A Twitter exchange between Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on why Indian troops in the Galwan Valley were not carrying weapons when they were attacked sparked a debate Thursday, on the eve of the all-party meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the Sino-Indian border situation.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh too weighed in and sought answers while former Generals that The Indian Express spoke too had their own observations on practices on the Line of Actual Control, clauses in border agreements and the implementation on the ground.
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Stepping up his attack on the Modi government, Rahul Gandhi, in a Twitter post, wrote: “How dare China kill our UNARMED soldiers? Why were our soldiers sent UNARMED to martyrdom?”
Responding to the tweet, Jaishankar wrote: “Let us get the facts straight. All troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving post. Those at Galwan on 15 June did so. Long-standing practice (as per 1996 & 2005 agreements) not to use firearms during faceoffs.”
This had spokespersons of the Congress and BJP joining the debate. Congress communication department chief Randeep Singh Surjewala said, “in a tactical military situation where the enemy force has occupied your territory, sending the soldiers unarmed is the biggest disservice to the country and to the forces”.
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra targeted Rahul Gandhi: “You are the most irresponsible politician India has yet seen. Read, understand and then speak. Just don’t rant against your country. Don’t make such unfounded and misleading claims against your own country to launch your politics.”
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh also questioned the government on the loss of “precious lives in the violent clash” and demanded accountability.
“Our soldiers at the front should be clearly told that if they kill 1 of ours, you kill 3 of theirs,” Singh said, and asked why there were no orders to fire at the Chinese in the face of the brutal attack. “Somebody failed to do his job out there, and we need to find out who that was. If the unit was armed, as is being claimed now, the second-in-command should have ordered firing the moment the commanding officer fell to Chinese treachery,” he said, adding that “the nation wants to know why our men did not retaliate in the way they are trained to do, and why they did not open fire if they were carrying arms.”
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The protocols Jaishankar referred to are from agreements signed between India and China in 1996 and 2005.
Article VI of the November 29, 1996 agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas states: “Neither side shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres from the line of actual control. This prohibition shall not apply to routine firing activities in small arms firing ranges”. It is “to preventing dangerous military activities” along the LAC. This was also referred to in a 2005 agreement on the modalities for implementation of CBMs
The 2013 agreement on Border Defence Cooperation also stated that neither side shall use its military capability against the other.
Article VIII stated: “The two sides agree that if the border defence forces of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control, both sides shall exercise maximum self-restraint, refrain from any provocative actions, not use force or threaten to use force against the other side, treat each other with courtesy and prevent exchange of fire or armed conflict.”
However, the CBMs of the 1996 agreement carried a rider. Article X stated that implementation of some of the provisions of the agreement “will depend on the two sides arriving at a common understanding of the alignment of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas, the two sides agree to speed up the process, clarification and confirmation of the line of actual control”.
It did say though that pending completion of the process of clarification and confirmation of the LAC “the two sides shall work out modalities for implementing confidence building measures” on an “interim basis”.
Reached for comments, former Army Chief General V P Malik denied that any of the agreements specify if the soldiers can or cannot carry weapons. Malik, who was the Army Vice-Chief when the 1996 agreement was signed, said, “the operative term is that they will not fire at each other if they come face-to-face and will exercise self-restraint to avoid an escalation.” He said, “the simple understanding was that the two sides will not open fire at each other”.
But he underlined that “none of these agreements make any sense when the Line of Actual Control is not clearly delineated.” Given “the differing perceptions” of the LAC, General Malik said “How do you decide when it has been violated?… at one stage, China exchanged maps with us but before the meeting got over, they withdrew the maps.”
He recalled that during his visit to China in 1997, he told them that “unless you have a clearly delineated LAC, none of these agreements make any sense”.
Former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen HS Panag said while there are agreements on exercising restraint, there are overriding military protocols which deal with rules of engagement when dealing with such a situation. He said soldiers are taught that if they are “in any kind of danger due to action of the adversary, we are free to use any level of force which is available with us” and that “no protocol will come as a hindrance in any such event where the troops’ lives are in danger due to physical attacks”.
Lt Gen B S Jaswal, also a former Northern Army Commander, said he would have supported the use of weapons in the face of this grave provocation. “For one, they intruded into our territory, and then attacked our soldiers in a manner most barbaric. I would have fully supported the use of firearms.”
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