Actual Control, the boundary drawn after the 1962 war to keep them apart. Among those killed was the Indian commander, Col. Bikkumalla Santosh Babu, whose death appeared to spark a larger fight along a steep ridge, which continued into the second day morning. The officials said several Indians died after falling from the ridge in the dark or intentionally jumping into the Galwan River. India initially announced the deaths of only three soldiers but then the toll rose by 17, whose deaths were attributed to “environmental conditions” at the high altitude.
On the economic front, tensions have been prevailing since last few months. It was in April, 2020 that the Union Minister for MSME and RT&H, Nitin Gadkari emphasised that there is also need to focus on import substitution to replace foreign imports with domestic production. He also urged enterprises to make use of technology and mentioned that Research, innovation and quality improvement can play a major role in industrial development. He was addressing meetings held today via video conferencing with the representatives of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), India SME Forum (ISF) and other enterprises from various sectors from Nagpur.
As the lockdown eases out and focus shifts to increasing economic activity, revival of the sector for large scale employment generation and leading the way for sustained economic growth becomes imminent. Regarding the revival of MSME sector, Minister mentioned that industry should lay special focus towards export enhancement and necessary practices be adopted to reduce Power cost, Logistics cost and Production cost to become competitive in the global market.
Gadkari mentioned that while the Government has allowed certain industry sectors to start functioning, it also need to be ensured by Industries that necessary preventive measured are taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He emphasized on usage of PPE (Masks, sanitizer, gloves etc) and advised to maintain social distancing while resuming the offices/business operations.
The Minister also underlined that the special package offered by Government of Japan to its industry for taking out Japanese investments from China and move elsewhere. He opined that this is an opportunity for India and which should be grabbed. He also stated that work on Delhi — Mumbai Express Way has already started and this is an opportunity for industry to make future investments in industrial clusters, industrial parks, smart villages and urged that such proposals be submitted to NHAI.
He also requested that all efforts should be made to make payments of MSMEs immediately and all Government Departments have been given such directions. Further, he assured all possible help from the government to tide over the challenges created by the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19. During the meeting, the representatives expressed concerns regarding various challenges being faced by MSMEs amid COVID-19 pandemic made suggestions and requested support from the government to keep the MSME sector afloat. Gadkari also said that the industry should work together and tap the opportunities that will be created when the COVID-19 crisis gets over as investors in China may move elsewhere.
Erosion in confidence
General Ved Prakash Malik, former chief of the Indian army was candid in his opinion when he observed that the military-level engagement on the long-contested Line of Actual Control, premised on a series of bilateral agreements and protocols, has ceased to be a dispute resolution mechanism. He said, “This military action has eroded whatever ‘confidence’ that was created with China at the military level, and trust at diplomatic and political levels”.
He added that while the armed forces have to be prepared for any military escalation, it is for the cabinet committee of security to consider wider geo-political and strategic aspects and then give further directions. I think the government will now explore diplomatic and political level possibilities to get the encroachments vacated before going in for escalation. He made another observation that Pakistan may attempt to intensify (a) its sponsored terrorist activities in J&K, and (b) ceasefire violations along the LoC and AGPL. However, India has the capability to handle any such escalations.
The Indian edge
Interestingly, a recent study at US’ esteemed Harvard University has said that India has a conventional advantage over China to avoid any 1962 level setback in case the situation escalates between the two countries. A research paper published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School analyzed comparative data of the Indian and Chinese strategic capabilities.
The study notes that India’s conventional advantage remains ‘under-appreciated’ in Indian discourse. The study took into account the nuclear capabilities of both countries, ground military forces of both countries and the two air forces which could be used at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) if things go south.
“We assess that India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks. India appears to have cause for greater confidence in its military position against China than is typically acknowledged in Indian debates, providing the country an opportunity for leadership in international efforts toward nuclear transparency and restraint,” the report read.
The report further dwells into the conventional capabilities of the PLA and says that the apparent numerical near-equivalence with the Indian Army in the ground forces is ‘misleading’. “Even in a war with India, a significant proportion of these forces will be unavailable, reserved either for Russian taskings or for countering insurrection in Xinjiang and Tibet. The majority of forces are located further from the Indian border, posing a striking contrast with the majority of forward-deployed Indian forces with a single China defense mission,” said the Harvard report.
“The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) also suffers from a numerical disparity to the IAF in the border region. Unlike the tripartite organizational division of Chinese ground forces facing India, the Western Theater Command has assumed control of all regional strike aircraft. A proportion of these are reserved for Russia-centric missions. By comparison, as noted earlier, the Indian Eastern Air Command can field around 101 fighters against China alone,” the report reads while comparing the two Air Forces.
On a strict comparison of available 4th generation fighters, authoritative assessments hold that China’s J-10 fighter is technically comparable to India’s Mirage-2000, and that the Indian Su-30MKI is superior to all theater Chinese fighters, including the additional J-11 and Su-27 models. China hosts a total of around 101 4th-generation fighters in the theater, of which a proportion must be retained for Russian defense, while India has around 122 of its comparable models, solely directed at China.
Sonia Gandhi: Our hearts filled with anguish
At the all-party meeting called by the Prime Minister, Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi said, “our hearts are filled with great sorrow & anguish”. Paying homage to the brave soldiers of our Army, who laid down their lives as also convey my deepest condolences to the bereaved families, she observed that this meeting should have come sooner and immediately after the government had been reportedly informed about the Chinese intrusion on May 5th, 2020 into several places in Ladakh and elsewhere. As always, the entire nation would have stood together like a rock and fully supported the government of the day in the steps required to defend the territorial integrity of the country. Alas, that was not to be.
She said that even at this late stage, we are still in the dark about many crucial aspects of the crisis. We have some specific questions, for the Government: On which date did the Chinese troops intrude into our territory in Ladakh? When did the government find out about the Chinese transgressions into our territory? Was it on May 5th, as reported, or earlier? Does the government not receive, on a regular basis, satellite pictures of the borders of our country? Did our external intelligence agencies not report any unusual activity along the LAC? Did the Military Intelligence not alert the government about the intrusion and the build-up of massive forces along the LAC, whether on the Chinese side or on the Indian side? In the government’s considered view, was there a failure of intelligence?