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From Nathu La to Galwan, India has been trapped in reaction-mode to China’s aggression

Galwan shows India has been trapped in a reactive posture, always a step behind the Chinese for the last 70 years.

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The Indian diplomatic mindset toward China has been stuck in a defensive mode, born of the 1962 debacle. 

The Galwan incursion appears to have ended decades of ‘tranquility’. In reality, the price of all overtures and agreements has been an India trapped in a reactive posture, always a step behind Chinese build-up, scrambling to stand up to China’s latest provocation and the cloud of disinformation that accompanies each incident.

More worrying is that, in theory, both sides are supposed to ensure ‘non-escalation’ by no use of firearms within 2 kilometres of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), but the perception of the border differs in India and China. What is not being appreciated is that China has, by now, amply indicated its ‘strategic reluctance’ to settle the boundary dispute with India, keeping India ‘off-balance’ by refusing to agree on and demarcate the LAC, even coming up with new claims that have never been put on the table before. The result is that for decades, the borders have remained contested, despite an assumption of ‘peace’, resulting in constant ‘nibbling away’ of Indian territory.

Nothing illustrates this as clearly as what happened at Nathu La in 1967. It is instructive to look back on that significant turning point.

Also read: It’s time for China, Pakistan, even India to rethink the fantasy Modi called expansionism

The fight for Nathu La

07:45 am, 9 September 1967. The Indian side of Nathu La.

After months of aggressive Chinese incursions, skirmishes and ‘jostling’ scuffles, a feisty Indian formation commander decided to delineate a ‘red line’ by laying down barbed wire fencing such that face-to-face encounters could be avoided. Work had commenced strand-by-strand a few days earlier, amidst much arguments and threats from the Chinese. The Indian troops, well within own territory, were out in the open. So were a number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops who were trying to get them to stop work on the fence. Suddenly, devastating automatic fire started from the Chinese defences. The Indian battalion commander Lt Col Rai Singh took bullets to his chest and went down but not before seizing a light machine gun and mowing down the Chinese officer who had been threatening him. (Lt Col Rai Singh survived and went on to win a Maha Vir Chakra).

The Chinese were not bothered about their own men who died because they too were caught in the open. Indian detachments launched counter-attacks. The casualties on both sides kept mounting. Five hours later, the formation commander, then Maj. Gen. Sagat Singh, ordered the artillery — on his own initiative — to lay down a heavy barrage (the big guns went on to duel for four days). The entire Chumbi Valley lay before the Observation Posts (OPs) and the effect was devastating. The Chinese, who had been shelled in-depth, were livid as they had suffered heavy casualties — nearly 300 dead — but Nathu La remained in Indian hands. By then, nearly 80 brave Indians had laid down their lives.

The Chinese upped the ante just a few weeks later on 1 October at nearby Cho La by bayoneting an Indian JCO after a scuffle. This enraged the Gorkha defenders, who went after the PLA with their dreaded khukris and retook the post which the Chinese had occupied. The LAC was stabilised.

Also read: Modi govt needs to come clean on China. India must win information wars too

Securing Sikkim

Just a couple of years before that in 1965, when trouble with Pakistan was brewing, the Chinese had started building up on the borders of Sikkim. Indian military plans, defensive in the extreme, assessed that the Chinese should not be held at the LAC (the watershed and the passes) and should be drawn-in to India’s own defences, which were a few kilometres inside Sikkim. To this end, the two formation commanders responsible for the defence of Sikkim were ordered in 1967 to vacate the passes (Nathu La in one case and Jelep La, in the other) and pull back to prepared defence lines.

While the formation responsible for Jelep La obeyed the orders (and thus Jelep La was lost to the Chinese who had promptly occupied it when the Indian forces vacated), then Maj. Gen. Sagat Singh dug his feet in, arguing that vacating Nathu La would compromise the entire watershed and jeopardise the defence of Sikkim and even the ‘chicken’s neck’ connecting it to India, and refused to pull back.

When the fighting broke out, Lt Gen. Sam Manekshaw was the Eastern Army Commander and fully backed Sagat Singh. (It has been reported that when the skirmish started, Manekshaw was in New Delhi, officiating as the Army chief because the COAS at the time, Gen P.P. Kumaramangalam, was out of the country.) When news of the incident reached Manekshaw, he reportedly commented in his inimitable style to the people assembled: “I am afraid they are enacting Hamlet without the Prince. I will now tell you how I intend to deal with it.” This firm stand surprised the Chinese because they had expected the defensive mind would prevail and that like Jelep La, they would occupy Nathu La without firing a shot. The bloody skirmish and artillery duel that ensued saw Indian troops giving back much more than they got, to the shock of the Chinese who had never tired of harping about 1962 in their incessant propaganda blared from loudspeakers at border posts.

Also read: India can’t afford to be defensive against China like it has been with Pakistan on terror

A new strategy

There are eerie similarities between Nathu La and Galwan — the build-up was known, the Chinese were aggressively patrolling, brow-beating and the efforts to cow down Indian soldiers continued without let-up. What is different is that the Indian Army then was not hobbled by rigid protocols, was not merely reactive, and local commanders were given the freedom by higher commanders to fight to retain territory. Our soldiers at Galwan too asserted themselves, despite being constrained by very restrictive rules of engagement. Twenty bravehearts made the supreme sacrifice, for which India shall always remember them.

We need to shed the strait-jacket of defensive foreign policy thinking evolved 70 years ago, especially as the border dispute still remains where it was in the 1950s. We need to wake up to the reality that the bravery of the modernisation-starved defence forces constrained by rigid protocols still remains the final bulwark. A new assertiveness is needed to deal with the Chinese, who recognise only strength and not diplomatic niceties.

The author is a publisher and writer of military history.  Views are personal.

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  1. I agree with your biased editorial at ‘What is different is that the Indian Army then was not hobbled by rigid protocols, was not merely reactive, and local commanders were given the freedom by higher commanders to fight to retain territory. Our soldiers at Galwan too asserted themselves, despite being constrained by very restrictive rules of engagement.’ . It was due to NPT signed in 1996 and 2005 by your Phapha Congress!
    PLA pulls back from Galwan by 2 km. Today! You guyz keep on hating current democracy even though it makes you lower the moral of current Army. What for? To make the leftists happy? To get paid when congress comes in power? Any party ticket? It was declare a 3 front war for India. One was China, one was Pakistan and third was community like you. It’s a shame and i don’t care how you justify your deeds or delete this comment.
    Atleast you could’ve stopped this hate mongering in this crucial time when YOUR nation is in trouble!
    PS: You can’t print these things neither in China nor in Pak but India, you are like an impish brat. SHAME!

    • Agree. I add one thought. The Print’s anti-Modi bias is well-documented and well-established. Except I agree with this thought of the author: ” A new assertiveness is needed to deal with the Chinese, who recognise only strength and not diplomatic niceties.” India needs to be the aggressor where it can do so in a sustained manner, along the LAC, in decoupling its economy from China, and by making the hard tax/labor/land decisions to become an alternative for manufacturing by MNCs. As of now, India still has not made up its mind to be truly business friendly to bring in capital and technology and jobs. This may be more possible now if seen and promoted as an anti-China effort to become an economic power at par with China.

  2. Has anybody given a thought that it could be the other way round….. That india laid a trap for China…. China walked straight into it……Please think…

  3. I was posted at Natu La in 1967 as a major.What is written here is fiction and not facts. No one was asked to withdraw from Natu La or Jelep La and no one ever did .

  4. General Manckshaw was a brave, fearless leader and most people wished he would take over the country to clean it and get rid of the corrupt leaders, babus, industry captains and drug companies that operated for maximum profits with no human consideration.. Alas, it turned out to be a damp squib.

  5. Modi’s speech at Leh on 3rd July 2020 is a defining moment in India’s China policy. It as given clear political signal to all, including the Army about our policy towards China. Now onward, there will be no reactive actions on LAC, Every move will be met by a counter move immediately and the Army will work on”Verify before you trust” maxim! The author is right when he says we are were always reactive to China since 1947 and blindly believed in what they said. But the Chinese actions since May 2020 have fortunately changed such pacifist policy for ever.

  6. Shame you still cant understand whats going in the brains of common people of India, come over your strategy of spreading chinese propaganda.

  7. Modi has enabled India to be trapped in reaction-mode by constantly touching Xi’s feet. Modi claimed he had a Plus One relationship with Xi, which he added ordinary minds cannot grasp.

    It is a nation now run by RSS cowards, who did not take part in the freedom struggle. All they can do is fight within India against minorities. After 2019 re-election, the Modi govt. energies were spent on how to put Muslims in concentration camps through NRC-CAA. There was no time to look at the Chinese planning. The results show. It is not going to change.

    • Wow amazing analysis! Concentration camps!
      First try to understand what CAA is.
      Also, We all have seen who is more aggressive and fanatical about religion and God! The entire world knows it! Just tell me how many of the minority religions accept or tolerate gods of other faiths?

    • It seems you are a Chinese agent… Because the article is not prochina and still you are calling print as Chinese agent…

  8. ‘good research’, ‘fact finding’ and ‘highlighting’ our problems during crisis. remember that unlike china, India is not expansionist and war monger. do you like India to behave like chinese encroaching into other territories which are not ours? if not, then you can only react. but the recognition that India reacted, and in most cases dominated (except 1962), is also important to remember.

    • Others think India is like the Chinese. Pak. feels India grabbed Kashmir against the will of the people. The Nepalese say India has encroached on their land. You need to look at your self image critically. India has too many enemies because it cannot see what it does that alienates others.

  9. We don’t have to wait for modernisation of defence forces to take on China. It is a myth that technological advancement will only block China. Remember how Vietnam had humiliated two biggest powers on earth literally fighting with bare hands. We have accumulated very good mountain warfare experience with highly motivated army & must take initiative in showing aggression to Chinese now and call the Chinese bluff off. Hallucinating with imperial dreams, China is cultivating enemies all over its border and has grossly underestimated shift of Indian nationalistic mood. We must teach China the military lesson it will remember for decades. Mere diplomatic initiatives will not help in this as dictatorial & power hungry China is acting like new Hitler.

    • Vietnam humiliated superpower USA because first it was USA who went to attack on Vietnamese territory. Second, Vietnamese fought gorilla warfare in the jungle.

      There is no jungle to hide and fight gorilla warfare for both adversaries. So this would be totally different situation. You cant compare with situation with Vietnam.
      Third, technological advancement is not a myth. If it was a myth, India would have advanced towards China post loss of 20 soldiers and 75 injured.
      So be practical and don’t underestimate your enemy. Nationalism is gold but blind nationalism leads to fake nationalism.

      • Despite best technology USA is withdrawing from Afghanistan without finishing its enemies. In fact, these rebels are stronger today & USA has been forced to sign treaty with Taliban. Technology helps but does not ensure victory. Commitment. courage. strategy & motivation of fighters is more important. Chinese army is manned with people who are forced into soldiering whereas Indian army is the largest voluntary force on earth. China cannot just deploy all its equipment against us. It has a very vast border with 14 countries. We have sufficient resources to match what China can deploy against us at border.

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