The Ladakh conundrum: A sense of Déjà vu


The Defence Minister’s recent statement in Parliament on the disengagement of forces in Eastern Ladakh, on the heels of a statement on similar lines by the Chinese Defence Ministry, caught most media observers and analysts by surprise. The way events were otherwise moving had suggested that we were in for what could only be a long hot summer, which still remains a remote possibility given past Chinese duplicity. The fact is that there can still be many a slip between the cup and the lip as the contentious issue of PLA transgressions in the Depsang Sector and other friction points are yet to be discussed, let alone resolved to our mutual satisfaction.

Statements emanating from official sources suggest that either both sides are keen to de-escalate matters, or that we have conceded ground to the Chinese. Either way, chances of armed conflict have receded substantially, which is undoubtedly a good thing for us, at the present time. A conflict would cause immense damage to our economy, already reeling from the adverse impact of the pandemic and the earlier ill-considered and poorly implemented demonetization. More importantly, we cannot ignore or brush aside the simple truth that our Armed Forces have been deliberately neglected over the past two decades, a situation that remains unchanged if one looks at the new budget. As a consequence, their capabilities have been greatly impaired.

In the event of a conflict while they may still be able to force a stalemate, it is unfortunately not a certainty given the unpalatable fact that China is the dominant power in the region with a larger and better equipped military. The possibility of Pakistani involvement, either directly or indirectly, in such a situation would only add to our woes. Undoubtedly the response and resolve displayed by our government and the military, after the initial setback, was commendable and caught the Chinese unawares and unprepared.

The subsequent occupation of dominating heights on both banks of the Pangong Tso, including along the Kailash Ranges, was a brilliant strategic counter and made the Chinese even more uncomfortable.

From these heights our forces were in a position to interdict and destroy PLA troop and armour concentrations in the Spanggur Gap, their defensive positions along both banks of the Pangong Tso. It also gave our forces the option to capture their administrative and communication hub located at Moldo and cut of their major lines of communication further in depth, if the necessity was felt. Most importantly, it stalled any hopes that the PLA may have had of offensive actions along this flank as any attempt to clear these heights would impose excessive costs in terms of manpower, casualties and time. Incidentally, one cannot help but wonder as to why these heights have not been held for all these years? Especially since they are well within our territory and our hold on them has never been disputed.

Therefore, given their strategic import, one is at a utter loss to understand as to why our withdrawal from them has been linked to PLA withdrawals only from the Pangong Tso Sub-Sector and not the other Sub-Sectors. Suggestions in the media from official sources that by doing so the PLA has been forced to remove structures that it had constructed along the North Bank of the Pangong Tso cut no ice. It is a no brainer that the North Bank is of only limited tactical value and is wholly unsuitable for progressing major operations, especially as long as dominating heights on the Kailash Range are held.

In these circumstances one cannot help but conclude that our military commanders have acquiesced to militarily unsound directions from our political leadership. We have seen this before, be it our withdrawal from the strategically important Hajipir Pass after the Indo-Pak War of 1965, or the refusal to allow our forces to cross the LOC during the Kargil Conflict that resulted in avoidable casualties.

Unfortunately, this government set an earlier precedent in the manner it dealt with the earlier confrontation with the Chinese at Doklam in 2017, where it forced the PLA to stop road construction and back down after a 73 day stand-off. However, following Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Xi at Wuhan, the PLA circumvented the earlier standoff area and continued with its road construction on the Doklam Plateau, unhindered by our forces. This road now allows the PLA access to the foothills of the Jampheri Ridge, overlooking the strategic Siliguri Corridor linking Assam and the North Eastern States to the rest of the country, giving the PLA an option to interdict our lines of communications.

What is worse, the Government then ensured that these facts were kept out of public discourse. With General Elections then due in a few months, it raised suspicions that this was done to ensure the BJP’s chances of victory were not compromised by embarrassing revelations. One is now struck by a feeling of déjà vu, as important state elections are due in a few months, and what appears to be a repeat of the earlier modus operandi. Let us hope, for all our sakes, that this is not so! Only time will tell.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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