First of these incidents took place in Nakula (not Nathula) in Sikkim

by Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (Retd)

This year has not been particularly good for the world and India in particular. COVID 19 Pandemic, incidents on India – China Boundary, Amphan Cyclone and the swarm of locusts have had an adverse effect on the international and bilateral relations, economy and the livelihoods. But India has risen to meet every challenge.

The present situation along the Northern Borders has been going on since the beginning of May this year. As it happened in the past, rumours and information based on speculation is worsening the situation in the public’s mind and creates apprehensions about the course that these incidents are likely to take. The “first to break the news syndrome” is not helping either.

Let us see the incidents first. First of these incidents took place in Nakula (not Nathula) in Sikkim. The boundary in Sikkim came into contention with the breaking of a temporary bunker by Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) in November 2007. Approximately around the same time, came the issue of Area Finger in North Sikkim. Dolam rocked the bilateral relations in 2017. Nakula is a later addition to the list of issues on the India – China boundary in Sikkim. China lays claims to a part of Indian territory in the area of Nakula in North Sikkim. When Chinese soldiers tried to enter Indian territory they were stopped by the Indian army soldiers. This resulted in a scuffle which has since normalised.

This was followed by an incident in Pangong Tso (Tso means a Lake) which has traditionally been a disputed area. The area of Fingers (Euphemism for the spurs running down from a ridge on the Northern Bank of Pangong Tso) has been the bone of contention. Chinese soldiers came patrolling in larger numbers than usual and when the Indian troops tried to stop them there was again a hand fight which resulted in injuries to both the sides. Thereafter, troops have firmed into respective areas.

The third incident occurred in the area of Galwan River Valley. India has built a road known as Darbuk – Shyok – Daulat Beg Oldie Road (DS DBO Road). Along this road is the confluence of the Shyok and Galwan rivers. The DS DBO Road is clearly in Indian territory. Seeing the progress of the infrastructure development in this area Chinese raised objections on India’s patrolling in this area. In that process a face-off took place and that resulted in a scuffle again.

A few things stand out from the incidents mentioned above. One, there has been near-simultaneous face-offs. Two, only some of these face-offs resulted in a scuffle causing injuries to both sides. Third, it is a good thing that no firing has taken place. Fourth, it shows the resolve of the Indian troops to defend the territorial integrity of India. Lastly, other than the first instance, wherever the scuffles took place, there have been no clashes later. An important cause that seems to have contributed to the present situation is that for approximately 30 years this area has remained undeveloped. Development of these areas contribute to better logistics and better logistics lead to better force posturing. India is now developing these areas.

Let us see the reactions to these incidents. Uncorroborated and unconfirmed information started getting published as authentic information. Varying numbers of PLA troops were put out as if they have been counted. It is every military professional’s endeavour to know his adversary’s capabilities so that he can make the operational plans and it is well known that even when in contact, it is difficult to assess the adversary’s numbers.

Second, it has become the habit of some to question the operational decisions of the military commanders. With the complete knowledge of what is happening on the ground and all other inputs coming to them, they are in the best possible position to plan and execute the operations. It will be better if retired armed forces officers and others, left them to do their job without getting distracted. Casting aspersions on the capabilities of senior military officers or speculating on their continuing in their appointments seem to be motivated and best avoided.

Third, agenda-driven or innocuous social media activity may be counter-productive if not thought through well. In this case, the social media activity that started on 31 May 20 has spiralled into an uncontrollable one. In addition to conveying things out of context, it also creates a lot of bad blood. When both sides are looking to resolve the issue, it is better to take a step back on ill-placed “josh”. It is pertinent to mention that after the first day’s scuffles in these places there have been meetings taking place between the local commanders and there has been no escalation in tempers.

Fourth, speculation and misinformation is doing a lot of damage. Projecting false locations of PLA troops being closer to a river or lake than they are, combined with the threat that such an information poses muddies the public perception and creates tension. Wrongly insinuating that so much area has been captured and commenting on numbers of own troops about which a person outside the army cannot have the correct information, are simply done to sensationalise. In any case, giving out such information only helps the adversary. For untrained minds, any movement or build-up looks bigger and creates a worry. Therefore, such information should be left to the military commanders who can analyse it correctly and incorporate in the operational planning.

Having said all this, one needs to look at what needs to be done. Surprisingly, while blaming everybody else, worthwhile suggestions are not coming. India and its armed forces are clear that there will be no compromise on India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. India also has the right to pursue infrastructure development as per plans in her territory. India has a professional army and the standoff situation is better left to the professional judgement of the commanders on the ground. We need to give our full support to our armed forces. At the same time, India is all for maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border.

An escalation in the situation is not in the interest of either India or China. Therefore, these standoffs need to be resolved through peaceful means. Towards this end, talks have been going on between the commanders at the ground level almost on a daily basis. Two higher-level military commanders meetings have taken place on 22nd and 23rd May. More meetings are likely. Such standoffs have taken time to resolve in the past also. While a timeline cannot be given for the resolution of the issue, one is very hopeful that the standoffs will get resolved through peaceful means.