Never in the history of free India has the country seen such difficult times and over such a prolonged period. The challenges are unprecedented. While the nation is struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, a sudden flare-up with China on the Line of Actual Control has added to our problems. In the scuffle that followed, 20 of our Army personnel lost their lives and possibly more than 40 Chinese soldiers were killed.
The skirmish at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and particularly the loss of Indian combatants, has caused a storm in India. It certainly irks to read articles flinging pernicious comments and unbridled criticism of the Narendra Modi government and the military at such a sensitive juncture. Are we really accusing them of having the blood of the soldiers on their hands? Such comments are bound to make an impression on the minds of our adversaries. It also seems unfair that assumptions and conjectures have been made quoting failures from 60 years ago. Today, it is not difficult to extract historical data and maps from Google with just the press of a button. We are playing into the Chinese hands when we lament the debacle of the 1962 war. Such outbursts make the Chinese look 12-feet tall.
The Modi government and the military have certainly been aware of what the Chinese were doing, but intentions are always unpredictable, including our own. China and India are vastly different today than they were 60 years ago. There have been generational changes among people, leadership, military and above all – technology available. It is the attitude of the nation that is most important. China, being Communist-ruled, has no problem controlling information. With misinformation, or even incomplete information, we have a large number of people in India willingly playing into their hands. The Chinese are our adversary. Our kith and kin are facing them eye to eye at the borders.
India is prepared
We forget that those at the helm of affairs — be in the military or the government — have access to a continuous flow of data up-to-date. Thousands of staff and hundreds of serving Generals are working across India to keep information updated in real-time without missing any facts. They have a huge responsibility to ensure that their brethren and machines are well prepared to fight a war and that every bit of national security information is well protected.
It is usual for the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to examine the situation along with the military commanders, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) as many times as required before directing action. We will never get to know the discussions held behind those closed doors, the stance that they took and the rationale for the choices that were made on 15-16 June until they are revealed by the relevant authorities. We will also never know what the military’s intentions are or of their strategy until after the event (Balakot strike was an example). Nothing of operational significance can be known outside the forts of the military and the government.
Today, India’s military is being led by brilliant men and women who are far better professionals, by virtue of their exposure and responsibilities, than their predecessors, and are supported by an astonishing range of technology about which the public and veterans may not be aware of. Our combatants have proved worthy, and far more prepared than their predecessors were. Elements of surprise and fall back options are always embedded in all military plans. They also have the advantage of learning from history, from the finest of traditions and experiences and global exposure — our veterans may have missed much of it. India may have been surprised at the start of the Kargil war, but we stood steadfast and won that war. No one doubts India’s military ability. Why then throw winds at the unknowing and impressionable public?
Today, some are blaming the government for not striking at the Chinese before they built their strength in Galwan and Pangong areas, but we don’t know all the facts. Such an action, if taken, could well be perceived as a knee-jerk reaction. It is the government’s prerogative to take a stand, to strike when it decides or to stand down. For now, the answer is to wait patiently. Thousands of brave warriors are at the borders following military directions. We must reflect similar faith and trust in our leadership.
To pressure the government from our drawing rooms is an extremely irresponsible act. We can never imagine the state of mind of a combatant fighting hand to hand to kill (otherwise be killed) at 15,000 feet, on a slippery slope covered by boulders and pebbles, with a river at the bottom that will freeze anyone falling to death within minutes – and, all these at night. It requires enormous courage and strength.
I fit the category of ‘veterans group’. I believe, with good reasons, that the current crop of Chinese soldiers and leadership do not have the combat experience their Indian counterparts do and are very conscious of it. The Indian Army is rated superior in mountain warfare. The Indian Air Force operates combat aircraft of better capabilities and with far greater skills than those that the Chinese Air Force can deploy against India. Our pilots have trained with global partners in Europe, the US, Australia, UAE, Oman, Singapore and Israel. We can fight very well with what we have and we are in far better shape than we were at the beginning of Operation Parakram in 2002.
Preparing for an operation
The compulsion to use the military invariably arises when least expected. Severe budgetary constraints add to our woes. The situation was similar when we were ready to launch Op Parakram in 2002 after the terrorist attack on Parliament. In 2001-02, I was present in many of the CCS meetings that were held to decide on the starting date and the course of Op Parakram.
All these meetings were attended by the prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, four senior-most ministers, the PMO, the three military chiefs and heads of R&AW and IB. There were many issues discussed by the CCS before approving military operations, such as preventing escalation, minimising collateral damage, avoiding loss to civilian lives/ property/ industries, impact on the nation’s economy and foreign relations. Objectives of the mission were also laid out. Certain states had to extend support and those likely to be affected were informed. Special directives were given to the Railways and civil aviation. Cabinet approval was necessary to stop or block certain airways. Civil defence was organised. Each service chief was expected to share their views on all these and also project the attrition that their own forces were likely to suffer. Replenishment would have to be planned and special financial powers given.
Such deliberations give a final definition of the strategy and tactics to be adopted by the military. All these are established practices that get continually refined.
Over the last few days, I am inclined to believe that all the crying loud on television about the precious loss of life of our soldiers and officers were mere antics and politics at play. Military honour does not expect tears to be shed. I conclude with a simple request: to show solidarity with the military and to trust them and the government in these difficult times. Be proud Indians.
The author is a retired Air Chief Marshal, who was Chief of Staff, Indian Air Force, 2001-2004. Views are personal.