Wednesday, May 18, 2022

After Galwan Face-off, Plugging The Fault Lines Is Imperative For United India

From the outset of the face-offs in Ladakh in early May, there has been a vacuum of information, giving scope to incorrect narratives gaining much traction.

After Galwan Face-off, Plugging The Fault Lines Is Imperative For United India
An army convoy moves along the Srinagar-Leh National highway, in Ganderbal district of Central Kashmir. Twenty army personnel including a colonel were killed during a clash with Chinese troops in Galwan Valley of the eastern Ladakh region on Monday night. PTI Photo

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held the much awaited ‘All Party Meeting’ via video conference on June19 to discuss the situation in the India-China border region. Presidents of various political parties participated in the meeting.

Let us briefly recount the points made by the Prime Minister at the All-Party Meeting, as given out in the Press Information Bureau (PIB) release:

• Twenty of our brave soldiers made the supreme sacrifice in Ladakh but also taught a lesson to those who dared look towards our motherland.
• Neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured.
• India wants peace and friendship, but upholding sovereignty is foremost.
• Armed forces have been given a free hand to take all necessary steps.
• Government has given primacy to development of border area infrastructure to make our borders more secure.
• All necessary steps for national security and construction of infrastructure will continue at a fast pace.
• Leaders of political parties’ express commitment to stand united with the government and repose faith in the leadership of PM.

Many observers picked on the point ‘Neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured’, and said it was erroneous and tantamount to conceding territory to China. Others raised questions on why the incident on June 15 had to happen if the PLA had not come inside Indian territory.

On June 20, another government press release followed with clarifications. The PIB release is reproduced ad verbatim below:

“Attempts are being made in some quarters to give a mischievous interpretation to remarks by the Prime Minister at the All-Party Meeting (APM) yesterday.

Prime Minister was clear that India would respond firmly to any attempts to transgress the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In fact, he specifically emphasized that in contrast to the past neglect of such challenges, Indian forces now decisively counter any violations of LAC (“unhe rokte hain, unhe tokte hain”).

The APM was also informed that this time, Chinese forces have come in much larger strength to the LAC and that the Indian response is commensurate. As regards transgression of LAC, it was clearly stated that the violence in Galwan on 15 June arose because Chinese side was seeking to erect structures just across the LAC and refused to desist from such actions.

The focus of the PM’s remarks in the APM discussions were the events of 15 June at Galwan that led to the loss of lives of 20 Indian military personnel. Prime Minister paid glowing tributes to the valour and patriotism of our armed forces who repulsed the designs of the Chinese there. The Prime Minister’s observations that there was no Chinese presence on our side of the LAC pertained to the situation as a consequence of the bravery of our armed forces. The sacrifices of the soldiers of the 16 Bihar Regiment foiled the attempt of the Chinese side to erect structures and also cleared the attempted transgression at this point of the LAC on that day.

The words of Prime Minister “Those who tried to transgress our land were taught a befitting lesson by our brave sons of soil”, succinctly summed up the ethos and the values of our armed forces. The Prime Minister further emphasised, “I want to assure you, that our armed forces will leave no stone unturned to protect our borders”.

What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India. This Government is strongly and resolutely committed to that. Insofar as there is some illegal occupation, the APM was briefed in great detail how over the last 60 years, more than 43,000 has been yielded under circumstances with which this country is well aware. It was also made clear that this Government will not allow any unilateral change of the LAC.

At a time when our brave soldiers are defending our borders, it is unfortunate that an unnecessary controversy is being created to lower their morale. However, the predominant sentiment at the All Party Meeting was of unequivocal support to the Government and the armed forces at a time of national crisis. We are confident that the unity of the Indian people will not be undermined by motivated propaganda.”

In today’s world of television tickers and tweets, the Friday evening media frenzy is hardly surprising. We are in an information age, trying to simultaneously manage impatience and an insatiable appetite for news. Not to forget the multiple cut-throat competitions happening concomitantly, with commentaries carrying criticism that attracts more attention than others.

From the outset of the face-offs in early May, there has been a vacuum of information, giving scope to incorrect narratives gaining much traction. Resultantly, the All-Party Meeting on Friday came almost like the first rain on a parched field. The first few droplets of information went up in the air in no time, with critics having little patience for understanding the whole content or context.

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It is important to recognise that the information environment in India and China are diametrically opposite. In India, freedom of expression is bordering the ultimate. In China, on the one hand, there is complete opacity, on the other hand a strong propaganda machine is constantly at work, targeting both domestic and international audience. China is looking for fault lines in our system to manipulate them to its advantage. These controversies avoidable as they are, provide ready fodder to the Chinese. In fact, it would be worthwhile to take a cue from the unequivocal solidarity expressed by leaders of the political parties.

After the humiliating defeat in the 1999 Kargil War in western Ladakh, Pakistan’s greatest lament was that they lost the information war. It would be a good idea to take a leaf from the history of Kargil and conduct regular briefings by professionals from the armed forces, diplomats and others as required. There would be correct and incorrect interpretations of facts, which is understandable. But the fact that the source of information is an authentic platform, will help strengthen the system. More than anything else, it will boost the morale of frontline troops.

The current contention with China is about the ‘Line of Actual Control’ or LAC, which is a misnomer, with complex historical twists. The LAC is neither delineated, nor demarcated, and therefore, open to interpretation. It’s a flaw that China is trying to exploit, quoting multiple ‘claim lines’ arbitrarily. The violent faceoffs underscore the perils of guarding borders that are neither etched, nor agreed upon.

Over the years the LAC has been managed through a series of protocols, agreements, and confidence building measures. These border management arrangements were put in place in the hope that the border issue will be resolved, sooner rather than later. There has been a series of breach of trust and violation of agreements by China, leading to aggressive and violent conduct that climaxed in the Galwan incident, revealing the untenability of these arrangements.

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The Army has given a befitting response at Galwan and will continue to do so in the future. The armed forces are well poised to up the ante. China is at a disadvantage because majority of its formations have to mobilise from the interiors of Western China to come to Tibet and Xinjiang. In air power too there are serious limitations for China, on account of high altitude and number of air bases available. One thing that we must, therefore, guard against is not getting into traps of prolonged negotiations that give China more time to improve its posture.

The Government’s intent and commitment has been amply clarified for now: “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India”, and the “Government will not allow any unilateral change of the LAC”.

The larger question is how do we agree upon the border with China? Finding an answer to this fundamental question, irrespective of the path chosen – consultation, confrontation, or conflict – calls for a very high level of national consensus and unity.

There are multiple options, in time and space, to raise the costs for China’s misadventure, and achieve our aims. Now that China is faced with India’s tough military stance, it is imperative that other elements of power like diplomacy, commerce, and politics, come together, for a united India.

(The author is a Member, of National Security Advisory Board, former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Kashmir Corps Commander. Views expressed are personal.)