There are some uncanny similarities between the Pakistani intrusions along the northern half of LoC (commonly referred to as the Kargil sector) and the Chinese intrusions at multiple points along the LAC.
Another Kargil Diwas is here, but if we look at the circumstances that led to the Chinese intrusions across the LAC, then there are some uncanny similarities between the Pakistani intrusions along the northern half of the Line of Control (LoC) commonly referred to as the Kargil sector, and the Chinese intrusions at multiple points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) east of Ladakh. But there’s also a difference; the LoC was a marked and accepted boundary with Pakistan, whereas there are serious perception differences about the LAC and its alignment. Thus, it was all the more important for us to remain vigilant to the Chinese moves along the LAC. Besides, an overzealousness to follow the government’s guidelines on anti-COVID-19 measures made the Army drop its annual deployments along the LAC, as part of an Op-Alert.
The Chinese, however, used this Indian lapse to build up considerable force levels opposite Indian positions on the LAC, and worse still they intruded on areas that were traditionally not held – as every hilltop and valley cannot be held physically – and are still holding on to most of their gains, regardless of the optimism among the apologists for the government. Therefore the first similarity between the experiences of the Kargil conflict and the current Chinese intrusions near Ladakh is that our external intelligence gathering has once again failed. Whether it is the ‘shepherds’ or satellites that the government’s well-funded intelligence bodies were banking on, they’ve either failed us, or those in charge of gathering these inputs have glossed over the inputs. Either way, our soldiers eventually paid with their lives.
And as was the case during the fiasco that eventually led to the Kargil conflict, the swift cover up PR exercise led to their friends in the media talking about the CDS and his lot, to be held responsible for the ‘intelligence lapse’ against the Chinese. A similar line was adopted by the shadowy men in our establishment as the Kargil balloon hit the fan: ‘that the blame lay with the then army chief for gross negligence of Pakistani buildup and intrusions.’ But the CDS is not responsible for gathering external intelligence. This has to come to the armed services from the multiple organisations that are set up to gather and pass on their inputs. Surely two decades after the Kargil conflict, our commentators cannot still be arguing who must be responsible for gathering information from across our borders?
A bigger failure has been our inability to read or assess the intentions of our adversaries. In the current situation, it is now clear that neither those who are Mandarin speakers nor those who study Chinese, knew what was on Beijing’s mind, more so, when the plain-speaking politician, the late George Fernandes, had pointed a finger at the Chinese, as India’s defence minister in the mid-1990s, to say they presented the bigger threat to India and not Pakistan. Some of us agreed with him then and continued to say so, but the policymakers on Raisina Hill had other illusions. But just as the Kargil shock increased and led to an increase in military deployments north of Kashmir and west of Ladakh – with the raising of a new corps in Leh and an additional army division added to it – the Chinese intrusions have led to the moving of at least two extra divisions with armour and mechanized forces along the LAC. And apparently they will be there to stay, for the long haul.
During the Kargil conflict as the government insisted that troops be sent to throw out the Pakistani intruders – with little time even for troops to acclimatize – then and now there is also a similar situation of insufficient weapons and equipment for our frontline soldiers, though it wasn’t because of that the men of 16 Bihar had to resort to hand-to-hand fighting in the Galwan valley. In the Kargil conflict, our men fought against many odds to regain those icy heights, leading the then Army chief General VP Malik to say, ‘we do not have much, but we will fight with what we have’. And fight our tough infantrymen, did. But the Chinese aren’t going to be a pushover; more so, unlike Pakistan in 1999 that was a divided house – between an embarrassed Nawaz Sharif and an adventurous General Musharraf – the Chinese leadership currently has an aggressive agenda on multiple fronts, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to the Himalayas.
But to the credit of this government, a number of major military purchases have been made, from expensive fighter aircraft to long-range maritime drones and attack helicopters. But while these fit more into the plans to show your muscle to the adversary with ‘military force multipliers’, a lesson from the Kargil conflict was the need to fight in those icy heights – and Aksai Chin has many – with well-equipped infantrymen in winter clothing and with air and artillery support in that hazardous terrain. It’s now clear that this standoff with China will go into the winter months. For that, we need to equip a force level five times that we have in Siachin. It would also require us to shift the focus of our forces from being Pakistan centric to at least be equally balanced when facing the threats from two fronts. China has built up Pakistan’s capabilities for precisely this moment.
More importantly, the required manpower is available to create even new ‘strike corps’ with one each to be launched anywhere northwest of Nepal and east of Bhutan, to divide the attention of China’s western theatre command that’s responsible for their entire land borders with India. Perhaps with multiple military commands facing China, India could spring many surprises, if the political order so desires. However, all this requires a lot of money in the long run – raising strike corps and buying Alpine equipment for a war in the high Himalayas – if the assertions of ministers are anything to go by.
However, an important lesson from the 1962 debacle is that even when you are surprised, do not raise your rhetoric, because when the people’s expectations go up, then a nation could be driven into a conflict, and the cost of that is always too high. But as we can see now, the initiatives adopted – diplomatic, economic and military – haven’t been effective enough. Are we running out of options now, because we have failed to learn from the lessons of the past?
Maroof Raza is a guest contributor. Views expressed are personal.
The writer is a retired army officer and columnist