Ghosts of 1962 can be laid to rest at Doka La, says Shiv Kunal Verma, author of '1962, The War That Wasn't'
Speaking about the stand-off between India and China at Doka La, renowned author Shiv Kumar Verma said, 'If you are familiar with the terrain around the tri-junction, there is no way the Chinese can try and cut off the Siliguri Corridor.'
Shiv Kunal Verma, author of highly acclaimed books like 1962: The War That Wasn't and The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why and a trilogy on the Northeast, is intimately aware of the ground situation in both Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Speaking about the stand-off between India and China at the tri-junction border, he said, "If you are familiar with the terrain around the tri-junction, there is no way the Chinese can try and cut off the Siliguri Corridor from that axis."
Here's the full interview.
Do you see any similarity between what happened in 1962 and the situation presently unfolding vis-a-vis China?
The answer is both yes and no. Let's be very clear about one thing: The army even in 1962 was quite capable of taking China on. In fact, wherever they were allowed to fight — Rajput Regiment at Nam Ka Chu, Sikh Regiment at Bum La, Garhwal Rifles at Nuranang, Kumaon Regiment at Walong, and Jat Regiment in DBO and the Galwan Valley — they gave an excellent account of themselves. It was the senior leadership, both civilian and military, that imploded. Also, had the Indian Air Force come into play, it would have been a different story. In my mind one thing is quite clear: This army is no pushover. I filmed the Kargil war and the thing that impressed me the most was the fact that every man was moving forward, going about his job with no panic or fear. Not just soldiers, even civilian truck drivers, Ladakhi porters, everyone. It was fantastic.
But yes, there are similarities. We still continue to play around with our military leadership and at times we are too passive in our approach. The Chinese for a long time had been playing the probing game. And this time they probably cut too close to the bone. The way I see it, we had to react. Fifty-five years ago, when USSR started installing missile sites in Cuba, everyone was freaked. In this case, the tri-junction virtually overlooks the corridor. The Chinese wanting to push the road up to the tri-junction was uncalled for; India had to put its foot down.
You had said earlier that it's like putting your hand in a hornet's nest.
It most certainly is. It's imperative that we are prepared for all eventualities. The Chinese have always been unpredictable and you cannot make the same mistake twice. It would be ridiculous to assume that they will not do this or that. But if they do push for a border engagement, I think they are in for a shock. It may be a hornet's nest, but at the end of the day, you should make sure you are the guys who get to eat the honey.
So you think a border clash is a possibility? Would the Chinese follow up on their threat to throw the Indian Army out of the Doka La plateau?
They are welcome to try, but that would be suicidal in my opinion. Firstly, the Doka La plateau is purely an ego issue for them; in reality, it serves no actual military purpose. If you are familiar with the terrain around the tri-junction, there is no way the Chinese can try and cut off the Siliguri Corridor from that axis. It would mean an all-out war and it would require a major logistic exercise to do something like that. If they have to do something to save face — since they have been making a lot of aggressive statements — they'll try and spook you by moving troops in other areas and hope the Indian public and the media panic.
On the other hand, I don't think India has a choice. Strategic value or not, we simply cannot allow the road to be built. How this plays out will also decide how the India-Tibet border issue is eventually settled. Equally importantly, it will also impact the future defence of the subcontinent. And it's important for us as a people to understand that Nepal and Bhutan, by virtue of being on the southern side of the watershed, are also key players in the overall defence of the subcontinent.
China can be expected to do the unexpected, but just what do they gain by actually getting into a border scrap with India? The trade equation is extremely lopsided in their favour. Not only is India a huge emerging market, we are also an emotional people. Already, comments on social media and other networks about boycotting Chinese products are giving them the heebie jeebies. The moment the first shots are fired in anger across the border, be it at Ladakh, Himachal, Garhwal, Kumaon, Sikkim or Arunachal, I think there will be a tsunami of anti-Chinese sentiment which could result in massive economic losses for them. And plus, let's not forget the rest of the world still views China with suspicion and most countries would become even more wary. As time passes and the matter lingers, the danger for the Chinese leadership is that the Doka La issue may become more and more internalised.
There is talk of the US not sitting idle if there is indeed a clash between India and China. The Malabar exercise's timing was interesting in that regard.
Frankly, even though the general impression is that we have been getting rather cosy with the Americans of late, let's not be under any illusion. They are nobody's friends. In the build up to 1962, they played a fairly provocative role. Take the supply of weapons through Sikkim, the CIA's not so covert role in helping the Dalai Lama escape, and U-2 flights over Tibet. Bottom line is, we shouldn't need anyone else to fight our battles for us. And I think it's time our politicians developed a spine and trusted our own army, air force and navy.
Of late, if you listen to various think tanks, one would get the impression that they are getting carried away with the so-called improved geo-political ties between the US and India. So long as Pakistan with its umbilical cord intact exists as a key ally of the Pentagon, it does not really matter if Donald Trump has this mad desire to hug Prime Minister Modi and everything 'Hindu' or not. In fact, Russia still remains the key player as far as we are concerned and it saddens me to see so many of our experts turn their backs towards Moscow. Vis-a-vis China, Russia will always be India's greatest counter-balance and the fact that the Russians are the immediate northern neighbours of the Chinese certainly puts them in a far better position to deal with Beijing than the United States does.
So how do you see this play itself out? What should India do?
Nothing really. Doka La is Bhutanese territory and the standoff costs us nothing in real terms. China has to give an undertaking that they will not build roads, be it for sightseeing or for military purposes. The day they revert to the standstill status which they had earlier agreed upon with Bhutan, the impasse will end.
At least in the case of Doka La, we have the ability to stand up and say enough is enough. The Malabar exercise was probably aimed at sending out a message to China by the Americans and the Japanese, but there is nothing much happening in the Indian Ocean to stop China from doing what it jolly well wants to do. Take the case of Sri Lanka for example. After getting into a hole where it borrowed recklessly from China, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is now having to brush aside all opposition and consider handing over the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease. Though India along with the US and Japan and the people of Sri Lanka are protesting, the Sri Lankan government is caught on the horns of a dilemma. I think it's important for all countries in Asia and Africa to see for themselves just how China is operating.
This has been China's modus operandi for decades. From India's point of view, Hambantota isn't any different from the Doka La plateau. The security of South Asia is already in tatters, with Pakistan virtually being a province of China. It is therefore vital that all countries — Nepal and Bangladesh in particular — keep the security of the subcontinent in mind and watch each other's backs.
What about the land border between India and China?
The border with Tibet is what you mean. China has been playing games since 1949 and it's a pity that no one ever challenged their interpretation of history. Mao made the biggest landgrab of all time when he annexed Sinkiang and Tibet in 1949 and 1950. Suddenly India had the Chinese on our entire northern frontier and all existing treaties with Tibet went out of the window. Someone needed to challenge Mao's narrative. But nobody did it then, and we seem to hesitate to take the subject head on even today, for reasons I cannot understand.
If you really see how things developed in the first and second decades of the 20th Century when the border between India and Tibet was being drawn up, be it the Morshead-Bailey expedition or the Simla Agreement of 1914, everything is there in black and white. What's more, the Chinese have none of the original documents, for they went with the Kuomintang government to Taiwan. We also have the Dalai Lama sitting in India for five and a half decades. He may be a man of peace who does not want to ruffle Chinese feathers, but he can easily ratify what the Tibetan Kashag and Lõn-chen Shatra agreed to in Simla vis a vis Tawang.
Much the same can be said for the existing boundaries with Kashmir. India has to aggressively put out the counter-narrative for its own people, and also for China and for the world. If you don't do that, the Chinese will continue to dispute every grazing ground and tree in the Himalayas.
I come back to the importance of developing the counter-narrative. The exaggerated China-centric version of history doled out ever since Mao came into being has a basic flaw; a lot of it is simply not true! There have been times when Chinese emperors have bowed their head before the Mongols and the Tibetans and paid tribute. But that means nothing in today's context. The McMahon Line for example was drawn up based on a physical survey of the watershed, backed up by a demographic and historical analysis of the entire belt extending from Burma to Nepal. That the Southern Himalayas have nothing to do with Tibet is a fact and I see absolutely no reason to be defensive about it.
I've been moving around quite a lot on the eastern sector and it's obvious that our road infrastructure is far from adequate. The other side has excellent communication network as well. Does that put our army at a disadvantage?
The northern side of the Great Himalayan Range — call it the Trans-Himalaya if you like — on the map looks more daunting because of the height. However, the watershed acts as a massive rain shadow and the Tibetan plateau in comparison to the southern side is a lot more stable geographically. The terrain on our side is far more complex, but over the years our defence planning has vectored all those factors in. The advancement in rotor wing and fixed wing technology has also changed the equation quite a bit. I personally think we do not have to try and match the Chinese road for road, rail for rail. Ecological factors must be kept in mind and at the end of the day, the Himalayan belt has to be protected. Look at what happened in Kedarnath? In fact, the maniacal need to develop the areas on our side is killing the Himalayas. We may even need to learn from Bhutan and restrict entry into these areas completely.
You've also been critical of the Indian media in the past. You even told Maroof Raza on Latitude that the Chinese probably looked at Indian television channels as force multipliers.
In this case, I think the Indian media has been a lot more restrained and I'm happy to see that. The Doka La story was kept under wraps for nearly two weeks, and it was eventually the Chinese who broke the news, and they have been getting shriller and shriller. Having said that, whichever way the Doka La story plays out, I think it's important for the Indian side to not get carried away. There are no brownie points to be scored here. We have to just do what we have to do, and that's to stand our ground and if necessary, fight to protect it. What is absolutely vital is for every soldier manning the bunkers facing either China or Pakistan to be secure in the knowledge that every man, woman and child stands firmly behind him.
In the middle of the standoff, Eastern Command is seeing a change of guard. With General Pravin Bakshi retiring in the next 24 hours, there will be a new army commander holding the baton.
To me it seems that the man who has been the army commander for the last two years and who knows the ground situation better than anyone else should stay there for a while. At least until the situation on Doka La steadies out. It is unfortunate that games being played at the top level continue to be played and appointments today are seen to be more and more political. I think Doka La should also sound an alarm pertaining to the state of our armed forces. You actually have CAG in the middle of all this going on record to say we have ten days' ammunition reserves.
I think that was the main reason for all the hullabaloo, around a former army chief's khulasa in 2012. At a very basic level, Doka La underlines the fragility of geopolitics. Here are two nuclear armed countries ready to go to war over a desolate, godforsaken plateau that borders Bhutan. To me, it brings to mind what President Roosevelt is quoted to have said: "When you walk alone, just carry a big stick". And it's up to our politicians and bureaucrats to ensure that the danda isn't hollow.
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