Tuesday, March 28, 2023
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Don’t give ITBP lead role at LAC, it will weaken local command. MHA-MoD turf war is hurting

Army has maintained control of the LAC since 1962. The ITBP, formed in 1962 to guard the Tibet border, has been at the frontline but under Delhi's remote command.

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The Ministry of Home Affairs is considering a bizarre move to make the Indo-Tibetan Border Police the primary force manning the Line of Actual Control with China, according to an article in The Economic Times. This will take away the Army from its frontline positions and replace it with ITBP troops. And in a potential flashpoint, they would be exposed to possible unequal scenarios vis-a-vis China’s People’s Liberation Army, therefore, potentially further complicating India’s boundary equation with China.

Multiple rounds of talks to resolve the issue of Chinese intrusion into India’s side of the LAC have yielded no signs of progress, but New Delhi thinks it fit to fiddle in the forces deployed to contain Beijing’s expansions. If the measure to give the primary role to the ITBP gets finalised by the Narendra Modi government, it is likely to worsen the situation from an already unequal scenario. And the ostensible reason behind the proposed move is even more inexplicable — ‘to avoid future conflicts between Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army’. This defies military logic, tactical knowledge of the terrain, and the tense situation that has been playing out since April 2020.

Not seeing eye to eye

While border management is the responsibility of the MHA, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) gets drawn in as well when the matter in concern is undemarcated boundaries. And a large part of India’s cartography involves borders that are still not internationally accepted. Managing these disputed zones is where the Army gets drawn in but without the full command and control of all national assets to ensure the sanctity of India’s boundaries. Egos, turf wars, and the perennial issue of bureaucratic empire-building remain at the forefront instead of a cohesive national operational plan managing these boundaries.

The MHA-MoD turf war has been an ongoing affair, especially involving the Assam Rifles and now the ITBP as well. As India’s oldest counter-insurgency force, the Assam Rifles has been fought over by both ministries for decades. Even as the MHA is the budgeting ministry for the Assam Rifles and provides police-like nomenclature for its ranks, operational control rests with the MoD. So, a serving Lieutenant General functions as a Director General supported by various Army officers donning police ranks. The MHA has wanted to wrest complete control of the paramilitary force from the MoD and appoint its own personnel to run it. But the operational scenario of the Northeast has ensured better sense prevails.

Operationally, the same should apply for the ITBP because its primary responsibility overlaps with that of the Army, and it has become that much more important ever since the LAC heated up in 2020 after decades of dormancy. There have been numerous calls by domain experts to develop enhanced Army-ITBP command and coordination, but they always face the spectre of MHA intransigence. So much so that even though both require similar high-altitude equipment, there is no common purchasing mechanism.

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Remote command is a problem

It is the Army that maintains the overall control of the LAC from India’s side, monitoring patrols and manning key points to keep a check on Chinese movements, and it has been this arrangement since the 1962 Indo-China War as is the wont in all such undemarcated boundary scenarios. The ITBP was raised in October 1962 to monitor the border with Tibet and has been at the frontline of deployment but not under the command and coordination with local military formations. The ITBP patrolling programme, for example, although shared with the Army, was always drawn out in the North Block, New Delhi. Such remote distance command and control is not a workable situation, especially given the undemarcated nature of the boundary and the likelihood of clashes with Chinese troops. For effective boundary management, there needs to be a local commander responsible for all national assets deployed.

Since boundary delineation disputes ultimately involve the Army, the most effective command and control mechanism would be to have all other national assets, military, police, or other civilian troops under the coordination of the senior-most local commander. This ensures efficient use of the workforce and eschews duplication and wastage of national resources. The pattern of LAC management has been anything but efficient with two ministries barely coordinating with each other in terms of budgeting and logistics. It is from how the monies are spent, after all, that national intention becomes clear — from spending on specialised equipment to expenditure on daily provisions.

While this duplicates purchases without enhancing the economy of scale, it also makes a mess of logistics management. At the scale of deployment now required in Ladakh, particularly, duplication of equipment means extra logistical burdens. High-altitude deployment is a logistician’s nightmare, for weather and other factors keep extracting a heavy toll both on the workforce and equipment. Managing all that specialised equipment drawn from multiple sources requires that much more effort at store-keeping. Alternatively, single command and control ensure that scarce national resources are not wasted on duplicated efforts and avoid wastage on account of maintenance costs.

Should the MHA succeed in pushing its case for the ITBP to take the lead role along the LAC, it would require a lot more workforce. Besides lacking the structure and organisational capabilities to tackle conflict situations, the ITBP doesn’t have the troop strength for an enhanced role either. Raising more ITBP battalions then poses a question: Why are budgetary constraints imposed only on armed forces recruitment with a short-term Agniveer formula and not on a Central Armed Police Force (CAPF)? India obviously seems to think that the CAPF is more important for its security than the armed forces that have always pulled its chestnuts out of the fires.

Manvendra Singh is a Congress leader, Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert and Chairman, Soldier Welfare Advisory Committee, Rajasthan. He tweets @ManvendraJasol. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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