Shall we heave a sigh of relief now that Prime Minister Modi has spoken firmly on China and has assured the nation that the sacrifice of soldiers killed by the Chinese army in a violent physical fight on the intervening night of 15 and 16 June in Galwan Valley of Ladakh will not go in vain? This is PM Modi’s first statement since India-China tensions along the LAC began to escalate in May.
Official statements confirm at least 20 soldiers from different battalions of the Indian Army have died and many more are critically injured. New Delhi has got into a huddle and phone lines are being worked for diplomatic outreach. PM Modi has also called for an all-party meet on China on 19 June. The outcome of this meet will be broadly shared either officially or attributable to sources.
Now, what shall India media do?
Almost a decade ago, I had an appointment with the ADGPI of Indian Army at his office in South Block. The Major General, whose identity cannot be revealed, was back to his daily duties after concluding a high-level Chinese delegation visit. As Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 played in the background, he told me how a senior member of the delegation was flabbergasted when he picked up a national daily with the lede story critiquing Indian government’s policies. “What? Your press is allowed to print such stuff about own government?”
ADGPI and I had a good laugh about it and thanked our stars that we weren’t China.
And carrying that mood forward to today, here are some questions about the violent clashes that are begging to be asked and no, it’s not PM Modi’s job to answer them. But someone must give us the answers.
- Did India not anticipate Chinese action despite a slow-burn of similar incidents?
- Why did Indian soldiers go to the site of clash without intelligence inputs and surveillance support?
- What happened to the reinforcements?
- Does Indian Army lack the capability to do casualty evacuation from Galwan Valley?
- Why could military commanders, local as well as in Delhi, not use their goodwill to defuse the situation before it erupted?
- Was New Delhi getting impatient and putting pressure on local military commanders to ‘clear up’ the area?
Did India Not Anticipate Chinese Action?
All the media reports quoting official statements and sources suggest that the clashes in the Galwan Valley weren’t a sudden cloudburst of violence. There had been signs of growing Chinese belligerence. On 5 May, for example, the Commanding Officer of another infantry battalion, 11 Mahar, was badly injured in a violent face-off. When de-escalation started last week, the reports suggests, there were some altercations which eventually culminated in the unprecedented violent acts along the LAC.
Since firearms are not carried by the troops on both the sides owing to Confidence Building Measures, wasn’t there a reason to be more cautious and better prepared?
Aggressive stance of the Chinese troops deployed along the LAC is nothing new. As a matter of fact, 2013 onward there has been a steady trickle of incidents involving Chinese soldiers roughing up or provoking Indian troops.
What About Surveillance Support?
Indian armed forces are struggling with the modernisation process due to hefty budget cuts and procurement delays. However, the essentials are there at their disposal. Since a contingent of soldiers was expected to go to a disputed point without arms and ammunition, credible intelligence inputs had to be the precondition.
Why were drones not deployed to gather information about the massive Chinese buildup in the area?
Additionally, was it a matter of urgency to mobilise this contingent post dusk, given the treacherous terrain, bad visibility, and hostile Chinese presence?
What About Reinforcements?
Indian Army takes pride in not letting its personnel down when they are in trouble with the ‘enemy’. No bodies to be left behind was the mantra during the Kargil conflict which was in glaring contrast to Pakistan not even acknowledging its soldiers.
In the present incident, all reports suggest that the clash went on the whole night and Indian soldiers were far outnumbered by the Chinese. What happened to the reinforcements?
Was there a good reason to not mobilise neighbouring battalions and formations?
How long would the nearest formation have taken to reach the point of clashes? India has been investing heavily in building roads in the area—much to the consternation of China—for such contingencies. Are there still insurmountable mobility issues?
Why Could Casualty Evacuation Not Happen Earlier?
As per the Indian government’s official statement, 17 soldiers succumbed to their injuries since they could not get medical attention in time. Again, does Indian Army lack the capability to do casualty evacuation from Galwan Valley? Let’s not forget, that Indian Army has proved its mettle in providing emergency aid to not just soldiers but also civilians countless times battling all odds: terrain, weather, enemy fire.
There are reports of helicopter activity on the Chinese side, presumably to evacuate their injured or fallen soldiers. Was there a good reason for India to not do the same? Did we lose crucial hours that could have saved injured soldiers: whether they were brutalised by the Chinese or got washed by the river or fell off the ridge.
Where Did the Goodwill Go?
On 6 June, Lt Gen Harinder Singh—the commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps—met his Chinese counterpart Major General Liu Lin—the commander of South Xinjiang Military Region of the People’s Liberation Army—to discuss the ongoing tensions along the LAC. This high-level meeting followed several other preparatory meetings between India and China on the issue. Official statements declared that the two sides have decided to resolve the issue amicably with immediate withdrawal of forward troops.
China’s attack on Indian soldiers on 15 June night is reported to be in retaliation to the latter’s burning of a Chinese tent two days ago. When an untoward act like this happens, the onus is on senior officers to employ their goodwill and let matters not escalate. Was there a reason that local commanders could not engage their Chinese counterparts to defuse the situation despite their recent meetings reported to have positive outcomes? Could a flag-meeting be called urgently the next day?
Did New Delhi Get Impatient & Put Pressure on Local Commanders?
It is not unknown for the operational boots on grounds to get under hierarchical and political pressures. Did something similar happen in this case? Who gave the orders to the CO of 16 Bihar to remove Chinese tents from the disputed spot and why? Indian Army has a clear chain of command so the first part of this question is not difficult to answer.
Was New Delhi getting impatient and wanted the area to be cleared out at the earliest? Did soldiers pay the price for a projection of an ‘all is well’ situation?
As details will emerge in the coming days, some of these questions may get answered. We must not stop asking them till then.