As a country we need to be cautious in our dealings with China. It is a powerful neighbour who we should not casually handle. Yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pusillanimity in dealing with China does seem to be somewhat over-the-top.
In his Independence Day speech today, he did not mention China by name, and instead took recourse to rhetoric to comment on the issue.
In recent years Modi has avoided taking up foreign policy issues in his I-Day speech. The last time he did so was in 2016.
This is viewed as an occasion to lay out national priorities and list the achievements of the government of the day. But it is also meant to be a day of reflection and taking stock.
And who will deny that the one issue in which the ledger is very much in the red is that of China, and the issue is not just of foreign policy, but the country’s security ?
But all that Modi had to say was: “From LoC to LAC, whenever India has been challenged, our soldiers have given a fitting response in a language they understand.” They, of course, means Pakistan and China.
A Bitter Reality
This rhetorical flourish cannot conceal the fact that 20 of our soldiers died and 10 were taken prisoner in eastern Ladakh two months ago. Whether or not there were Chinese casualties is a matter of speculation.
But the reality is that even today, Chinese forces are sitting on Indian territory refusing to go back in areas of Depsang and Pangong Tso.
This is not a minor development, especially since China has also massed its forces along the LAC.
Instead, its ambassador has the cheek to suggest that it was India which is responsible for the events of this summer because it transgressed into Chinese territory.
In his statement and tone, Modi seems to be doubling down on his 19 June remarks that sought to deliberately fudge the issue of Chinese incursions.
“Neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured,” he had said after the 15 June incident.
But we have the authority of the Ministry of Defence which in a note posted in its website that was hastily withdrawn in early August, categorically acknowledging that the Chinese “transgressed” in Kugrang Nala, Gogra, and north bank of Pangong Tso in mid-May, and that “the situation in Eastern Ladakh arising from unilateral aggression by China continues to be sensitive…”
No Official Acknowledgement
In all this, there has been no official acknowledgement or comment of what is arguably the bigger problem—an 18 km Chinese incursion that is preventing Indian patrols from accessing an area hundreds of square metres in size. Moreover, in the process, the Chinese have come dangerously closer to India’s northern-most position of Daulat Beg Oldi and the advanced landing ground there.
The government’s mendacity is evident, too, from the fact that none of those who died or were injured in the 15 June clash, or the two similar incidents in Pangong Tso in May, have figured in the Independence Day awards list. The ITBP claims that it has recommended 21 personnel for gallantry awards relating to the LAC skirmishes. It is unlikely that the Army would not have recommended its personnel for awards too.
A Deliberate Waffle?
The whole of the government approach seems to be a deliberate waffle. All that President Kovind had to say in his Independence Day eve speech was that India was “also capable of giving a befitting response to any attempt of aggression. “
Note the careful qualification, it is not aggression, but an attempt only. As for Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, the man who has made “befitting response” (Mooh-torh jawab) a trademark of his own, he issued a warning on the eve of I-Day, “if the enemy attacks us, we will give a befitting reply.” Well the enemy has, and the country waits and watches.
Clearly, the government wants to turn the page on the China chapter as quickly as possible. That is for the good. But it cannot ignore or look away from the situation on the ground. We have the PLA sitting on territory that India claims and is refusing to permit Indian troops from patrolling to the limit of the Indian claim as was the convention earlier.
The Facts of the Matter?
To New Delhi’s credit, it is making strenuous efforts to get the Chinese to restore status quo ante as of April this year.
As part of this, India’s ambassador to China Vikram Msri has met officials of the Central Mililtary Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China. This is no doubt a part of the understanding is that when it comes to the Sino-Indian border, it is the PLA that makes policy, not the Chinese foreign ministry. In recent years, the PLA has wanted this message to be heard loud and clear.
The sad part, however, is the persistence with which the government is seeking to pull the wool over the eyes of the people.
The facts of the matter are that our Intelligence failed to accurately assess the Chinese moves in April. The government, seeking to confuse the public on another issue, the COVID-19 pandemic, got tangled in its own rhetoric.
Army reserve units that usually are routinely moved forward when the Chinese or Pakistani conduct exercises were not moved into Ladakh in time, thus creating a dangerous situation. Fortunately, the Chinese did not contemplate an invasion but merely a bit of salami slicing.
We do not expect a PM’s Independence Day speech to be a mea culpa acknowledging all this, but in that case, he should also avoid using misleading rhetorical claims.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)