The entering dragon
Published: 15th September 2013 12:00 AM |
The traveller, who passes through the tranquil Himalayan vista of Tawang in summer when the snows have melted and the Nurangang waterfall is a distant roar, will come across a small temple named Jaswant Garh situated between Se La and Jang. It is dedicated to a baba who bore the name Jaswant Singh Rawat in another life. Behind every canonisation lies a myth. Behind the baba’s myth is a soldier called Rifleman (RFN) Jaswant Singh, Number 4039009, serving with the 4th Battalion of the Garhwal Rifles on India’s eastern border with China in the winter of 1962. The legend was born at the spot where he fell fighting the Chinese Army, defending his post. All the company he had was two local Monpa girls named Sela and Nura. On the morning of November 17, a Chinese machine gun had opened up, pinning a company down. Jaswant and his friends crawled up to the machine gun nest and blew it up with grenades, charging into the smoke permeated with the smell of cordite, bayoneting to death the Chinese soldiers inside. They grabbed the gun as a prize, and began to crawl back towards the Indian lines. The Chinese resumed firing, and Jaswant was hit.
One of his comrades died and Jaswant motioned the other wounded jawan, Gopal Gusain, to take the gun back to the Indian side as a trophy of war. The order to withdraw was given, but Number 4039009, refused. Along with Sela and Nura, he set up interspaced guns and directed a stream of fire at Chinese positions that made the enemy think an entire Indian division was firing at them. Finally a local betrayed the three; the Chinese threw their entire might against Jaswant’s position. Sela was killed by a grenade, Nura was captured and Jaswant turned his gun on himself when only one cartridge was left, realising that he was about to be taken prisoner. It is claimed that he killed more than 300 Chinese soldiers in his last stand. A brass bust of Jaswant made by the Indians in his honour stands at the site he fell. It is kept inside the small temple that bears his name, along with other personal possessions. A marble plaque honours him and 161 other soldiers of his battalion who died in the battle of Nuranang, in which the Garhwal Rifles was awarded the battle honour. Whether it is a high-ranking General or a mere jawan, all soldiers stop to pay their respects at Jaswant Garh. The soldiers posted there treat Jaswant as if he is still alive; his boots are spit shined and his uniform is pressed and folded. He has also been promoted, and is now an Honorary Captain in the Indian Army.
EYEBALL TO EYEBALL
Fifty-six years later, on April 15, Jaswant Singh wasn’t around when 30-odd Chinese troopers pitched tents in Debsang Bulge in northern Ladakh and refused to leave for three weeks. It came as a surprise to India, considering that since February, the Chinese had not ventured that far into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Temperatures soared in the tracts around Shyok River in eastern Ladakh, not far from the famously grassless Aksai Chin when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China made its audacious and taunting demonstration of aggressive intent. It was reminiscent of the shadow game played between the two countries in 1950, when China expressed its gratitude for Indian “stabilising the Indo-Chinese border” but continued its military buildup in Aksai Chin. Then Prime Minister Nehru had declared in Parliament that “Our maps show that the McMahon Line is our boundary and that is our boundary...we stand by that boundary and we will not let anyone else come across that boundary”. But they did.
On August 13, Indian soldiers at Anjaw in Arunachal Pradesh were getting ready for dinner after a gruelling physical training session. Unknown to them, a patrol team of 60 Chinese Army personnel entered about 30 km into Indian territory across the LAC up to Fishtail in Chaglagam sector. They set up temporary shelters at Plam Plam, an Indian post after crossing the Tashitara Gompa monastery. After two days and nights, the patrol folded up their tents to return to base 20 kilometres from the 1,080-km LAC along Arunachal Pradesh.
Another Chinese long-distance patrol team reached the spot their comrades had vacated. It was detected within a few hours by an Indian patrol. The face-off lasted for about a week. The Indian government did not wish to escalate the situation. After a flag meeting and some diplomacy, the Chinese withdrew without much fuss.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Beijing next month, he will be signing a new peace pact—the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), which is a Chinese initiative. A senior visiting PLA official gave the draft to India in March. It took the Depsang intrusion to bring the BDCA to India’s attention, after a theory surfaced in South Block corridors mentioning that China staged the border faceoff to ensure that New Delhi gave requisite respect to its draft. Former ambassador and strategic expert Phunchok Stobdan pointed out that Ladakh was a major bone of contention between China and India, unlike Arunachal Pradesh, where Indian political control over the territory is strong and the local people’s connect with India is strong. In contrast, its political hold in Ladakh is weak and even local perception has been changing in China’s favour, which Beijing is aware of.
It was in the summer of 1986 when China showed its ugly face for the second time to India. Along the banks of the Sumdorong Chu rivulet in what was then known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese troopers were feverishly building permanent military structures. On June 26 that year, a month ahead of the 7th round of border talks between the two countries, India lodged a formal protest with China against the intrusion. The Chinese intentions then were clear to India. It wanted to occupy that territory and lay claim to it during the border talks of July 1986.
It took the genius of the then Indian Army chief, General K Sunderji, to undo what Beijing was trying to inflict on India. What the Indian patrol team on that June day in 1986 noticed was two platoons of the PLA raising permanent structures and another 200 reinforcements joining the two platoons to provide them protection.
Within two months, China had also built a helipad, which led to Sundarji taking a tough stand and using the Air Force’s transporters to airlift a brigade-sized force to counter the Chinese. Indian forces occupied positions on Hathung La ridge over the Namka Chu River and set up manned defences across the McMahon Line, shocking the Chinese. Their counter was moving eight divisions to eastern Tibet, which was seen by global observers as a sign of possible 1962 repeat.
However, diplomacy came into play and the matter was resolved following the external affairs minister’s visit in May 1987 and followed up with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in September 1988, the first after Nehru’s.
HITTING INDIAN PRIDE
China has been claiming about 90,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh along its 1,080-km LAC contiguous with Tibet as its own, even referring to the Indian side as South Tibet. The Chinese are also wary of India’s advantage in Chushul-Chumar sector. “Obviously, the Chinese Army was trying to stop India from developing border military infrastructure in Daulat Beg Oldi in April. There the Chinese are at a disadvantage, primarily due to the terrain,” a serving Major General of the Indian Army said. During the tense 21-day confrontation, Indian troops were “eye-to-eye” with the PLA, pitching tents opposite Chinese tents 19 km inside Indian territory.
It was a wake-up call. China currently holds 43,000-sq km of eastern Ladakh—Aksai Chin—which the PLA captured in 1962. In hindsight, military experts say that Aksai Chin seems to be China’s only strategic objective since 1962, considering that its soldiers withdrew from other areas they had occupied, including Arunachal Pradesh.
In 1962, when the Indian Army made its last stand across the frozen river at the 5,411-metre Saser-La pass, armed with only 100 rifle rounds each and a few machine guns, the advancing Chinese army stopped at the McMahon Line. In 2013, too, the Chinese intrusions were meant to be a demonstration of military machismo, for they withdrew after making their point. As if to keep the kettle boiling, the PLA kept up exhibitions of hostility along the LAC periodically—the last one a day before Independence Day.
As the Indian media kept up a never-before focus on the “Chinese threat”, it articulated the concern that China had eaten into Indian territory over a period of time. All hell broke loose in New Delhi, when a newspaper reported an official confirmation of a “640 sq km loss”, according to a report by National Security Advisory Board convener Shyam Saran. The Opposition immediately raised the issue. BJP’s Yashwant Sinha was one of the most vociferous critics. “This is a very serious concern. The government has not taken the Opposition and Parliament into confidence,” he said. Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party—who has been defence minister—has been belligerent on the issue. Defence Minister A K Antony denied the existence of the Saran report. However, he also admitted that the “Chinese build-up of infrastructure is more superior.” He added that the Indian side had not created matching infrastructure for long. In 1949, China militarized the Aksai Chin border while India was engaged in preventing Ladakh from being taken by Pakistan.
READY TO STRIKE
On an average, there are around 250 incidents of Chinese transgressions into the Indian side every year. The Indian defence establishment has no counter move or means to prevent the transgressions, till the time the border dispute is resolved by the special representatives who have talked 16 rounds till date. To be prepared for any eventuality, India has strengthened its military infrastructure along LAC in the last decade. India’s Cabinet Committee on Security has given approval for raising a mountain strike corps, with over 50,000 troopers at a cost of `64,000 crore, with special mountain warfare equipment and transport helicopter units. It was in 2010 that India realised the need for more specialised troops to fight the Chinese and two new mountain divisions, with 20,000 troopers each, were raised.
India is also building new advanced landing grounds for the Air Force to operate its troop transport aircraft and helicopters from, in both Ladakh and in the North-east. Already three ALGs have come up in Ladakh—at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fuk Che and Nyoma—apart from developing eight new ALGs at Aalo, Ziro, Mechuka, Tuting Walong, Passighat, Vijoynagar and Tawang. It has deployed two regiments of the Akash air defence missile systems in the North-east facing China, apart from raising two squadrons of its front line Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter planes at Tezpur and Chabua. Retired Brigadier Arun Sahgal noted that the PLA is concerned over India matching China’s military infrastructure in Ladakh at the Lanzhou Military Area Command. India had long realised its folly over ignoring the military infrastructure and the force levels along the LAC. Pakistan is militarily on the wane and its threat to India’s western theatre is blunted over its engagement in anti-terror operations on its Afghan border. Defence experts say Pakistan’s military infirmity is the reason why India is building roads, bridges and advanced landing grounds, so that mobilisation is easier during any conflict. Of its total of 13 army corps, the Indian Army has four corps with 45,000 soldiers each, facing China—14 Corps at Leh; 33 Corps at Sukna; 4 Corps at Tezpur and 3 Corps at Dimapur, all defensive formations. All its offensive Strike Corps—1 Corps based at Mathura; 2 Corps based at Ambala and 21 Corps in Bhopal focus on Pakistan. The raising of a new Mountain Strike Corps is the first time India has created an offensive formation aimed at China. In the Central Sector, where Uttarakhand’s border which China falls, the Indian Army has based three Brigades facing its neighbour.
STRATEGY IN ADVERSITY
The current Indian strategic thought on China and the threat it poses to national security is driven by the China Study Group, a high-powered committee comprising the Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary, Home Secretary and the Indian Armed Forces chiefs as members. It is supervised and guided by National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. The Group is so powerful that not one decision, including the patrol pattern of the Indian troopers and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) men guarding the LAC, the territorial limit up to which they would venture, is taken by local military commanders without its permission. The group worked overtime in April-May during the Debsang face-off. As the three flag meetings of local commanders took place at Spanggur Gap in Ladakh, the Group strove to resolve the issue through diplomacy. In short, it explains the Indian official thought process on how to counter China, which is fast modernising its armed forces and developing military infrastructure on LAC.
However, the Left, accused of being “pro-China”, has its own analysis. “Both India and China are emerging economies,” says D Raja of CPI. “To that extent, there is a natural competition among them.” Advocating dialogue to keep tempers down, Raja points to the possible use of trade to accomplish dominion. “China floods India with cheap goods, which is a problem for us. But China needs the Indian market, and more than that, it needs Indian iron ore,” he says, suggesting that border destinies can be dictated by this interdependence, since war is not an option. Like the Left, the NCP, led by Sharad Pawar, calls for dialogue at the defence ministers’ level as well as the NSA.
Says NCP ideologue D P Tripathi, “China’s perception of an unfavourable strategic Indo-US alliance is what prompts it to keep India under pressure. It also wants to be accepted as a leading axis in world politics.” The historical precedents of this fear go back to the days of Chairman Mao. In 1956, the CIA began to recruit and train Tibetan guerrillas at camps in Kalimpong. This was the start of Mao’s India paranoia. Says Indo-China expert Swaran Singh, “We are so focused with the US that we have less time for other countries. But, China believes that we are ganging up with the US. So, they are upping the ante.” Mao doused the Chinese Army’s enthusiasm for action against India on Aksai Chin front fearing that India would allow American U-2 surveillance aircraft to photograph China’s nuclear test site at Lop Nor. By then, Mao had begun to see India as an “imperialist” state and wished for Tibet “to remain in a backward state, becoming a ‘buffer state’ between China and India.”
Fifty-one years later, a senior Congress minister described the new Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, as a pragmatic leader and dismissed a serious flare-up at the political level. “His first phone call after taking over as prime minister was to Manmohan, and India was one of his first foreign destinations. This shows that he wants to take Indo-China relations to the next level,” the minister said.
However, the power structure in China is changing. “The hawks in the PLA want to exacerbate the Sino-Indian border situation, they are the ones ordering the muscle-flexing, which is often without the knowledge or support of Beijing,” the minister said. This is parallel to the situation in Pakistan, where a gap of strategic intent exists between the army and the political leadership, and India is perennially caught in this tug-of-war.
The minister pointed out that during the UPA’s first tenure, there was much engagement at the informal political level with China. Sonia Gandhi had made a high-profile visit to China, which was not followed up. “The first serious steps towards normalisation of ties were taken during the reign of Rajiv Gandhi, and a systematic border dispute settlement architecture was created,” he said. The UPA II, caught up as it was in serious political flux, besides Sonia’s own preoccupation with her health, slowed the urgent imperative of building on those interactions.
China watchers speculate on the political weather along the border after the general elections are over in 2014. They do not expect that, if the BJP comes to power, Sino-Indian relations will become skewed.
The past continues to live on in the bleak salt flats landscape along India’s border with China 5,000 feet above sea level, where six decades ago an Indian patrol discovered signs of heavy construction. Concrete mixers were churning, road rollers were spewing diesel smoke and engineers were shouting out instructions. Labourers were busy like ants, carrying pans of cement on their heads. Along the Aksai-Chin Plain connecting Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese were constructing an all-weather road. There was uproar in India and the government immediately issued strong diplomatic protests accusing the Chinese of violating India’s territorial integrity. In return, the northern neighbour insisted that Aksai-Chin has always been in its dominion. A flurry of diplomatic activities followed, but India refused to engage in negotiations until the Chinese Army completely withdrew from Aksai-Chin. It was 1957, five years before the night of October 19, 1962, when Chinese artillery opened fire on Indian posts east of India’s northern-most military base and India lost its first war since Independence. Much has changed since then, militarily, economically and diplomatically. At stake now is a loss of face at home and abroad, as India faces more and more Chinese incursions along the LAC. The ghosts of 1962 may have been appeased, but they have ever quite left.
–With Devirupa Mitra