The August 15 issue of a pink paper announced to the consternation of many that the Narendra Modi government is considering handing over the 3,488 km long disputed border with China to the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police to manage. The main reasons adduced for such handover is apparently “to avoid border conflicts” and, even if belatedly, to realize the “one border, once force”-concept approved by the last Bharatiya Janata Party regime in 2004.
The deep ingress into, and occupation of sizeable Indian territory by China — in excess of 1,000 sq kms in the area northeast of the Y-Junction abutting on the Xinjiang Highway, has not only not been acknowledged by New Delhi but is something Defence Minister Rajnath Singh continues studiously to ignore. He spares no occassion, in fact, to promote the fiction, for instance, that not an inch of Indian ground has been annexed by the People’s Liberation Army. The newsreport also disclosed that ITBP has 180 border outposts, with 140 troopers stationed in each of them, for a total of 25,200 deployed on the LAC. And that two years ago, an additional 47 ITBP border outposts were sanctioned — 34 in Arunachal Pradesh, the rest in Ladakh. (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/govt-examining-plan-to-give-lead-role-to-itbp-along-lac/articleshow/93562475.cms)
This little bit of kite-flying by Home Ministry bureaucrats is because they see it as an opportune time to wrench control of the LAC from the Indian army and Defence Ministry, and expand their turf. After all, their minister, Amit Shah, is the second most powerful man in the country and the Prime Minister’s only political confidante. What he can be made officially to desire is pushable as long as a good case can be made for it to Modi who will, however, need some convincing. Modi can be expected to be uneasy. His last two initiatives in the national defence field have not been the successes he was expecting. Resistance from within has all but stalled the process of integrating the military services, and the Agnipath-Agniveer programme has drawn political flak and sparked countrywide protests in the unemployables-rich BIMARU (Bihar-Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh) belt that is also electorally consequential. And, 2024 general elections are just two short years away.
The late Jaswant Singh’s son, Manvendra Singh, who left the ruling BJP for Sonia-Rahul Gandhi’s Congress to improve his political prospects — talk of scampering on to a sinking ship! — in a recent article ( https://theprint.in/opinion/dont-give-itbp-lead-role-at-lac-it-will-weaken-local-command-mha-mod-turf-war-is-hurting/1087732/ ) contended correctly that Home Ministry’s taking charge of the live China border will result in duplication of costs and procurement systems, and both weaken the logistics and force management on the LAC and, by implication, needlessly complicate an already fraught problem of sustaining a credible deterrent presence on the Himalayan heights.
But the more worrying aspect of such decision is the intention behind it. Could it be a prelude to Modi cutting a deal with the Chinese President Xi Jinping wherein the precondition — “restoration of the status quo ante”, i.e., the return of all the land the PLA has to-date occupied/absorbed in exchange for normalcy in bilateral relations that external affairs minister S Jaishankar has repeated ad infinitum is junked, China gets to keep what it has annexed and India, well, lumps it? Meaning, Delhi accepts the Chinese terms and the new territorial normal, including the LAC drawn expansively on the Chinese 1959 claimline imposed by Beijing in Ladakh, in the Dok La trijunction area and elsewhere? Such a “compromise” will also require the Indian government, as per the Chinese demand, to reiterate the “One China” principle.
What’s the basis for the above conclusion?
For one thing, the Ministry for External Affairs/Government of India has not to-date ever placed the Tibet and Taiwan issues on the same political plane as Kashmir, the whole of which Beijing has never ackowledged as part of India. Thus, as far as Beijing is concerned, there are two claimants to the erstwhile Princely Kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir, and the portion consisting of Gilgit, Hunza, Baltistan and the other principalities (Chitral, Nagar, etc) falling within the ambit of “Northern Areas” and illegally in the possession of Pakistan, is Pakistan’s, with Pakistan, moreover, having a legitimate claim on Indian J&K as well. The Xi dispensation right up to the 2020 Galwan River clashes kept turning the knife in India’s side by initiating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for example, without at anytime referring to the 1963 Ayub Khan-Zhouenlai accord which specifically mentioned the indeterminate status of J&K pending a final settlement between India and Pakistan. This, at a minimum, required Beijing to secure Delhi’s consent for CPEC as it passed through Kashmir territory claimed by India. But no such diplomatic assent was sought from Delhi, and China proceeded to treat the Northern Areas, implicitly, as integral to Pakistan through which it could construct the CPEC highway via the Karakorum Pass to Gwadar and related projects.
India, in the mean time, continued to respect Chinese sensitivities and unreservedly backed the concept of “One China”. This as Taiwan opened an embassy in Delhi masquerading as a “Trade mission” and sought, even if obtusely, diplomatic recognition. (Indeed, it was rumoured during the brief rule by Chandrashekhar as Prime Minister, Nov 1990- June 1991, when the country’s economy was in dire straits and the country’s holdings of gold had to be flown to the vaults of the Bank of England in London as collateral for loans, that Taipei would gladly take care of India’s then external national debt totaling some US$8-$10 billion for permission to fly the Taiwanese flag on its mission, which offer was rejected!). In any case, in 2003 Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his state visit paved a policy path that internalised the Chinese terms, losing India the little leverage it had left, by accepting Tibet as part of China (in return for Beijing accepting Sikkim as a state in the Indian Union)! The offending Joint Communique reflected MEA’s traditional passive-frightened attitude to China and matching negotiating skills! It is a document the Chinese embassy gleefully reminds the Indian media of. Finally riled enough to take offense, the MEA only relatively recently stopped talking of ‘One China’ and then did not come out swinging by equating ‘One China’ with ‘One India” inclusive of all of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — a policy I advocated in in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet). Worse, the Indian government has been traipsing around the issue of Taiwan and India’s growing ties with Taipei — economic, trade, technological and military, without tipping over into recognizing Taiwan as a separate and distinct entity whose sovereignty Beijing needed to be mindful of.
So, how does all this tie in with Home Ministry’s ITBP-LAC gambit? Unfortunately, the loosely worded Indo-Tibetan Border Police Act, 1992, enacted in 1996, describes the task of ITBP (like that of the other paramilitary organization — Border Security Force) as “ensuring the security of the borders of India and for matters connected therewith”. In effect, it makes these paramils, theoretically at least, the equals of the army. It may help buttress Home Ministry’s legal arguments for putting the ITBP in harm’s way on the frontlines on the LAC. But because this paramil is nowhere as well equipped or organized for warfighting, and lacks the requisite ethos for combat as the army is, the ITBP units will be an impediment and hindrance to the army, which even though handicapped in other ways, will have to take care of business. So, if the ITBP is manifestly operationally incapable, how does it help to position it in the van to take on the Chinese group armies?
The answer is in the newsreport unveiling this damnfool idea. It suggested that having the ITBP on the LAC would reduce the possibility of military conflict. In most countries, paramilitaries are tasked to police/monitor settled, clearly demarcated, and internationally recognized borders. The border with China is not delineated whence territory on either side of the disputed LAC is up for grabs. Except, whenever opportunity presents itself the Chinese People’s Liberation Army grabs Indian territory; on the other hand, the Indian army doesn’t reciprocate by taking over parcels of real estate on the Chinese side. Beijing’s standing instructions to the PLA, in the event, are apparently to stake claims on Indian territory patrolled by Indian soldiers, occupy any land devoid of an Indian military presence, and to exploit the Indian army’s disposition policy by capturing areas/posts from where Indian units are usually withdrawn during winter because the absence of a network of border roads, communications setups, storage depots and other support infrastructure, makes it impossible to prop up a forward presence in strength.
The Pakistan army elements occupied the posts on the Kargil heights vacated by Indian troops in high winter and precipitated a limited war in 1999. And it led the PLA to annex strategically important territory in the general area of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains, and on the Galwan and elsewhere and to confront the surprised Indian army with a fait accompli. It is the sort of territorial aggrandizement the Indian army usually makes no attempt to forcibly try and reverse. Now that the PLA is well settled in these formerly Indian areas, Beijing is looking forward to capturing more territory and not to restoring previous conditions as pleaded by Jaishankar. If in these circumstances the Modi government wants to avoid military hostilities, whom would they rather have on the LAC facing the Chinese — the Indian army, which is apt when pushed to shove back, or the paramilitary ITBP officered by persons from the Indian Police Service and with little real warfighting capability?
In the wake of the 1962 war, the ITBP was orginally raised as Special Forces, trained by US Rangers for enemy rear area operations and bulk-manned by Tibetan youth from the exile community who would be motivated to do maximum harm to PLA lording it over their homeland. Over time, the Tibetan strength in this paramil dwindled and ITBP became just another Home Ministry-controlled police unit recruiting from all over and deployed in roles it had no business playing. Such as “aid to civil”, fighting Naxals in the Red Corridor, or doing more quotidian jobs, like security duty at airports, etc. But then this is what the IPS leadership of the ITBP is most comfortable doing, and fits in with why some in the Modi government, who are not keen on having armed confrontations with China, would would want an inoffensive police-type oufit out there on the LAC!
In any case, just how unconnected to field reality the IPS officers leading ITBP are may be judged by the statements made by its sometime Director-General, Sanjay Arora, a policeman from Tamil Nadu cadre. He is reported by Press as saying “Our preparation on LAC is fantastic” and that the ITBP “is ready for any eventuality” and by way of a nugget of wisdom adds that “China is a country like us”!! (See https://www.aninews.in/news/national/general-news/our-preparation-on-lac-is-fantastic-ready-for-any-eventuality-itbp-dg20211115202607/ ). It is hard to know what to make of Mr. Arora other than that he is given to hyperbole and is completely ignorant of the adversary his force may face. Lucky for him, he was recently shifted from ITBP and made Police Commissioner, Delhi, and will not be helming the paramil when PLA initiates live action!