The Indo-Tibetan border continues to be actively problematic and the trajectory of the current geopolitical events seem to indicate that politico-military tensions will endure. The lack of progress in the 13th India-China Corps Commanders talks and the two military incidents in Tawang and Barahoti are but symptoms of the continuing tensions. Conflict in its varied forms is on the cards. Yet, India’s political leadership and national security practitioners seem to be blind to the dangers posed and opportunities missed in effectively manning the active border.
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MHA has resisted change
Among several far-reaching reforms birthed by Kargil, an important one was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s policy that all active borders under the control of the Army. The Border Security Force (BSF) on the active portion of the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir has therefore remained under the operational control of the Army. It is, therefore, shocking that the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) continues to be responsible for guarding the northern border despite it having turned volatile like never before.
The home and the defence ministries are responsible for border guarding and defence respectively. Structural incongruity has persisted for several decades and the defence ministry has failed in its efforts to rectify the problem. So long as peace prevailed, border guarding had a case, though it remained blind to the ongoing build-up of geopolitical tensions, especially since 2010. The obvious accretion of China’s military capability and improvements in infrastructure has proved inadequate in overcoming the resistance posed primarily by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Although repeated attempts to change the command and control arrangements persisted in fits and starts, the MHA’s stubborn resistance to change has prevailed and continues to do so even when the enemy is at the gates. This is a political failure that could cost the nation dearly.
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China’s power play and border manning politics
The malformed responsibility structure that underpins the manning of the India-China border still preserves the illusion that peace prevails. In the contemporary constitutional framework, it requires a declaration of war and the invocation of the procedures laid down in the Union War Book to bring about unity of command. It is achieved by placing the ITBP under the operational command of the Army, which then becomes wholly responsible for the defence of territory. It seems that the politico-bureaucratic leadership remains rooted to an anachronistic notion that the boundaries of war and peace are written in stone. The last time India invoked the Union War Book was in 1971. Other exertions of the use of force like Kargil, Sri Lanka, 2001 mobilisation were managed without invoking the provisions of the War Book.
The continental space consisting of the arc of territory that covers Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh forms China’s pressure points to keep India contained within the subcontinent. China’s ultimate aim is to slow down and if possible, prevent India’s rise as a maritime power. This aim is expected to be achieved by forcing India to expend her political, diplomatic, military and fiscal energy in managing the difficulties created by China in the sub-continent, which now also includes its moves in trouble-torn Afghanistan. It should be amply clear that the forms of conflict and power play that China is likely to wage are unlikely to follow the political script that will unleash the provisions of the Union War Book and bring the ITBP under the Army’s operational control.
The relative peace that was present over several decades following the signing of India-China agreements in 1993, 1996, 2003 and 2005 has been shattered and has in fact been subjected to intensified violations since the Depsang incident of 2013. Eight years later and even after several rounds of diplomatic moves, greater clarity should have come to prevail about what China is up to. The trust that underpins the agreements lies buried in Galwan. Yet, the political leadership remains unmoved to rectify the structural contradiction of dual responsibility in manning the Indo-Tibetan border. On the contrary, there are indications that the MHA continues to protect its turf with recent reports indicating that it is considering a proposal to recruit an additional 10.000 ITBP personnel to man the 47 BOPs that were sanctioned in 2020.
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Army and ITBP’s structural flaws must be remedied
On the ground where structural infirmities are played out, the leadership of the Army and the ITBP (that does the heavy lifting of operational activities) attempts to build and deploy their personal equations to overcome institutional deficiencies. However, it is a personality-driven effort that would wax and wane with changes in leadership. The fragile nature of the relationship between the Army and the ITBP is reflected in the matter of provision of access to the canteen facilities. Every year, military leaders sign a false certificate to testify that the ITBP is under their operational control and keeps the canteen services open to them. The situation is the downstream effect of having two separate forces operating in the same space with closely interlinked missions but taking orders from two different ministries.
With the change in the strategic landscape of the Indo-Tibetan border and with indications that the status quo is now a mirage, it is actually insufficient to just bring the ITBP under the operational control of the Army. This is so because the nature of duties demands a military character and not one of policing. In the few places where policing is required, local and specially trained police personnel can be attached to the operating Army units. The need is for converting the ITBP into a military force that is based on a design like the Rashtriya Rifles with suitable modifications. The ITBP with its 54 battalions should therefore be converted to a force that could be christened as the Indo-Tibetan Border Rifles and populated with a larger percentage of locals.
A fairly detailed case for such a conversion and its modalities has already been made. The case is a compelling one and only awaits political will. The modalities of converting a Central Armed Police Force to an Army unit is also discussed. There ought to be considerable savings in presently duplicated facilities and infrastructures. Moreover, at the end of the day, the fiscal resources that are expended come from the Consolidated Fund of India and it does not matter which ministry expends the funds.
Neither the MoD nor the MHA by itself can resolve the existing unacceptable state of affairs as it relates to manning the Indo-Tibetan Border. The National Security Council Secretariat must be the initiator of the proposal for change. Considering the importance of the issue and the gains that can accrue to national security, the PMO must intervene to overcome the resistance that the MHA continues to offer.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is the Director Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)