It is said that political power is a psychological relationship between those who exercise it and those over whom it is exercised. That said, creating alternative realities for its citizens may have become the government’s preferred method to manage domestic cognition as China continues its aggression on our northern border. Statements and actions of the head honchos of India’s Statecraft indicate that though they have succeeded in preserving political ascendency in the domestic sphere, they may have conceded psychological dominance to China. If so, does it augur well for India’s ability to perform in growing geopolitical contestations?
The recent statement of Foreign Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, where he said it was “common sense not to pick a fight with China” as it is “a bigger economy”, could be symptomatic of conceding ground in this psychological war. It is worth recounting that it was China that picked a fight with India and that, ultimately, it is military power that will safeguard territorial integrity. Economic power does not fight, per se. And while military power has to be supported economically, it derives its main strength from terrain, morale, leadership, doctrine, organisational structures, operational ingenuity, innovative tactics and optimal utilisation of scarce assets, particularly human resources. Also, power is a relational variable, and China has weightier adversaries to confront.
From western to northern borders, the Army is trying to rebalance and restructure to Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs). But the Ministry of Home Affairs seems to be living in an alternate reality. One where it can manage the Chinese threat by having the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approve the raising of seven additional battalions for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). These battalions will man 47 new border outposts and 12 staging camps in Arunachal Pradesh and sector headquarters. The raisings entail the recruitment of 9,400 personnel.
Besides the fact that the ITBP already has 4,443 personnel deficiencies against a sanctioned strength of nearly 90,000, the raisings and their deployment raise doctrinal issues. What methodology should safeguard territorial integrity on the northern border, which stretches nearly 3,000 kilometres, from Ladakh’s Karakoram pass to Arunachal Pradesh’s Jachep La? Primarily, deployment must support operational objectives derived from assessing China’s political aims.
China is forcing India to waste resources
It should be clear to India’s strategic planners that after a long period of creating infrastructure and military wherewithal in Tibet, China is using the boundary dispute instrumentally to force India to expend its valuable resources. This move is part of its larger strategy to contain India in the sub-continent and inhibit the growth of its maritime power. In territorial terms, salami slicing is its preferred methodology. There is no reason why China should embark on any large offensive at the cost of ambitious pursuits like the takeover of Taiwan.
Operationally, this can be better countered by technology-based surveillance and small groups of foot soldiers. It can also be addressed by applying military power offensively—albeit in a limited manner—to occupy unoccupied and always available territories. Like India, China, too, cannot occupy permanent posts along this vast border. Therefore, the ITBP raising seven more battalions is doctrinally questionable and worse, misses the larger picture of geopolitical power play.
Evidently, the MHA is disconnected from the repercussions of its actions. It seems to be living in the pre-1962 era that favoured Jawaharlal Nehru’s disastrous forward policy, where India tried to establish ‘forward posts’ to reclaim Chinese-occupied territory. But what is indeed unacceptable is this: How is it that the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and Ministry of Defence (MoD) signed on these raisings and agreed to the MHA’s operational logic? Is it a case of a powerful Home Minister having his way because he gets a free run to enlarge his turf?
The MHA is also examining the possibility of relieving the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) from some areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, the Army has already reassigned some RR battalions to Ladakh. There is, therefore, a case for shifting some more RR units, especially from the Jammu region to Arunachal Pradesh, to relieve the regular infantry from its ground-holding role. It can then be kept ready to take over not-held territory if and when China resorts to salami slicing. Apart from supporting doctrinal requirements, such moves would optimise the use of existing resources.
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Lack of coordination is evident
What is evident is the lack of coordination in national security management. This is despite the creation of mechanisms like NSCS to ensure integrated planning and coordinated application of national resources to achieve objectives distilled from geopolitical vectors and national interests for shaping policies based on a strategy informed by the means available. Such intellectual processes are expected to provide political and strategic guidance to ministries and departments to create and utilise the many instruments that can be wielded against the adversary’s aggressive and coercive moves.
The CCS approval for raising the seven ITBP battalions indicates that the MHA and MoD do not appear to have a common perspective on managing the border with China. The Army and ITBP report to different ministries is a recipe for disaster that calls for rectification, as the unity of Command, which is a basic principle of military power, is being sacrificed.
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Getting collaboration right
Inter-ministerial coordination is never an easy task. The MoD must be given the lead agency status as the India-China border is active, and all other forces must be placed under its jurisdiction. Unless one believes it is not active and ongoing negotiations at various levels will keep the peace.
During a recent visit to Dwaki, an integrated checkpost on the Meghalaya-Bangladesh Border, the author was surprised to note that a Border Security Force (BSF) personnel was equipped with an Israeli Tavor assault rifle. Why would the MHA want to utilise the Tavor in a relatively peaceful border crossing? For sure, it would serve a better purpose if it was given to the ITBP. While this may be an isolated instance, it is probably symptomatic of the MHA’s poor management of national resources.
Considering the government’s growing grip over the media space, the present establishment could paint rosy pictures on the cognitive maps of our citizens. But it will certainly not prevent China from exerting periodic pressure to suck up our national energies and slow down India’s progress. The MHA, for sure, is missing the wood for the trees, while other stakeholders are acting as silent spectators.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)