Prepare for limited war– Modi in Nimu, Ladakh

PM Modi reaches Leh to review security situation, interact with ...
Modi, after landing in Ladakh

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had four aims in mind for his quick turnaround trip to Ladakh — the scene of the fiercest Indian hand-to-Chinese nails-studded baton fighting that led to the loss on June 15 of 20 personnel of a battalion of the 16 Bihar Regiment, including its CO Lt Col Santosh Babu.

The PM sought to (1) show support for the forces deployed in this high-altitude battlefield, (2) reassure the Indian people who have been disappointed by the BJP government’s stupefied inaction in the face of the unexpected Chinese tactics and occupation of territory on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, (3) clean up his smudged nationalist image with optics showing him as a wartime leader on the frontline amidst Indian soldiers, and (4) signal President Xi Jinping that the cask of the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit has run dry, and were China to resort to further armed hostilities the Indian military would respond in kind. Whether this signal will be properly received and how Beijing will react to it, of course, remains to be seen. But at least and finally the PM conveyed his resolve and the army’s to stand their ground.

Except, and this is the troubling part, a senior army commander — it must have been one of the three senior most officers accompanying the Prime Minister — the Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, Army Chief General MM Naravane, or the General Officer Commanding XIV Corps Lt Gen Harinder Singh, undercut the ostensible thrust of Modi’s message by revealing to a newspaper the more limited type of operations contemplated by the Modi government and the army. “We have no intention of initiating any skirmish”, this officer is quoted as saying, “but any aggression from the other side will be fully repelled.”

This means India will undertake no military actions to remove the People’s Liberation Army units entrenched on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso in Indian territory, and right smack on the LAC at Gogra and Hot Springs, disrespecting the No Man’s Land separating the two sides on the Line from where the intruding PLA troops may or may not be evicted. But that the army will react in case there are further Chinese attempts to grab Indian land. This is to say that China gets to keep the territory it has already occupied at the first two sites and, for all intents and purposes, annexed. In this context, was Modi’s trip an eyewash to conceal the Indian government’s policy of not contesting the Indian territory expropriated by China? It fits in with the totality of statements issued by both governments in recent weeks. My worst fears (expressed in the May 25 post on this blog) have thus come true: Indian forces in eastern Ladakh were presented with a new territorial fait accompli which the Modi regime has accepted. Alas, this lonely Cassandra may, once again, be proved right.

Addressing the troops Modi said “The weak can never accomplish peace, the brave do.” This uplifting sentiment was undermined by an infirm grasp of international affairs and a somewhat shaky sense of history. “The age of expansionism” the PM declaimed, “is over, this is the age of development” and added “History is witness that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.” That both these statements suggest just the opposite is apparent from the record of Sino-Indian relations and in the history unfolding in real time in Ladakh. A powerful expansionist China far from being punished and forced out of its ill-gotten territorial gains is, in fact, being rewarded by the victimized state (India) quietly reconciling to loss of territory. This impulse of China’s is manifested everywhere on its periphery — in the South China Sea where its Nine-dash Line encompasses almost all of this Sea, and now in the capture of India’s Galwan Valley and the Indian part of the northern shore of the Pangong Lake. This reality on the ground mocks Modi words!

To make it more farcical still, Modi chose on this occasion to channel his inner Donald Trump! Not once mentioning China by name in his address, he told the assembled troops that the enemy “has seen your fire and fury”, presumably at the June 15 Galwan clash, and received a strong, direct message. It may be recalled that in the wake of the threat of missile strikes by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in August 2017, Trump warned North Korea that it “will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Modi rounded off with a trifle too high praise for the military, saying “You have proven time and again that the Indian armed force is mightier and better than everyone else in the world.” Such talk may bolster the spirits of the Indian mountain infantrymen who may be asked to fight at these forbidding heights. But the danger is that it may lull the military brass into their customary complacency. After all, if the Indian military is all that good, taking back the territory annexed by China should pose no real problems.

But to revert to the PM’s utterance about the inability of the weak to accomplish peace, unfortunately, it is India that is the weak party — its military, economic, diplomatic disparity with China too great to gloss over but too obvious for Modi to openly acknowledge. The sheer imbalance of power may leave India with dire options. Should China not peacefully vacate its occupation of Indian territory in toto, the limited war the Indian armed forces would have to undertake to roll-up and push out the aggressor PLA units will necessarily have to be backed by the threat of first use of nuclear weapons (the case for which is argued in extenso in my latest book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’). 

Activating the nuclear arsenal by bringing into the theatre mobile Agni missiles as nuclear cover for conventional operations is unavoidable. It will test the mettle and the political will and nerve of the Prime Minister. Modi better not fail.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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40 Responses to Prepare for limited war– Modi in Nimu, Ladakh

  1. Rajesh says:

    Good Evening Dr. Karnad,

    In your opinion, if or when there is a limited conflict with China to regain the lost territory- Do you think Pakistan will allow its bases & infrastructure to be used by China?

    • The PLA/PLAAF may get to use Pak military facilities under Force Command Northern Area (FCNA). But Pakistan will not directly initiate hostilities with India.

      • manofsan says:

        Pak has plenty of jihadis to initiate hostilities with India, one Uri at a time, one Pulwama at a time, and one Kargill at a time. If there is a war with China (and even a 2nd front with Pak), will this give us enough diplomatic cover to do a Pokhran-3 (thermonuclear) test?

      • India does not need any political cover for resuming N-tests. It is weak-kneed Indian govts that have opted out.

    • Karnad Sir is right. But there was a Divine Matrix’, secret exercise by the army’s military operations: In 2009. Summary:
      Indian Army is fully prepared for a two-and-a-half front (China, Pakistan and internal security requirements simultaneously) war.

  2. Sohamg says:

    Is Nepal’s condemnation and widespread outrage against Oli for being a lapdog of china a natural reaction? Or is it being supported or fuelled by India? Does India have the ability and will to bring atleast a puny country like nepal to its knees? Or are we still playing goody goody and sticking to ‘Ek din’ ?

  3. Pradeep says:

    Sadly there is a total lack of understanding what it takes to build National Power and the Role of Armed Forces as force multipliers to National Power. That’s what makes a nation strong .
    It’s too late for skirmishes to kick out the Chinese now.
    More focus on elections and face saving.

  4. Raju says:

    Good Evening Sir,
    What do you think about recent defence approvals by DCA ?

  5. Ravi says:

    60 percent land of china including east turkestan,tibet,manchuria,inner mongolia,yunnan etc is annexed land over centuries of chinese imperialism.Most of these are han majority now due to demographic change.china was always expansionist power in the history. Even in this era where scope for expansion is extremely limited they are trying to make baluchistan a han chinese majority through cpec,grab the land as much as possible in south china sea,ladakh,nepal,sikkim,bhutan and arunachal pradesh,annex taiwan if opportunity comes,colonize the entire world through OBOR and dependence on chinese products,loot the resources of poor countries through debt china is imperial power of 21st century.all major western and asian powers should combine and defeat this imperial chinese.

    • Chinese greedily eye Russian Far East. Russian population is shrinking. So Russians will be cautious. They won’t forget 1969.

      • manofsan says:

        Also, plenty of “ancient Chinese maps” showing Russian Far East as belonging to China. The city of Vladivostok is claimed to have been once part of the Qing dynasty. All of Mongolia is also claimed to be part of China, just as is Korea. Now that China has wholly swallowed Hong Kong, then I’d imagine once they manage to get Taiwan, they’d then naturally turn their sights on Mongolia and Korea, before moving on to Russia’s Far East.

  6. Bharat kumar says:

    Officials like r.chidambaram and others who do every possible things against national interest would there be a possibility of nuclear secrets being compromised by them… Our nuclear scientist being killed in mysterious circumstances in the past. Is there any link between these things….

    • It has happened in the past. But then the entire edifice leaks. Recall that the preparations in the late 1980s for N-tests were leaked to the US by someone in the office of Mr Alexander, then Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister!

  7. Kunal ( ENGINEERING STUD) says:

    Sir ,Indian Military is at backfoot. Its upto PLA ,they want a limited war or a full fledged war. Can we really expect that there will be a limited war if we want to kick out PLA from our property?

    • Escalation will be China’s call.

      • manofsan says:

        Can we escalate in other ways, like economically? Some in the business sector claim we can’t totally decouple, but surely we can compel more transparency in calling out the business interests who are heavily involved with China, so that the public can apply their pressure through power of choice.

  8. Anonymous says:

    So much for rational decision making by strategic china experts.The bunch of intellectual moral jokers, bhojraj bureaucrats and the famed china study circle can now go around advocating strategic restraint (which I later understood is just a fancy word for doing nothing, just to make it sound intellectual without any substance so that common people don’t understand). It’s quite puzzling that inspite all this nothing will come out, no amount of humiliation will have any detrimental effect on the way India functions, it’s pretty rigid there. Resumption of testing nuclear weapons and using it as shield as advocated by you which the China experts found as irresponsible behavior is a necessity now. This is a result of sheer negligence on part of GOI. You have advocated all these things all these years and GOI was aware of it. Still it didn’t prepare and now what’s the point. GOI’s famed bureaucrats and even armed forces are prepared to lose so much for fight to win — it was only for Pakistan and not China.

  9. Bhaskar says:

    “We have no intention of initiating”, this officer is quoted as saying, “any skirmish but any aggression from the other side will be fully repelled.” It depends on what is aggression.
    If occupying Psango Lake is not aggression then why the talks?
    Which means if talks fail to bring any result the field is wide open for any action.
    The statements seem to be actually a little confusing and still cautious.
    Don’t you think that it could be face saving task of some sort for the government if talks fail & India
    is to give up territory now that this has been brought in the limelight by media?

    • Which is what I have warned against. Read my previous posts.

    • Jar says:

      How many years does it take to make any meaningful reforms and have a deterrent capability? Till then what can be used so we are not attacked as our economy is down? Is there really intent to use nuclear weapons or they are for just show? Even if we intend to use nuclear weapon the exchange ratio won’t be the same as with Pakistan.

  10. Karthik says:

    Sir- I agree with all your previous posts and large part of this one too..except Modi has no option but to risk a limited conflict for which he’s just buying time—getting Rafales,upgrading current aircraft and purchasing and expediting their delivery. It may seem inaction and inertia for many including me for a while. Particularly because there are important elections coming up (although clear front-runners to win Bihar and a tight scrap in WB) Modi is known to go to elections preferably with a high profile win in the bag as a campaign strategy( Balakot, Art. 370 etc). It surely cannot be just mere statements or banning some apps. So his own image of a strong and nationalist leader will make war inevitable in terms of going to a limited war as you said with China albeit by default. Hope we come up trumps. Please advise.

  11. vivek says:

    beat time to test agni 6 and H-bomb

  12. Bharat kumar says:

    In the INS ARIHANT accident the hatch being kept open and propulsion compartment being damaged . Is it a sabotage attempt or was it a navy smoke screen to recharge nuclear fuel in the reactor…

  13. Pratap AR says:


    As per your statement,the IA does not have the required strength to take on the Chinese and a Nuclear First Use posture would be required.Is it worth to go into a war for the territory lost when we are in a weak position economically due to the pandemic? .Is it not better to bide time and hit back when we are in better shape?Is the loss of territory huge and have any strategic advantage for the Chinese?

  14. Vikrant says:

    Indian defence forces have gotten morbidly fat on the diet of imported weapons. They are used to fighting the scrawny western neighbour by imposing their sheer size, but China poses a challenge, It’s muscular and bigger, hence the reluctance. Imported weapons can give you the win over an economically and militaraly smaller neighbour in a limited or a prolonged war. On the other hand, to fight economically and militaraly stronger power you need an industrial might, without which the defeat is assured. Prolonged war with a bigger power requires multipronged approach, wherein the kinetic approach is the least efficient and most costly. Whereas economic, technological, cyber, information and political approaches can be sustained for a longer period of time. Especially for a dysfunctional democracy like ours, with its dangerously delusional constitutional, social and political structure which is only suited for island nations and not the one on whose east and west flank sits imperialistic Islamic states and on the other flank imperialist Left-wing state.

    I’d rather have us swallow this defeat and prepare for the long war by decoupling than win this battle and go back to the strategy of propping up China by doing business with them. Modi would have to show restraint and acumen in the face bellicose yelping by Indian Trumps( Rahul Gandhi. Kejriwal…).

    This incident is the failure of intelligence which must not be repeated again.

  15. Sohamg says:

    The chinese have gone back 2 kms in galwan.But still isn’t some of our territory in galwan still in their hands?

  16. Surya says:

    Mr.Karnad I think you have taken Modi’s Fire and Fury incorrectly he wasn’t copying trump but Fire and Fury is the name of 14 Corps Leh.

  17. Karthik says:

    Sir- don’t you think the Chinese wanted exactly this..NSA reaching out to their FM which makes us look that we are the ones backing down and desperate for ‘talks’ ? I think that was a bad move especially juxtaposing Modi’s visit to Ladakh. All this now seems just bluster and PR!

  18. Kunal ( ENGINEERING STUD) says:

    I think they want to test us and tire us and embarrass us

  19. Kunal ( ENGINEERING STUD) says:

    Now china is supplying armed drones to pakistan

  20. varunsharma005 says:

    Have little knowledge myself but it seems to me this Galwan and rhetoric of China was just to divert the focus of world from Corona Virus to national security. It’s China game plan to test the New India by provoking it to see what its limits are.

  21. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir. What do you make of recent dis-engagement? I think the India is on backfoot bcz for the next 30 days we won’t be able to patrol till PP14 (the clash site), which means we are not free in our own territory now. Further the talks from both sides that the recent conflict should not deteriorate the relations-clearly shows India still wants to embrace China. These are clear signs of slavish mentality.

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