India does not have a good record when it comes to negotiating post-military success. With the 161 Brigade under ‘Bogey’ Sen poised to take Muzzafarabad, Nehru decided to halt all operations in the 1947-48 conflict over the erstwhile princely kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir and trust the UN to resolve the issue. In 1965, at the Tashkent peace talks that the Soviet Union hosted to end the “war” with Pakistan, the diminutive Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri succumbed to the size-wise towering Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s plea for “rahmat” (kindness) and unthinkingly returned the Haji Pir Bulge to Pakistan, whose capture lopped off some 200 kms between Jammu and Srinagar. It laid waste to the singularly bold and resolute effort by 1 Para commanded by Major (later Lieutenant General) Ranjit Singh Dyal, MVC, that led to the capture of this salient from where Pakistan had infiltrated its soldiers in mufti into the Srinagar Valley as part of Operation Gibraltar, and has ever since done the same with jihadis.
Such stupidity was repeated six years later and then in trumps when, instead of imposing a victor’s peace — which is never fair or equitable to the losing party and so sanctified by international law, and compelling Pakistan to hand over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan to India and formalizing the boundary or, at a minimum, cementing what is now the Line of Control in J&K into a delineated border, Indira Gandhi unconditionally returned 93,000 Pakistani Prisoners of War in Bangladesh to Pakistan. She was persuaded to do so by Pakistan PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s promise of delivering on this latter boundary solution once he stabilized the political situation back home. That Bhutto desperately needed this generous Indian gesture to establish his creds with GHQ, Rawalpindi, and to shore up his domestic standing and support was known to Indira’s advisers in Simla, not that they or the PM cared. India thus surrendered the single most significant leverage Delhi had to obtain a permanent politico-military fix for Kashmir, and said Good Bye to the last opportunity for durable peace in South Asia.
Sure, the situation in eastern Ladakh is nowhere comparable to these previous military successes, nor is it militarily settled in any way. After parroting for four months the Chinese-cum-Indian government/MEA line that the indistinct LAC was the reason for China’s aggression, and expecting Delhi to resolve the matter by reasoning with the Chinese at the twin (military and diplomatic) negotiating table, the army brass finally stirred. And then only because prime minister Modi prodded them. During his briefing in Nimu, Ladakh, he reportedly told Rawat, Naravane, Harinder & Co. to tell him what the army would do, not what the Chinese had done.
The actions to preemptively occupy the commanding heights (Black Top, Magar Hill, etc) in the mountains on the southern shore of the Pangong Tso followed and are fine, coming as a relief after an unbelievable period of passivity. But these cannot be counted as other than minor tactical gains that surprised the PLA. The Chinese plainly did not expect the Indian forces to take even such small initiatives. Whatever else these actions achieved, Beijing was alerted to India stiffening its spine somewhat and, after four months of unresisted occupation activity that may have added in excess of 60-odd sq kms in the Galwan and the Pangong (Fingers 4 to 8) areas to China’s bag, signaling it is in the game after all.
But now, Russia’s peacemaking foray intervenes. S Jaishankar, the giveaway expert — how can we forget the unforgetable! — the 2008 nuclear deal where he handed India’s nuclear testing option on a platter to Washington? — in the Foreign Office riding herd as minister, heads for Moscow, there to confer, September 9-11, with his Chinese and Russian counterparts, Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov, respectively. Ostensibly to transact whatever Shanghai Cooperation Organization business there is to handle, Lavrov will push Jaishankar and Wang to, on the sidelines, hammer out a deal to end the Sino-Indian confrontation. That, in the process, Putin-ite Russia’s reputation as honest broker and go-between will be polished, explains Moscow’s motivation.
But what and where’s the danger? It lies in neither Modi nor Xi Jinping to-date saying anything that is directly accusatory or about the other’s culpability for things going askew in Ladakh. Modi has been scrupulous in avoiding making any reference to Chinese annexation of Indian territory and has consoled himself and the country by drawing an analogy to the “chakradhari” Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata epic and such like — how aptly I cannot say because my reading of English translations has been episodic, even as Xi has waxed authoritative about sinicizing the stubborn Dalai Lama-loving Tibetans. So, unless Modi gives the clearest instructions to Jaishankar, like the direct and clear order by the short time PM Deve Gowda to Arundhati Ghose, the Indian ambassador to the UN disarmament conference, to veto the draft comprehensive test ban treaty that was in the works in Geneva and which the Indian government was being pressured to sign, Jaishankar may take it upon himself to sell Indian interests down the drain.
Delhi’s declared position is that it wants the restoration of the status quo ante and rejects the Chinese terms of the two sides withdrawing an equal distance from wherever their forces currently find themselves. Jaishankar may believe that he can convince Modi that because this is all the give Wang offered him, and because peace with Xi’s China is so much the PM’s personal stake and priority, that he took it. Whence the Indian army will be asked to back down from the heights in the Chushul sector even as the PLA by and large retains its position on the newly realigned LAC there as also on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso.
Twenty-two years ago, the establishment IDSA journal — ‘Strategic Analysis’ published a research paper of mine in its January 1998 issue [“Getting Tough with China” (https://idsa.in/system/files/BhartKarnad1998.pdf — my name is misspelled in the URL!]. It argued for “equitable” not “equal” security, showing just why the peace and tranquility agreement signed by Narasimha Rao in 1996 was injurious to the national interest, as it required the two forces to pullback 40 kms. And how, in “as the crow flies”-terms, especially in the east, it would mean the Indian army backing all the way down to the foothills even as the PLA remains on the Tibetan Plateau in striking distance of the LAC. I had suggested that the pullback distance should involve the time it takes either side to mobilize a certain military mass on the LAC in each of the sectors. Should this be the Indian negotiating standard today, it would have to additionally factor in the differential in the extent and quality of the border infrastructure (roads, telecom connectivity, etc) which, in a comprehensive agreement, would necessitate the PLA retreating all long the disputed border roughly, at a minimum, to the west-east line Rutog-Shiquanhe-Zanda-Zhongba-Xigase-Yarlung-Bowo-Zayu. This, incidentally, in some ways is the true measure of the conventional military superiority the PLA presently enjoys over the Indian army in a long war.
In the shorter time frame, however, India is not that severely disadvantaged. And the Indian army may be better off carrying out actions in eastern Ladakh to permanently entrench itself on the heights that it has recently secured. And more particularly, it should get on with forcefully displacing the PLA from the Y-junction in the Depsang Plains and to occupy the tops of the range abutting on the eastern bank of the Shyok River in a salutary show of strength and intent, to protect the new highway to Daulat Beg Oldi and maintain its proximity to the Karakorum Highway. And Indian Special Forces (SF), with the Tibetan-manned Special Frontier Force and the Ladakh Scouts in the van with the Navy’s marine commando coming in from lake-side in a pincer attack, ought to be tasked with eliminating the PLA strong points on the ridges above Fingers 4 to 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Tso. Fast-moving SFs are better suited for such ops than even the acclimated troops of the new mountain offensive corps. This part of Ladakh was inaccessible in 1962, a fact the PLA mercilessly exploited. In 2020 with the stocking and prepositioning of stores proceeding apace, the Indian Air Force in the worst case will hopefully be able to sustain an air bridge, periodically topping off supplies for forwardly deployed Indian formations in the winter.
One fervently prays the CDS General Rawat finds the above suggestions to be, in his own words from another context, “the best, suitable” course for the Indian military to follow. It will free Modi to tell Jaishankar to engage Wang in pleasantries about the Bolshoi theatre’s current production of Don Carlo, and do nothing else. The less our foreign minister is asked to do by way of negotiating, the less harm he will end up doing the country.