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Across the Aisle by P Chidambaram: The Dragon in the Room

Despite two earlier wars in 1947 and 1965, Pakistan had not learnt to live in peace with India.

Across the Aisle by P Chidambaram: The Dragon in the Room
A tribute to war heroes at the National War Memorial on Kargil Vijay Diwas in New Delhi (PTI)

On July 26, 2022, the nation celebrated the 23rd Kargil Vijay Diwas. It is fitting that the government marks the day to remember the war heroes, especially the martyrs. In a war that was fought for three months, 527 Indian soldiers were killed and 1,363 soldiers were wounded. It was not a small price that the country paid to secure its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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The country had also won another war 50 years ago — the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Indian defence forces fought the war on two fronts: on the eastern border to help the Mukti Bahini liberate the then East Pakistan and create Bangladesh, and on the western border in retaliation to the Pakistan Air Force’s aerial strikes on 11 Indian air stations. On the orders of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, India launched a full-scale invasion. India reported that 3,000 soldiers had died and 12,000 soldiers were wounded. On December 16, 1971, Pakistan’s Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen A A K Niazi, signed, unconditionally, the instrument of surrender with India’s Lt Gen J S Aurora. It was India’s greatest war victory.

Not Elephant, but Dragon

Both victories were against Pakistan. Despite two earlier wars in 1947 and 1965, Pakistan had not learnt to live in peace with India. And despite its massive defeat in 1971, it attempted to sneak into Indian territory in Kargil in 1999. Even after the defeat in the Kargil War, Pakistan still attempts to infiltrate into India. Seventy-five years after both countries became independent, Indians must reconcile themselves to live with an intransigent neighbour that knows that it can never defeat India in a regular war. Pakistan, therefore, is not the elephant in the room.

The elephant — or dragon — in the room is China. One thing is clear: the BJP government, for all its chest-thumping against Pakistan, is totally clueless about how to deal with the aggression of China. It must rankle Prime Minister Modi that he did not get the true measure of Mr Xi Jinping when both sat on a jhoola on October 11, 2019, at Mammallapuram in Tamil Nadu. Even while the jhoola was swinging gently to the cool sea breeze, China’s PLA was in an advanced stage of planning to intrude into Indian territory. On January 1, 2020, President Xi signed the order authorising military action. PLA forces crossed the LAC into Indian territory in March-April 2020.

Contrary Voices

India discovered the intrusion on May 5-6, 2020. On June 15, in a bid to remove the intruders, India lost 20 brave soldiers. The Prime Minister called an all-party meeting on June 19. In his concluding remarks, the Prime Minister said, “No outsider has intruded into Indian territory nor was any outsider inside Indian territory.” Yet, according to a number of military officers and experts, India is no longer in control of approximately 1,000 sq km of territory where our troops could earlier patrol. Sixteen rounds of talks have taken place at the military level between India and China. If no outsider was inside Indian territory, why did 20 soldiers make the supreme sacrifice? What conversation is taking place between the military commanders in these endless rounds of talks? Why are the words ‘disengagement’ and ‘withdrawal’ used by the MEA repeatedly? Is it not true that Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s statement and other MEA statements demanded the restoration of ‘status quo ante’?

Let’s admit the hard facts. China claims the entire Galwan Valley. China claims that the LAC runs through Finger 4 and not Finger 8. (The area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 was patrolled and controlled by India before May 2020). At the 16th round of talks, China conceded nothing on Hot Springs. India wanted to discuss Demchok and Depsang, China refused. China is building military infrastructure in Aksai Chin and along the 3,488 km border it shares with India. It has installed 5G networks up to the LAC. It has built a new bridge across Pangong Tso. It is bringing more military hardware and troops to the border. It is settling its citizens in the new villages. There are satellite pictures that confirm many of these developments.

Absent: a China Policy

Mr Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary, in his recent book (How China sees India and the World) has observed, “China would like to see India slotted into a subordinate role in an Asia dominated by itself. India will resist a hierarchical order in Asia and a world dominated by China.” Absolutely correct, but what makes China assertive is, as Mr Shyam Saran pointed out, “the gap between the economic and military capabilities of the two countries continues to expand in favour of China”. As per the IMF, in nominal dollars, China’s GDP in 2021 was USD 16,863 billion and India’s GDP was USD 2,946 billion.

India’s Opposition parties have always — whichever party was in power — stood by the government of the day and the defence forces. Solidarity among Indian political parties and citizens is important, but it does not amount to a policy. A confident and effective policy response to China can emerge only if the Government took the Opposition parties into confidence, shared the facts, and through frank discussions, crafted a policy to deter China. Otherwise, we will keep counting the rounds of talks and delude ourselves that India has, in the altered circumstances, a China policy.

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