When Mulayam Singh Yadav held one of his rare press conferences as defence minister in New Delhi he chided reporters for unleashing a barrage of Pakistan-related queries, but remaining silent on the “big one”.
Cause to recall, and appreciate, that down-to-earth logic has just been provided by the less-than-tepid Indian response to the violation of its air space by a pair of Chinese military helicopters in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand a few days ago.
The Indian Air Force says it is investigating the incident, while the external affairs minister says the matter is being “taken up”.
There’s no beating about the bush as far as Beijing is concerned: the foreign office there says since the Barahoti area is “disputed” (a de-militarised zone on the ground) the PLA is fully entitled to conduct surveillance missions.
Pakistan also attaches a “disputed” tag to parts of Jammu and Kashmir, imagine the furore in New Delhi if two PAF attack choppers had flown over Indian territory for over five minutes, possibly operating highresolution cameras.
Every two-bit politician here would have been screaming for blood and revenge, and TV channels would have been shrieking. Maybe things would have been different had the incursions taken place over more politically-sensitive Arunachal, losing votes in Chamoli is not that critical at this point in time.
Not after the recent electoral success. The security concerns are, however, not a matter of odious comparisons. This was the fourth such aerial incursion since March, and a matter of some shame that it came to light only after some local shepherds reported the presence of the two helicopters.
Obviously the IAF’s radar screen is too porous to detect low-flying choppers, and no Indian interceptors were “scrambled”. So there is little to prevent Chinese helicopters from delivering men and munitions to set up a PLA outpost in the thinlypopulated area.
The Chinese have been consistently probing Indian defences in the “middle sector”, and the argument that they are entitled to mount reconnaissance missions is a far cry from the standard alibi of “varying perceptions” of the Line of Actual Control.
When evaluated against Chinese moves towards a multinational economic corridor and its expansionist essays in the South China Sea, the aerial incursions in Chamoli might appear a mere pinprick, but complacency could prove catastrophic.
Alas, despite successive governments claiming to improve infrastructure along the disputed boundary, the Indian policy leans heavily on the timid premise that “discretion is the better part of valour”. And so the PLA keeps flexing its muscle, sending patrols deep into Indian territory, provoking stand-offs aplenty.
The troops on the ground are caught in a cleft-stick, they perceive no diplomatic initiative from which solace, or strength, can be drawn. For in New Delhi the ghosts of 1962 continue to haunt.