Indo-China conflicts: From the Indian Army’s point of view
"Log kabhi kabhi hamko (soldiers) samjhate hain ke jung buri cheez hai, unse pucho ke ye baat sipahi se zaada kaun jaan sakta hai."
These are the words of the character of an Indian soldier played by veteran actor Om Puri, in the Hindi war-drama movie, Lakshya. Loosely translated they mean, "People sometimes explain to us (soldiers) that war is a bad thing, they should be asked who can know this better than a soldier."
With India and China currently in the midst of a stand-off, nobody could be faulted if their minds rush back to the war that occurred between the two nations in 1962 and the losses suffered, especially the lives of soldiers.
The facts related to Indo-China war a decade and a half after India won its independence, clearly show that though a brief one lasting around a month, it was utterly damaging to India, with more than two thousand soldiers losing their lives while many more missing, wounded or captured.
The nation having suffered such a blow then, the current rise in tensions with the same neighbor might give birth to doubts and hesitations in the minds of many on the possible losses that such a situation might lead to.
The reality though is that while India suffered gravely, more than five decades ago, the region and nature of the current face-off on the Sikkim front since June in Dokalam region at the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China, gives the Indian Army an upper hand, unlike the 1962 war.
The 1962 War
While the exact causes and losses of the war can still not be clearly claimed to be explained given that the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report of the enquiry that looked into them from the point of view of the army was not made public claiming the material in them being of critical importance and still strategically relevant.
Journalists and experts who have studied the events that took place before, during and after the war, have clearly pointed to the mistakes of the political leadership of the time, under the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as the main reason behind the huge losses suffered by the Army.
These started with the mishandling of the border issue between the two nations, such as India's unilateral changing of the maps of the time, that had some resemblance of demarcation of such a border and based on which discussions of plotting a mutually acceptable border were to be held.
The initial aggressive stance taken by the Chinese was made worse by the Nehru government's instruction to the Army to build posts along the border, which was not, just like today, clearly demarcated, and led to claims and counter claims by both countries of their territorial sovereignty being compromised.
Such a decision by the then prime minister was termed as the 'Forward Policy,' which resulted in a strong offensive from the Chinese. Nehru even told the media that his government had asked the army to throw the Chinese out of our territory. This background eventually led to the war which occurred in Ladakh and North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA, now known as Arunachal Pradesh),
One of the top Army officers in charge of operations at the time, who has also been blamed by observers for the losses suffered during the war, Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul later wrote in the book, The Untold Story, "No General who knew the serious military situation confronting us in NEFA and Ladakh at the time could have advised him to do so... It is my surprise that Nehru took up a posture of 'courage' when he knew that we were militarily weak in the hope that with this bold statement the Chinese might be deterred from attacking India. He might also have been advised by one of his political confidants to make such a statement for public consumption for psychological reasons. The Chinese would have struck us anyhow; if not then, perhaps later. But, I wonder if Nehru's statement did not precipitate their attack
Claims such as these by Kaul, might seem motivated by an effort to clear his name, yet they are in line with the observations of others that the political establishment and the government of the day let down the armed forces by clearly ignoring the warning signs despite the Army, except for its brass, telling the political masters that given the lack of effective tools and time at the Army's disposal, India was not equipped for an offensive of such a nature against an opponent the size of the Chinese army and in the terrain that the battle would take place.
The current stand-off
Though the issue is currently being labelled as a border dispute, the decision by the present government to side with Bhutan is not due to misjudgement of divisions and markings on maps. Rather they are based on issues of real strategic importance.
The alleged transgressions at the border by the Chinese in an area claimed by Bhutan, a country with which India has a pact of securing its national interest related to security concerns make it almost impossible for India to avoid taking a stand on the matter.
Such a stand became even more crucial, given the area where Chinese forces have taken actions, like building a road which is near the crucial 'Chicken's Neck' strip of land in India that connects the rest of the country with the north-eastern states, in order to gain a tactical advantage.
In addition, unlike the war, the current rise in tensions come in the Middle sector of the border between India and China and not the Western (Jammu and Kashmir) or Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh). The middle sector exists around Sikkim state of India and the terrain and nature of the area change the dynamics that a possible conflict might have.
The strategic advantage for India in case war breaks out also come from the fact that the Indian armed forces already have a presence inside Bhutan as troops are stationed at Ha. And in the case of a battle, Indian soldiers will be allowed the benefit of attacking the Chinese from two sides, potentially being able to cut off their troops stationed facing Sikkim.
Another major difference this time comes from the fact that though the Chinese Army might still have superiority in terms of arms and manpower, the difference between the two armies is not comparable to the 60's. Along with this, the fact that time has been provided to the army to prepare for a possible escalation would ensure that the soldiers would not be left without support.
For the sake of soldiers it should be resolved peacefully
No matter what the circumstances, the armed forces of India have an exemplary record so far. As except for the 1962 war, they have come out victorious in all three that were fought in 1965, 1971 and in Kargil in 1999. The fact that they will give their best when called upon by the government of the day is not in any dispute, as the Indian Amry Chief General Bipin Rawat earlier last month said that the army was prepared for a two and a half front and that the government was supporting it in every manner.
But all said and done about the current circumstances and how different they might be from the war in 62 and regardless of points such as India being correct in its stand and action this time as well as the improved political backing that the Army has received. The political establishment should make sure that engaging in an active war is the last course of action and not used as an attempt to give voice to public opinion or outcry. Especially with the Army already engaged in the northern part of the country dealing with Pakistan at the border as well as in Kashmir fighting terrorists sponsored by the neighbour.
If the cost of war, such as effect on the economy of not only the two countries but also the world, and the fissure in international politics that such a battle would develop among others, do not make the government realise that the best option would be to ensure a mutual retreat from the area while reverting to the positions they were at before the stand-off took place and begin clear and straightforward discussion with the Chinese related to the whole of the border and not only the area of present concern.
They should hear the voice of the soldiers who, though would willingly fight the war for the country and even lay down their lives, know the value of peace the best.