India-China Row: Have Gen VK Singh’s Remarks Undone Our Efforts?

Gen VK Singh triumphantly told media that ‘India had crossed the LAC many more times’, amid India-China blame game.

4 min read

Former Chief of Army Staff and Union Minister, General VK Singh, is no stranger to controversy. One of his colleagues in the military has bluntly noted that he suffers from the ‘foot in mouth’ disease. This time ‘round, his intention was noble.

Singh recently tried to tell the local media in Madurai that in the recent fracas on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, ‘India had lost no territory’, a theme the Modi government has assiduously cultivated by saying it foiled Chinese attempts at transgression across LAC in May 2020, whereas facts on the ground are different.

PM Modi himself, at an all-party meeting after the 2020 Galwan fiasco said: “Nobody has intruded” — which was interpreted by the Chinese as a clean chit for them and used widely in a Mandarin translation to establish its bonafides of not trespassing Indian territory during the clash between two sides at Galwan.

Singh went on to inform the media triumphantly that ‘India had crossed the LAC many more times than China’, using his military knowledge to illustrate the transgressions, this at a time when both sides are blaming each other for disturbing peace and tranquility in border areas.

How Gen VK Singh’s Comments Presented a Golden Opportunity to China

Singh’s uncalled-for remarks on the situation along the LAC has caused a furore in political, diplomatic and strategic circles at a time when Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has been seriously building the case that China’s mobilisation of troops in breach of protocols and agreements, and unilaterally altering the LAC had seriously unhinged the interdependence of peace and stability on the borders with overall bilateral relations.

Singh’s boast that if the Chinese transgressed ten times, India has done it at least 50 times, was a direct contradiction of what MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said on 25 June 2020: “The Indian side has never undertaken any action across LAC and also never attempted to unilaterally change the status quo.”

Singh’s off the cuff remarks were immediately seized by Wang Wenbin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, who said: “This is unwitting confession of frequent acts of trespass. For a long time the Indian side has conducted frequent acts of trespass along the borders, in an attempt to encroach upon China’s territory, and consistently created disputes and frictions which is the root cause of tensions at the India-China border. We urge the Indian side to follow through on consensus, agreement and treaties it reached with China, and uphold peace and stability in the border region with concrete actions.”

Embarrassment Caused to Indian Govt

The former Army Chief’s word play to show off his military expertise has embarrassed the government. As Army Chief between 2010-12, Singh took his government to the Supreme Court over the case of his age, which coincided with ordering the controversial moves of strategic forces – Para Brigade and Mechanised Forces — from their locations towards Delhi, that were part of a routine exercise.

The Indian Express newspaper called these manoeuvres an attempt to ‘spook’ the government while some others read it as the first step to an unlikely coup. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon was alarmed and the Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma, who was on a visit to Malaysia, was immediately called back, ostensibly to investigate the case. Singh lost his own case in court with a gentle rebuke from the Lordships: “you have achieved so much. What difference will one more year make…”


What Gen VK Singh Has Managed to Jolt

Singh tried to make things difficult for his two successors, Gen Bikram Singh and especially Gen Dalbir Suhag, as he had wanted officers of his choice to become COAS. After retiring, Singh became the first Army Chief to fight (and win) an election with a formidable majority, second only to Modi’s. After he became eligible to become a minister, Gen Dalbir Suhag was COAS. Some people I know went to meet Mr Arun Jaitley, the then Finance Minister and Defence Minister, requesting him to keep Singh outside the MoD, in any other ministry. As MoS in External Affairs, Singh did a brilliant job in firefighting and leading rescue missions abroad. But another time he slipped on the proverbial banana peel when he called the press ‘presstitutes’ and other relatively smaller goof-ups.

Jaishankar’s depiction and encapsulation of the border situation — at the All India Conference of Chinese Studies in January 2021 — into three ‘mutuals’: recognition of mutual respect; mutual sensitivity; and mutual interest; and eight broad principles as key to mending India-China relations after a year of exceptional stress — were well made.

He emphasised that a peaceful border was a prerequisite for stable bilateral relations. These sage formulations have been jolted by Gen Singh by bragging about alleged ‘transgressions’.

(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. He was Commander of Indian Peace-Keeping Forces, Sri Lanka (South). He was also the convenor of an India-Pakistan Track 2 since 2003, which has now been suspended. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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