Can war and pestilence come together? A pandemic is already upon us, akin to a haemorrhage for the body of systems and resources that make up a nation. A war is no less severe: the blood loss it entails is of another (if equally real) sort; the debility it causes gradually leaches into the economy too. Can the body even take two extreme stressors, two co-morbidities, at once? India came close to testing that proposition this week, with the violent India-China face-off at Galwan in eastern Ladakh making world headlines. No bullets were fired, but so blood-soaked was the episode that it was described as the biggest military confrontation between the two countries in over five decades. Even as New Delhi claimed military and diplomatic engagement had de-escalated a testy situation, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, armed with iron rods and batons wrapped in barbed wire, attacked Indian troops in an unprecedented and brutal combat, killing 20 of them.
Several deaths also occurred as soldiers fell off the cliffs that line the narrow Galwan valley into the river. Troops had massed on narrow ridges for close combat, caused mudslides and cave-ins at altitudes of 15,000 feet. Most of the soldiers had bruises and blunt but fatal injuries. Some of them died by drowning in the freezing waters of Galwan river, which flows from Aksai Chin into Ladakh. Initial reports had also spoken of an unspecified number of Indian soldiers missing after the bloody fracas, but the Indian Army on Thursday said all soldiers were accounted for. The PLA’s unconfirmed casualties range between 35-40; China has admitted to losing men, without specifying the number.
The Indian government, for long conspicuously guarded in its response to the Galwan issue, has been forced to open up in the face of criticism by Opposition parties. In his first public statement on the PLA attack during his video conference with chief ministers on June 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed that the sacrifices of soldiers, who fought till their last breath, will not be in vain. “India wants peace but is capable of giving a befitting reply if provoked,” he said.
With reports of frontier infractions by the PLA filtering in for over a month, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been consistently questioning the government about Ladakh and asking if the Chinese had occupied Indian territory. Now, after India has lost 20 soldiers, references are being made to the asymmetry in response compared to other episodes: the surgical strike and air-strike against Pakistan after the Uri and Pulwama terror attacks, respectively.
Colonel B. Santosh Babu, 8 Bihar Regiment, and a native of Telangana’s Suryapet district, was among 19 Indian soldiers killed by Chinese troops in the Galwan clash.
India had launched surgical strikes across the LoC when 19 soldiers lost their lives in the Uri attack of 2016. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweeted on June 16: “Herein lies the problem with a very public ownership (in a marked departure from previous governments) of the surgical strikes after Uri and Pulwama. How does one react to soldiers’ deaths in Ladakh at the hands of a much stronger force without appearing weak or reckless?” Like many others, Omar was questioning the promise of muscular nationalism that the BJP-led government had held out to the Indian public. Saffron party leaders and even spokespersons had been asked to refrain from commenting on the China standoff that was on since end-April. Even home minister Amit Shah did not make any reference to China during his virtual rally on June 8, when he said after the US and Israel, India was the only country capable of protecting its borders, and went on to mention the surgical strikes and the airstrikes against Pakistan.
After the violent June 15 face-off, cautious voices have started coming from the BJP, saying it is actually a marker of the government’s proactive policy with regard to protecting its borders and building infrastructure and roads. Party president J.P. Nadda tweeted: “The borders of India are and will remain intact under the prime-ministership of Shri @narendramodi…” The message from the party is that while there will be restraint in statements, there will be no let-up on the ground. B.L. Santosh, general secretary (organisation), tweeted: “The Indian forces have engaged in an unprecedented face-off with Chinese troops in Galwan valley & Pangong Tso in Leh region. Indian efforts at building infrastructure on a never-before scale increased Chinese worries….”
Foreign policy and defence experts explain the apprehension with which India engages with China as against Pakistan. Strategic and foreign policy analyst Seshadri Chari believes it is because of the economic and military asymmetry between the two countries. “The China-India military asymmetry is the other side of India-Pakistan military asymmetry,” he explains. However, the situation is changing. “Indian navy is stronger than the Chinese. Indian air power can also inflict damage on China but China still has the advantage in land warfare,” he adds. A military advisor, not wanting to be identified, says it is not just a trait of this government: all previous governments, including Congress ones, have been reticent when it comes to talking about such developments with China. “I remember asking a Congress minister to raise a China-related issue in Parliament, he outright refused.”
India is wary of China because of historical mistrust and also recent happenings, like a similar standoff in Doklam in 2017. That occurred around the same time-span that witnessed global developments related to China, including America’s ill-advised pull-out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This time too, the Ladakh conflict comes against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic sparking a renewed burst of Sino-US animus.
Two to Tango?
PM Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping had an informal summit at Mamallapuram, near Chennai, in October 2019. Both have met at least 18 times since Modi became PM in 2014.Chinese troops.
“While people were reading the tea-leaves about China’s next move, there came the informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and Xi Jingping in Wuhan and the do’s and don’ts were put in place. However, the so-called Wuhan spirit was destroyed even before the ink on the agreement could dry,” says Chari, an RSS ideologue. He recounts the fact that the Chinese president confirmed his visit to Mamallapuram only 48 hours before the scheduled date. “China follows a hit-and-run strategy. Their whole idea is to create as many pockets for bartering as possible in what is the ‘early harvest’ theory for a border solution, where the border is not taken in its entirety but in smaller pieces,” explains Chari.
Former army chief General V.P. Malik calls it “salami slicing”. The general, who led India to victory in the Kargil war, dismisses all comparisons between Galwan and the 1999 conflict with Pakistan. “Kargil was on a much larger front; this is localised in Galwan valley. Even the political and military objective was quite different. India’s relations with both the countries are on a different plane, being more extensive with China,” Gen Malik tells Outlook. However, escalation can have serious consequences, he cautions. “If there is a larger conflict with China, it will affect India’s huge areas of interaction with China—much higher than any possible impact vis-à-vis Pakistan,” he says.
He welcomes the interaction between external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi over the phone in which India reiterated that the “unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship.” Jaishankar urged the Chinese side to reassess its actions and take corrective steps. Gen Malik suggests the first and foremost condition must be that China withdraws to the original LAC. “The two neighbours must discuss how to avoid such incidents in the future. The LAC must be delineated on the map to avoid such confrontations,” he says. “The effort should be to avoid a war but if it cannot be avoided, we have to be fully prepared,” he adds.
By all accounts, India is not taking any chances. To begin with, the government has decided to engage with Opposition parties to send the message that the country stands united at this hour. An all-party meeting on June 19 marks that unity. Former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha, though, says the government should have reached out to the Opposition much earlier. “This is the first thing the late Atal Behari Vajpayee would have done…two months ago. The Opposition should have been taken into confidence earlier, especially since Parliament is not in session,” he tells Outlook. Sinha also expresses concern that this the first time China is claiming sovereignty over Galwan, a territory on the Indian side since 1962.
Naib Subedar Satnam Singh’s funeral procession at his village in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district
The PLA’s trespassing into Indian territory and securing of heights in the Galwan river area makes the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) Road vulnerable. The PLA had promised disengagement and retreat to original positions during military-level talks; instead it erected fresh tents at a vantage position on the south bank of the Galwan river. The position atop Galwan valley is also known as Patrol Point 14. It overlooks the DSDBO road, just 5 km away; the Galwan river, flowing westerly through the narrow valley, joins the river Shyok. The Indian army asked the Chinese to remove the tents, as agreed during the talks. However, the Chinese refused to comply, resulting in an altercation and violent clash. “It cannot grab by force any territory that belongs to India. My advice to the government is not to go by the 1962 example but by the 1967 military engagement at Nathu La in Sikkim. The Chinese did the same thing in Nathu La but we held on to the territory. We must recover the lost territory that China has occupied,” Sinha tells Outlook.
Nathu La was the last major military engagement between the two armies: 88 Indian soldiers had lost their lives, and over 300 PLA soldiers were killed. India and China have signed various agreements since 1993 for maintaining peace and tranquility on the border. But over the years, China has liked to keep things in a tenuous flux. Sinha warns that India and China share a 3,500-km-long border and things could heat up in other sectors like Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh. “India has to be prepared. There are areas where we have tactical advantage; in others China has the edge. We have to defend where we don’t have tactical advantage and put pressure where we have the edge. It has to be tit for tat,” the former minister says.
According to sources, India has started moving additional troops, heavy artillery and weapons to Ladakh and also to its other borders with China. The navy ships are also moving and the air force is galvanised too. “It is going to be a long haul for the troops in the inhospitable terrain and weather as the deadlock continues in Galwan valley, with both sides continuing to hold their positions. The major general-level talks between the two sides are so far inconclusive,” a senior government officer says.
Defence strategy expert Brahma Chellaney says India has been beating around the bush for a month, not facing up to the reality of Chinese aggression. “Analysts have been saying no military aggression possible, but PLA prepared for war. This is a watershed moment which will force India to review its China policy and reorient its defence policy. India has been losing territory to China over the years through China’s incremental aggression. It has been nibbling at Indian territory but what has happened since late-April marks a major escalation on China’s part,” he says. According to him, India extended a hand of friendship to China. “Prime Minister Modi went out of his way to befriend China and it has repaid India by brazen aggression in Ladakh.”