It is very difficult to accept that a trained soldier carrying a weapon will not open fire if he faces a life-threatening situation

by Maroof Raza

As the reports of clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers dominate news headlines in India, one is reminded of the statement of US Senator Hiram Johnson that “truth is the first casualty of war”. In the current context, it would be more accurate to say that, withholding of information, has added to the confusion about where lies the truth in all that is being reported. And the fault for this lies with both the government’s spokespersons and with the media that is hungry for information, and if this isn’t provided, then it leaves room for speculation, which officials could denounce as inaccurate.

Those familiar with the milestones of Pakistan’s sponsorship of the insurgency in Kashmir would recall the Charar-i-Sharief standoff in May 1995. With little official information forthcoming, the media turned its attention onto a certain militant, ‘major’ Mast Gul, and made him a larger than life figure. In a similar way, China has achieved the first mover's advantage in Galwan and the bits and pieces of information coming out about the nasty stone-age style fighting that took place recently have raised questions that haven’t been answered.

Since it was a military to military engagement, it would have helped if the Indian Army had spoken (to the media) immediately after the fighting and the deaths at the Galwan Valley. The shortcomings of the PROs at the MoD (Ministry of Defence) had led General Malik to create an Army (Media) Liaison Cell during the Kargil conflict, to the annoyance of bureaucrats in South block. It is now a large setup. Even so, there are many questions that only a detailed after-action report will answer.

However, it is surprising that two decades after the Kargil conflict and with a full study report that was authored by many eminences including the late K Subrahmanyam (the father of our current external affairs minister), there seems to a similarity between the sequences that led to the Kargil conflict and the current fiasco at the Galwan Valley.

For a start, it is now clear that our understanding and assessments of China’s intentions, and its larger strategic agenda, was completely off the mark. More so, its systematic build-up of forces along the LAC – even though visible to private satellites – was missed by our intelligence agencies. Why? A similar failure had led to General Musharraf building his force levels near Kargil. The intelligence agencies had passed the blame onto the Army – as stated by General Malik in his detailed account on ‘Kargil’- by getting their friends in the media to build such a narrative. But must we accept this failure in external intelligence gathering, once again, and cover it up?

The first reports that came in after our soldiers were killed were that a Colonel was dead along with a few soldiers. This was very surprising. A commanding officer (CO) could not have gone across the LAC, to the Chinese side, without the force level needed for his sufficient protection. This was the question by some of us – on television – but the answers came in dribbles of official information. And even as the total number of dead Indian soldiers rose to 20, it still didn’t make sense -- how a CO could be so cavalier as to go across to the Chinese side and be stoned to death, with nearly an undersized platoon of men? He should have been accompanied by at least another officer with a backup force. More so, why didn’t these men fire back at the Chinese when their CO and colleagues were being stoned to death?

Every soldier is armed – as the External Affairs Minister had asserted after there was public speculation about whether these troops of 16 Bihar regiment were or not – and it is very difficult to accept that a trained soldier carrying a weapon will not open fire if he faces a life-threatening situation, as they did in this case. He is trained to fight with weapons, not iron rods, sticks and stones. Yes, our men did that in 1962, on the Himalayan front lines – like in Namka Chu – when Lt Gen ‘Bijji’ Kaul, a favourite of Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon, placed them on the McMahon Line, ill-equipped and barely armed. But does the adherence to agreements with China, most notably to clauses in the 1996 Agreement that forbid ‘no use of military capability by either side‘, permit the use of stones and iron rods with nails studded on them?

More importantly, when these men were involved in fighting for their survival – having been ambushed, as we are told – did they communicate their plight to their higher headquarters? Every CO is accompanied by a radio operator with a radio link to his higher headquarters. Did they know about his situation, as it was unfolding, and if they did, why didn’t they react? Why wasn’t a QRT sent? A good general – like the late Major General Sagat Singh, the hero of the battles at Nathu La in 1967 – would have gone hammer and tongs for the Chinese, and faced the flak, later. But here, it seems strong restrictions were imposed. And if so, by whom? The buck must stop somewhere.

Yes, the CO and his boys went down fighting and it is said they killed more Chinese soldiers than the casualties we had suffered. Our hats off to them. But others who were with this CO, Colonel Babu, were taken ‘prisoners’. They’ve now been returned, and many others were wounded. Why was this not communicated to the public? It would be argued that this information was being ascertained, hence the delay. That’s understandable. But why wasn’t the media told the whole truth, that there were more than those who died who had gone along? Moreover, what was their purpose? Was it to check that the Chinese had pulled out in the hours of darkness? Initial reports suggested that they died fighting in the night. Or were they ambushed on their way back?

The single most important finding of the Henderson Brooks report – affirmed by those who have written about it – was that India’s Army was let down by its Generals in the 1962 debacle. Let us hope that the same is not said about our military leadership now when a detailed analysis is made about the fiasco at the Galwan Valley. The Chinese commanders have got even for the 2017 Doklam standoff, and now having tasted blood, they would be in no mood to pull back. That will be our biggest challenge hereafter. What would we settle for now?