Did local commanders at ground zero take matters into their own hands and flout the rules of engagement? An impartial inquiry is necessary.
From my first term in the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakwasla, Pune, I participated in boxing tournaments. I was not a spectacularly successful boxer, but I volunteered because I enjoyed the adrenalin rush, the skill involved in dodging and landing punches, and the quest for victory. As boxers, we trained vigorously, and when we entered the ring, we carried the hopes and good wishes of our squadrons and friends. Boxing bouts comprised three rounds and the referee controlled the contest. Between rounds, seconds would enter the ring to patch us up, wipe the sweat off our bodies and invigorate us with glucose-water. When the gong sounded, the seconds left the ring, and we sought our opponents with renewed vigour and the desire to prevail.
Boxing is played by the rules and the referee monitors the contest closely. If you commit a foul by hitting the opponent outside the target area or hit him with your elbow rather than your gloved fist, you are warned (by the referee) and could even be disqualified. Boxing is a sport, but opponents in the ring are akin to the enemy, and the desire to win over-powers thoughts of mercy, when raining blows or exploiting a fleeting opportunity. Despite rules and elaborate organisation for the sport, sometimes players get seriously injured. Medical teams are always present to administer first aid and doctors are available for emergencies. In recent years, additional safety precautions like headgear and mouth guards have been introduced for the safety of players.
WHY WERE INDIAN AND CHINESE SOLDIERS ENGAGED IN FIST FIGHTS?
The loss of 20 soldiers, including the commanding officer (CO) of the 16 BIHAR, is both painful and wasteful. Though the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has not acknowledged any losses, Indian media suggests that Chinese soldiers may have also been seriously injured. Soldiers are trained to use violence in optimum ways, to maximise effects with minimum collateral damage. They are trained to use a variety of weapons and equipment, work in teams, and use tactics to achieve the desired results. However, the video clips on social media show soldiers of both countries involved in verbal abuse, man-handling, and general melee. I doubt such behaviour is permitted under the rules of engagement of either country. Obviously, local commanders have taken matters into their own hands.
Satellite imagery shown in the media suggests that the PLA was better prepared than the Indian Army to handle the confrontation. Several score PLA vehicles were inducted into the Galwan river valley with tents and other infrastructure. On the other hand, media reports suggest that Indian soldiers suffered from exposure to sub-zero temperature, high-altitude effects, as well as falling into the freezing waters of the Galwan and Shyok rivers.
The Chinese action, I believe, was orchestrated to ensure numerical superiority, better replenishment, and maximum damage, without violating the Letter of the Peace and Tranquillity, CBM, and other protocols. On the other hand, the Indian Army appears to have been caught unawares by the upscale in violence. Drawing a parallel with boxing, China came prepared for the contest, with seconds and replenishments, unlike the Indian Army. More significantly, no rules were established for the contest, and there was no referee.
NOT IN THE CLASS OF BRILLIANT STRATEGIES
Strategy, by definition, is the art of applying resources to achieve an overall aim. What was the Chinese strategy in this case? Military history is replete with examples of brilliant strategies that create favourable outcomes, including a military victory. The Marshal Plan in post-World War II Europe consolidated NATO against the Warsaw Pact. The Blitzkrieg of the German Wehrmacht broke the back of positional defences such as the Maginot Line. In 1971, the strategy to bypass fortified positions in East Pakistan and capture Dhaka gave India a resplendent victory in just 13 days! In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian Army overran the Bar Lev Line (Suez Canal) in less than three hours, using the stealth, innovation, and meticulous planning of Operation BADR.
Ambushing Indian soldiers in the cold, remote, and isolated tracts of the Himalayas and bludgeoning them with clubs, fails to inspire any strategic purpose. On the contrary, it has served to further isolate China in the international community, when they are already facing flak for the Wuhan virus.
It is unlikely that the PLA action in Galwan Valley was sanctioned by Beijing. It was more likely precipitated by overzealous PLA commanders at the local level, who were unable to control the behaviour of irate and angry soldiers. China, as a responsible nation, is expected to assert control over the PLA.
India should demand a time-bound joint inquiry into the matter, with the participation of Indian Army officers. Based on the inquiry, administrative action should be taken against those who violated the letter and spirit of the border protocols.
HOW INDIA CAN DEAL WITH THE LOSS OF FACE
In the doctrine of warfare, escalation in violence is a fundamental function. Provocation by one army is met with a response from the other, inviting yet another provocation from the former, called the escalation matrix. In the India-China stand-off so far, both sides have abided by the LAC protocols. Neither side has used weapons of war, restricting the violence to fists and clubs.
Under the circumstances, India could be justified in ambushing isolated PLA patrols on its 4,056-km-long LAC. In a tit-for-tat response, India could also resort to only fists and clubs, avoiding the weapons of war.
It is possible that such a response is under active consideration by the Indian Army. Should the Army undertake such a venture successfully, there would be some sense of vindication for the troops of 16 BIHAR and for the scores of Indian soldiers, who serve on the border. However, such action may invite further escalation from the PLA. Neither country would gain, nationalism would play out, and opportunist interests would aggravate the divide between the world’s two most populous countries and most promising economies.
WHAT'S THE TAKEAWAY?
The face-off in Galwan Valley has not served the national interests of either India or China. In the lead-up to this, there have probably been several violations of border protocols, by both the PLA and the Indian Army. It would be in the interests of both nations that an impartial inquiry into the deaths of the 20 Indian soldiers is undertaken by a joint commission from both China and India. If indeed local commanders have breached the protocols of border management and jeopardised the peace and tranquillity of the LAC, they should be held accountable for the same
In the long term, future border talks between India and China should be removed from the comforts of Beijing and Delhi to the proximity of the LAC. The people of both countries would like to see tangible results in the demarcation of the LAC and its progressive conversion to an International Border.
Author: Major General Moni Chandi (retd), Chief Strategic Officer, Synergia Foundation