The first reports on sighting of PLA troop movement on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control came in mid-April, almost two weeks before Chinese and Indian soldiers came to blows on the north bank of Pangong Tso on May 5-6. But the Army says these reports never reached it, and the first reports it received in May only mentioned infrastructure construction activity.
An intelligence official told The Indian Express that more specific inputs came a few days after the first reports mid-April. The inputs were on sightings of hundreds of Chinese heavy military vehicles, moving northward from areas opposite Demchok.
These reports have strengthened the view at the highest levels of the intelligence set-up that significant details, though available, were glossed over as the crisis brewed in Ladakh, leaving the government in a blind spot.
The Army, however, says it carried out matching build-up of troops throughout the crisis on the LAC in response to Chinese actions, essentially a “breach of trust” by the PLA which diverted troops from a training exercise to the standoff sites on the border.
The sudden movement of massive numbers of Chinese troops along the Ladakh border and multiple ingresses across the LAC have led to a debate on the initial response to the crisis – whether it had more to do with the inability to read Chinese actions from the information available or was it because of the systemic changes in the way stakeholders share intelligence following the disbandment of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) two years ago.
The intelligence official referred to Army chief General MM Naravane’s statement on May 15 that clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along the LAC in eastern Ladakh and Sikkim were “a routine happening” and not part of a “bigger plan”.
The first clash at Pangong Tso was on the intervening night of May 5/6 in which both Indian and Chinese troops were injured. Another clash took place at Naku La in Sikkim on May 9.
“Faceoffs occur periodically with PLA. This happens due to the differences in perception of the way LAC runs. These faceoffs have happened in the past. That is what has happened now. It is just a matter of chance that the faceoffs occurred at the same time in eastern Ladakh and Sikkim. We should not read too much into it. It is not part of any stand nor are these two faceoffs interconnected. These faceoffs are also not connected to any domestic or international situation,” General Naravane said at a MPIDSA seminar.
The official said the first acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation by the Army was only after May 17/18, when Chinese troops had moved into Foxhole Point, the southernmost tip on the north bank at Finger 4, and at Green Tops on the ridgeline in the Pangong area. This was followed by the first meeting of the high-powered China Study Group on May 18, where the situation on the Ladakh border was discussed.
A senior Army officer said “there was no report of any massive PLA troop movement and deployment with us in April. The first report about movement of some Chinese military vehicles was received only in May, which pertained to infrastructure construction activities”.
The officer said that “Chinese troops, which were part of an ongoing training exercise, were later diverted to the standoff sites on the LAC. These exercises are routine every summer and there has been a long understanding that the two armies move back to their bases after the exercise. It is an established norm, followed scrupulously for years.”
“This year again, we were aware of these exercises by the PLA in the exercise area but there was breach of trust and faith by the Chinese, as they diverted these troops to the standoff sites. The distance from the exercise area to these sites is some 200 km, and it does not take much time to do this. It was a breach of trust,” the officer said.
The Army used to bring brigades of its reserve division in Ladakh for training exercises every summer but that was shelved this year due to the national lockdown following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While troops of Leh-based division and independent infantry and armoured brigades moved in quickly to respond to Chinese ingresses, additional troops were transported to the area thereafter in the second half of May.
“Ab initio, we had adequate reserves in eastern Ladakh and carried out matching build-up of troops as per operational requirement. Other than at the faceoff sites, the Chinese build-up of troops along the LAC also happened towards the end of May and early June, which was again matched by us,” the officer said.
A second intelligence official said the question is not of an intelligence input of massive movement of PLA troops in Tibet but of analysis and assessment of such an input where “hostile intent” can be detected. The official, who has been a part of the intelligence set-up for more than three decades, said “this was reminiscent of the Kargil incursions in 1999 where the mechanism of analysing the inputs had failed”.
It is after the abolition of JIC in 2018, as part of the reform of the national security council secretariat structure, the official said, that the process for joint assessment and sharing of information at cutting-edge level between various stakeholders has changed.
In 2018, the central institution of JIC was replaced by the office of Deputy National Security Advisor for internal security, along with two other Deputy NSAs and a military advisor. The meeting for analysis of intelligence inputs, which has replaced the JIC meeting, is now chaired by the three Deputy NSAs in rotation.
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