It has been exactly one week since 20 Indian soldiers, including the commanding officer of the 16 Bihar Regiment, Col Santosh Babu, were killed in action on the icy heights of the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in a face-off with Chinese PLA soldiers.
But in this one week, in marked contrast to the sombre funerals of the Indian soldiers, attended both by the military and political brass, not one Chinese media publication has talked about either the number of Chinese casualties, their funerals or posted any account of what happened on the night of 15 June.
One wonders if the Xi Jinping government is afraid of telling the truth to its own people about why and how PLA soldiers were martyred.
In India, on the other hand, the chaotic nature of democracy has rescued the deliberately muddled messages from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 19 June all-party meeting, in which he said that no one entered Indian territory or had occupied any border post.
Not just any clash
Three anonymous accounts of the 15 June clash – here, here and here – describe in gory detail not just the raw courage of Indian soldiers as they fought the Chinese with bare hands when they saw their Commanding Officer fall, but how they pursued their enemy, not once but twice, into the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to teach them a lesson they will never forget.
In other words, without firing a weapon, Indian soldiers conducted a “surgical strike” into Chinese-held territory. They were defending their honour, their Commanding Officer’s honour and that of their regiment, 16 Bihar. Patriotic notions of securing “Bharat Mata” may have come much later.
Two messages have gone out into the world, as a result of this bloody and brutal clash.
The first, that a non-Western power, born and raised on the backs of exploited people, commanding respect precisely because it was able to pull millions out of economic misery, is bullying a fellow non-Western nation, also an ancient civilisation, for a few square kilometres of disputed territory.
For a nation that quotes the Opium Wars and discards pacts with colonial powers like Britain, for example in HongKong, with contemptuous ease, China shows little sensitivity towards a fellow Asian power. It’s clear that its view of the world doesn’t allow both sides to win. So there was never a second thought when it took Aksai Chin in 1962 and humiliated both India and then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the bargain.
Letting Aksai Chin go
Aksai Chin was key to controlling far-flung territories like Muslim-majority Xinjiang and Buddhist-majority Tibet – a road was subsequently built that cut across Aksai Chin, connecting both provinces.
And India kept quiet over the decades.
In the wake of the integration of Jammu and Kashmir into the Union last year, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar travelled to Beijing to tell the Chinese that the reorganisation of India’s map was only intended for domestic purposes — meaning, India would not challenge China’s control over Aksai Chin.
Truth is, every PM since Nehru has known that India will never be able to take back Aksai Chin. By now even PM Modi knows that – perhaps he hoped, like Nehru, that the two Asian powers would showcase their similarities rather than their differences to the world.
Only Manmohan Singh understood that another way had to be found — he was the only one willing to put his hand into the dragon’s lair. So, in 2005, when Delhi and Beijing signed a pact to resolve the boundary dispute, the “guiding principles”essentially suggested a quid pro quo — China would keep the Western Sector, meaning Aksai Chin, and India would keep the Eastern Sector, meaning Arunachal Pradesh (including Tawang).
But then China grew stronger and more powerful, stopped talking about the pact, and essentially withdrew from it.
The bond that worries China
So why did China agree to sign the pact in the first place? Because of Manmohan Singh’s decision to grow closer to the US, a process started by his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Chinese realised that together, India and the US posed a real challenge to its growing might.
By the time it withdrew from the pact, China’s self-image as a powerful nation striding to the roof of the world — even as America’ went on a decline — had become even stronger. As for India, it would not stay neutral and accept its place as a lesser power in the hierarchy of nations, subservient to China.
China’s repeated intrusions across the LAC and its repeated refusal to settle the boundary dispute with India is another manifestation of this arrogance: India must be shown its place, must be told that it cannot rely on the US support to expand its sphere of influence.
Galwan’s unintended consequence
The second message of the Galwan clash is actually a consequence. Instead of fear, Indian soldiers are now far more confident of asserting their place; they have taught the world’s most powerful nation a lesson, not with nuclear weapons or guns, but with pure courage.
This is not Kargil 2.0, but the 21st century version of it. And Pakistan has been replaced by China.
Significantly, the credit for the 15 June clash will devolve on PM Modi. India really doesn’t care whether the press releases from his all-party meeting were muddled or not – the simple fact is that the soldiers gave the Chinese a bloody nose. And this happened under Modi’s watch.
This also means that Modi will now gravitate towards nations that will help safeguard India against China – and there is only one nation with that kind of power today, the US.
That’s why the Galwan clash is a turning point. It is the night India finally realised it needs new friends.
Views are personal.