It is a national shame that one Colonel and 19 soldiers have been killed in action while many more injured in a “fist and club” non-military action with the Chinese PLA in the Galwan River Valley. There are unconfirmed reports of 43 PLA casualties.
Ironically, it was at Galwan River Valley, 80 km upstream from the current Line of Actual Control (LAC), near Samzungling, that a military confrontation took place before the 1962 war on 4 July when a platoon of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles was surrounded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The post remained under siege thereafter and was maintained by Mi 4 helicopters. A company of 5 Jat was inducted by helicopters from 4-12 October to relieve this platoon. On 20 October, this company fought a heroic action at the Galwan post with 36 out of the total 68 soldiers being killed in action. Interestingly, the route to this post then used to be via Hot Springs- Kongka La area and not from the Shyok river. Just compare the heroic 1962 operations with the current fiasco.
The writing for the latest tragedy was on the wall. Beginning April end, the PLA had intruded at multiple points across the LAC in Eastern Ladakh with a clear strategic intent to trigger a border incident to impose China’s hegemony on India and stop further development of border infrastructure in sensitive areas, which threaten Aksai Chin.
Unprofessional political and military response to the crisis
The political and military response was surreal. Focus remained on domestic politics. Denial and obfuscation were the principal tools. The crisis was handled as a border management problem — a pattern we have become used to seeing after Depsang 2013, Chumar 2014 and Doklam 2017 — and not as a military operation to contest the preemptive tactical offensive undertaken by the PLA.
India missed the obvious signals: the deployment of regular PLA troops — all arms formations; build-up of reserves in the rear; precautionary build-up all along the LAC; the choice of areas of intrusion — our vulnerabilities; and seizure of the heights at places of intrusion. India’s intent was to dare and call the Chinese bluff.
But it is this approach that resulted in the horrendous spectacle of the commanding officer of a unit being clubbed to death in full view of his troops. The military hierarchy itself failed in its professional responsibility to advise the government to use force as per professional norms. The blood of these soldiers is on the hands of the government and the military hierarchy.
The 1996 border management agreement does lay down norms to exercise restraint in use of weapons during LAC confrontations. But that is an agreement for border policing in normal times and not during military operations which were ongoing in the intrusion areas. The agreement does not lay down any restrictions on carriage of weapons. Moreover, when the lives of soldiers or territory is threatened by the enemy, the commander on the spot can use all weapons at his disposal, including artillery fire. The decision to not carry weapons was deliberate and a wrong one taken by the military hierarchy, which resulted in this tragedy.
History is replete with examples wherein the disengagement process is used as a ploy to attack the enemy. “Never trust your enemy” is a principle taught to every recruit. Every child knows the story of the “Trojan Horse” in the battle of Troy. Indian Army fell prey to the design of the PLA.
Border management is distinct from border defence. The former requires linear movement and visible “flag showing” in the valleys and along the roads and tracks. The latter requires holding the dominating heights. The military violated this cardinal principle of high altitude and mountain warfare by not securing the heights either preemptively or after the intrusion.
Kongka La moment
Make no mistake, this is Narendra Modi’s Kongka La moment. In the 1950s, lacking in economic and military resources, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had followed the pragmatic, traditional ‘forward policy’ to flag the frontiers using the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the Assam Rifles.
By 1951, India pre-empted China and secured the areas up to the McMahon Line in the Northeast using the Assam Rifles. This was a remarkable feat because until then, Tibet exercised de facto control over Tawang and parts of Lohit division. In the western sector, China pre-empted us and secured Aksai Chin and built a road through it linking Xinjiang to Tibet. However, by mid-1959, we managed to plant our ‘flag’ in all other areas using the IB and the CRPF. Most of these areas were east of present-day LAC at varying distances.
At this juncture, our police/paramilitary posts/patrols came face-to-face with the Chinese border defence units and India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in March 1959. This led to China hardening its position and it came out with its 1959 claim line in Ladakh. Being militarily weak, the best option for India was to negotiate and accept the actual ground positions as a mutually agreed border without giving up our claims for a final settlement. However, Nehru decided to continue with the brinkmanship on the premise that war will not take place.
On 25 August 1959 at Longju, in Lohit division, the PLA took a soldier from the Assam Rifles as a prisoner of war (POW). The first violent incident took place on 21 October at Kongka La in Ladakh, where nine CRPF personnel were killed, three wounded and seven taken as POW. Until then, the goings-on at the frontier regions had been secretive and public perception was managed by denial and obfuscation.
However, the border clashes and casualties led to immense pressure from the public and in Parliament. Nehru lost his nerve and abandoned a fairly successful strategy despite China offering a status quo settlement. All his subsequent actions were panic-driven, tactical and bereft of strategic thought. Diplomacy was abandoned. The pragmatic frontier-flagging ‘forward policy’ adopted until then was replaced by a more aggressive ‘forward policy’, which actually became ‘forward movement of troops’, to call the Chinese bluff. Less by design and more by default, Nehru blundered into a military confrontation on an unfavourable terrain and with an army that was unequal for the task. Rather than calling the bluff of the Chinese, our own bluff was called.
Interestingly, Kongka La – Gogra – Hot Springs, is one of the areas of current intrusions.
Modi’s situation and what now
Modi’s dilemma is the same as that of Nehru. Militarily, due to a quantum jump in technology-driven capability, China has a clear edge over us. Like Nehru, PM Modi has given priority to the economy over the military. He relied upon diplomacy to handle China. Lulled by the experience of Depsang (under UPA 2), Chumar and Doklam, he approached the present crisis as a border management issue.
Misreading the situation and poorly advised by his compliant military hierarchy, Modi played a dangerous game of brinkmanship, reducing the Army to the sorry pass of operating without arms in deliberate military operations. The horrendous murder of 20 soldiers in the Galwan Valley has brought the issue in public domain. India now knows about the inept handling of the situation on the LAC, both politically and militarily.
Modi now has to take the strategic decision. There are two options. The first is to swallow the bitter pill, rely upon diplomacy, exploit the brutality of the incident that led to a large number of casualties on both sides and achieve the political aim – status quo ante April 2020 and demarcation of the LAC. In other words, extract from China what Nehru failed to accept in 1959. War is always the last resort and even a bully knows that.
The second option is to salvage national pride and fight a limited war to achieve the same political aim. Make a declared intent to localise the war in a specific area as was done during Kargil but be prepared for an escalation. Under no circumstances must we rush into a conflict/war. Vendetta and retribution are emotions that compromise clear-headed military planning. War has to be at time and place of our choice. Weather and climate play a critical role in high-altitude warfare.
Prime Minister, in this hour of reckoning, the nation stands solidly behind you and I, as a veteran, place my services at nation’s disposal. Notwithstanding the asymmetry in capability, our armed forces will deliver.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.