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.
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.
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.
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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