Modi seems likely to give ground in Ladakh

PM Modi's tank ride at Longewala
Modi in a tank at Longewala

Looking like some battling Old Testament figure transplanted to the Longewala border outpost in the Thar — a strikingly full white beard, camouflage tunic, dark glasses, and a BSF hat, riding an Arjun MBT, Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again proved he has no equal on the Indian political scene for engineering optics, or registering on the camera.

The PM’s presence among them and what he said was no doubt comforting to the army and para-military troops but it was largely unexceptionable stuff. But let’s consider his comments possibly pertaining to China because that’s the one adversary the Indian government and leaders over the decades stretching back to Jawaharlal Nehru have shown absolutely no instinctive feel for nor ever displayed the necessary confidence or desire to tangle with. That may be the reason why — by way of compensatory rhetoric during the BJP’s current tenure in government — bombastic talk has emanated from Modi exclusively directed at Pakistan!

There are three points in Modi’s peroration at Longewala troops that one can reasonably assume relate to China with which this country has been in a military faceoff since May this year in eastern Ladakh. One, he talked of the world being troubled by certain “expansionist” forces who sport a dated — “very 18th century” and “distorted mindset”. Two, he painted India as a country that “believes in policy of understanding others and making them understand but if an attempt to test [India] is made, then the country will give a fierce reply.” continuing standoff with China at Ladakh border. And finally, he mentioned India having the strength and, presumably the government he heads, having the political will to give — what else — a “befitting” reply to those challenging it. “The world now knows”, he asserted, “that India will not compromise with its interests even one bit.”

Take his points, one by one. Modi is quite simply wrong when he talks of territorial expansionism being an obsolete phenomenon. It reflects badly on the personnel in MEA and PMO advising him, who ought to have slightly deeper historic knowledge. In any case, hardheaded states on the make, such as China, intrinsically value territory and rely on strategic geography to establish an extended global presence. They covet the territorial space on land and sea of adjoining states especially if they are less venturesome, more passive, such as India, and have proved that territorial expansionism is very much on their agenda. Just because the Chinese allude to nonsensical history to buttress their dubious claims does not make China’s territorially expansive policies an anachronism — it is part and parcel of Beijing’s traditional approach of relating to lesser powers among which it clearly counts India. So, no, where China is concerned territorial expansionism is not passe’.

Are there clues in the other things Modi said that may indicate which way his government is leaning vis a vis a likely compromise with China? Beijing has not made it easy on the Modi regime. While eight painful sessions of fruitless talks between corps commanders on the border have come and gone without any progress to show for them, the Xi dispensation has not budged a whit from its original position that the Indian army vacate the heights on the Kailash range — the Rezangla ridge line — it showed the wit, for a change, to capture — beating the Chinese PLA to it. The only give on its part has so far been the offer to withdraw its forces to Finger 8 area in the Pangong Tso north area as long as India does not advance beyond its current presence on Finger 3 even though the Indian claim line extends to Finger 8! This supposedly is a Chinese concession!

Delhi, on its part, is seeking “comprehensive disengagement”. What does this mean exactly? Press reports quote Indian official sources as saying this would involve the two sides withdrawing an equal distance, something the Chinese seem inclined to accept because it will require the Indian army and Special Frontier Force units manning the Kailash heights to climb down encouraging the PLA, as several retired Indian generals have stated, to then quickly occupy these commanding hill tops and permanently disadvantage the Indian army. Considering that no other big power endows bilateral agreements with the ridiculous sanctity that the Indian government insists on doing, India has always lost out and will do so again as the PLA will quickly present Indian with a new Line of Actual Control — something I have been warning about from my first post on this subject mid-May onwards.

In this context, the prime minister’s third point that “India will not compromise one bit” is rendered irrelevant. See what the PLA has done vis a vis the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains — they have blocked Indian patrolling units from reaching Indian areas northwestwards to the Karakorum Pass — the most strategic subregion — the so-called “sub-sector North” in army parlance. And because the Indian army has not forced the issue by forcibly removing the blocking PLA units, that entire area amounting to some 900+ sq kms has, in effect, been lost. So, while in theory Modi and MEA may, with a straight face, aver China has captured no Indian territory and that the LAC remains undisturbed, in reality PLA extensively holds Indian ground and LAC has been grossly violated.

It appears Modi is in no mood to ruffle Xi’s feathers and order offensive operations to push the PLA out of Y -Junction and to recover lost Indian territory. The GOC XIV Corps Harinder Singh was at fault when, instead of ordering instantaneous action to bulldoze through the PLA block when army patrols first encountered it, he waited for higher authorities to green signal some counter-move, which he should have known would never come, leave alone in time for him to do something decisive. This was a tactical decision that was unnecessarily elevated by the Leh Corps HQ to strategic, even political, decision-making level, which was not warranted.

On the negotiating front too India is losing. As I argued in my early posts on the subject, MEA by attributing PLA aggression to an “indistinct” LAC actually provided Beijing with a justification for its moves that it has used ever since. Seeing Delhi on the defensive, moreover, China is now discreetly shoving India into accepting its terms. Here’s where Modi’s “won’t compromise a bit” promise ought to kick in. But it hasn’t. The PM, moreover, has been equally squeamish in not demanding that PLA get the hell out of the Y-j on the Depsang and, if it didn’t do so, that the Indian army would do whatever is needed for Indian units to resume patrolling in that sub-sector to which the Indian army has been denied access. And when the PLA block is removed that precautions would be taken to prevent the Chinese from pulling such blocking maneuvers in the future.

Plainly, Modi, foreign minister S Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval have singly and collectively failed to make Beijing “understand”, among other territorial enclaves being contested, the importance the Indian government and people attach to controlling the areas with patrolling points 10, 11, 11A, 12, 12A, etc. north and northwestwards of the Y-junction. And it is clear India has been severely “tested” by the provocation of the PLA maintaining its blockade. So per point 2 of the Longewala speech: Where, oh, where is the “prachand” (fierce) response?

This brings us to the central issue. In the light of the foregoing arguments, would it be wrong to conclude that the PM’s latest speech was the usual hot air Indian politicians emit anytime they have an audience, in this case a captive one? There may be something after all to the lurking suspicion about the BJP government seeming keener than Beijing to arrive at a resolution of the problem even if it means surrendering Indian territory beyond the Y-j and, thereby, giving up the ghost of strategically dominating the Gwadar-bound Chinese commercial traffic, and military movements on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in support of Pakistan’s control of Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan, the region the Imran Khan government has incorporated as another province.

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, civil-military relations, 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 Army, Indian para-military forces, Islamic countries, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, society, South Asia, Tibet, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Modi seems likely to give ground in Ladakh

  1. Amit says:

    While the contours of the final agreement in Ladakh have not been revealed, there is no official talk of Depsang in the leaks so far. Will the main stream media show the candle to the government?

    Many blunders on the economic front have gone unpunished. Doklam was presented as a major victory, but the Chinese did what they wanted in the long term. I wonder how Ladakh will be presented and if any one will be held accountable. There is growing commentary in India that the Modi government has underinvested in defence. Can anyone hold this government accountable? Opposition talk of careless perfidy will fall on deaf ears. They have zero credibility having done even less than the present government on Indian security matters.

    To me it seems like incompetence will continue to rule in India. This also means the only hope of improvement will come from external threats and attacks. Maybe another Ladakh by China to keep Indian eyes open? ‘We are like that only’.

  2. R Rao says:

    See what the PLA has done vis a vis the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains — they have blocked Indian patrolling units from reaching Indian areas northwestwards to the Karakorum Pass — the most strategic subregion — the so-called “sub-sector North” in army parlance!!

    You seem confused on the location of Y-Junction in Depsang Plains. Its north-east to Burtse and does not come on the road to Karakorum Pass or even DSDBO Road. Check it again.

    • Look at the map again. All Indian patrolling points are north and northwestwards of the Y-j. Burtse is southeast of the Y and not relevant to my argument. The point about Karakorum Pass is more as reference point because the real issue of strategic interest to India is the Karakorum Highway some 150 miles northwest of DBO.

      • R Rao says:

        This is Y-Junction: 35°8’57.34″N 78° 7’6.89″E. This is PP-11: 35°8’24.37″N 78°18’50.88″E.

        Which one you are referring to ?

      • The western most in that line pf PPs is PP 10 which I ought to have mentioned and I have now inserted into the text. Thanks. So take the bearings from that to calculate the territory lost — 900 sq kms, because of denial of access — the core of the case made here. And because this territory, as I have iterated in earlier posts, offers the PLA the chance of closing a pincer with approaches from the Galwan and from this indirectly captured territory as the two prongs, on DBO and the DSDBO highway endangering the all-weather Indian access to the Siachen Glacier and generally the Saltoro Ridge.

  3. Received on email from Joydeep Sircar
    Mon, 16 Nov at 11:06 am

    Brilliant expose in today’s article.

    Wobbly knees cannot be camouflaged by fake rhetoric. Has Modi been somehow worked upon by the pro-China lobby to adopt a submissive posture in reality under a barrage of bombast, as you indicate? I have no faith in our MEA, but what shocks me is your suggestion that the level-headed Doval has gone along with this.

    Why are we talking repeatedly with China when there is nothing to talk about? The Chinese like talking with lndia when it suits them because they can spin webs of confusion and pin us whenever we make a slip, and we are too scared to tell them “We did not mean this at all” and deny it . Didnt the Chinese repeatedly pull this trick on Nehru? Why should we talk when a single Chinese post has not been evacuated? Or a single blocked patrol path been unblocked?

    The Chinese are relying on our national weakness for verbosity and reluctance to act. Modi’s success against Pakistan has been achieved by acting decisively and refusing to talk. Why is he abandoning a tested formula? Let us simply delay talks and stonewall. The MEA needs to be gagged. They are well known for creating confusion over non-issues and running at the mouth, apart from being servile towards China and USA.

    All this talk about crippling low temperatures is bullshit. Aren’t we manning Bana Post at 22000 feet through the winter?

    You must have seen the loud noises being made by Global Times. Other conduits of psyops and agitprop are typically active. Confusing messages are continually being sent to disorient us. An impression is being created that it is we who are eager for talks because of difficulties we are facing. Unfortunately Modi’s Diwali chest-thumping failed to decisively counter this propaganda : he spoke at great, boring length and beat all around the bush. He reminds me of the officer about whom his CO commented ” This officer can express a sentence in two paragraphs at any time”.

    China came prepared with a gameplan for its chosen playing field. We have countered with actions at the Rechin La ridge and on the commercial front that were an unpleasant surprise to it.

    Knowing our bureaucratic rule-based mindset, China would like us to agree to new rules and a new playing field where they hold the cards, and can surprise us again at any time they choose. We must now play as coy with de-escalation talks as China has been in all these years about defining the Tibet boundary. Let them run after us. And we must publicly force the govt. to disown MEA’s efforts to obfuscate a simple issue with doublespeak. The hard-won heights must be excluded from talks as a non-issue. Our issues are restoration of status quo ante and deinduction of forces, period. The Kailas range is on the LAC, and occupation of posts there cannot be termed either aggression or escalation. On no account must we resile from where we stand.

    The army has been heard to mutter that they are not prevented from going to their Patrol Points in Depsang because of the Y-junction block. This is a lie to save the govt.s face. The poltroon Div Commander has been shunted out after doing major damage. Let the new man prove the Army’s claim by sending patrols to verifiably visit these blocked patrol points. Let there be media heat on Modi and the Army to force them to act.In the meantime new routes bypassing Y-junction must be laid out.

    The one thing Modi fears is public ridicule of his carefully nurtured strong man image. We must put that image under pressure so that he cannot buckle at the knees, not with the Bengal elections around the corner. This is where ‘useful idiots’ can help the country.

    Best regards,

    J. Sircar

  4. Harish says:

    “The first lesson that the Azerbaijani-Armenian clashes showed is the vulnerability of traditional land units — armored, mechanized, and motorized formations” in the face of advanced drone warfare weaponry and concepts”

    How long before Turkish drones empower Pakistan? And how prepared are we?

    • Sankar says:

      There are countermeasures (in this case jammers) in the military market of the size somewhat bigger than mobile phones with pointers (tubes with some optical amplification) which can be carried by soldiers on foot patrols. If judicially deployed, these devices will make the drones useless on the battlefield.


    Thanks a lot Mr Karnad for this wonderful analysis.

    I would love to hear your viewpoint about 2 separate recent events.

    1. India rejecting the RCEP , Asia’s biggest trading block. MK Bhadrakumar thinks India missed a golden chance of economic progress by rejecting this. What is your thought about this ?

    2. Pakistan’s recent dossier providing evidence against Indian involvement when it comes to anti-Pakistan terrorist groups operating out of Afghanistan. Why do you think India did support these terrorist groups ?

    I would love your views on the same.

    Thanks and regards with best wishes

    • The hurdle in India’s RECEP entry was, of course, China. Joining it would have meant permitting Chinese exports complete access to Indian markets. Delhi hopes to join a revived Trans-Pacific Partnership. As regards the dossier it has compiled, it seems Pakistan is taking a page out of India’s playbook!

  6. Veeru Singh says:

    Respected Sir,
    Indian Military should take over India. We should get rid of these politicians and elections once and for all. No country in post WW-2 era has progressed with democracy. I think majority of people in India will support the military takeover, if there is a military coup in India. Every second day there are some sort of elections in India. People are generally tired of these elections.
    Modi will most like win again 2024 because there is no opposition in India, worthy of any name. After winning 2024, Modi will keep on doing the same things.

    Do you think, there is a possibility of Military coup in India , if the Chinese give India some sort of bloody nose ?

    Thank You

    • ABSOLUTELY NOT. The Indian military has good sense to keep out of politics. As warning, see what the Pakistan army has done to its country.

      • Veeru Singh says:

        Pakistan Army wants to go back to 7th century. Not just Pakistan army, but Muslims in general. I do not think Indian Army has any intention to go back to the time of Ramayana or Mahabharat. I can give you many successful examples like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore , Japan and Germany . Even your much beloved Russia industrialised itself under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.
        On Northern Border, Indian Army is fighting a war that it cannot win. I think Army should come in and put an end to this nonsense of elections, freeby schemes , labour unions, Indian Civil Service , Ordnance Factories Board etc. Socialism once and for all should be done away with.

      • Prem MK says:

        @veeru sigh
        “Pakistan Army wants to go back to 7th century. Not just Pakistan army, but Muslims in general”

        Have you heard of the saying, those who live in bubbles should not throw pins… or, something like that? 😀

        The latest of where the hindu community wishes to go… look up “cow cabinet.”

      • Anon says:

        The Indian military is not different than the bureaucracy; it is equally accountable. India is stuck with a generation of bureaucrats, military leaders ,intellectuals who want India to be inward looking, docile and play second fiddle to other powers and to bully, regulate, control its own people. No doubt people migrate for greener pastures. Their OODA loop never gets over; everything is always stuck in some committee. By the time they come to a decision it is futile.

  7. From Joydeep Sircar,, by email
    Tue, 17 Nov at 11:09 am
    Dear Mr. Karnad,
    You must have noticed how we are being cornered at the discussions. The unblocking of the Y-junction seems to have dropped off our agenda. The Gogra- Hot Springs friction point is not being discussed. How is it we are talking only about the Pangong after airy assurances that all matters will be settled ?

    We are aware of our past history of being outmaneuvred by the Chinese at discussions because they are treacherous and consummate liars. We cannot outdo them at this discussion game, given our rigid, legalistic viewpoint and reluctance to be portrayed as untrustworthy, but there is no harm stalling.The best solution is not to talk but to follow the old Soviet model. Do not talk. Remove all interlocuters on our side who speak Chinese. Send a written list of demands in english and ask for a reply in writing in english, and sit tight. Ask for a map showing their claim-line, and then reject it as it is spurious and not in accordance with the facts. Refer everything upstairs. Since we are not the aggressors, there should be no question of any quid pro quo. The Kailas posts should be kept out of discussion as there has been no transgression by us here. There should be no loophole for the MEA and the China lobby to undercut our strong position.

    We should be deaf to domestic appeals to reduce expenditure in maintaining our LAC position. China is banking on aggressive posturing and lndian parsimony in defence spending to win them victory without fighting. We must disappoint them, and at the same time mount hurtful economic strikes. The world will follow our lead.

    There has been no loud, public and critical commentary by our experts on the various opinion pieces in Global Times and how they reveal the weakness of China at every step. This should be done. MEA pussyfooting about not making China lose face should be dispensed with. They are our mortal enemy, and we should look after our own interests rather than their sensibilities.

    Best regards,

    J. Sircar

  8. Shanal says:

    What do you think about Pravin Sawhney claim of restraint on India’s part because of its inferior Informationized Warfare capability? I can cite you the source in The Wire.

    • Not sure I’d come to this conclusion.

      • Shanal says:

        Recent one is Microwave warfare. Some term it as fake news and some say it is true. What do we believe ?

      • If by “we” you mean GOI then I have no idea what they make of this story of PLA microwave weapon use against Indian troops in eastern Ladakh. But the fact is microwave weapons were tested by the US at its Aberdeen testing ground in Maryland more than 15 years ago The talk then was of rapid induction.

  9. andy says:

    Super analysis! We give up patrolling rights from finger 4 to 8 at pangong and lose the strategic kailash range forever. Obviously the need to reward the chinese for invading Indian territories is uppermost in the minds of the interlocutors. Wonder what would happen if they walked into leh or even Tawang in the east next?

    • andy says:

      My bad.Wrote this in a hurry ,the ‘super’ is for your write up and the rest is criticism about how its been handled. Looks a bit disjointed on rereading.

  10. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Sir a general question, not related to Indo-China. The ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan has a clause in which Russian peacekeeping forces will patrol Nagarno Karabakh region. Do you think it’s a strategic move by Russia which is aimed at larger future benefit? Russia may be able to dictate terms in future for its own benefit or something like that. Your thought sir?

  11. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Excellent summary of the whole stand-off at the so called LAC by Mr. Karnad. The following excerpt from the write-up sums it up brilliantly;

    “The Prime Minister’s third point that “India will not compromise one bit” is rendered irrelevant. See what the PLA has done vis a vis the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains — they have blocked Indian patrolling units from reaching Indian areas northwestwards to the Karakorum Pass — the most strategic subregion — the so-called “sub-sector North” in army parlance. And because the Indian army has not forced the issue by forcibly removing the blocking PLA units, that entire area amounting to some 900+ sq kms has, in effect, been lost. So, while in theory Modi and MEA may, with a straight face, aver China has captured no Indian territory and that the LAC remains undisturbed, in reality PLA extensively holds Indian ground and LAC has been grossly violated”

    The saner minds over here should forward this article to everyone in their contact lists. The opposition parties should refer to this composition and relentlessly corner Modi on his blatant lies regarding the Chinese aggression.

    The nation demands/deserves the truth.


    Dear Mr Karnad , ex-US president Mr Obama recently mentioned in his new book “A Promised Land” that hostility towards Pakistan is quickest route towards unity in India. Do you agree with this opinion by Mr. Obama ?

    Does it indicate that nations in the subcontinent are destined to define their identity in terms of hatred towards each other ?

    Thanks and regards with best wishes

  13. Vaibhav says:

    Mr. Karnad
    Can you please share your about the following article?
    This article seems ingenious to me,

    • Well, insofar as India is willingly climbing on to the US bandwagon, it is consolidating the Western bloc. Doubt China planned this because as ultimate pragmatists Xi Jinping and his cohort do not want the correlation of forces to tip completely against them. Beijing knows China isn’t all that powerful. Yet.

  14. Veeru Singh says:

    Respected Sir,

    According to RSS, all politicians must retire by the age of 75 years. In 2024 Modi will be more that 75 years of age.
    Do you think Modi will retire by the time he is 75 years Old ?

  15. Sankar says:

    The assessment of India’s strategic interest for safeguarding sovereignty vis-a-vis China as presented in this article has been well substantiated in this link by an ex-army general:

  16. Reproducing email by Joydeep Sircar,
    Sun, 22 Nov at 1:42 pm

    Haji Pir Pass had been lost during the 1947-8 war by the imprudent decision of Gen. Henderson-Brooks to evacuate lndian posts due to the suffering of the troops in the winter cold.Pakistan sent its troops in and occupied the position, and when the cold lessened we could not take the pass back. It was a shocking failure of India’s nerve even though the decision may have had its roots in compassion for the troops.

    ln 1965 Shastriji agreed to restore Haji Pir to Pakistan at Tashkent, and died before he could cogently explain to a puzzled country why he had agreed to a move he had opposed till then. Gen. Sheroo Thapliyal has stated in an article that this was a quid pro quo for Pakistan withdrawing troops from positions threatening Akhnoor. The matter still puzzles the nation.

    ln 1971 we made no effort in the Western Sector to retake Haji Pir. Indira, never known for her brains and basking in the glory of the victory, was outmaneuvred by the wily Bhutto. She failed to make Pakistan pay for its defeat and made little attempt to get back Haji Pir, perhaps in exchange for the 93000 prisoners we held.

    In retrospect, we see that Pakistan has consistently beaten us because of our lack of resolution. They have always asked for more hardihood from their soldiers to offset lndia’s military superiority, and their men have responded gallantly, from Haji Pir to the winter occupation of Kargil heights.The only area where we have bested Pakistan is in Siachen, where we have hung on to the heights through thick or thin.

    In Eastern Ladakh we are facing a Haji Pir moment again, where an orchestrated chorus of voices are questioning the rationale of the arduous and expensive effort needed to keep our troops on the Kailas range overlooking the Spanggur gap. Especially when China is making tempting offers to return stolen real estate and de-escalating.

    Have we not been led down this garden path before? Is our PM going to take his eyes off the main point, that we now have Xi between a rock and a hard place, and evacuate the Kailas posts for the sake of Moscow spirit or an agreement we should not even wipe our bottoms on? If he does, he will ensure his place his place in lndian history as one of the biggest betrayer of the country’s trust ever.

    All we ask of Mr. Modi is the most basic virtue of all : courage.

    J. Sircar

    • Sankar says:

      “ln 1965 Shastriji agreed to restore Haji Pir to Pakistan at Tashkent, and died before he could cogently explain to a puzzled country why he had agreed to a move he had opposed till then. Gen. Sheroo Thapliyal ….” –
      This is trash!
      In the Tashkent meeting under Soviet facilitation, to which Washington had agreed to, Shastriji came under tremendous pressure by Kosygin to reach a “compromised” resolution with Pakistan of the 1965 war that was status quo in Kashmir. Kosygin had put point-blank to Shastriji that if India did not agree to the proposal, India could no more count on Soviet veto in the Security Council for a plebiscite in Kashmir as demanded by Pakistan!

  17. Amandeep Singh says:

    Mr Karnad , ever since Balakot I have seen many people boasting about Su-30s referring to them as “AMRAAM dodgers”. Is it really something to be proud of?

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