The 16th round of talks between India and China at the Corps Commander level has ended with no sign of a Chinese withdrawal from eastern Ladakh. This came on the heels of talks on July 7 between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that failed to show any results. While the MEA’s statement following the meeting called on China “to complete the disengagement from all remaining areas”, the Chinese statement made no reference to Ladakh whatsoever. Instead, it discussed Chinese concerns over Ukraine. We have reached such a sorry situation that the Chinese don’t even bother to acknowledge India’s demands.
More than two years after the border crisis with China began in eastern Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategy can be summed up as DDLJ — deny, distract, lie, justify. Speaking at an all-party meet on June 19, 2020, only four days after we lost 20 brave Indian soldiers in Galwan, the PM gave China a clean chit. He said: “Na yahan koi hamari seema main ghus aya hai, na hi koi ghusa hua hai.” Yet, somehow, India has lost control of 1,000 square kilometres of territory where our troops could earlier patrol but are now either blocked by Chinese troops or are no longer able to enter because of disengagement agreements.
The BJP government uses the euphemism of “friction points” to describe the border situation. Please explain to the people of India why there is “friction” if Chinese troops are not in control of our territory.
The PM’s need to protect his image has also tied the government in knots: The Ministry of Defence in August 2020 was forced to take down a document on its website that directly contradicted the PM and admitted that “the Chinese side transgressed in the areas of Kugrang Nala, Gogra and the north bank of Pangong Tso lake”. In November 2020, the MEA “took note” of a US report that China had built a 100-home village in disputed territory in Arunachal Pradesh, and that it would never accept China’s “illegal occupation” of our territory. However, the then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) contradicted this stance and denied any Chinese construction on our side.
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Previous Congress governments had a clear policy to repel Chinese intrusions — a quick, focused counter that creates bargaining space and facilitates Chinese withdrawal. This was done in Nathu La (1967), Sumdurong Chu (1986) and Chumar (2013), leading in the third case to a Chinese pull-out from Depsang after three weeks.
After its initial blunders, this government also did well to authorise the Indian Army to occupy positions in the Kailash Range south of Pangong Tso on the night of August 29/30, 2020. However, the government gave up these advantageous positions in February 2021 without insisting on a full Chinese withdrawal and a return to the status quo. Former Corps Commander Major General Raj Mehta (Retd.) described this premature withdrawal as a “grave mistake”.
Clearly, India’s stance has become reactive rather than proactive. Our statements have even stopped referring to the status quo as an objective. Over two years, India and China have also engaged in 10 rounds of talks at the foreign ministry level under the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC). During this period, China has cemented its control with an unprecedented military build-up in Aksai Chin most recently including 5G networks up to the LAC, five new heliports, a large bridge across Pangong Tso and a notable increase in air activity. This expansion is aimed at giving China the capability of quick escalation and rapid manoeuvre in eastern Ladakh. It is clear that the Chinese are being hyper-aggressive, while our leadership prefers to deceive the Indian people under its DDLJ strategy.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s policies are deepening our economic dependence on China: India’s imports from China hit an all-time high of $94 billion in 2021-22. As chief minister, Modi himself once said: “The problem is not on the border but in Delhi.”
The PM must correct his course and take the nation into confidence about the China threat. He should hold a press conference along with the defence minister and the external affairs minister to explain the current situation, followed by a White Paper. There should be a dedicated briefing to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence on the China situation, and a two-day debate in Parliament.
The government should also appoint a full-time CDS, a position that has been vacant for seven months during a critical period for our national security. And it should withdraw the Agnipath scheme that threatens to demoralise our troops at a time of high national security threat.
The Congress party’s stand is crystal clear: The status quo ante prevailing on the LAC prior to May 5, 2020, must be restored at all costs.
The writer is Deputy Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party
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