Author: Group Captain Ashok K Chordia (Re-attired)
Author - “Operation Cactus: Anatomy of one of India’s Most Daring Military Operations”
Founder Member of ‘Akashganga: IAF’s Skydiving Team; Former Assistant Director Operations (Para); Former Commandant/ Chief Instructor, Garud Regimental Training Centre.
Creative Writing Course with the British Council is the best thing that has happened to me since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, it is one of the most satisfying courses of instructions I have ever attended.
I have been writing for some time––I have published a book and have been posting articles and short stories on my blog, Road Much Travelled (www.akchordia.com) for nearly two years. This course was an eye-opener; I realised how little I knew about writing. It was indeed, a humbling experience. Having done the course, I feel much powerful. Now, I have the tools to pursue my passion with much greater satisfaction. The joy of writing will be different, hereafter.
The curriculum had been structured keeping our needs in mind. And, in the time available, it was covered exceedingly well. The method of instructions was exceptional––Ms Ananya Banerjee devoted time and attention to each participant. She had answers to all our questions, and as a teacher, she was always extremely encouraging and inspiring. The exercises and assignments kept the interest alive all through. She took pains to check and give detailed and valuable suggestions to improve our writing skills.
Thanks to Ms Banerjee’s guidance, the ‘improved’ version of my short story assignment was liked by a film maker––may soon be a short film. I guess I have already begun reaping the benefits of investing time in this course.
There is, but one regret––if only I had undergone this Course some years ago, I would have had the pleasure of writing for a longer period in life. Better late than never! At sixty, I still have some time to go.
Thank you, Ms Banerjee! Thank you, British Council!
Sometimes, children are cranky; they cry. At times, they do so for justifiable reasons, on other occasions, there’s no apparent reason for their behaviour. Parents feel obligated to do anything to calm them. They have their own ways of dealing with situations. Succumbing to difficult demands or paying ransom each time is not a good way of dealing with them. Here are three tried, tested and proven ways of handling situations, particularly when there is no just cause for wailing. Needless to say, these approaches must be tried as a last resort; only after one has tried to pinpoint and resolve a genuine problem, if any.
The Kush Approach
This approach entails skilful use of the mobile phone camera to zap an unsuspecting kid. It works with an assured one hundred per cent rate of success when used for the first time. With innovativeness parents can re-use the technique multiple times until the child gets to know the trick.
As a first step, a cranky child is apprised of a serious side effect of crying. He is told that crying ‘without a valid reason’ deforms the face. While the child tries to get the import of what is being said, pictures of some animals––say, an ape, a dog, a cat, a donkey or a cow etc––are downloaded on a mobile phone. This downloading of pictures can be done much in advance. Then, using the same mobile phone, a close-up photograph of the crying child is clicked. He is told that he looks like an ape (or a dog etc.) when he cries. He is urged to stop crying because, the parent could say: “I do not want you to turn into an animal. I’ll be very sad if you turn into an ape and… and what will your cousins, friends and teachers say? Oh my God, … please stop crying.”
Then, with theatrics, he is shown the downloaded picture of an animal. Seeing himself turned into an ape or a dog etc, stuns a child into disbelief.
Named after my grandnephew, Kush, I discovered this approach when one day, during a family get together, he caused a pandemonium for bizarre reasons.
This is another very effective way of dealing with a child crying for no apparent reason. It has an assured success rate of close to a hundred per cent in the first instance. Its effectiveness erodes considerably with every use.
This technique involves crying and wailing much louder than the child. When a parent, or better still, someone known to the child, cries more loudly than the child, the child invariably pauses in wonderment. That pause is often sufficient to break his chain of thought and to stop his wailing. Children who stop crying under such a spell, normally do not resume crying again.
Named after my jeweller friend Puneet Bagga, I discovered this approach when I saw him calming a child in his showroom.
The Kartik Approach
This technique involves approving a child’s reason for crying, taking him into confidence and then suggesting the idea of postponing his crying to a later point in time.
As a first step the parent agrees with the child that his reason for crying is justified. The child appreciates someone empathising with him. Then he is given a suggestion that he could as well indulge in an activity which he likes e.g., playing carrom, eating an apple or drinking milk chocolate (these are not the activities he is wailing for) and could rather postpone his crying to a later point in time. In this exercise, first, the child gets a bit confused and then, in most cases agrees to pursue an activity deferring his crying to an opportune moment later, which never comes.
This technique works on the elementary principle of: “Deferred agony is lost agony!” The success rate could be as high as 80% depending on the oratory skills of the parent.
Named after my grandnephew, Kartik, I discovered this approach when one day, I saw his father Ravi, using this technique effortlessly to calm him down.
I was sitting alone in the AC First Class coupe of the Sampark Kranti Express until the wheels rolled with a jerk and a person stumbled in and fell spreadeagle on the floor.
“Take it easy.” I helped him lift himself to the seat in front. He was an elderly frail man; in his early eighties, I guessed; and he might not have weighed a gram in excess of fifty kilos. He was a skeleton, almost. The cap of a Sheafer pen peeping out of his coat’s pocket suggested that he was possibly engaged in scholarly pursuits.
“Uh! Thank you… I am jaast een time.” A forced smile on his pale face deepened the furrows in his wrinkled cheeks. He adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses with cylindrical lenses to focus his gaze on something beneath my berth. I realised, he was reading my name on my steel trunk.
“So, you are Squadron Leedor… Indiaan Air Force?” I wasn’t much impressed by what he seemed to show off as his discovery because that was my rank years ago; I was now a Group Captain. I smiled, nonetheless.
Inadvertently though, he had needled me gently with that one-word question. “Why do people take everyone who dons blue, to be a pilot?” I thought.
“Not really,” I said aloud without making an attempt to hide my feeling. “I am a skydiver,” I said proudly. “The next best thing to being an eagle in the big blue sky.”
The peculiar tone of my answer must have amused him for he couldn’t help chuckle at it. Unfortunately, that sent him into a bout of cough. I offered him some water and a cup of tea from my flask which gave him instant relief.
“Dhonyobaad,” he was grateful.
His phone rang soon enough. He squinted his eyes to read the text on the five-inch screen of his iPhone but couldn’t. He accepted the call with indifference. It was either an unknown caller, or someone he didn’t wish to speak to. His face turned red as he listened to the individual at the other end. He cupped his mouth as if to prevent being heard, but was provoked by the caller to scream into the instrument: “I am not Bheector Bhon.” His lips, quivered, His nostrils grew large and his unusually long nasal hair flowed out of the cavities like mini grey fumes, “Aar, aami Majeek Dadu noi (And, I am not Magic Grandpa)! Stop calling me from deepharent nombers.” He disconnected angrily and mumbled an inaudible sorry when our eyes met.
I gestured an it’s alright.
He wiped the beads of sweat that had appeared on his forehead. Then there was prolonged silence except for his deep breathing and the rhythmic rumbling of the wagon’s cast iron wheels.
He was professor-like in his mannerism, perpetually lost. He rummaged his pockets clumsily for his ticket when the conductor arrived. And, when he did present one, it was an invalid ticket––it was for the Rajdhani Express of the previous day. Without ado, he paid the fine and bought a valid ticket. “I am bheecoming phorgetfool,” he announced to nobody in particular.
The following hour was spent in what I call polite-meaningless–conversation. My half-hearted effort to know who he was, got stymied each time by his arguments on a variety of subjects: Hypoxia… Foreign Policy… Unmanned aircraft… Electric cars… China… Biological Warfare. There was a core of weirdness in the way he lingered long on those last two topics. All through our conversation, his probing eyes scanned our coupe and a part of the corridor.
Something was troubling him.
At Katihar Junction, I stretched my legs and arms and prepared to fetch hot tea from a tea-stall on the Platform. “Would you like to come along for a cup of tea,” I made an offer.
“Sorry, I habe jhoint pain. I bhud like to seet heaar. Bhy don’t you get aa cop phor mee too,” he exposed the big gaps between his yellow teeth as he urged smilingly.
I didn’t mind doing that small favour and walked away with the flask in my hand. I was oblivious of an intriguing request that would follow soon.
The door of the coupe appeared closed when I returned. My repeated gentle knocks and ‘Hello Sir’ through the slits in the small side window were responded by silence. The door, which was not bolted from inside, slid ajar effortlessly when I tugged it.
The man sat motionless in the corner. He was holding his Sheafer on to his scribble pad. The pen slipped from his fingers as I walked in. Written on his scribble pad in laboured cursive handwriting was an apparently incomplete and unsigned note which read: “Dear Squadron Leader, I don’t have much time. I have recorded a voice-memo on my mobile phone. Please share it with Victor One. He…”
The man was dead.
Gears shifted and cogwheels began rotating faster in my cranium––anxiety to get down to work the next morning; this unknown dead man in my coupe; the voice memo and, above all… who was this Victor One? My mind felt cluttered.
First things first. I secured the man’s scribble pad, and pocketed his phone before seeking assistance of the Station Master and the cops. They found nothing on person of that lonesome man, or in his baggage, that could reveal his identity. The body was taken away for post mortem and I was made to sign a declaration.
“Sir, we’ll call you as a witness, only if it is necessary.” The Head Constable saluted and assured me, before letting me board the train again. It had been delayed by fifteen minutes.
Next morning, the headline in The Times of India read: “Dr Shantanu Bhattacharya Dies in Sampark Kranti.” A two-decade old photograph on the front page had striking similarity with the passenger I had met on the train the previous day. The subheading read: “Dr Bhattacharya (83) was convalescing in Baruah Sanatorium in Shillong after undergoing psychiatric treatment at AIIMS, New Delhi.” A boxed item aroused my interest: “On condition of anonymity, a close associate said that lately, Dr Bhattacharya, a less known Microbiologist, had been hallucinating about the quantum jump in Beijing’s Biological Warfare capabilities and that he had been claiming that he had found a counter to some of the Dragon’s bio-weaponry. He even feared abduction by the Chinese; was paranoid. The Scientist had gone missing from his Sanatorium late last Friday. His disappearance was kept under wraps as the intelligence agencies were trying to rule out foreign hand.”
I re-read the news item which said: “Codenamed Victor One, Dr Bhatta was popular among his colleagues as Magic Dadu.”
“If the man I met in the train was Dr Bhattacharya, and if Dr Bhattacharya was codenamed Victor One, who do I handover the recorded message on the phone, and the scribble pad to?” I was utterly confused.
My curiosity nudged me to explore Dr Bhatta’s phone. It wasn’t locked but the sim was missing. Knowing that his end was near, he had erased all the data on his phone except a voice memo. I couldn’t make much sense of the garbled message recorded by him: “Dear Bheector Bhon, I trast you only. Nobhody ailse… the Chinese are training a maasquito aarhmy… they habe laarnt tha technique from tha Nazis… (unintelligible sounds). I habe deeskhovered…. They bheel abhduct mee… Uh! Obhar hown peepal habe bheetrayed me (our own people have betrayed me)… uh… uh… (long pause) uh…(stuttering)… (silence).”
“Why would Dr Bhattacharya record and send a message to himself?” I was puzzled.
My confusion climbed another notch when a newspaper cutting fell from Dr Bhatta’s scribble pad as I flipped its pages to see if it contained anything worthwhile. It read: “Nazis planned malaria-carrying mosquito army.”
My train of thoughts was interrupted by Chhaya, my wife, who had laid the table for breakfast, “We’ll have to clean up the utensils and dishes for the next few days. Guddi will not be coming to work; she is running high fever. In fact, almost her entire chawl of about 300 dwellers is down with some strange symptoms… I don’t know what’s happening…,” She sighed. “Mrs Manchandani was saying that it is a new breed of malarial parasite, much deadlier, spreading like an epidemic.”
Sino-Indian border talks have been roiling like a long-brewing ginger-tulsi kadha––becoming bitterer in taste with each passing moment. If only the potion seethes well, might India and China accrue long-term health benefits from it. The outcome of the sixth round of talks doesn’t indicate that; it is another case of the same old wine being served in a new bottle––still focussing on defusing tensions.
Talks, and more talks, are in the offing––uncertainty and unease on the border have been prolonged. Divining the prospect of peace by reading tea leaves might not be possible since, mutually piqued, Modi and Xi are less likely to meet over a cup of tea in the near future. Yet I have been overzealous about the future.
Would the Queen––whose representative caused this Sino-India border problem by using some bad broad nibs to draw the region’s map––help foresee the fate of the subcontinent? Out of curiosity I tossed a Victorian era silver coin hoping to get some answers––war or peace; withdrawal or long drawn standoff….? When judgement becomes difficult, I have started believing in the predictions guided by a coin with the British monarchy on its face for they (the Brits) are at the root of most of the world’s problems of today. And lo and behold, the coin I tossed, bounced off the road, missed a drain narrowly and ended up through a perforated concrete lid into a bottomless well meant for rainwater harvesting. Now sealed some fifty feet below the earth’s surface, is (the much sought knowledge of) the future of this great country.
Rankled, I had almost decided to take a break from this Sino-India affair for a while when I saw Champagne––the wretched stray I introduced to my worthy readers in an earlier post titled, “China’s Champagne Moment.” Those familiar with that dog’s demeanour will recall that, like China he had been claiming territory that was not rightfully his until one day, when other dogs got together and taught him a lesson. Through Champagne I had projected Beijing’s doom.
My forecast has not come true yet; it has not been proved entirely false either. Several countries, with the US in the forefront, have been striving to settle their scores with China. The anti-China sentiment is simmering with greater intensity now than ever before. And ever since I wrote that piece, Champagne has been behaving even more like China. Rather than fighting with the dogs in the neighbourhood, he has been trying to travel far and wide and woo the dogs he sees sitting on any kind of resources. The other day I saw him wooing a black dog at a construction site. It felt as if China were wooing Africa.
Then two strikingly strange and unusual things happened.
One, Lisa, another dog appeared on the scene. She became popular with all the dogs in the area. They aligned with her as much because of her friendly demeanour as for the reason that they wanted someone to stand for them against the aggressiveness of Champagne.
Two, around the time the last round of Sino-Indian border talks concluded, Champagne was seen practicing ‘kowtowing‘… yes, K-O-W-T-O-W-I-N-G.”
Reverting to China. Behind the façade, Beijing is succumbing to the pressures created by several countries going against it and this is evident in its slowly eroding belligerence. In the last few days, since the standoff at Pangong Tso, China has not reacted with use of force, instead it has spent time at the negotiating table with India. This doesn’t go with China’s past stance and responses to such issues. Reasons for its restraint are better known to Beijing; others can only hazard a guess.
Meanwhile, Indian leadership has not been resting on its oars. It is trying to find the best way to the dragon’s heart out of the so many routes available. One is direct––from Delhi to Beijing. The other is from Delhi to Beijing via one or more of––Washington, Ottawa, Paris, Berlin, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Canberra, Tokyo, Manila, the sea in the South of China (some people erroneously call it South China Sea), Malacca, Strait, Hong Kong, Taipei, Lhasa, Xinjiang, et al. Needless to say, in the present circumstances, Xi Jinping will be pleased to meet Modi’s emissary travelling direct from Delhi to Beijing rather than following a circuitous route.
In the present situation, either China has nothing to say (less likely), or it doesn’t have the words to say, what it wants to say. Therein lie the reasons for no tangible progress in the talks and no further escalation in hostilities. Therein also lies the reason why Xi Jinping, like Champagne, might as well go indoors and refresh his Kowtowing skill––one doesn’t know when he’d need to fall back on the benefits of the ancient Chinese practice.
India would do well to prepare the ESCAPE HATCH for the dragon’s graceful exit.
Four days from now, September the 26th will mark the 37th anniversary of an event that, beyond a sliver of doubt, averted a nuclear war. On that day in 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Forces was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command centre outside Moscow monitoring its early-warning satellites over the United States when alarms went off––computers warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base.
Colonel Petrov was a very important link in the decision-making chain. His superiors reported to the general staff, who would consult the Soviet leader, Mr Yuri V Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack. Since there was no rule about how long the observers were allowed to think before they reported a strike, Petrov took his sweet time absorbing the deluge of incoming information and ‘felt’ that the launch reports were ‘probably’ a false alarm. He, therefore, reported ‘a system malfunction’. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he told a newspaper later. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”
Every second of delay on that day took away valuable time that the Soviet military and political leadership would have needed to absorb the inputs and react. Petrov told an interviewer, “… I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” It was at best a 50-50 guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched. He could afford the luxury of sleeping mulling over the inputs because 25 long minutes would elapse between launch and detonation. Petrov attributed his judgment to his training and his intuition. He had been told that a nuclear first strike by the Americans would come in the form of an overwhelming onslaught.
Training and Intuition… where does India stand?
A typical military exercise––conducted at many of the military training institutes/ colleges/ establishments––has a Blue Force (India) and a Red Force (the adversary––Pakistan or China, implied or explicit). The exercises are realistic with full freedom to the participating officers––with 3 to 30 years of commissioned service; sometimes, including bureaucrats, diplomats and scientists––to let go of their imagination to plan and execute military operations until… someone in the Red Force threatens to use the nukes.
The exercise is paused and the director of the exercise (or the umpire) steps in and enlightens the attendees. Put in different words and with varying intensity, depending on the personality of the guru, the gist of what is repeatedly sermonised and hammered into the craniums of the participants is: “Like India, China has a No-First-Use (NFU) policy––therefore, use of a nuclear weapon by China against India is not a likely proposition. As regards Pakistan, although their leadership talks and acts insanely, they are not mad. Nuclear sabre rattling by Pakistan is, but a hollow threat. Pakistan cannot dare to strike India with a nuclear-tipped missile because even with a ‘second strike’ option, India has the capability to turn the whole of Pakistan into rubble…. We can cause unacceptable damageto any adversary if we are struck with nukes….”
The punch line delivered (invariably) with theatrical emphasis and the air of a political leader seeking to hold a moral high ground at a peace conference at the UN General Assembly reads somewhat:
“Nuclear weapons are not meant for fighting; they are there (only) for deterrence.”
This has now been going on for decades since the legendary Mr K Subrahmanyam drew up the draft of India’s Nuclear Doctrine, which communicated, along with India’s NFU status, the spirit that:
“Nuclear weapons are the weapons of last resort; they’ll be used only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere.”
As can be seen, there is a subtle difference between what the genius, Mr Subrahmanyam enunciated and what the later gurus interpreted, communicated and taught to the lesser mortals––the military personnel and the scientists––people who would be expected to ‘handle’ the nukes when ordained by the political leadership. Over the years, the people, who would some day play Colonel Petrov in India’s case; have been getting inoculated with a different vaccine than should have been ideally prescribed.
An ambiguity at a crucial moment––nuclear weapons being weapons of last resort or being meant only for deterrence––borne out of years of training, can cost India dear because it would take just about five to ten minutes from a launch (in Pakistan or China) to detonation (in India). In a situation like Petrov’s, Indians would not afford the luxury of time. It is therefore, imperative that people who would some day be in the decision making chain and those who would be executing a political big decision (particularly the men in uniform and the scientists) be educated and trained to act decisively without dithering like Colonel Petrov.
The need to unlearn and relearn the nuances of the Indian Nuclear Doctrine is also mandated by the recent behaviour of our neighbours. Let’s look at it this way. Pakistan knows that its nuclear sabre rattling does not perturb India, for India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff twice recently––one, by carrying out surgical strikes across the border after Uri terror attack; and two, by executing airstrikes against terror camps at Balakot in response to the Pulwama Terror Attack. In both those cases, Imran Khan first blabbered about the heightening tensions and the possibility of ‘inadvertent’ use of nukes, then ate a humble pie.
Humiliated at home and abroad on those counts, and coupled with a messed up economy and a battered national prestige (because of Pakistan’s terror links), the Khan is vulnerable to arm-twisting by three agencies––Pakistan Military; Pakistan-based terror outfits; and a Shylock-like China, whose debt makes Pakistan cringe. China is capable of using several levers to instigate its stooge, Pakistan to surprise India. Considering these mounting pressures, the cricketer turned puppet of a politician, might be forced to reconsider and carry out his nuclear bluff. The probability, although infinitely low, is not equal to zero. Therefore, it would be prudent on India’s part to cater for a ‘mistaken’ use of a nuke by Imran’s Pakistan.
To sum up, security, and nuclear security in particular, is a dynamic concept; its doctrines and understanding of the same by every link in the chain needs periodic review and refreshing. Exercising realistically with the nuclear option will convey a stronger ‘resolve’ to the adversaries and work as a more meaningful deterrence without changing anything on the ground.
8:00 am. Sunday, December the 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbour happened––a surprise military strike by the Japanese devastated the US naval base in the Pacific. Major US losses included: four battleships sunk and another four damaged and three each cruisers and destroyers damaged. Worse was the destruction of 188 aircraft. Even greater setback was the loss of 2336 men (killed) and 1,143 wounded.
Although the US avenged Pearl Harbour by nuke bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it left indelible scars on the American psyche.
After the end of WW II, the Americans turned almost the whole of Pearl Harbour into a War Museum. The USS Arizona Memorial with the list of the dead warriors; the tattered Stars and Stripes and copies of the next day’s newspapers and much more––keep jolting Americans. “Never again,” is the message writ large upon everything American in Hawaii.
On my first visit to Hawaii, Brigadier General Meryll drew my attention to bullet marks on the wall of a building of the Headquarters of the US Pacific Air Forces. “We’ve deliberately not repaired those craters left by the Japanese bombers––they remind us that we were caught napping once. Pearl Harbour will never repeat,” he said.
A solemn resolve.
Time erodes memories. America was caught napping again––9/11 happened. The US pounded Afghanistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. Those follow-up actions certainly did not avenge or offset the 3,000 innocent American lives lost in the ghastly attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
As if that was not enough, America lowered its guard yet again. Covid-19 pandemic is no less than another Pearl Harbour––close to 1,97,000 innocent American lives lost, and still counting. America blames this one on China. Yet, simmering internal strife and the forthcoming Presidential election has blunted weakened Uncle Sam’s ability resolve to punish its perpetrator.
Countries have their Pearl Harbour moments––October 1962 was India’s, when China attacked and occupied Indian territory by surprise. In the nearly six decades gone by, China has occasionally reminded India of that one time when India had dozed off. Galwan Valley incident was a rude reminder of the dragon’s sliminess. In fact, it was a jolt that let India learn its lesson hard, and fast. The result was evident in the swiftness with which Indian Army grabbed tactical advantage in the Pangong Tso Area. PLA will now use every arrow in its quiver to neutralise the Indian advantage. In all probability, the present lull is a prelude to yet another adventure by the dragon.
For whatever reasons, in 1962, India did not employ its combat air power against the Chinese. Likewise, during Kargil, restriction was imposed on the Indian Air Force on crossing the LAC. In both those cases, India paid an avoidable cost for not exploiting the full potential of its combat air power.
In the present situation, when the Indian Army is sitting pretty on heights overlooking the Chinese positions, it would be advisable to give the Air Force a free hand to plan and execute its operations in support of the Indian Army.
The supreme sacrifice made by the Indian Jawans in Galwan Valley is too recent an occurrence to be forgotten; it is never to be forgotten. 1962, India’s Pearl Harbour, is too unpleasant to be allowed to repeat.
A day after the meeting between the External Affairs Ministers of India and China, the experts who went deep diving into the official statements of the two, to draw meaning, have not struck upon anything to write home about. Some are now trying to read the body languages of the two ministers during the ten-second photo-op with the Russian Foreign Minister. Until something significant trickles from their efforts, one might take a re-look at the antecedents of the Galwan Valley faceoff and the Pangong Tso standoff. On a dispassionate glance at the incidents in the rear-view mirror, one might just get inclined to draw a conclusion which, might be viewed with mixed emotions… and that inference is:
“Sino-Indian border issue is too serious an affair to be left to a single agency––political leadership, diplomatic corps or the military––to resolve.”
Beyond any doubt, the synergy of the trio has helped India hold the dragon at bay… until now.
The present situation can be summarised thus: India has a tactical military advantage in the Ladakh region––Indian Army will exploit that edge, if a need arises. While China is weighing and considering its options, India is consolidating its position––troops are getting more acclimatised and are stocking up to address the developing situation. China cannot possibly challenge Indian positions in the Ladakh region. If it opens another front elsewhere––say, Sikkim or Arunanchal, where its gains might be iffy––probably Indian troops would en-cash the advantage around Pangong Tso.
A China that now considers itself a world power second only to the US is less likely to eat a humble pie by accepting ‘status quo ante’ (for whatever it means), or by unconditionally withdrawing. A ‘publicised’ setback in Ladakh will affect China’s reputation and stakes elsewhere––Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and of course, in the sea on its south (some people call it South China Sea‘).
Imponderables are far too many to be summarised here. The time is running out. Suffice it to say that in due course winter will set in and it will become more difficult for Beijing to maintain its forces in the region than Delhi. Dragon is doomed if it accepts India’s terms for peace; it is doomed if it doesn’t. That perhaps is the reason for practically nothing coming out of the meeting between the ministers.
Can India help the dragon wriggle out of a situation it is responsible for creating?
Perhaps Sun Tzu’s Art of War can throw up an answer for India:
“When you surround an enemy [adversary], leave an outlet free…. The object is to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair. For you should not press a desperate foe too hard.”
~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter VII, Manoeuvring
Although not physically surrounded, Beijing’s dilemma in Ladakh is damning––to fight or to find a face saving way out of the imbroglio. While, the Indian Army is holding the fort, can the dragon be nudged into a diplomatic escape hatch from which it can emerge with a smile?
News from India-China border isn’t very encouraging. Last month end situation became volatile in eastern Ladakh after India thwarted a Chinese attempt to occupy Indian territory near Pangong Tso. As it stands, India has occupied a number of strategic heights on the southern bank of the lake and strengthened its presence in other areas in the region. India has also rushed in additional troops and military hardware to the region.
The diplomatic and military level talks to ease tensions have failed. Also, nothing worthwhile emerged from the interaction between the Defence Ministers on the sidelines of the SCO Defence Ministers Meeting in Moscow on September 4, 2020. The probability of the success of a similarly planned meeting between the External Affairs Ministers scheduled on September 10, 2020 hovers closer to zero than 1. The reasons are understandable. India, having occupied positions of tactical advantage in Ladakh will be approaching the dialogue with a little more bargaining power than it usually does. China might want this status to change before discussing contentious border issues. Besides, unlike the Indian representatives who are empowered to take decisions, the Chinese representatives at such meetings are not authorised to take decisions.
Meanwhile, following reports of Chinese troops firing warning shots in Ladakh, troops on either side are on the razor’s edge. There are ominous signs that after having made relentless vain attempts at negotiating peace, the political leadership on both sides might pass on the baton to the military to ‘handle’ the issue.
‘War-mongering’? May be. Or, is it ‘wisdom’? Wisdom wrung out of the experience of 1962, which points at the dire need of military preparedness of a high order and readiness to deal with a belligerent neighbour.
Among others, one dimension of military preparedness is existence of support infrastructure along the border. Several projects related to new construction (and development of old ones) of roads, runways, helipads, ammunition dumps, logistics nodes, transit camps and military hospitals etc are under way. These projects are unprecedented and are to Beijing’s chagrin. Once ready, they will bolster India’s war fighting ability considerably. This will force China to invent alternate ways to breach India’s defences. That, in turn, might give rise to the need for India of developing more new infrastructure.
The dire need to create infrastructure in times of crisis is a recurring issue. In 1947, service personnel and the refugees led by Lieutenant Colonel Pritam Singh built a 600-yard runway at Poonch in six days. In another case, tonnes of barbed wire were airdropped to barricade the advancing Chinese (Sino-India War 1962), even as troops were engaged in fighting. Whether it served the intended purpose, is doubtful. During the Berlin Airlift, building from a scratch 17,000 Berliners––men, women and children––worked in 8-hourly shifts to construct a runway at Tegel. Those (Poonch and Berlin) were cases of people rising to the occasion.
US Navy’s Construction Battalions (CBs) better known as Seabees have institutionalised speedy creation of infrastructure in times of crisis––a desideratum for fighting forces. Formed following the attack on Pearl Harbour when the task of turning imminent defeat into victory seemed almost insurmountable, the Seabees are very well equipped teams renowned for building bases, bulldozing and paving thousands of miles of roadway and airstrips, and accomplishing numerous other construction projects in different war zones since World War II. They constructed six 8500+ feet runways at the rate of one runway per 53 days; over 18 kms of taxiways; hard-standing to accommodate over 400 bombers, and accommodation for 50,000 personnel and office complexes, on the islands of Tinian and Saipan in a record time of less than a year during World War II. Seabees have been deployed around the globe supporting a variety of humanitarian missions and contingency operations. They were among the first forces in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to upgrade and repair airfields.
To sum up, it is humanly impossible to make the long borders physically secure. While creation of border infrastructure does go a long way in securing the borders, it is also an endless process. There’s a case for creating teams of experts that can undertake rapid construction work of any type, anywhere, anytime: during wartime or during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic has rendered a large number of ‘experts’ jobless. It should be possible to enrol volunteers to be employed and paid to serve ‘when the need arises’.
Chinese incursion into the Galwan Valley earlier this year was but a-matter-of-routine. Nothing new, that’s something China had been doing for decades––entering Indian territory; sometimes withdrawing, but occasionally occupying pockets, and presenting them as ‘disputed areas’ at subsequent talks.
India’s response to that provocation surprised the world to no end. Among other options, a tough stance was the least expected, because until then people had judged India on the basis of its meek response to similar incidents in the past. The response dazed even the Indian public who had been in some kind of unspoken or grudgingly spoken awe of the dragon ever since the 1962 debacle.
India’s reaction was a Black Swan Event––unprecedented in its nature, spectacular in its impact. Now, military pundits and strategists are scratching their heads analysing, explaining and justifying the behaviour. The outcomes and the spinoffs of the transaction have been meaningful, and many. Importantly, it has raised the bar on the quality of India’s retaliation to Chinese military adventurism. That India will be even more assertive in such situations in the future is the new ‘expected’ norm. China will do well to take this change into account in its future calculations.
The talks at the diplomatic and the military levels to de-escalate tensions and to restore peace in the region have not made much headway. There is a definite dearth of points of convergence and trust has been conspicuously absent from the scene. A word about the complexity of the Sino-Indian border issue would be in order. Decades of diplomatic foot-dragging have complicated the already complex matter. Now, to resolve the issue appears to be as difficult as untangling a plateful of spaghetti or unscrambling an egg. Both, China and India have taken rigid stances and are unwilling to relent. It is anybody’s guess that the prevailing uneasy calm will end either in peace or will escalate into greater hostility. There’s however, an ominous tilt towards the possibility of the latter. Presently, both sides are trying hard to be in a situation wherein they can negotiate from a position of greater strength.
Meanwhile, General Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Defence Staff of India has declared that India is prepared for a military option, if the talks fail. In making such a provocative statement, the General might have only carried out the orders of the political leadership, because ‘good’ Indian generals do not normally air provocative views against a neighbour unless we are already at war. So, let the General roar and let the countrymen rest assured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will give a clarion call through his ‘Man ki Baat‘ when the time is ripe. Period.
In a recently recorded video message, Mr Pravin Sawhney, Editor, Force Magazine dissects General Rawat’s words and iterates that unless backed by military power, warnings mean little; he’s so right on that count. He goes on to project India’s extreme vulnerabilities and concludes that it would take at least six months to prove the General’s claim of preparedness. After eulogising China for its varied capabilities––conventional warfare, cyber warfare, anti satellite (ASAT) capabilities, artificial intelligence capability, the capability to disrupt communication networks of India, its nexus with Pakistan et al.––he concludes that a war between China and India, if it were to take place, would be like the First Gulf War between the US and Iraq respectively, implying that India would be routed technologically even before the troops engage in land battle. At the end of a 20 plus-minute video in which he paints a dismal picture of India’s war preparedness and petrifies Indian viewers, he urges that the clip be circulated. For me, a replay of the video led to the distillation of the man’s suggestion, which to my mind conditioned by years of rigorous military life sounded somewhat like this:
“SURRENDER TO CHINA WITHOUT FIRING A BULLET!”
Echo of that implied suggestion so ‘F-O-R-C-E-fully’ made by Mr Pravin Sawhney rings menacingly in the mind until long after one turns off the video. Another look exposes the sense of insecurity of the presenter and the shallowness of his arguments. The naysayer and the pessimist in him, finds India’s faults and deficiencies well nigh infinite. If only he could realise, China is not the US; India, not Iraq. Unwarranted anxieties of the timid will only prove to be countervailing factors in India’s efforts to deal with that country. That said, there is good reason to listen carefully to the meaningful signals, if any, in the cacophony of deafening alarm bells that the paranoid Mr Sawhney rings.
Today, when India and China are at daggers drawn, the chunks of information on military capabilities of the two countries that are available in the open domain, rather ‘fed’ to the public, could be quite inaccurate. Under the circumstances, a SWOT analysis could go awry; it could be an exercise in futility. Therefore, more prudent and fruitful approach to deal with the darned dragon at this moment would be to focus on exploiting all available means and resources to bolster the existing military capacity and capabilities. Therein is the genesis of this five-part blog post––this part being the Preface. The posts that follow will discuss issues related to boosting military manpower, bolstering border infrastructure and military capability, refining military thinking on the use of nuclear weapons and the idea of mustering external influence to bear on the adversary and more.