The New Year customarily heralds joy and particularly, hope for a better year. 2020 was, unquestionably, one of the worst in living memory since the end of World War II, with the China-originated Covid-19 pandemic afflicting the entire world. Countless millions were hurled into economic misery, lakhs of fatalities took place and medical resources were overwhelmed and were unable to cope with this unexpected onslaught. The jury is still out on whether it was China’s attempt at testing a bio-warfare weapon or an inadvertent lapse from its Wuhan based laboratories. All nations, including India, will have to guard against similar happenings in the future albeit with adequate preparations in place.

The dawn of 2021 thus carries the prayers of the entire world for sanity and normalcy to return. However, with the pandemic not showing very encouraging signs of abating, the road ahead for the world to move towards full recovery appears fraught with many pitfalls. After a late and sluggish start in battling Covid-19, India now appears to be managing the pandemic reasonably well. However, some other major unexpected challenges appeared on India’s strategic and political landscape which, by any standards, require the dedicated genius and synergy of the Indian state to resolve.

In April 2020, the Chinese surprised India with major incursions in the eastern Ladakh region at the high-altitude Depsang plains, Galwan river valley, Gogra Post area and around the picturesque Pangong Tso. On the night of 14-15 June, the Chinese physically attacked an Indian sub-unit on the Galwan valley ridge, inflicting nearly 20 fatalities on an unsuspecting Indian patrol. In a swift retaliation by gallant Indian soldiers, the Chinese, by conservative western media reports, lost over 42 soldiers. Hurried consultations between the local commanders of both sides did manage to defuse the overall situation temporarily.

It was on the night of 29-30 August 2020 that some units of the Indian Army, in a  swift move, deployed themselves on the dominating Kailash Range on own side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This action ensured Indian troops dug in strongly at some of these dominating heights which overlook the tactically important Spanggur Gap. This audacious move by the Indian troops appear to have tremendously irked the Chinese on the ground. Despite seven rounds of talks between senior commanders of both sides ostensibly to discuss disengagement, no progress appears to have taken place. Meanwhile, according to reliable media reports, over a lakh of soldiers from both sides, with tanks, artillery guns, missiles, helicopters and fighter aircraft have been deployed and are ready for action. The Chinese build-up continues ominously, which clearly points to its likely intentions. The Chinese currently appear to have engaged successfully in their “salami slicing” tactics especially in the area of the Depsang plains and some portions of the Pangong Tso, between Fingers 4 and 8, respectively.

India’s reasonable contention that disengagement between the two sides can take place only if the Chinese troops withdraw to pre April 2020 positions seems to have fallen on deaf ears. India’s security establishment is wondering if the two nations are on the brink of war or a localized armed conflict or a long haul. Thus the foremost security challenge for India in 2021 remains the vacation of China’s naked aggression in Eastern ladakh. India must not accept the status quo in Eastern Ladakh as this will ensure that China keeps the fruits of its aggression intact, which will be harmful in India’s interests in the long run. Thus a suitable response must be planned for by India in case diplomatic efforts fail to convince China as on its adventurism. Parleys, at the highest levels in both governments, however, may break the ice and should be given a try.

As India continues to match China’s build-up, it will have to factor in China’s military collusiveness with its client state Pakistan against India in the adjoining sectors of J&K. That Pakistan will continue to keep the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border in J&K alive by recurrent ceasefire violations and efforts to induct terrorists to keep stoking the fires in J&K should be expected as always. Till India does not remind Pakistan of the latter’s many fault lines, in more ways than one, Pakistan will continue to needle India. Meanwhile, India must build on the atmosphere, among the people, for progress generated by the recent successful conduct of local elections in J&K.

A lesson from our ancient history, oft-forgotten, is the imperative of internal unity in the country. External challenges can be handled adequately when the nation retains internal cohesiveness. That most of India’s internal security challenges have an external dimension to it is well known and we thus need to factor in the linkages between the two to shape our response. Dealing with the situation in J&K, in Naxalism affected areas and the Northeast will require the correct amalgam between sound security measures and exhibiting compassion cum sensitivity to the local populace. In a democracy, legitimate protests are normal and thus governments at the Centre and states must not get unduly perturbed over these and deal with dissent sympathetically and not treat those who differ from the establishment’s views as anti-nationals.

India still, unfortunately, remains as one of the largest importers in the world of defence equipment. The Centre will have to make the DRDO and the many ordnance factories it has under its ambit far more accountable and effective. India has a vibrant private sector too with some having a reasonably good record in defence production. Giving the private sector a level playing field and an assurance of purchasing their output will give a fillip to indigenous defence production. In addition, the government must ensure that as it pays huge amounts to foreign military entrepreneurs while importing state-of-the art equipment, it must insist upon transfer of critical technologies, and ultimately production of the same platforms, weapons, ammunition, spares etc., within the country. With many security challenges confronting the nation, there is no alternative to indigenous defence production.

India must also carry out an institutional, periodic holistic review of the many security organisations and structures it has to ensure their greater effectiveness. The Chief of Defence Staff appointment, now a year old since its inception, must prevail upon the government to issue a comprehensive National Strategic Security Document which lays down a roadmap prioritization of India’s short, medium and long-term perspective plans.

Importantly, India has to keep China’s machinations especially in our neighbourhood in mind. India must not cede any strategic or economic space in our backyard to China. The developments in Nepal require careful handling as China is hell-bent to reduce the warmth of our myriad and traditional linkages with that nation.

As India rises to confront all challenges to its well-being and security in 2021, the need of the hour is restoring India’s economic health, ensuring unfailing internal cohesion, fidelity to the Constitution and overall security preparedness with greater vigour and planning.

Lt Gen Kamal Davar (Retd) is an Army veteran