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The blame game and lessons from Ladakh

There cannot be two agencies responsible for the same border.

Harsha Kakar | New Delhi |

Manish Tewari, the Congress spokesperson, in an article titled, ‘India-China in 1962 and 2020’ published in Outlook states, “The question, therefore, is can CDS – the single point military advisor to the government, 14 Corps Commander, or for that matter even the defence and Prime Minister escape from responsibility for theatre-level incursions?

The coming months will answer that question.” Guneet Chaudhary, a Supreme Court advocate, writing on the principle of accountability in the armed forces mentions, “The principle of accountability should be followed and whoever is found responsible in the chain of command for the failure should be held accountable.” Shiv Kunal Verma, writing for the Sunday Guardian concludes the maze of intelligence agencies, is a shortcoming.

“If they (details of intelligence agencies) were to be listed, it would make India not only sound like an extreme police state, it would seem even a mouse cannot find a mate without a file being opened on it.” He adds that this plethora of agencies, “ensures there is actually very little responsibility, and as we move up the narrow funnel to the top, it becomes even more critical for those in power to cover-up for their blunders.”

He also mentions the multiple responsibility of sensitive and unmarked borders between the MoD and MHA as another cause. Addressing the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, barely 10 days after Doklam concluded, General Bipin Rawat stated, “As far as northern adversary is concerned, the flexing of muscle has started. The salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold is something we have to be wary about and remain prepared for situations emerging which could gradually turn into conflict.”

He also warned that Pakistan could take advantage of the situation on the Chinese frontier. “We have to be prepared in the North and the West.” Indian armed forces were aware that at some stage China would flex its muscles. This leads to the question on assessing the truth behind Ladakh. Inputs about a Chinese build-up would have appeared from end January/ early February when they commenced movement into Ladakh. It was, as in previous years, Chinese soldiers arriving for their annual exercises. However, this time the PLA began their exercises closer to the LAC.

Indian forces, which normally carry out similar exercises as a counterweight, remained away due to Covid. Thus, there was no hinderance for the Chinese, opening doors for them to move forward to their claim lines. The areas intruded were locations which the army or ITBP or both jointly patrol at regular intervals, but which are not occupied on a permanent basis. India deploying reserve forces in the garb of exercises, as a counter measure, blocks this opportunity for the Chinese, an action not done this year. Hence, whether Chinese intrusion was pre-planned, or whether they grabbed an opportunity, is unclear.

The fact that they came armed for physical combat was evident in Galwan. The reality is that these hand-held weapons were not employed in the initial clash at Pangong Tso, indicating that China possessed them as part of their inventory but distributed them once they had finalised their future course of action. From the above there are a few deductions that can be made. Inputs on Chinese build-up were available. However, it was assumed to be their annual exercise and hence not responded to. Their intrusion into unoccupied regions or patrolling points was possibly exploiting an opportunity. In either case, failure to determine Chinese intentions based on their recent actions in the South China Sea was an error.

The next issue is why did concerned agencies misinterpret Chinese intentions? Here again there are plausible causes. Foremost was the belief that the Modi-Xi proximity would not lead to China adopting offensive actions against India. It was this assumption which led to reductions in the defence budget year after year. It also impacted judgement and interpretation of Chinese intentions at every level.

Secondly, it was assumed to be an annual exercise and hence not considered a threat. Thirdly, agencies responsible for assessing intelligence and intentions lacked capable China experts, which led to them making errors. Some lessons have emerged, which remain currently relevant. Firstly, neither neighbour can be trusted, nor would they adhere to norms, agreements or understandings reached over time.

Hence, a similar attempt could be made in other sectors, for which India needs to be prepared. Secondly, national leadership needs to ditch the idea that political proximity will act as a deterrent for China. The armed forces must remain equipped for a two- front conflict. Thirdly, there is a dire requirement for China experts in the multitude of intelligence agencies currently monitoring different aspects across the borders. Fourthly, India needs to shift its intelligence and monitoring focus from Pakistan to China. Fifthly, there should never be any consideration to delay or cancel laid down exercises and deployments, for any reason.

The delay this year was caused by the pandemic and the next could be heightened tensions along the LoC or increased terrorism in the valley. Seventhly, the concept of one border, one force and one commander must be adopted. There cannot be two agencies responsible for the same border. Eighthly, allocation of funds for national security must be realistic, not based on political beliefs of proximity to belligerent neighbours.

The defence budget this year was the lowest in percentage of GDP since 1962. Allocation of additional funds for making up shortfalls after a crisis emerges is a poor example of ensuring military preparedness. Ninthly, deployment of forces in sectors should be based on realistic assessment of threats.

The true causes for the faux pas will be determined after resolution of the crisis, when the government appoints a committee, similar to the Kargil committee, to assess the entire episode and determine where there were shortcomings and what actions should be taken for the future. The committee should also consider recommendations made by the Kargil committee that were not implemented. Rather than throwing accusations across the entire hierarchy it would be better to wait for a detailed assessment to be completed.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)