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Mainstream, VOL LI No 21, May 11, 2013

India’s (non-)Response in Ladakh

Saturday 11 May 2013, by Barun Das Gupta


Regulars of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China intruded ten kms deep into Indian territory in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector in eastern Ladakh on April 14/15. (Actually there is some confusion about it. There are reports that the Chinese entered 19 kms south of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and then retreated to their present position, 10 kms inside.) Our government came to know of this intrusion, it is reported, from aerial pictures. For ten or fifteen or twenty, whatever kms it is, the incursion did not meet with any resistance from our side. The Chinese came and pitched their first tent. The number has since gone up to five.

From the beginning, the government tried to play down the gravity of the situation. A spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry explained that the incident was a ‘localised event’ in a sector where there are ‘differing perceptions on the LAC’. He said the matter had been ‘taken up’ with China (through diplomatic channels) and the Chinese have been asked ‘to maintain status quo as it was before the incursion.’ Several flag meetings have been held and many diplomatic notes exchanged but the Chinese have not budged an inch from the positions they hold on the ground. They have stuck to their position that they have not crossed the LAC at all and are on their territory. Rather, they have made a prerposterous demand that the Indian Army demolish some bunkers that it has built in a ‘key vantage position’ from where the Indian troops would be able to see the activities on the Chinese side without being seen by the Chinese.

New Delhi has done nothing except holding infructuous flag meetings and lodging inane protests. Implicit in the inaction of the govern-ment is an admission: where there is a ‘difference of perception` about where actually the LAC lies, it is China’s ‘perception’ that will prevail, not India’s. Quite naturally, the policy of non-resistance has encouraged China to set up more tents in this sector. Today it is happening in the western sector. But as China becomes more and more convinced that India will not apply force to vacate the aggression—for aggression it is— it will, in all likelihood, turn its attention next to the eastern sector—to Arunachal Pradesh which it calls Southern Tibet and claims the entire territory of 83,743 sq. kms.

China’s intentions are very clear: to shift the Line of Actual Control gradually to the south, deeper into Indian territory, little by little. If there is no resistance from the Indian side they will attain their objective without firing a single shot and without suffering a single casualty. The incursions will continue, the area under Chinese occupation will continue to expand. They have already done so in the Chip Chap and Skakjung areas in Ladakh. In September last year, helicopter-borne Chinese troops entered the Chumar area in Ladakh, destroyed some Indian bunkers and then went back.

Meanwhile, in Ladakh, the Chinese are reinforcing their positions, there is a regular convoy of PLA trucks bringing supplies to the troops stationed in the camps. The three service chiefs have already briefed the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) about the Ladakh situation and the nature of the threat it poses to India. Their advice to the government is clear and terse: get tough with the Chinese and get out of the “1962 mindset” because India’s armed forces are no longer in the condition they were half-a-century ago in 1962. The Army chief has given another option to the government, namely, (allow us to) choke the Chinese supply lines to the present China-occupied positions in eastern Ladakh. But the Manamohan Singh Government is chary of doing anything that may provoke China, widening and escalating the conflict. This New Delhi is determined to avoid at all costs—even at the cost of India’s territorial integrity.

In a recent article, Praveen Swamy has referred to a declassified CIA document which quoted Nehru’s assessment that a border war with China would be a futile and reckless course for India. His answer to Peking’s growing threat was to stress on strengthening of Indian economy to provide a power base capable of effectively resisting an eventual Chinese military action. The CIA analysts saw in Nehru’s response ‘an implicit affirmation that India did not have the military capability to dislodge the Chinese’. They thought the word ‘eventual’ was a great evasion on Nehru’s part. Looking at the present government’s (non-)response to the latest series of Chinese incursions in Ladakh, it seems the defeatist mentality of the government has not changed at all.

Successive governments, since the humiliating defeat of 1962, did not give importance to the urgent need for developing road and railway communications in the border areas of the North-East. Even troops trained for mountain warfare, both for defensive and for offensive operations, were not raised. It is only recently that the Army was able to persuade the govern-ment to release funds for raising four new mountain divisions in the eastern sector. Two divisions have been raised, two more divisions and an armoured brigade are being raised. They are being trained and equipped for making offensive strikes in Tibet when the need arises.

Besides, at least two squadrons of deep penetration aircraft in the form of Sukhoi MKI have been stationed in the North-East. They are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and have a strike range of 5000 kms. Agni V has been successfully test-flighted. It also has a strike range of 5000 kms and can deliver a nuclear warhead weighing more than one tonne. The two together bring the entire Chinese mainland within India’s strike range. But it will take two to three more years for Agni V to be inducted into the armed forces. So is also true of our nuclear submarine Arihant. It will take another couple of years to be fully commissioned into the Navy. Its induction will complete the ‘nuclear triad’ India has been eagerly looking forward to, to be in place. All these will raise India’s threshold of deterrence vis-à-vis China. But deterrence capability is meaningless if it is not used to deter the enemy.

To be sure, the Chinese will not be able to hold on to their present positions during winter. Daulat Beg Oldi lies at the easternmost point of the Karakoram Range to the far north, just eight kms south of the Chinese border. During winter, the mercury falls to -30o C. It is an inhospitable barren land without any green cover. Communi-cation with the outside world is possible only through satellite phones. During winter the Chinese will not be able to maintain their supply. They will have to vacate their posts. But they will come back after the snow melts. India will have to make up its mind right now whether it will allow an unrelenting aggressor to nibble away India’s territory bit by bit and make it bolder and more aggressive. China has not concealed its intentions. Four years ago, it stated openly that its aim was to balkanise India into 20 to 30 smaller countries ‘in the interest of China’s security’.

Even if the worst comes to the worst, India has nothing to fear. It will fight a war to defend its independence and sovereignty. And howso-ever big or militarily and economicaly strong China may be, if it commits the monumental folly of embarking on a military misadventure against India, it will invite doom on itself. During our lifetime, in the second half of the last century, we saw tiny Vietnam humble the mighty imperialist power United States of America and force it to vacate its aggression and quit unceremoniously. Later we saw China sending its Army to Vietnam in 1979 only to face an ignominious defeat and be beaten black and blue. We saw the Soviet Union send its Army to Afghanistan to defend a friendly government only to make an inglorious exit after nearly ten long years (1979-89) when it realised it was fighting an unwinnable war that was draining the resources of the Soviet Union.

Not taking a lesson from the Soviet experience, the Americans committed the same mistake. In a rush of adrenalin after the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Centre, President George Bush ordered his Army to invade Afghanistan to teach a lesson to the Taliban who he thought were behind the WTC attack. After fighting an unwin-nabvle war that cost it, to quote Joseph Stiglitz, a trillion dollars and more and ruined the American economy, it has finally decided to get out out of that country by 2014-end, virtually leaving Hamid Karzai to the tender mercies of the same Taliban.

India is too vast a country to be conquered by any ambitious power greedy to gobble up its territory. The deeper will be the enemy’s penetration, the more vulnerable will be its lines of supply and communication. And it will not be just the armed forces but the entire people of India that will resist the aggressor. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should have faith in the ability of our armed forces. But more than that he should have faith in the indomitable, unvanquishable spirit of a nation of 1.2 billion people. There is no need for us to watch helplessly the enemy advance into our territory.

According to latest reports, the Chinese have vacated the posts they had set up in the Daulat Beg Oldi area, only after we agreed to remove our posts from the area. This is being hailed by our officials as a victory of Indian diplomacy. However, a nagging doubt remains. Have we, by accepting Chinese terms, given up the right to set up posts in our own territory, south of the LAC?

The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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