New Delhi: The Chinese action at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh in June — which came months after a joint military exercise between the Indian and Chinese armies — bears a resemblance to the Kargil attack of 1999, former 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen. P.J.S. Pannu said.
The Leh-headquartered 14 Corps is the only corps in the Indian Army that faces both Pakistan and China. The world’s highest battlefield Siachen falls under its purview.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, Pannu said back then in 1999, the Pakistani Army was planning an attack on India despite multiple confidence-building measures taken in the months before it.
He added that the standoff with China was a surprise because both armies had held a joint “hand-in-hand” military exercise just months ago in December.
“When the two armies are doing an exercise as part of the confidence-building measures and one is planning to launch an attack on the other, it is a similar story as Kargil when the Pakistani Army soldiers, in the guise of freedom fighters, were planning to occupy areas in Kargil, despite the past confidence-building measures,” he said.
Months before the Kargil conflict broke out, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif had also hugged each other at the Wagah border, during the former’s visit to Lahore.
‘Borders are better if policed’
The former 14 Corps Commander also brought out the difference between the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and the LAC with China. At the LAC, he said, the two armies do not defend borders but dominate them.
“You dominate through patrolling and therefore you talk about patrol points,” he said. “If you were defending, it would become the LoC, where the troops will be eyeball to eyeball 24×7 and all 365 days.”
Asked if Ladakh should have an additional permanent division, he said the answer was “yes and no”.
“To go in for a force accretion is easy, but the consequences would amount to asking your adversaries to build up,” he said. “So when the build-up happens on both sides, you are militarising the area as mirror movements will happen.”
He, however, said with two nuclear armed nations, “it is not desirable” to militarise the borders to a point that could result in a military accident and disaster more easily.
The former corps commander also said these borders are better policed as opposed to hardcore military deployment, but added that policing can only happen when there is better understanding and maturity between the two.
“It can only happen to settle the boundary question amicably so that there is no ambiguity in the understanding of the two militaries on the border alignment,” Pannu said.
‘For Chinese, coming in during winter is more convenient’
Pannu, who has served in the area in 2016-17, said the terrain on the Chinese side of the LAC gave their troops an advantage as the ground is not only more open but also has thin snow levels. He added that the Chinese have built better infrastructure and have been doing so over a period of time.
“As a result, armed and other vehicles that are centrally heated can come in more quickly. During the winters, it hardly snows in that area,” he said. “So, their side of the passes are always open and to that extent, their chances of coming into those areas during winters is more convenient and more possible.”
On the Indian side, however, he added, snow levels are more and the areas are hilly, resulting in Indian troops having to navigate tougher terrain and weather. Therefore, Pannu said, the Indian Army is better equipped to sustain in such high-altitude areas having an advantage over the PLA.
“Mountains favour the defender… our troops are located on high ranges,” he added.
To fight a conventional battle in the mountains, the former corps commander said, both sides will have to build huge infrastructure because of the complications of fighting in high altitude.
‘Interpretation difficulties prolong corps commanders’ meets’
In the backdrop of the recent Indian and Chinese corps commanders’ meetings, one of which lasted nearly 15 hours, Pannu said if both spoke the same language, the duration would be reduced to half or even to one third of the time.
“The Chinese speak in metaphors. When you convert metaphoric language into direct language, you can miss something said or unsaid,” he said.
The discussions do not usually always take place on one map, he said.
“The Chinese have their own maps and we do not agree with how they are made and the lines drawn. To start talking the same thing at the same level of understanding takes very long, therefore making the reference to the same points on ground takes a long time,” he said.
According to Pannu, the Chinese often talk about historical records and keep pulling out maps after maps, even misquoting Indian Army senior officers’ past statements to keep substantiating their point of view.
They often keep justifying action of troops, covering up their miscalculations made by their own subordinate commanders on ground, he said.
“In the absence of an overwatch, which itself is not a good idea, the two Asian nations should sort out the disagreements between themselves amicably and in a mature way,” he said.
“If all of a sudden you increase the frequency of patrols, they would get rattled and come to the hotline and ask why we are sending a patrol everyday or every second day,” he said.
Pannu also said retrograde operations are always more complicated.
“There is a trust deficit between the two sides on ground and a military commander on ground would not want to leave the ground to be occupied by the opponent,” he said.
So there is always going to be a delay because the commanders would want to make sure that there is a clean break between the two opposing forces.
“It is a transition which can take a long time,” Pannu said. “Judgements cannot be made frequently on who is winning or losing. These movements are deliberate, slow and have to be carried with a lot of caution.”