Modi’s reverse “no risk it, no biscuit” policy in Ladakh

Chinese Ladakh misadventure catalyses plans for strategic roads, tunnels  and bridges- The New Indian Express
[Indian troops moving to forward positions]

Four months into the Chinese annexation of Indian territory in eastern Ladakh, specifically in the Galwan Valley, the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang area, and in the stretch of the northern shore of the Pangong Lake from Fingers 3 to 8, the BJP government is unwilling to call China out.

Its case is that while the PLA intrusions and build-up are in the ‘dead zone’ 2kms on either side of the Line of Actual Control — meaning in the 4km belt astride it, there otherwise is no hint of Chinese aggression! This in the face of overwhelming evidence that the PLA has indeed gobbled up Indian land and will not stir out of it for any reason. If the government hopes that it will be able to leverage the “preemptive” occupation of Black Top and other peaks by the Indian army in the Kailash Range south and southeastwards of the Pangong, around the Spanggur Gap, to get the PLA out of where it has encroached and is now consolidating its presence, then it has misread China’s intentions terribly enough to render Indian diplomacy it is banking on, futile. Not that it has prevented foreign minister S Jaishankar from doing the obligatory rounds of Moscow, etc. and hoping to realize by these means the restoration of the status quo ante.

In this reality denial mode, the ruling party in Parliament yesterday stuffed the opposition, daring it to not support the motion of support for the armed forces in this their time of trial. The positive vote was then construed as a general backing for government policy. Neat! Except this policy teeters between doing nothing to reverse the Chinese capture of Indian territory and approving military actions, such as taking Black Top, etc., that while disadvantaging PLA forces some in that sub-sector, did not in its execution entail great risk of things going wrong.

On the basis of what the Indian army has done and not done in Ladakh so far, several worrisome aspects of Prime Minister’s approach driving Indian policy are becoming clear. Modi definitely does not want more Indian casualties. Containing the public ire after the gruesome killing by the PLA troops of the 16 Bihar Regiment personnel June 15 was a touch and go thing, and resisting the people’s desire for just retribution a delicate political operation the Modi regime barely pulled off.

The lesson learned was that the best way of avoiding Indian deaths on the LAC is to avoid hostilities as much as possible. Nor is Modi in a mood to countenance military escalation for any reason. This rules out any action by the army to force the Chinese out of areas on the Indian side of LAC they are presently entrenched in.

The August 29 Black Top action, in the event, was a perfect symbolic act showing a strong Indian army that far from taking guff from the PLA was taking the fight to the Chinese. Except it involved little real risk to Indian troops, as it was “preemptive” action. It was sort of the Ladakhi version of the Balakot strike on the other front. There was less physical harm done the adversary than that the operation suggested a dynamic Indian response and salved India’s ego.

Escalation has been avoided also by studiously ignoring the inconvenient fact of PLA’s territorial aggrandizement by rhetorically beating around every bush but that one. Modi has thus at once legitimated the Chinese moves and absorption of Indian territory into the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’, incentivized President Xi Jinping to stop the PLA from grabbing more Indian territory than it had perhaps planned to do but far more land than Modi wants to lug around as political liability.

This has led to a counter Indian military build-up but one that seems designed for the army to stay put, weather the winter, rather than fight the PLA. It serves Modi’s aim of capping the military confrontation at the existing level of to-ing and fro-ing.

This is the logic of Modi’s “no casualties and no military escalation, at all cost”-approach, his brave sounding words during his day-trip to Nimu with references to the sudarshanchakra wielding Lord Krishna notwithstanding. After all, when the Modi regime, indirectly claims in Parliament that there’s no sign of Chinese aggression anywhere, nothing that cannot be explained by the indistinctness of the LAC on the ground, there’s no reason for Beijing to either disagree or, importantly, be disagreeable.

Happily, this policy conforms to the Indian armed services’ mindset of not provoking the PLA, not taking ‘pangas’ with the Chinese. And it is in line with the country’s traditionally defensive-passive-reactive military posture where China is concerned. Except, Modi’s over-cautious policy is the reverse of “no risk it, no biscuit” — a phrase a famous American football coach mouthed to urge his team to show initiative and aggro on the field. Transposed to the Sino-Indian confrontation, it means just the opposite — do less, do nothing, so less harm comes to you, with the ‘biscuit’ going to the PLA and Indian territory being lost permanently to China.

This includes the loss of access to all the patrolling points and land northwestwards of the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains and will lead to the DSDBO Highway becoming vulnerable to a Chinese pincer closing in from the Galwan and the Depsang endangering, in the process, India’s access to the Siachen Glacier and, incidentally, negate any Indian plans for striking at the Sino-Pakistani joint at the Karakorum Pass. This last objective is what the PLA had uppermost in mind strategically to achieve and, thanks to Prime Minister Modi, it has now done it.

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.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Culture, Decision-making, domestic politics, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Politics, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Russia, SAARC, society, South Asia, Tibet. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Modi’s reverse “no risk it, no biscuit” policy in Ladakh

  1. Shanal says:

    It is always about his image. Do you think he knows geopolitics? Always “Modi Shining”

    • manofsan says:

      @ Shanal – You seem to mainly be interested in whining against Modi, rather than in our national security. If I rate Modi as -1 then I will rate Congress/Left as -5. To get a +1 from me, you need to be politically to the right of Modi.

  2. Sohamg says:

    Rajnath Singh clarified that there would be peace if China agrees to the 5 point consensus reached in the meeting in Moscow. Emphasis is on ‘disengagement from friction points’ rather than on recovering lost territory that is actually sovereign Indian land. So the land annexed by the Chinese is now formally recognized by India as Chinese territory ?

    • manofsan says:

      @ Sohamg – Remember that before the Chinese encroachment, we did not have exclusive control over those areas that the Chinese have now encroached on. The areas the Chinese have occupied were part of a buffer zone between the forces of the 2 countries, into which patrols from both sides traveled into. So are you saying you want the Chinese to withdraw so that we can now in turn occupy those areas which we never previously occupied before?

      • Sankar says:

        What do you mean by “exclusive control”? What China has “occupied” is in China’s possession and according to China it is their sovereign territory – they do not call it a “buffer zone” as you are saying.
        No, he is not saying what you are throwing back at him – he is clear about India’s losing “sovereignty on territory” occupied by China. You need to clarify with Modi where he has drawn India’s northern boundary with respect to his recent statement that “no one is on India’s territory” and come back to this forum to debate further.

      • Sankar says:

        This is one reference where the columnist has precisely documented what is going on at Depsang:
        It will be interesting to know your view on the ground realities there,

  3. Sankar says:

    Once again this is a brilliant analysis, to say the least.
    Didn’t Modi say after the Galwan clash that the lives of the Indian soldiers lost will not go in vain?

  4. Bhaskar says:

    Dear Sir,
    Another insightful article about the political thinking presently.

    It seems with your prior & this posts, that we have lost Depsang plains & Pangong-so lake unless a military action gets initiated. The ongoing talks will surely stop at some point and people would surely ask as to what happened finally. What shall the army & government say? That talks bore fruit and that we realized Depsang & Pangong-so lake are indeed China’s areas?

  5. Tony says:

    Modi ji has banned tiktok and pubg and as insider I can tell you if han dares to take ladakh modiji will ban oppo vivo , and when mota bhai said we will give our lifes for taking aksai chin he meant another ipl team headed by his son named aksai chin.

    • manofsan says:

      @Tony – You seem to be here only to whine against Modi, without proposing better solutions. Empty whining is just empty. What we need are solutions, not merely hollow griping.

      • Tony says:

        I never whine against our beloved supreme leader who is so courageous that praveen bhai togadia and many who know him from his shakha days in his true self are scared of him , even advani ji can tell how brave is he , only thing is please dont go to xi or oli or dalai lama for they still have may get a shock if you tell them that

  6. Email from a retired Corps commander:
    Thank You. Hard hitting, I agree the criticality is Depsang

  7. Andy says:

    Instead of a full frontal assault, by means of a limited war, that entails risks of escalation into all out conflict, isn’t it better for India to present China with it’s own fait accompli by identifying and capturing strategic real estate, not necessarily in the Ladakh sector?. Its seems incongruous that we scrupulously follow all agreements and protocols while the Chinese flout them shamelessly,in the classic pattern of schoolyard bullies.

    The Indian manoeuvre in the Chushul sub sector has obviously rattled the Chinese,such moves in a few more spots near the LAC,away from the current hotspots, should make them more willing to restore the April 2020 status quo in Ladakh.

    To preempt these periodic transgressions by the PLA, a massive infrastructure build up should be undertaken all along the LAC,along with simultaneous fortification and expansion of existing posts.

  8. Sankar says:

    There is the latest post by Lt Gen Panag:
    which differs on some points here.
    I do not agree with him when he brings up “The Chinese offer then was to settle the issue in Ladakh as per the 1959 claim line and recognition of the McMahon Line in the northeast.” It is the same tactics China played then by changing their “map” every second or third meeting since 1950, and their map was so cryptic that it fumbled the officials and Nehru again and again. This has been partly mentioned by Maxwell in his book on India China war. Such devious Chinese negotiations have been recorded in the newspapers and journals in those days which could be accessible in archives. And that was the reason why Nehru called off negotiation with Chou and instructed the Army then to clear the Chinese from Indian territory. In my opinion, both the military as well as the higher politicians must realize that boundaries between nation-states are drawn (or decided) by fighting wars, not by peaceful negotiations.
    Could Prof Karnad comment on Gen Panag’s referencing on the so-called 1959 claim of China?

    • To be fair, Zhouenlai did offer Nehru an exchange — McMahon line in the east for Chinese claims in the Aksai Chin in the west and formalization of border, which offer was repeated several times, the last by Dengxiaoping to Rajiv Gandhi as late as 1988. May be we should have accepted when it was first proposed.

      • Sankar says:

        @Professor Karnad:
        “To be fair, Zhouenlai did offer Nehru an exchange — McMahon line in the east for Chinese claims in the Aksai Chin in the west and formalization of border,” –

        I beg to differ radically from you (and others) in this assessment of “fairness” and its implication for Nehru. I state my stand in the context:

        1. What was the fine print in “Zhouenlai’s offer”? Has anybody cared to examine it? Unfortunately, as former FS Menon has noted that there is no institutional memory in driving India’s foreign policy in Delhi. In other words, not much detailed official records have been documented from that era and archived – only bits and pieces.

        2. Aksai Chin was within the Maharajah’s J&K Kingdom. There are (I believe still existing) documents available in Delhi proving it – taxes and other jurisdiction exercised in that area. So on what ground should India sacrifice her sovereignty there?

        3. Even then, Nehru against some solid advice from some officials had struggled to reach a compromised solution with Zouenlai to define the boundary. After the Korean war, the Americans had been telling India that China is an expansionist power – Nehru ignored. The Indian (ICS?) officials who were part of the UN team to supervise Korean war settlement had been warning Delhi again and again not to believe a single word what the Chinese were saying – Nehru ignored. The only idiotic advice came from the Indian envoy Panikkar to Nehru to fully trust China. Panikkar was naive as my understanding is he came from an academic background and had no idea of the political world.

        In fact, in the days of PLA invading Vietnam, the Hanoi radio has continuously blared that the Chinese are professional liars.

        3. The fine print in the cryptic map submitted by Peking in exchanges with Delhi revealed one by one over the years (1950-60) of negotiations between Delhi and Peking as China changed the boundary every third meeting. This has been well documented in some newspaper of that era. Only at the very late stage (1959?), it dawned on to Delhi that the fine print in Chinese claim extends to the Pir Panjal ranges, i.e. almost entire India’s Kasmir as well as part of Jammu, way beyond Aksai Chin!

        I guess that was the time Nehru’s eyes opened and he turned around to defend India. In the aftermath of 1962, he was shaken but had said that if India had the power, she would liberate Tibet. China was claiming sovereignty over areas which in ten thousand years did not belong to them. Please check with Neville Maxwell’s book (I do not agree with his agenda there) – his notes on President Radhakrishnan’s retort to Marchal Chen Yi when he came to Delhi for border negotiations (1958?).

        4. Nehru had bent backwards to satisfy Zouenlai all along. He softened Tibet’s independent identity by playing with the words “Suzernity” and “Sovereignty” although nobody knows the discrimination. He reneged on the treaty which India inherited from Britain to send the army to Tibet for protection when PLA invaded. He signed Panch Scheel (1953) with Zou so as not to stir any protest in India. He was silent when the Indian Embassy in Jakarta was ransacked by behind the scene instigation by China. Throughout history the Chinese have downtrodden the Indians everywhere in Southeast Asia.

        5. It is an absurd proposition to think that India could have reached an accommodation with China by agreeing to Aksai Chin hand over. In such a case Sikkim and Bhutan would have been gobbled up by China, to say the least.

        6. Pointing the finger at Nehru for Aksai Chin is like blaming Indira Gandhi that she failed to solve the Kashmir problem by insisting on the ceasefire line as the boundary, which makes no sense as I have noted earlier. Access to Aksai Chin is through Tibet. Who the hell are the bloody Indians to dictate that Tibet belongs to China and allow China to rewrite the history of Tibet by the Han Chinese? It is for the Tibetans to decide their history and future.

        7. Nehru could rise to the occasion as it happened for India taking over Goa. In spite of all his mistakes and failures, he did not compromise on India’s sovereignty by handing over Aksai Chin to China and thus endangering further Chinese inroads. In the history of this world no nation has succeeded to settle its boundary by peaceful negotiation. Wars are fought to secure the boundaries and as Churchill has observed, peace can be achieved only by the threat of war. That lesson is yet to be absorbed by the Indians, no wonder India has been invaded by external enemies again and again in history.

    • andy says:

      Re:China was claiming sovereignty over areas which in ten thousand years did not belong to them.

      So where do the Chinese get their claim lines from, did chou en lai dream them up ? No, their claims are based on what the Tibetans had claimed from independent India.

      Lhasa did not send an official delegation for Indias independence celebrations in 1947 nor was it willing to ratify the Simla convention of 1914 and the McMahon line treaty. In fact within a couple of months of Indian independence ,government in lhasa sent two telegrams to Delhi asking India to return the (lost) territories of Tibet. One of these in October 1947 and forwarded through the Indian Mission in Lhasa, wanted the return of territories “such as Sayul and Walong and in direction of Pemakoe, Lonag, Lapa, Mon, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and others on this side of river Ganges and Lowo, Ladakh etc. up to boundary of Yarkhim.”

      Nehru rejected these stunning claims and advised the Tibetans to maintain status quo until new agreements could be reached between delhi and lhasa. Maybe these preposterous claims made by Tibetans compelled Nehru say in 1950 that “he was not interested in challenging China’s suzerainty over it.”

      In 1951 the Dalai Lamas representatives signed the 17 point agreement with the Chinese ,confirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Only after this did India in 1954 signed the peace treaty with china,recognising Tibet as part of china. Five years later in 1959 nehru received a lengthy letter from chou en lai which described the McMahon Line as a product of the British policy of aggression on a weak Tibet. He claimed an additional 40,000 square miles of Indian Territory, raised the issue of China’s non-ratification of the 1842 Tibet-Ladakh border and among other things reminded Nehru of Lhasa’s 1947 correspondence relating to the return of Tibetan areas by India.

      Clearly, chou en lai was only reinforcing the claim earlier made by the Tibetan administration which called the McMahon Line an imperialist fabrication and hence “illegal” and India must return those ‘lost’ Tibetan territories. So the lhasa govt not only lost their land but left an albatross hanging around Indian necks by making preposterous territorial claims from India, which the chinese are only following up on.

      • Sankar says:

        “… chou en lai was only reinforcing the claim earlier made by the Tibetan administration which called the McMahon Line an imperialist fabrication and hence “illegal”..” –

        Geez, how did China then settle its boundary with Myanmar (Burma) on the basis of the same McMahon line? It becomes illegal in the case of India, but perfectly legal when it comes to Burma and no “ratification” required.

        Typical twist: “Tibetan administration” to rewrite the history!
        Tibet was not an “administration” – it was an autonomous region “TAR”.

        Modern India as a past British dominion inherited the legal treaty of protecting Tibet. But when PLA invaded Lhasa and Tibet called for help, Delhi reneged (as I have noted in my post) – it is documented in Delhi archives.

        Strangely, the event of the Chinese invasion of Tibet well recorded in international history has been swept under the carpet, but the communist jargon “imperialist fabrication” pops up to justify the unjustifiable.

        “In 1951 the Dalai Lamas representatives signed the 17 point agreement with the Chinese ,confirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.” –
        Tibet was invaded in1949 by Communist China. So, had Dalai Lama any alternative to sign in 1951 other than what he had signed? It would also be a pointer to before 1951, that Tibet was sovereign. I may remind that China invaded Manchuria in history. When China moved in inner Mongolia, Russia moved in outer Mongolia which is today’s Mongolia, while Manchuria has been gobbled up by China.
        “So where do the Chinese get their claim lines from, did chou en lai dream them up ? ” –
        Better ask Xi Jinping how he has dreamed up to claim sovereignty over South China Sea – Senkaku Island (Japan) belonging to China, Spratly Island (Vietnam) belonging to China and so on.

        These sorts of denial of history and twisting of words must cast doubt on the authenticity of the claims made in this mail.

    • andy says:

      @Sankar – “Tibet was not an “administration” – it was an autonomous region “TAR”. Which means to say that they took their decisions autonomously, including the stunning and sweeping georaphical claims made on independent India.

      “These sorts of denial of history and twisting of words must cast doubt on the authenticity of the claims made in this mail”

      Which is worse looking at history with blinkers on or worse still being ignorant of it ? The Tibetans walk away with everyone’s sympathy because of what happened to them, but does it absolve them from historical follies is the question? For more information you should read former Intelligence Bureau Chief B.N. Mullick’s book My Years with Nehru – the Chinese Betrayal. Mullick characterised it as an “ill-advised claim” by the Tibetan authority. After his escape to India the Dalai Lama absolved himself of these mistakes by saying he was only 18 and couldn’t be held responsible for the action of his regent.

      Maharaja Hari Singh’s Instrument of Accession referred to him as “Shriman Inder Mahinder Rajrajeswar Maharajadhiraj Shri Hari Singhji, Jammu & Kashmir Naresh Tatha Tibbet adi Deshadhipati”. That is, he asserted that he is not just the ruler of Jammu & Kashmir but also of the areas of eastern Ladakh including Aksai Chin as well as the territory he controlled inside Tibet i.e minsar enclave near mount kailash. His dominions came to India after he signed the instrument of accession, this is what was contested by the Tibetans in OCTOBER 1947,much before the Chinese invasion.

      We have a problem with Pakistan because they contest our claims on Jammu and Kashmir Maharajas territories but wont even acknowledge another similar claim, how fair is that?

      My post is limited to the Tibetan actions and their consequences for India that china has gleefully latched on to, what they do elsewhere is beyond the scope of this conversation or we’ll be arguing till the cows come home. Nobody is justifying the Chinese behaviour so kindly dont misrepresent what my intent was. Anyways you will find this eye opening incident in the above book if you take the trouble to read it instead of citing generic terms like ‘Delhi archives’.

      My last post on the subject because @Bharat has seen plenty of tilting at windmills amongst his readers,I am not going down that route again. What say Bharat? 🤐

      • Sankar says:

        “… this is what was contested by the Tibetans in OCTOBER 1947,much before…” –

        Not sure what you are trying to make out here. The real history is in that era there was British India as the Indian dominion whose perimeter (boundary) was delineated by McMahon Line separating it from TAR (Tibet). Maharaja’s estate being fully within the Indian dominion, how could Tibetans contest anything whatsoever beyond Tibet’s jurisdiction when the India dominion emerged as the present day India as an Independent nation-state and Maharaja’s estate became today’s J&K? No wonder Dalai Lama absolved himself as you are saying since he could not make any case internationally assuming he had earlier “contested” something.

        Pakistan has already gifted away a part of Maharajah’s original estate, the Shaksgam Valley (8000 sq kms), to China by signing a deal which Delhi is claiming now as of Indian sovereignty – a very good move.

        Thank you for the reference to Mullick’s book which I have once glanced through cursorily but forgotten about it. Mullick may have been an excellent IB officer, but he had no expertise in international affairs. He went way beond his brief when he, among others, advised Nehru not to escalate the war in 1962 by engaging IAF. This was a disaster. Had India carried on the war by allowing IAF to bomb and interdict the PLA, India could have turned the table on China since China had no air force there and not even a base for their planes. In any case, he should have consulted the IAF and gathered military information in Tibet before forwarding such advice.

  9. RON says:



  10. Tanay says:

    “No plan to exclude Chinese firms from 5G infra projects”: Minister tells Parliament

    Question: Is it possible that China escalates border tensions all along the LAC over the next two years and then Pakistan does its thing?

  11. Ravi says:

    India should seriously support tibetan independence movement.Only independent tibet can bring permanent peace along indo tibet border.India should work with rebels within china and international allies to make china disintegrate like soviet union as 60 percent of china is occupied countries.

  12. Sankar says:

    @Professor Karnad:
    Could you please clarify under whose possession (or sovereignty) Karakoram Pass was in the pre-1947 days?


    Very apt description of the current situation in Ladakh by Mr. Karnad. However I believe we are ignoring the long term strategic picture for the short term here. The more Indian forces have to stay at Ladakh and elsewhere in the Himalayas (and the logistic costs of it are huge) , the lesser amount of money India will be able to spend on her Indo-Pacific QUAD naval ventures. Considering the dire situation of our overall economy (particularly the huge fall in the revenue collections) we can ill afford to overspend in Ladakh and therefore sacrifice our Indo-Pacific duties.

    Indian nationalistic mindset hates losing territory to anyone. If we do not want to give Kashmir to Pakistan or Kalapani to Nepal or parts of Assam and Tripura to Bangladesh even though these states are ethnically, historically and culturally belonging to the same Indian ethno-cultural realm then there is little chance of the Indian nationalists willing to offer some Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh territory to China. This Indian nationalist mindset has been understood by the CPC leadership and they are exploiting it to the hilt. So now we will continue to outspend ourselves on the Ladakhi mountain tops whereas China will win the neighborhood by offering cheap post-covid reconstruction money as it is currently doing in both Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka with Mauldives and Bhutan to follow.

    I would love your expert views on this particular analysis of mine over the current situation. I would be eagerly awaiting your views sir.

    Thanks and regards with best wishes

  14. Divided ethnic communities are a reality in the post-colonial world which all nations, especially in South Asia, are stuck defending. You overstate the military tradeoffs, but there’s a kernel of truth in what you say. That’s the reason why I have for the last 30 years — from my time in the Finance Commission — advocated a restructuring of land forces and the air force to deal primarily with China, in other words, a more rational allocation of the defence budget.

  15. LowIQ says:

    Dear shrI Karnad,

    Not sure if you’d answer, but I hope you do (given your straightfoward, no-nonsense opinion on people regardless of their stature): what is your view of Samir Saran and ORF?


  16. Sankar says:

    Here is an eye-opening history of Tibet that could interest you to follow up:

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