The little Chinese misadventure is over but only because India agreed to raze the fortified observation post at Chumar well inside its territory. The restoration of status quo based on such surrender provides China with a ready excuse to march into Indian territory again, with an undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) legitimating armed intrusions. Peace bought by concessions cannot last.
Even so, the Indian Army is lucky because, like in 1962, it was being set up as scapegoat. Last week, a former “media adviser to the Prime Minister”, Sanjaya Baru, blamed the Army for “intelligence failure” resulting, he implied, in the Manmohan Singh government being caught unawares by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) advance 19 kms inside India. Every kilometre deep intrusion means potential loss on average of some 75 square kilometre of territory. The former Army Chief, Gen. Ved Malik, also on the same TV programme, was so flabbergasted by Mr Baru’s charge that he couldn’t collect his wits in time to explain that the management of the border with China is policed by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) under the supervision of the benighted home ministry. On another TV show, he had described this border management system as “laughable”. While the Army conducts its own field intelligence, it is the ITBP’s responsibility to keep the government apprised of developments on the border as well as the denizens of North Block in charge. How Sardar Patel, the first and last great home minister, who early apprehended the threat posed by the Chinese occupation of Tibet must be, proverbially speaking, turning in his grave!
Of course, the anomaly of why a paramilitary force is tasked with protection of a live border with China, when the Border Security Force on the side with Pakistan — an adversary of lesser consequence — is entirely under Army command, has to be explained by the Indian government, especially since there is evidence that this fundamentally flawed arrangement isn’t working. Such a system of border control is apparently in place because it fits in with the thinking of the China Study Group (CSG) and its Mandarin-speaking members, mostly former diplomats, who are convinced that the paramilitary forces headed by police officers, even though sub-professional and boasting of no fighting qualities worth the name, are controllable, take dictation better than the Army, and hence can be relied on in situations on the LAC, where inertness and lack of initiative are prized.
Between the CSG and the ministry for external affairs combine and its inapt tool, the ITBP, the country’s interests are in peril. The fear of escalation has become a psychosis, leading New Delhi to raise non-reaction to Chinese provocation to high principle. Situations are allowed to drift in the hope that by not responding and, therefore, not offering the Chinese “provocation” in return, Beijing will eventually pull out its troops. This is what happened in the Rokah Nullah area this time around — it was a bigger probing action than anything the PLA has mounted recently. More such incidents can be expected, any of which, in the face of predictably meagre response, may lead to permanent realignment of LAC and cutting off of access to the Siachen Glacier.
This leaves the Army up a creek because without accessible roads it is left with no sustainable proactive strategy at all in the face of the Chinese allowing themselves the leeway to intrude at will anywhere along the LAC. Remarkably, it is the Indian government itself that is the villain — delaying the building of an extensive network of metalled, all-weather roads up to the LAC, especially in the extended area designated “sub-sector North” radiating northwest-wards and northeast-wards from Daulat Beg Oldi that the Third Infantry Division of the Leh-based 14 Corps is responsible for. It is a sobering thought that where road connectivity is concerned the conditions have not much improved from 1958 when Jawaharlal Nehru’s “forward strategy” began to be implemented.
There may be no border roads but a number of advanced landing grounds have been spruced up in the last decade at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma in the Ladakh sector to operate frontline combat aircraft. This is all very well except that the availability of airborne ground attack capability in no way helps 14 Corps to respond fast and in kind to Chinese actions, which requires a quick marshalling of units whenever and wherever the LAC is breached. The Indian Air Force is unlikely, in any case, to be ordered into action short of a fairly major conflict as its use is inherently escalatory. In the event, air power cannot substitute or compensate for the lack of land power options, and can no more deter aggressive Chinese moves across the LAC than the appeasement-laced diplomatic fidgeting that passes for India’s China policy.
Even as the PLA is able to muster a rapidly deployable, airborne, Division-sized force at any point on the LAC within a couple of days, amassing a similar formation on the Indian side is beyond the Indian Army’s ken in the main because of the absence of motorable roads. The Indian government’s lack of will to put national security ahead of lesser concerns is incomprehensible. Letters from Army headquarters to the Prime Minister and other pooh-bahs in government pleading for roads and other infrastructure are routinely ignored. Such criminal negligence by the Indian government has led to border projects worth some Rs 30,000 crore hanging fire because of environmental clearances and land acquisition problems. That has allowed China to whittle away Indian territory. Such laxness and complacency on the part of the government can no longer be tolerated because it permits brazen land-grabs and aggressive acts by China.
It is imperative that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh takes two immediate decisions — of handing over the charge of the China border to the Army and getting the Cabinet Committee on Security to override all objections from ministries and departments of government obstructing infrastructure development, and order construction of border roads on a war-footing.
[Published in the ‘Ásian Age’ May 9, 2013, at http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/price-inaction-604 and in Deccan Chronicle at http://www.deccanchronicle.com/130509/commentary/commentary-columnists/commentary/price-inaction