Time for Elephant to Break the Shackles

                                                         Debasis Mallick

To celebrate the gallant effort of Bihar regiment which could successfully thwart the Chinese aggression at Galwan valley on 15th June, the Northern Command of Indian Army has tweeted a video: “Born to fight. They do what they do. They are not the bats, they are the Batman.”

What happened on 15th night sent shock waves across the country. In the past, the Chinese had transgressed into our territory umpteen number of times, but they  went back after holding out for a few days. This time even after the bilateral talks for disengagement, they attempted to build fortifications in our territory, which resulted in pushing and shoving  by our soldiers to their side of LAC. The Chinese were well prepared to pick up a fight using clubs wrapped with barbed wire. The Indian side had to bear the brunt of the first attack, till reinforcement was hurriedly sent in to retrieve the situation. But how did the Chinese soldiers set up camps in our side of LAC without being noticed? The intrusion and construction of bunkers at the valley did not occur overnight. It must have taken a few weeks for the Chinese soldiers to take positions at the vantage point of Galwan valley overlooking the confluence of Galwan and Shyok river.  The Chinese soldiers do an annual exercise in Aksai Chin region after the winter is over. Indian side keep a close vigil on this area due to its strategic location. Perhaps, (perhaps because there is no official statement released by Indian Army), LAC at Galwan valley side was left unguarded, which could be due to a depleted strength of Army personnel as a result of covid 19. The Chinese have taken this golden opportunity to their advantage, because they know that the whole world is busy fighting a war with an invisible enemy. The map down below show the spots where Chinese soldiers have made an intrusion.

Map-1

Galwan valley and Pangong tso are the two hot spots where the Chinese have already transgressed into our area and have started building bunkers and other permanent structures much to the chagrin of our leadership. Having said that, the question remains how we can go back to April 2020 position without losing our face. To do this we got to turn the pages. But before this, we must look into the intriguing Sino-Indian history to analyse the current problem in proper perspective.

Aksai Chin, the Mountainous Land Mass once so Unimportant, has become the centre of attention

R A Huttenback in his article, A historical note on the Sino-Indian dispute over the Aksai Chin in China quarterly of June 1964 issue, has described the area in the extreme North East of Ladakh, a bleak uninhabited highland which in the past was visited only by the inhabitants of the adjacent territories in search of salt (Salt flats are found here) and by occasional hunters. In 1717, however, the Aksai Chin was traversed by Tsunagar invaders of Tibet, and as if, to prove that history repeats itself, the Chinese occupied the area after 243 years, in 1960. Why were the Chinese interested in this desert area? After occupying Tibet in 1950, the Chinese wanted to connect their Xinjian province and Tibet by road.

As mentioned by Mr Huttenback, the British Government addressed a letter to the authorities in Peking in 1899 suggesting a mutual delimitation of the whole Sino-Indian border. Interestingly, the letter written by Sir C M Macdonald on behalf of British India Government dealt with  Aksai Chin area also. The Chinese never replied to this proposal, nevertheless, in all their border negotiations, post 1947, both the Indian and the Chinese Communist Government have attempted to interpret this letter to their advantage, which means, this letter is well documented. We are restricting our discussion to Aksai Chin only, therefore, shall keep aside the other aspects dealt by Huttenback in his article. The map referred by Mr Huttenback suggests that more than half of the area of Akshai Chin (Eastern part) would fall in the Chinese territory, whereas, the rest of it till Karakoram pass would belong to India. Thus according to the proposal of British,  the road built through Aksai Chin by China in 1957 fall in the Chinese territory.

Source: Huttenback’s article published in China Quarterly, April-June, 1964-Map 2

China Completed building a road through Aksai Chin in 1957, but even before this, in 1956 China incorporated the whole of Aksai Chin area in their map.

Brigadier J P Dalvi, in his book, Himalayan Blunder, has written- In 1954-55, when Pandit Nehru was busy in furthering Panchsheel with zhou Enlai, the Chinese started surveying Aksai Chin to surreptitiously build a link road between Xinjiang and Tibet. India was caught napping until September, 1957, when the Chinese would announce the news of opening up an all weather road through Aksai Chin for movement of traffic. India sent a reconnaissance party to the area and one was arrested for intrusion.

Nehru decided to bite the bullet. He didn’t even inform the Parliament about the development in Aksai Chin. When questioned he gave a cryptic reply, “No particular occasion arose to bring the matter to the house because we thought we might make progress by correspondence, and when the time was ripe we would inform the house.”

One of the strangest episode of this period (1956-1958), recalls Brigadier Dalvi, is the visit of a high powered Chinese military, Naval and Air Force delegations, consisting of Marshals and Generals. To the utter amazement and consternation of the Indian Army, the delegation was sent on a sight seeing visit to every military establishment in India, with the orders to “show them everything.”

Time and again the Chinese troops intruded in parts of Ladakh and NEFA region in the late 1950’s, as if to give a wake up call to our political leaders about an impending battle. The game plan of the Chinese used to be very similar to what they have been doing in the last decade or so. They transgressed five to six kilometers inside our territory, had an eye ball to eye ball contact with our Army contingent in Ladakh or Assam Rifles in NEFA, and then all of a sudden, as if nothing had happened, would pull back. Right till 1962, Prime Minister treated such recurring Chinese incursions as isolated incidents and never contemplated any military response.

Opposition was never consulted on important matters such as, defence and foreign affairs. Why opposition, even the Prime Minister’s party colleagues were not consulted, other than perhaps the Defence Minister V  K Krishna Menon and few senior bureaucrats. Welles Hanges, the famous journalist, while commenting on the Congress party said, “(It’s a) huge, amorphous coalition of conflicting interests united in little but their self interest.” The Party was made up of  heterogeneous elements from princes to people from extreme right to extreme left, bereft of any common ideology. Without meaningful debate and compliant parliament and an adoring public, Nehru was left living in the fond hope of a peaceful settlement of Sino-Indian conflict.

An interesting episode of the parliament has been narrated by Shiv Kunal Verma, in his book, 1962: The war that was not. In August 1959, a Chinese contingent crossed the border and outflanked the Indian outpost at Longju (NEFA).  They opened fire without any provocation. The Assam Rifles suffered heavy casualties and relinquished the post. Nehru felt so perturbed that he decided to inform the house about this incident. The Prime Minister admitted that serious disputes existed between India and China regarding India-Tibet border and that several thousand square kilometers of area in Ladakh was under Chinese control. He disclosed that China has already built a road across Aksai Chin. He then acknowledged that an outpost at Lonju had been taken over by the Chinese. Finally he announced that he decided to hand over NEFA to Indian Army. The announcement was made as if to reassure the members that the Government was in the know of the problems of the border and appropriate action was on hand. Shockingly, the announcement was greeted by the congress MPs by thumping their desk. Little did they realize about its implication  and what was in store for our country! It would not be out of place to mention that the announcement to hand over NEFA to Indian Army was made without even consulting the then Chief of Army Staff General Thimayya.

Two years down the line when India faced Chinese aggression in Ladakh and NEFA region, China would come 160 to 170 kilometers inside NEFA. Bomdilla fell on 18th November and Chinese troops penetrated close to Tezpur, when, all of a sudden they declared a cease fire and moved back to the original positions.  They, however, kept Aksai Chin and a few other areas of Ladakh under their possession.

Genesis of the Border Issue

Aksai Chin has a chequered history, but the border conflict arose not due to its usurpation by China, but due to their insatiable hunger to occupy the vast land mass known as Tibet which was discretely treated by the British as buffer zone between India and China. The border crisis with China was non-existent when Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) took control of the country in 1949, as such China was not a player in our national security.  Tibet and India didn’t have any dispute over border, as Tibet accepted the Mcmohan line. Mao Zedong also considered Tibet as a separate country, a status enjoyed by Dalai Lama from an agreement with China in 1912. While the PLA was on long march they passed through the border regions of Tibet. They were provided food and shelter by the Tibetans, which was duly acknowledged by Mao Zedong: “This is our only foreign debt, and some day we must pay the Tibetans for the provisions we received from them.” (From Red star over China by Edgar Snow). However, in October 1950, the situation changed all of a sudden when People’s Liberation army made an intrusion inside Tibet and Mao Zedong proclaimed the liberation of three million Tibetans from imperialist aggression (Meaning British arrangement existing in Tibet). Tibetan Government sent SOS to Prime Minister Nehru for help. Nehru turned a deaf ear; Tibet was advised to settle the dispute peacefully with the Chinese authorities. British had always given utmost importance to the Northern border and planned it to work as a buffer state. Due to the existence of Tibet and Nepal in the Northern boundaries India had never faced any problem during British rule. The political leadership could not visualize the potential danger of northern border suddenly opening up. In the North East, China had already occupied Xinjiang which opened up Ladakh and now the entire NEFA region got exposed due to annexation of Tibet. No, I am not commenting this on the hindsight. B N Mullik, the chief of IB, advised the Govt for intervention, if possible by sending Indian troops, if not, by internationalizing the issue. Army Chief, General Cariappa refused to spare any troops for thwarting Chinese aggression in Tibet. B N Mullick later wrote in his book, Chinese Betrayal, “What Cariappa said at that time was very discouraging and disappointing because I had favoured military intervention in Tibet to save it from China.” India’s Deputy Prime Minister Ballabhbhai Patel also advocated to take up the issue strongly with China.

Later on, he wrote a letter on 7th November to Pandit Nehru highlighting the probable consequences of annexation of Tibet by China. This letter is a masterpiece from a visionary whose farsightedness in assessing the game plan of China seventy years ago is amazing, so much so that, it’s relevant about the Chinese even today. It’s a long letter, therefore, I am reproducing a few lines from it.

  1. “The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they manage to instil into our Ambassador (Indian ambassador Mr K M Panikkar advised Nehru against any military assistance to Tibet) a false sense of confidence in their so called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy.”

2. “In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now forces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates.”

3. He cautioned Nehru against Chinese imperialism in a scathing attack against communism, “Recent and bitter history also tells us that communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialist as any other….. Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous.”

4. “Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. Our defence measures have so far been based on the calculations of superiority over Pakistan. In our calculations we shall now have to reckon with with communist China in the north and in the north-east, a communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed towards us.”

5. He suggested to Nehru to step up procurement of arms, ammunition and armour, improving border roads, rails and communication system and create sufficient frontier outposts.

6. He also mentioned to reconsider India’s support to Chinese entry into UNO, “In view of the rebuff which China has given us and the method which it has followed in dealing with Tibet, I am doubtful whether we can advocate its claim any longer.”

How prophetic was Sardar Ballabhbhai Patel! So what did Nehru do on receiving this piece of advice from his deputy? He did nothing. On the contrary, when Tibet attempted to raise this issue in UNO for a discussion through El Salvador, the matter was not taken up on India’s suggestion, – ‘we shall resolve the issue mutually among India, China and Tibet’, that’s what the Indian representative said. So the matter rested there. Nehru also decided to divest Patel of his portfolios which included Home Ministry citing the reasons of his ill health. Patel was informed after the decisions were made. Sardar Patel passed away on 15th December, three days after he was stripped off his responsibility.

Nehru became busy in initiating a number of peace missions in Afro-Asian region. Taking a leaf from Buddhist philosophy, he signed Panchsheel with Zhou Enlai in 1954 to usher a peaceful co-existence among nations. Bhimrao Ambedkar commented in Rajya Sabha, “Our Prime Minister is depending on Panchsheel which has been adopted by Comrade Mao and Panchsheel which is one of the clauses in the non-aggression treaty on Tibet…….If Shri Mao had even an iota of faith in Panchsheel, he would have treated the Buddhists in his country in a different manner……..Prime Minister will realise the truth in my words when the situation matures further. By letting China take control of Lhasa, the Prime Minister, in a way, helped the Chinese to bring the armies on the Indian Borders. Any victor who annexes Kashmir can directly reach Pathankot, and I know it for sure that he can reach the Prime Minister’s house also.”

Why is Galwan valley a flash point?

The 1962 war began on October 20 in western sector, at Galwan valley. India maintained a fortification at the valley. A strong Chinese contingent intruded from Aksai Chin and started firing on our soldiers without any provocation. India lost 33 soldiers in the battle. The war had officially began. Galwan river valley has again become the flash point in 2020, when 20 Indian soldiers laid their lives on 15th June. PLA have already claimed that this valley belongs to them and India’s occupation of the valley is illegal. The importance of Galwan valley has increased manifold after construction of Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road which has eased the forward movement of troops from Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip situated at an altitude of 16500 feet. DBO airstrip had been made operational in 2005 by Air Marshal  Pranab Barbora when he along with five other Air Force officials landed an AN 32 transport aircraft on DBO. Presently, the airstrip has landing facilities for Super Hercules C130 transport plane which can carry enough troops and armour for deployment around Galwan valley.  The airstrip is located at a vantage point and its distance from Karakoram pass is only seventeen Kilometers. The place is adjacent to Chip Chap river and lies 8 kilometers south of Chinese LAC.  Aksai Chin is within striking distance from DBO airstrip. The DSDBO road moves along Shyok river. The confluence of Galwan river and Shyok river is further south of Galwan valley. So if the Chinese take control of the valley, they will be able to damage the newly built DSDBO road and cut off link to DBO airstrip which will severely impact the movement of troops and other materials. The airstrip is also important to keep the supply chain to Siachen glacier operational even during inclement weather. The following map shows the location of Galwan valley in relation to the other important spots. Galwan river originates from Aksai Chin and and joins Shyok river, as shown in the map.

Galwan flash point adjacent to the Galwan river. The valley is overlooking the Patrolling Point 14 which is very near the Line of Actual Control-Map 3

Historically, the Galwan valley was never part of the Chinese territory. Ladakh was under the occupation of the Sikhs until 1846, when they were defeated by British and entire Ladakh became part of British India. However, due to low strategic importance of the area at that time, the area between Pangong lake and Karakoram pass was left undefined. The border line drawn by Macdonald in 1999 (Map 2 of above refers) includes a portion of Aksai Chin as part of China, though it is amply clear that the confluence of Galwan and Shyok river and the valley above it, is shown under Indian occupation. At the time of independence, India adopted Johnson line (Made in 1865) which included the entire Aksai Chin under India. The Tibetan Government never objected.

It would not be out of place to turn the pages of history to know more about this region. The Galwan river valley is named after Ghulam Rasool Galwan, a resident of Ladakh, who used to accompany the Europeans on their trips to various parts of this region. Ghulam Rasool Galwan, while accompanying a team of European explorers in the late 1890’s, found out a narrow passage through the ravines to easily move ahead when they were virtually stuck by a tall wall of mountain. The leader of the expedition team, Dunmore Murray named the adjacent nullah after Galwan. Ghulam Rasool Galwan, later on, became very close to Francis Younghusband, a British explorer and started to work as his guide to travel to various parts of Ladakh and Tibet. With his help he wrote a book, Servant of sahibsa book to be read aloud. Ghulam Rasool has written about his ancestor Karra Galwan who was a robber and was hanged by the Maharaja. According to Rasool, Galwan in Kasmiri means robber. Rasool knew only 14 to 15 words of English. That he could compile a travelogue spanning the vast terrains of Ladakh, Xinjiang, Tibet and Kashmir speaks volume about his grit and determination. He has narrated quite a number of incidents of altercation with the Chinese.  However, since the stories are not much of relevance in the present context, I will close this episode with an interesting incident narrated by Rasool about their encounter with a group of Chinese. While travelling from Khotan to Keriya (both these places are located in Xinjiang) in a carriage, they got involved into a brawl with a Chinese group who were travelling from the opposite end. Rasool Galwan’s friends, Razan Akhun and Kalam Rasul took out knives to attack the Chinese. The Chinese also took out knives to fight. In Rasool Galwan’s own words, “When I begged the Chinese,then stopped the fight. But the friends got angry. Then he said-You are a foolish man as a mad man. This matter will bring bad luck, and you will kill some men; then will bring a bad name for the sahibs. This is no good, anybody to fighting in next country.”

Are the Chinese people listening?

Pangong Tso was a Place of Tranquility, but no More

I still remember my trip to Ladakh in 2006, when I had some intimate discussions with the army personnel. The situation in Ladakh, at that time, was peaceful. Indian Army had  an outpost at the mouth of Pangong, from where they used to patrol on the lake by boat. The serene beauty of the surrounding mountains reminded me of Omar Sharif’s adventure in search of a canyon full of gold in the famous Hollywood block bluster Mackenna’s Gold. The lake is 13o kilometers long, out of which a third belongs to India and rest to Tibet. The water of the lake is bit salty, definitely not potable. One amazing feature of water of the lake is its change of colour throughout the day, obviously due to the reflection of various colourful mountains surrounding it.

Photo of Pangong Tso taken by me in 2006

The area’s strategic importance is not so much when we compare it with Galwan valley or Depsang, nonetheless, the Chinese made sufficient forward movement of their troops in this area in 1962 war. At present, there is a difference of opinion between the PLA and Indian Army about the line of actual control in Pangong lake. India claims that its territory extends up to finger 8 as against the Chinese claim that the area between finger 4 and 8 belongs to them. A finger is defined as mountain ridge protruding in the lake. The approximate length of the area between finger 4 and 8 is eight kilometers. India has established a post at finger 4. The Chinese side, on the other hand have already created bunkers and semi permanent structure on the hill located at finger 4. This has put a stop to the patrolling of India soldiers beyond finger 4.

Though not strategically important, incursion by Chinese in this area could be part of a bigger game plan-Map 4 (Photo credit: Mr Himankan Kashyap)

As shown in the map, the Foxhole point located near finger 4 falls inside Indian LAC, but it’s presently occupied by China.

Khurnak fort located in the midway of Pangong lake (On the northern side of the lake, on the tip of Aksai Chin-map 2 refers) has also been a point of dispute between the Chinese and the Indians. The fort was under Indian control and they had a post there. However, the Chinese wrested control of the fort around July, 1958. In 1962 they further advanced up to Sirijap, the area around finger 8. The Chinese decided to forgo the land captured by them in NEFA, after declaring ceasefire, however, they kept control of Pangong tso upto finger 8 which has since become the LAC. Therefore, the Chinese claim of extending its LAC up to finger 4 is disputed by India.

Need for a Course Correction in India’s China Policy

It’s evident from our analysis that Chinese incursion in different parts of Ladakh are not isolated incidents. These are well orchestrated moves by the PLA of China with the backing of their top leadership. History of the Chinese Communist Party for the  last seventy years is enough to indicate that these moves are akin to the forward movement of a pawn in a chess game to be followed by tactical movement of bishop or rook to put your enemy surrounded.  Whether we call it a sinister design to establish a hegemony in Asia, or for that matter in the whole Afro-Asian region and Europe, or to ruthlessly decimate all democratic principles at home or abroad, we cannot but agree that its leadership is looking much ahead of us. There is, of course, no denying the fact that they have some advantages – upholding the doctrine of state capitalism, censoring media & press, backing powerful army to crush any opposition and the list goes on. When a single individual heads the legislature, executive and judiciary of a country, all decisions will be thick and fast unlike in a democratic set up. The National People’s Congress of China has removed the two term limit on Presidency and made Xi Jinping the life long President of the country. Xi Jinping has drawn an ambitious vision document 2050 to commemorate centenary of people’s revolution in China. He formulated a massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in 2013 spanning across Asia, Africa and part of Europe. He roped in sixty countries accounting for two thirds of global population. However, some of the prominent global leaders (which includes Modi), have stated that Xi’s idea is heavily biased towards his geopolitical ambition than it being an economic project. Modi objected to the construction of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is part of BRI. CPEC passes through the disputed area of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Recently India also quit the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) consisting of 10 ASEAN nations, citing reasons for not providing adequate protection to India’s agricultural sector. China knows that India has decided to quit the forum to counter, dumping of cheap Chinese products into India. Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) consisting of India, Australia, Japan and USA has been formed much to the discomfiture of China, because it is seen as an initiative to oppose China’s continued militarization attempt to control strategic waterways in Asia-Pacific region.

Some of these decisions have irked Xi Jinping who has started to view India as the only road block in his ambitious expansionist plan in Asia. What can China do to teach India a lesson? The same what they did in 1962. India has an amorphous border of 3500 kilometers with China. So it wants to create disturbances along the border. In the eventuality of a war, India will fight a war either in its own land or in Tibet, but not in China, because China has created a buffer zone in 1950 by forcibly occupying Tibet. If China can position its soldiers in Nepal (not talking of today, but in the long run), parts of Eastern UP, Bihar will also be exposed.

Chinese leadership has been opposing India at the slightest pretext, using its veto power at the Security Council to support Pakistan and stall every proposal raised by India. China of today has objected to India’s entry to NSG, vehemently opposed its membership to Security Council, used its veto to the UN proposal to label Masood Azhar a global terrorist. We do appreciate Modi’s strong will power to thwart the Chinese programme of BRI in India. But, unfortunately, his other actions on China do not corroborate such mental toughness.  It may sound bizarre, but both Modi and Xi are traversing the path of their founder fathers in formulating their bilateral policy with the neighbours-Modi’s bellicose attitude with Pakistan and soft pedaling with stronger neighbor China remind us of the Nehruvian  approach of 1950’s; Xi’s brinkmanship, on the other hand, cast him in the mold of autocratic and expansionist leader, Mao Zedong.

Modi has met the Chinese President 18 times, yes 18 times in the last six years to foster friendship. Obviously, he has in mind, China’s aggressive posture, enormous economic and military strength.  Therefore, it’s indeed debatable, if you can call it friendship or an appeasement policy. China is champion in playing a mind game. The Chinese military power house is testing and teasing India likewise they did in the 1950’s. But the days of appeasing the Asian giant are over after what has happened at Galwan Valley. If the medieval barbarism unleashed by the Chinese is a not a wake up call, then what would it be?  Now is the time to openly despise China for its aggressive mannerisms in Hong Kong and raise our voice for the Uighurs in Xinjiang province of China. Fast tracking the infrastructure project in the border areas, installing state of the art electronic surveillance system, deploying Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for strike at short notice are to be planned in advance, not when we have the enemy at our door step. Sardar Patel talked about improving border roads in 1950. We have taken 20 years (2001-2020) to complete the construction of DSDBO road. Had it been completed in 2012, its original schedule, we wouldn’t have to face this ignominy today. Prime Minister Modi has to take a call to review his China policy. He had risked investing enormous political capital in one man, wasted so much time, energy to construct a relationship with a leadership which is imperious, domineering, ruthless and not trustworthy.

India’s reaction time, though late, appears to be adequate to win the psychological warfare. If need be, hopefully, India will not shy away to give a befitting reply in the valley. One important change which needs serious consideration by the Foreign Ministry, is permitting Indian troops to intrude into Chinese unguarded  territory else where. These occupied spots can subsequently be used as leverage to free those areas infringed upon by them at Pangong lake and Galwan valley. We must not allow history to repeat itself. We must not languish in grief when a Prime Minister of a country had to say, “Perhaps there are not many instances in history where one country (i.e, India) has gone out her way to be friendly and cooperative with the Government and people of another country (i.e, China) and to plead their cause to the councils of the world, and that country returns evil for good.”

3 thoughts on “Time for Elephant to Break the Shackles”

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