In 1962, PLA ‘terror squads’ had shown no mercy or remorse, gunning down and bayoneting retreating Indian soldiers in cold blood. In what was nothing short of a war crime, even senior officers were ambushed and killed. The objective of this brutality by the PLA was to intimidate the Indians, not just at that time, but to leave a permanent scar on their psyche.
New Delhi: From the day Narendra Modi became a serious contender for India’s top job, almost certainly every move of his would have been scrutinised by a battalion of Chinese experts, who would have been tasked to look inside his head. While sitting on a swing amidst the peaceful surroundings of the Sabarmati river, while a battery of cameras recorded yet another defining moment in India-China relations, chances are Xi Jinping would not have missed a single beat, looking for cracks that could be exploited when the time came.
In the run-up to the border clashes in NEFA and Ladakh in 1962, a Chinese delegation had visited India in the late 1950s. Major General B.M. “Biji” Kaul, then commanding 4 Mountain Division in Ambala had hosted the Chinese delegation and as part of their visit, had organised a demonstration of an infantry attack on a defended position with all the necessary accompanying fireworks. Subsequently, when the decision to launch an attack on India in October 1962 was being taken, Mao Zedong sent for the officers who had been present at Ambala and asked them for their assessment of Kaul, by then a Lieutenant General who was considered to be the de facto Chief.
The exercise and demonstration by the Indians, the Chinese General told the assembled senior commanders present, had been perfect. In fact, too perfect! What followed was a sharp, to the point assessment of not just Kaul, but also the Indian Army, based on which the Chinese had evolved their strategy. By looking inside the adversary’s head, they then worked out their plans, taking educated guesses as to how the Indians would react in given situations. To a great extent, quite a few of those prophecies would come true.
Not only would the Chinese have spent a considerable time studying Prime Minister Modi, similar studies would have been dedicated to other key players on the Indian side—Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, Nirmala Sitharaman, Dr S. Jaishankar, Ajit Doval and perhaps everybody in the chain of command.
Given the considerable amount of time and money spent by the Chinese on these matters, similar studies would have explored how best to use every conceivable weakness in the Indian system to create a wave of crippling fear. The image of a land grabbing, 9-foot Chinaman bearing down from the heights at Naku La in Sikkim, Pangong Tso and Galwan in Eastern Ladakh, would then make their job that much easier. The Chinese, even after the cease-fire had been declared by them on 21 November 1962, had tasked two battalions, whose job was to hunt down and kill all the retreating Indian soldiers. Most of them, disoriented by the cold and the numbing decision by their commanders to abandon their positions, were even without their weapons.
The “terror squads” had then shown no mercy or remorse, gunning down and bayoneting them in cold blood. In what was nothing short of a war crime, even senior officers including Lieutenant Colonel Bramhanand Avasthy and Brigadier Hoshiar Singh, were ambushed and killed. The objective of this brutality by the PLA was to intimidate the Indians, not just at that time, but to leave a permanent scar on their psyche.
In 2020, while their PLA commanders worked out routes of ingress and tactics to be adopted on the ground, the input from these psycho-analysts would have also profiled certain key people within India who would, if given the right platforms to air their views, help create not only a wave of fear but also stampede the Indian leadership and the Army into taking hasty decisions, thereby playing straight into the Chinese hands.
Advice at the time of a crisis, especially when it involves the big bad dragon on our northern border, comes not as a tickle but as a tsunami from all quarters. The Chinese had been sending their patrols not only to Fingers in the Pangong Tso and Galwan areas, but also in North Sikkim and other regions almost every year. Local Army commanders have been dealing with these intrusions, and every time after showing the flag, these issues were resolved. However, the moment the Chinese needed to up the ante as it were, all that it would require would be to identify the right people to start making noises in the media. The rest, not to be outdone, would flock to the fore and do the rest. Psycho-analysts in China would then simply have to put away their crystal balls and simply switch on Indian TV channels to know what was happening on the southern side of the Himalayas.
There is enough chaos on the Indian side for any reasonably informed analyst to rip into the government and start finding fault. That there has been a massive intelligence failure is obvious to even the most myopic student of the situation. But for certain people to start fighting the war from the comfort of their armchairs is not only uncalled for, it’s downright dangerous.
The Chinese media certainly isn’t telling you who are the troops facing you in Ladakh or elsewhere. In our case, we have these analysts, having decided that even an inch of territory loss would be a great opportunity to rub the government’s nose in the dust, openly taunting the government to engage the Chinese in an all-out war.
The interpretation given to Prime Minister Modi’s so-called remark that not an inch of Indian territory has been lost was certainly mischievous and took almost everybody by surprise. Technically, if we disregard the fact that the Chinese are now sitting on their third claim line, the PM is right, for as he also stated, no Indian posts have been overrun, only areas that were considered “no-man’s land” have seen the ingression of Chinese troops. On the other hand, perhaps there was no need for the PM to make public what he had said in camera to the leaders of the various parties. However, having taken that step, he has offered China an opportunity to either step back or further escalate the matter. The distortion of the statement should certainly wake up the Prime Minister to the perils and nuances of the misinformation game.
As far as India is concerned, it is vital for us not to get swayed by the near hysterical reporting. With another well-known journalist having also reached Leh with appropriate self-generated fanfare, it is a matter of time the Indian and Chinese Armies will be relegated to the role of props. The very first story rolling off her fingertips says “if we don’t take strong action now, one day the Chinese will be sitting in Leh”. The quote, ironically, is attributed to the Ladakh Buddhist Association! Journalists are meant to report on situations, not create and instigate situations and become the news themselves.
The Indian Army and Air Force, extending from Ladakh to Kibithu, are quite capable of sorting out any Chinese misadventure. However, it is imperative that the commanders on the ground are allowed to operate minus a minute-by-minute analysis of what is happening or should be happening. As it is, I think we are falling into the Chinese trap of once again getting obsessed with the Himalayan frontier when the real action should be in the Indian Ocean. The biggest Chinese vulnerability lies in the sea lanes and maybe for once we should actually start thinking “Navy”, especially as the South China Sea may well be the real thing at present.
China has played its hand and it is now time for us to decide where and how we should meet this challenge. In 1962 we made the big mistake of trying to hold the Chinese on the crest lines, instead of falling back and taking them on ground that was favourable to us. The famous Thorat defensive principle was thrown to the winds and we all saw what happened. Definitely caught off balance by Xi Jinping and the PLA, PM Modi, by not getting swayed by the taunts of his detractors, has given himself the required time to find his equilibrium and decide on his “defensive line”, be it on land, sea or air. For us as a nation, whatever be our political views, it is time to stand firm behind the elected government. PM Modi on his part, needs to choose his team wisely. Some have certainly let him down.
Shiv Kunal Verma is the author of “1962: The War That Wasn’t” and “The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why”.