The news trickling in from the Galwan valley is deeply upsetting and depressing for any Indian military professional, serving or retired, infantry or general service. It appears that for many years, military patrols from the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been encountering each other, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been drawn up to preclude any firing from infantry weapons to prevent escalation, for the process of de-escalation, and forbidding the “tailing” of rival patrols. Commanding officers of battalions posted to the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC) are presumably familiar with the agreed procedures when their patrols come across PLA patrols. It is also understood that commanding officers have adequately briefed their men on what SOPs have been agreed to.
In this instance, the encounter in Galwan Valley has resulted in a bloody shambles, which, from all accounts, the 16 Bihar battalion was mentally and physically unprepared for. This is despite the fact that even in the grapevine in Delhi, it has been rumoured for some time, that PLA patrols are being met, while they are armed with batons or bamboo sticks wrapped in bundles of barbed wire kept in place by long iron nails. If the patrols are not to carry their rifles, according to the SOP, what is the rule regarding bayonets? Or other hand-held weapons?
Photographs circulating in the newspapers and social media have, interestingly, revealed two facts over the years. First, the PLA patrols seem to take some trouble to meet the Indian patrols on higher ground, and second, all photographs of physical encounters show that the Chinese outnumber the Indians at the point of contact. This would seem to indicate that senior officers on the PLA have given some thought to the tactics of an unarmed encounter. Have we? If individual commanding officers have not worked out tactics for a platoon-to-platoon encounter, has the DG infantry or the infantry school simulated encounters, to evolve tactics? What, for instance, would have been the reaction if the Indian patrol had consisted of Gurkhas, or Kumaonis or Garhwalis? Would they have been wielding their khukris? If not, why not?
Because, reading between the lines, it seems the PLA patrol came, not with the intention of some good-natured pushing and shoving but, sadly, to teach us a lesson. In that sense, was this 1962 all over again? The commanding officer of 16 Bihar was obviously leading from the front, and this is something that COs will do. But in a push and shove situation why was he unescorted, to the extent that he was killed by made-up weapons?
It is good that both sides have taken precautions to avoid escalation. Nuclear weapon powers should not get into a shooting war, like we do with Pakistan, which is rather bizarre. But that is because Pakistan is an irresponsible nuclear power. In this case, the PLA patrol clearly violated the spirit of the SOPs and hence, we were strategically ambushed. Even now it is not too late to take remedial measures, which a mature and heroic army like the Indian Army will put into place. Ideally, it would be visionary to settle the Sino-Indian border, probably by a swap of territories as suggested by Zhou Enlai in 1960, for which the basis of the swap will have to be discussed in Parliament, or, with the Opposition.
Meanwhile, we must be prepared not to be strategically ambushed by an aggressive and dishonourable PLA. But this is easier said than done over half a century. It is time for politicians, diplomats, and the military to come together to discuss whether stationing three lakh troops over 3,000 km of high altitude border for nearly 70 years constitutes a viable national strategy. The army has coped valiantly, but by 2060, we would have been defending the Himalayan border for a century, only, because the ruling party, whichever party it may be, is too cautious to forge a national consensus on demarcating and demilitarising the Sino-Indian border. China is galloping forward economically and it makes good sense not to get into a shooting war with Beijing either now or in the future. But that is no excuse for political lethargy and permitting the Sino-Indian border to become a domestic political issue.
It is right that the army should defend the border, but should the army be “happy” to accept defending the border for 100 years is another question. Perhaps, the politicians are under the impression that the army will willingly “defend” a 3,000-km border for a century, happily, without escalation. Perhaps, the army is the one that should make its position clear on the issue. There is no need to get paranoid about the overall Sino-Indian relationship as a result of this incident. This is not part of a greater Chinese strategy to curb India. We should treat this as a learning incident and train our infantry to dominate the PLA in an unarmed encounter, while simultaneously working on the boundary issue.
This article appeared in the print edition on June 20, 2020 under the title ‘The face-off in Galwan Valley’. The writer is a former rear admiral of the Indian Navy.
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