By: Shiv Kunal Verma
Whenever China decides to poke at India anywhere on the 4056 kilometre boundary, we as a Nation are subconsciously teleported to the events that led up to one of the greatest military debacles of all times–the war that wasn’t in October/November 1962. Mao Tse Tung and Peking, now better known as Mao Zedong and Beijing, have since been sitting on both our shoulders, seriously impacting our ability to think objectively. The military aim of the PLA in 1962 was to take Aksai Chin–and they took it, conveniently distorting history to fabricate their claim. The PRC’s strategic aim was to dominate India for the next fifty years–and they successfully did that as well! The price India as a country paid for that defeat, continues to haunt us.
The similarities between ‘then’ and ‘now’ are much too startling to ignore, for they continue to expose our underbelly to a ruthless and far-thinking enemy who is constantly watching and looking to exploit fault lines. Unable to match China’s single-minded fixation towards its stated objectives of Asian and World domination, India finds itself constantly running extremely hard from pillar to post in a desperate attempt just to stay in the same place. In almost all modern day writing, China is depicted as the dragon draped across Tibet and Sinkiang, breathing fire in our direction. India, by the same token, is the elephant, good, solid and mostly benign. Trouble is, more often than not, it feels as if the elephant is being guided by the ‘blind men of Hindoostan’, who seem incapable of avoiding the same carefully laid out trap!
When the burden of history makes it difficult to breathe, like an exoskeleton it must be shed. For starters, we need to forget ’62 and nudge our historical clock to the events that led up to the 1965 War that was ostensibly fought with Pakistan. And with that we also need to bury Jawaharlal Nehru and perhaps turn our unfettered attention towards a diminutive little man called Lal Bahadur Shastri. For maybe, just maybe, the answers we seek might just lie there.
Shortly after a brief skirmish had occurred in the Rann of Kutch and India and Pakistan disengaged in May 1965, a meeting took place in Peking, miles away from the swamp-like erstwhile delta of the Indus River. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, was listening in rapt attention to Chairman Mao, who carefully spelt out what the former needed to do. In great detail, Mao laid out the blue print for what was later given the codename ‘Op Gibraltar’. China had brought India to its knees… Pakistan must now ruthlessly chop off the head and take Kashmir. It was big brother China’s gift to little brother Pakistan.
On Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan had reservations about Mao’s masterplan, so the maverick minister decided to go over his president’s head. Since Pakistan was bristling with new US military hardware, there were enough weapons available from the discarded stocks to arm an entire new army. Though the projected strength of 30,000 Mujahids is probably an inflated number, a sizeable force was quickly trained and equipped for guerrilla warfare and infiltrated into Jammu & Kashmir by end-July 1965. As all hell broke loose, especially in the Valley and in the Naushera-Rajauri-Poonch region, the Indian army suddenly found itself with its back to the wall. Taken initially by surprise, individual units started fighting back, but as the scale of the ingress became apparent, it soon became obvious something different had to be done.
Under the circumstances, the plan to take the fight into POK by capturing the Haji Pir salient, was an extremely bold decision. Most importantly, Pakistan suddenly found itself in an unfamiliar situation where it was not calling all the shots. Almost immediately, it reacted and launched ‘Op Grand Slam’, which aimed at cutting off the Akhnur-Chhamb axis and once again, given the boldness of the strike, it initially looked like the Pakistanis would have India on its knees. Lal Bahadur Shastri, without a moments’ hesitation, then green flagged ‘Op Riddle’ that allowed India to attack across the IB in the Rajasthan and the Lahore Sectors while ‘Op Nepal’ then further took the battle into the Sialkot Sector as well.
For all its bluster about ‘buzdil’ Indians and a flurry of initial punches against India especially in the air, the tables were turned on Pakistan dramatically despite some inept and timid handling of both the army and the air force by their respective commanders. By 14 September, a week after the Indians crossed the IB, Pakistan was a spent force and it was only their massive superiority in artillery and General Chaudhuri’s miscommunicating on the ammunition state that saved it the complete blushes.
1965 set the stage for 1971, where once again the political and military leadership came together to fight a war almost entirely on our own terms. The United States, the Chinese, the Soviets all had a role to play, but clear, firm leadership left no room for any ambiguity for anyone to exploit. It’s a different matter the same ruthlessness was not brought to the table in Shimla after the war.
34 years after Shastri’s masterclass on taking the fight to the enemy, we fell flat on our faces in Kargil, by letting Musharraf dictate terms to us again. With every passing year, we hail it as a great military achievement, but in reality, even though it was a tactical victory, it was a huge strategic defeat! After the dust had settled, the last remnants of the Northern Light Infantry returned to Pakistan either dead or alive despite their endless denials of involvement, India increased the deployment in the Baltistan region substantially. The area that had hitherto been looked after by 121 Independent Brigade was now the ‘area of responsibility’ of a mountain division, which also then necessitated the raising of a new corps headquarters. For Musharraf despite the ‘defeat’ it was a big consolation prize–India for years would, in a classic case of bolting the door after the horse had bolted, be committed to guarding and maintaining a large tract of inhospitable land at considerable cost. To cover up our own lapses, it never seemed to occur to anyone that all we should have done was restore the status quo ante, albeit with better detection systems in place at best. Instead, we opted for a ‘boots on the ground’ approach which committed a large number of men who now stay there even through winter. Just for the record, Drass used to be known as the second coldest inhabited place on the planet.
Today, the lessons of 1965 and Kargil are unfortunately forgotten, and we are making the same mistakes again, caught up as it were in creating little illusions of victory where actually in a deadly game of geopolitical chess, we are looking down the barrel of a gun. Before we get further mired and trapped in quicksand, India needs to do some deft footwork in order to point the gun in the opposite direction. It’s always a lot better to look down a gunsight. It certainly gives you a lot more options.
By having put its offensive plans in place, China has done two things which place it in a position of advantage at the tactical level. First, it decides the place, the terrain and the timing of each confrontation. Second, confident that India will go into a tizzy over ‘loss of territory’, it can localize each area of conflict and therefore contain the situation. Since it sees itself as being vulnerable in the Chumar region, it has picked the Pangong Tso as the key area and will probably up the ante in October/November in the Depsang Plains in a bid to make DBO look vulnerable.
India has reacted firmly and has demonstrated its resolve to fight should matters escalate further. The formidable airlift capability of the IAF in my opinion is the key factor. However, now having put our existing troops on high alert, we now need to hold our hand and adopt not only a wait and watch policy, but also do some plain speak with China.
If indeed the threat to G-219 by the construction of a road by the Indians to DBO has been the catalyst for Chinese actions (as suggested by most analysts) then it underlines the massive insecurity that is at the base of China’s thinking. Just for a while let us pull back from Eastern Ladakh and look at the entire alignment of this ‘highway in the sky’. Running more or less parallel to the Great Himalayan Range, following the flow of the Tsang Po, it’s a nice, fat juicy 2500 km-long target for India to look at. This Chinese lifeline which is the equivalent of the ‘6 Degree Channel’ on land, has plenty of ‘choke points’ a la the Straits of Malacca.
We need to spell it out. Even if the LAC is not defined, any tampering with the status quo will amount to a declaration of war and India reserves the right to then pick and choose targets to hit this ‘artery’ wherever it chooses. Since His Excellency the Chinese Ambassador is being most vocal about various issues these days including the South China Sea, some counter-advice to him may not be out of place.
First, India need’s to call off the ridiculous military to military talks and if you must, then engage the Chinaman through the existing diplomatic channels–after all Sun Weidong is there for a purpose other than writing op-edit pieces in leading Indian newspapers, a sign that he perhaps has little else to do. Generals are not meant for talking and by exposing a corps commander to the enemy, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. Everyone knows with the Chinese it is two steps forward, three steps back.
Second, contrary to popular belief we don’t have to start saturating the border with troops. Every time the PM or some hot shot drives from Palam into town, the ridiculous spectacle of a cop every 20 metres ‘sanitizing’ the route underlines the ‘police’ mind set of our leadership. In the case of the Chinese border, the ITBP has had the sole charge of it and if there have been lapses, the issues need to be addressed but they must continue to police their designated areas and man their BOPs. Border management is not the job of the army, but now that the Chinese have activated the border, the army must be in the loop if not in overall command. If 35,000 additional troops are being further inducted as reported by various newspapers, then we are once again, as in the post-Kargil scenario, thinking ‘police’ and not ‘army’.
We are just two months away from winter in the Himalayas. The powers that be must also remember that mountains swallow men, and it isn’t humanly possible to guard a 4,000 km border (which incidentally is roughly the distance between New Delhi and Taipei–just to underline the distance). Today, there are plenty of existing protocols available to communicate with China. The message must be clear–any transgression will be treated as a declaration of war. Having demonstrated our capability to mobilize, we need to maintain the barest force levels and be prepared to induct the required manpower if and when required.
In Eastern Ladakh especially, building the infrastructure to house additional troops must continue, but troops must be thinned out and rotated as is done in Siachen so that they are mentally and physically acclimatized to operate in the region if the necessity arises. The welfare and health of our men must remain our biggest priority. Anyone who has operated in these regions in the harsh winter will know just how important it is to do this.
The IAF has always been the key. In 1962 we shot ourselves in the foot by taking that option off the table. India over the last few decades has also had a robust missile development programme and year after year we have watched with pride long cylindrical tubes being paraded on Rajpath with exotic names like Prithvi, Nag and BrahMos among others. If the entire G 219 has not been bracketed, do it now. Like those policemen guarding VIP routes, these would be a lot more assuring to have if Xi Jinping further decides to rock the boat.
Until then, keep looking at ways to make China hurt if they so much as sneeze again in Ladakh, or refuse to pull back to Chip Chap in Pangong Tso. We must remember, when it comes to playing the game, big boys play with hard balls.
Shiv Kunal Verma is the author of the highly acclaimed 1962: The War That Wasn’t and The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why.