Monday, 5 October 2020

The long-term implications of India’s do-nothing response in Ladakh


Late last month and just prior to the two rounds of talks at ministerial level, successively between the two defence ministers and the foreign ministers respectively early this month, the Indian military occupied the heights along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to the south of Pangong Tso in Ladakh. Though advertised then as a preemptive maneuver designed to prevent an additional Chinese grab of territory on the Indian side of the LAC, the remarkable military feat was meant to signal to the Chinese Indian resolve, thereby strengthening the hands of the ministers when at the table with their Chinese counterparts.


In the event, the two rounds of talks fizzled out and the Indian military is left high and dry on the heights. The talks at the foreign minister level merely froze the status quo and set the stage for corps commander talks, which the foreign ministry later clarified were to set the initial conditions for de-escalation. Notwithstanding their marathon length, the corps commander level talks threw up an agreement not to send in more forces to the frontlines in the interim, while further talks would tackle disengagement and de-escalation.


Meanwhile India is preparing to logistically sustain troops up on the heights through the upcoming winter, in addition to the additional forces sent in over the summer. While a gross burden on the national exchequer,  otherwise reeling from the twin blows of a laggard economy and COVID-19, and the defence budget that has seen a dip over the past six years, this is also an enormous military logistical challenge.


Its social and psychological impact on troops at those altitudes will only known in retrospect. For now, the portents are in media reports of Chinese soldiers being observed evacuating their comrades from frontlines on stretchers. However, schadenfraude is no way to evaluate the good sense behind or success of a military operation.


The assumption behind the operation of occupying the heights south of Pangong Tso appears to have been to fix the Chinese in place, in face of Indian numbers in close proximity and overlooking their defences. This, it was perhaps assumed, would force the Chinese into concessions on the table, either at the ministerial level or at the follow on military talks, since the Chinese would not measure up to a long haul.


The assumption has it that Indian troops were no strangers to mountain warfare, were long serving volunteers who have had a high altitude tenure behind them and have had long experience in enduring on mountains in Siachen and in Kargil. On the contrary, the Chinese were supposedly conscripts, for whom the rigour of the mountains were unknown. Therefore, the Chinese would have to choose between staying put or making concessions in terms of agreeing to disengage and de-escalate, if not revert to status quo ante.


This explanation for India’s action gains strength in light of the other competing explanation for the operation of securing the heights, of preempting the Chinese from another territory grab, being implausible. The Chinese would not have waited four months if they had any interest in occupying those features. It is possible that the features in themselves were of increasing interest to the Chinese in face the steady build up of Indian troops in Ladakh, but precisely because the Indians had built up, it is unlikely that the Chinese would have made a late grab for those heights since Indians were at hand and fired up, making escalation likely, if not inevitable, and thereby precluding Chinese action. 


Satiated Chinese, with an upper hand in the northern end of the confrontation line, at the Depsang plains where they posed a threat to the Indian outpost at Daulat Beg Oldie and having pocketed the north bank of the Pangong Tso, were unlikely to have been pondering the south of the Pangong Tso. Indian information operations accompanying the military operations are therefore just that, a perception management exercise to sell the military operation as an Indian fight back. No wonder some in the (‘godi’) media described the action of securing the features as their capture, little realizing there is a difference between the two military operations.


Seemingly contrary to Indian expectations, the Chinese appear to be firming in, digging in fiber optic cables for communication with their frontline troops. By all accounts their logistics chain is holding and does not appear stretched since they have the advantage of an easier terrain configuration on their side of the LAC on the Tibetan plateau.


Thus, the burden is on the Indian side of logistically measuring up to the consequence of their maneuver to being with and more importantly working out through talks a way to get off the first step already taken in the ‘LCisation’ of the LAC, a reference to the manner the LAC appears to be resembling the Line of Control (LC) – the militarily active line India shares with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir - in terms of troop deployment, alert and activity.


But for firing across it and the laying of mines and perhaps the density of deployment, since the LC also contends with militant infiltration from the Pakistani side, there is a certain avoidable resemblance developing between the two lines. Indian forces deployed have been allowed to fire in self-defence, a lesson learnt from Colonel Santosh Babu’s patrol that went horribly wrong. That a threat of mines exists in the only other casualty, other than Galwan, being the Special Frontier Force Tibetan trooper who accidentally stepped on a 1962 vintage mine.


While the deployment has advantages in projecting the army as doing something in face of the loss of some 1000 square kilometers of territory to the Chinese grab action, the continuing stand-off has long term adverse implications that ought to have precluded India’s choice of mirror deployment, and the resulting securing of heights, as the answer to Chinese military action since April.


India had two choices. One was to take appropriate offensive action such as a counter grab or localized eviction. The other was the choice made, that of seeing the Chinese off through talks. The latter choice has by now been revealed for its vacuity. As for the first choice, the lack of Indian offensive action suggests a strategic deficit, an inability to take military action for fear of escalation. This is not the first instance that the government, though voluble on it being strong on defence, has been pusillanimous.  


The surgical strikes have only flattered to deceive, for in both cases India was quick off the blocks, even when faced with a weaker opponent, Pakistan, to signal de-escalation. In the second, aerial surgical strike, it satisfied itself with the perception management exercise that it had shot down an F-16, even in face of evidence to the contrary.


Therefore, the Indian military, though eminently configured by mid-year for taking the fight to the Chinese, were unable to do so and had to settle for a tactically impressive, but operationally tame securing of features. Even this military move alerted the Chinese to its soft underbelly to the south of Pangong Tso, explaining the Chinese attempts to strengthen it, which the Indians presented as evidence of Chinese ill intent in the sector that in turn prompted Indian’s to dig in. In short, the India’s relatively mundane action was pumped up to mean more than warranted for political reasons, to compensate for lack of offensive Indian action in face of loss of territory.   


Offensive military options being non-starters has left India with little else than persist with the deployment, justifying it as a means to soften and tire out the Chinese. Since India has earlier demonstrated capacity at Siachen by deploying a brigade and at Kargil where it firmed in with a division and in Arunachal with the deployment of two additional divisions, that it will succeed in Ladakh is moot. Questionable instead is whether this particular military option, touted as mirror deployment, was at all necessary, given that China had already digested what it had set out to.


Militarily, the Indian army is thus beset with another manpower guzzling operational engagement of indefinite duration. This will eat up any budget increases for modernization, increasing the gap with the Chinese military. It will also lose India the edge that it could bring to bear on the Pakistan front, diluting its deterrence on that front. As for a two front capability under the circumstance it is now but a good idea best pended. Already, ideas are being aired on reconfiguration of Pakistan centric, unused and unusable armour heavy forces. Even the army’s Kashmir engagement may see a progressively increased presence of the police and paramilitary on the cutting edge of counter insurgency, thereby also heightening the suppressive template there.


Politically, the right wing regime is not averse to the situation since it staved off scrutiny over its inaction on the loss of Indian territory. It has effectively passed the buck to the military, which through its actions south of Pangong Tso appears to have won the perception battle for it. In a way the relative inaction, or lack of exercise of offensive options, has proven wise in that it has avoided a possible military loss that would have put paid to its assiduously cultivated muscular image. As it goes into the last stretch of the Bihar election campaign and gains momentum for the election battle in Bengal thereafter, the Ladakh episode is timely on a backburner.


More importantly, since this is a long term engagement, the military is thus kept to the professional till with border management responsibility. This must be seen in relation to the manner the regime has approached other institutions, hollowing these out to the point of their losing any efficacy in a democratic system of checks and balances. The army will thus be out of the way, neutered and marginalized with a border guarding mandate. This is only superficially unexceptionable. While no doubt an apolitical military is best in a democracy, the question of its role when democracy is itself being progressively dismantled is moot. Under such a circumstance, its two front engagement will keep from any innovative answer to this question.