Home / Opinion / Columns /  Much needs to be done to bolster our defences

Just 10 days before the 60th anniversary of the India-China war, General Manoj Kumar Pandey, Indian Army chief, said in a dialogue, “If I have to describe it in a single sentence, I will say that the situation is stable but unpredictable." It is obvious that despite the flourishing business and trade ties between the two nations, the border animosity with China is still going on. This enmity reminds us of the sacrifices of our jawans.

For a better understanding of this issue, let’s travel back to the years 1947 to 1962. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, received a timely warning from the army. Maj Gen D.K. Palit claims in his book Major General AA Rudra that Sir Robert Lockhart, the first commander-in-chief of independent India, presented Nehru with a thorough strategic plan for border security but was met with the stern response: “We don’t need a defence plan. Our policy is ahimsa (non-violence). We foresee no military threat. Scrap the army! The police are good enough to meet our security needs." This was the consensus of the majority of the cabinet, with the exception of Krishna Menon. Morarji Desai, the finance minister, believed that increased military spending and modernization would kill Gandhi’s dream.

The border conflict grew worse, starting in the late 1950s. The Dalai Lama was compelled to flee Lhasa after China occupied Tibet. India granted him refuge and acknowledged his government-in-exile in 1959. Rising tensions between India and China culminated in the war in October 1962. Some 7,000 Indian soldiers and officers were either killed or captured in the war. China also suffered losses of about 2,000 soldiers.

Nehru was so outraged by the attack that he sought help from US President John F. Kennedy. His uneasiness grew into restlessness as he wrote letter after letter to the Kennedy. Meanwhile, on 20 November, China declared a unilateral cease-fire. Its army returned from Tezpur in Assam, though it still occupied 38,000 square kilometres of our territory. We have yet to take it back.

New Delhi was in an unusual state before the conflict broke. Gen S. Thimayya led the country’s army from 1957 to 1961, but his relationship with defence minister Krishna Menon was strained. He had even resigned at a point during this tension, but Nehru persuaded him to withdraw his resignation. Meanwhile, Marshal Ayub Khan, a friend and colleague of Gen Thimayya in colonial India, conducted a coup in Pakistan in 1958. Thereafter, Nehru felt the Indian military had to be brought under constitutional control if India’s democracy were not to be jeopardized. He also accomplished this.

This raises the question whether democracy and sovereignty can be separated. Certainly not. However, there was a lack of coordination between the army brass and political leaders. Even top-ranking officers of the army were divided on many issues. In fact, in the growing democracy of our country, policy direction and a well-organized government structure could not take shape until then. This was not India’s only hazard. Gen B.N. Kaul, who was close to Nehru, was the commander of NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency). He became ill amid the war and returned to Delhi, from where he led the army.

The question is whether the leaders who succeeded Nehru have learned any lesson from this chapter in Indian history.

Let us look at two major occurrences from the last nine years, as examples. The first is China’s encroachment near Raki Nala in Dipsang in May 2013. New Delhi was successful in getting the People’s Liberation Army to withdraw within a month through diplomatic means. Neither side fired a single round. China committed its next huge assault in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh in 2020. This time, the two sides engaged in a brutal battle. On the fateful evening of 15 June, 20 jawans were slain, including Commanding Officer Santosh Babu. China, as is customary, did not provide any details about its casualties. Though four soldiers were confirmed dead by its newspaper Global Times, Indian intelligence sources claim that number to be significantly higher.

The situation on our borders has been tense since then. There have been 16 rounds of negotiations between the two countries to defuse tensions, but no concrete results have been reported. This 30-month impasse raises many doubts. This month marks the 60th anniversary of the brutal conflict of 1962, but much work remains to be done to bolster our defences and free our territory from Chinese occupation.

It is reassuring that the country’s current leadership is fully engaged and dealing with this sensitive issue appropriately.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. Views are personal.

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