Why 2021 political rhetoric is no match for 1962 fighting in Ladakh
- India and China came close to war last year after Indian army commanders atop Rezang La-Rechin La ridge threatened to fire at the advancing PLA tank regiment that sought to dislodge the Indian troopers.
While a slanging match between the ruling government and opposition over Chinese aggression in East Ladakh is part of political play in a democracy, the official history of the 1962 war places the ongoing standoff in the western sector in a proper perspective with cold and brutal facts. “History of The Conflict with China, 1962” was released by the Narasimha Rao government in 1993 with a foreword by one of India’s most illustrious civil servants Narender Nath Vohra, who was Defence Secretary at that time.
Although the document is voluminous and covers the fighting in western, central and eastern sectors, the seventh chapter called “Fighting in Ladakh” presents a very sobering read to any Indian. Consider this:
- The Western Command, in a letter dated August 17, 1962, drew the attention of Army Headquarters to China deploying a full division of troops along with supporting arms against mere four battalions of Indian Army troops that had just one platoon of machine guns. The letter said that all Chinese posts were connected by roads with three-tonne load capacity, and they also had lateral roads. It says that the Indian road building activity was in its initial stages and that the Chinese were superior in terms of mobility and firepower. Even today, the Chinese have a distinct advantage over Indians in military infra and firepower. Road-building activity along the LAC was taken up by the Vajpayee government in 2003, work began during the UPA regime but was significantly accelerated by the Narendra Modi government. The 1962 baggage at the turn of century was such that for 40 years, subsequent governments did not dare build border roads on the ground that these could be used by the Chinese army to enter the hinterland in case of a conflict.
- On July 10, 1962, PLA soldiers surrounded the Indian Post at Galwan but did not attack it. This was taken as a validation of “forward policy” by the Jawahar Lal Nehru government as the then Intelligence Bureau Chief BN Mullick believed that the Chinese would not use force even if Beijing was in a position to do so. This turned out to be a totally wrong assumption and India paid for it.
- When a senior Western Command general pointed out at a meeting held at the highest levels on September 22, 1962, that the Nehru government’s decision to evict PLA from Thag La ridge in the eastern sector would invite retaliation in the western sector, the reply of then Foreign Secretary M J Desai was startling. The official history quotes: “ The Foreign Secretary stated that some loss of territory in Ladakh was acceptable to the PM (Nehru).” The results were humiliating.
- When effective fighting ended in Ladakh on October 24, 1962, all the forward posts established in the Chip-Chap and Nachu Chu river were withdrawn. The Daulet Beg Oldi post was also abandoned. “The Chinese had established their effective control up to their 1960 claim line in the sector well below Depsang Plains."
- By October 22, 1962, the Chinese were in complete control of the northern banks of Pangong Tso after running over Indian Srijap, Srijap 1 and 2 posts in a lightning attack a day earlier. This means that by ensuring the PLA withdraws to the Srijap complex through Pangong Tso disengagement, the Indian Army has managed to restore status quo ante.
There is a strong view that the PLA is dragging its feet over disengagement in Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang Bulge area. But PM Modi’s government has made it clear that for the restoration of normal bilateral ties, there has to be complete disengagement and de-escalation. Any selective disengagement has been ruled out by India.
While the Gogra-Hot Springs stand-off is part of the current PLA aggression, the issue of patrolling rights of the Indian Army in Depsang Bulge is part of the 2013 legacy, when the PLA blocked the ingress route by making a stand at Raki and Jeevan nullah.
Even though the PLA wants an advantage in Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang bulge area, it is seriously wary of the Indian Army after the August 29-30, 2020 action taken under the leadership of Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat and Army Chief MM Naravane on the south banks of Pangong Tso. On that day, the two countries nearly came to war after the Indian army commanders atop Rezang La-Rechin La ridge threatened to fire at the advancing PLA tank regiment which was trying to dislodge the Indian troopers. The PLA figured the Indian army commanders weren’t going to back down and promptly halted the brazen military manoeuvre. History was made that day as this is neither the army of 1962 nor is the political leadership.