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Unresolved land border issues continue to shackle India in the north

By Pravin Sawhney

A good method to assess India’s military power is to understand the dynamics of its two military lines with Pakistan and China. The Line of Control (LC) which came into being in 1972 after the 1971 war with Pakistan has consumed maximum attention of the Indian military with little results to show. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China which came into being in 1993 illustrates shallowness of Indian statecraft and rapidly diminishing Indian military power vis a vis China. Ironically, India’s future depends on how it handles these lines. Would they remain millstones around India’s neck prohibiting its vast potential to translate into real national power, or would India continue to mishandle them, especially under the Modi government, leading to a war which none of the three nations want? To understand this, the need is to assess how these have been managed thus far. In the euphoria of the 1971 which created Bangladesh, it was overlooked in India that the Indian military had failed to make any headway on the ceasefire line in the west which was the consequence of the 1947-1949 war over Kashmir. With a give-and-take of territory, the ceasefire line was renamed the LC.  The 772km long LC, which runs from a place called Sangam close to Chhamb in the south up to map grid reference NJ 9842 in Ladakh in the north is unstable at both ends. The northern end which terminates at map point NJ 9842 resulted in the 1984 Siachen conflict. This created the 110km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), which Pakistan does not accept. The southern end of the LC at Sangam does not join with the International Border (IB). Instead, there is the 189km long quasi-LC between Sangam and Boundary Pillar 19 further south where the IB recognised by both begins. The quasi-LC in the Jammu division called the Working Boundary (WB) by Pakistan and IB by India was traditionally the revenue boundary between the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and the undivided Punjab. Pakistan accepts this portion neither as IB nor LC. Accepting it as IB would mean that it accepts the border with Jammu and LC would imply that Pakistan’s Punjab has a military line which can be altered by military force. Considering that two wars over Kashmir (1947-49 and 1965) and the 1971 war were unable to obliterate the military line with Pakistan, the Indian military, as the larger force, should have done deep introspection on capabilities and capacities to fight a decisive war. This was not done and the years from 1972 to 1990 were lost. The year 1991 caught the Indian Army unaware of the simmering insurgency in Kashmir. Large forces were inducted into Jammu and Kashmir for internal stability. By 1996, the Indian Army, by raising the Rashtriya Rifles from its own recourses, had stabilised the internal situation enough for the political process to start. This should have addressed the genuine grievances of the people. But it did not happen. Worse, Pakistan found the opportunity to add fuel to fire by creating sanctuaries for insurgents who were armed, trained, and supported to challenge the Indian Army at tactical levels. It is universal knowledge that insurgencies sustained by sanctuaries outside the borders cannot be defeated. The answer lay in deterring the Pakistan Army to end its support to Kashmiri militants. Thus, between the two options available to the Indian Army continuing with counter-insurgency operations within its borders and preparing credible war capabilities (counter offensive) to combat with Pakistan the latter should have been the obvious thing to do. The army chose the first option which it called ‘No-War-No-Peace’ (NWNP) in J&K. The ‘hot war’ and NWNP required different mind-sets, equipment, training and preparedness. Worse, the NWNP while being unending and unwinnable against faceless and nameless terrorists, placed the entire burden of results, in shape of ‘kills’, on dutiful and loyal young officers and rank and file.  To die for India, rather than make the real enemy (Pakistan Army) die was glorified no ends. Thus, generations of young officers (from 1991 to present time) grew in service, rank, and stature with little understanding of global advances in warfare. These intellectually atrophied minds were ready fodder for politicisation with the coming of the Modi government in 2014. It was no wonder that instead of the military leadership collectively assessing the threats facing India, they accepted the threat (which suited the politically ruling party rather than the nation) given by the Prime Minister. In his first combined commander’s conference in October 2014, Prime Minister Modi said that the ‘enemy’ may be known (Pakistan), but the threat was ‘invisible’ (terrorists).  The military leadership accepted this assessment when the real threats to India were: an intellectually shallow higher command; the PLA which competing with the US military since the 1991 Operation Desert Storm was miles ahead of the Indian military in technology, war concepts, and imagination to conduct an asymmetrical warfare; the steady progress between the PLA and the Pakistan military from interoperability to combined and interchangeable operations; a defunct military industrial complex with little research and development support; and military think-tanks filled with retired and serving officers who had stopped reflecting on warfare since decades. I have argued in my book ‘the last war: How AI will shape India’s final showdown with China’ that the Pakistan military, at present, with PLA’s support, overmatches the Indian military at the operational level of war where outcome is determined. In case of a war, the Pakistan military would be well placed to tactically adjust the LC to its advantage in addition to ending the AGPL by wrestling Siachen from India. Indian military is at its weakest today since Independence at a time when humongous threat from the PLA is staring in the face.

Line of ignorance

The LAC is the only military line in world history, which was formed not because of war, but, because of ignorance of Indian diplomats who did not know the difference between a military line and disputed border but were determined to make the 1993 visit of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao a grander success than of his predecessor Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. Worse, it was not public knowledge in India until the April 2020 Ladakh crisis that China had not accepted the 1993 LAC held by Indian Army in its bilateral agreement with India during Rao’s visit. For Beijing, its claim line of 1959 was and remains the LAC. For clarity, four issues about the LAC are:

1    A military line (LAC) can be tactically altered by the side with more credible military power and political will. This military coercion, without firing a shot, is not considered an act of war. These are called grey zone operations, which fall between war and peace. A disputed border (with an informal understanding) if altered tactically can be classified as an act of war. For example, the 1986-1987 Wangdung crisis resulted in build-up of forces by both sides since the PLA then was not assessed to be militarily strong. Once the gap between border management of the PLA and Indian military increased, the former’s transgressions and intrusions increased.

  1. In a cover-up operation, regular PLA transgressions were dealt with a twin approach. It was said that transgressions were done by both sides since the LAC was not defined on maps nor marked on ground. This was a lie which finally got exposed on 7 February 2021. Speaking with the media, former army chief and minister in Modi government, V.K Singh said, ‘The Indian army commits ten times more transgressions than the PLA on the LAC.’ This disclosed the reality that India had accepted the PLA’s 1959 LAC, and worse, since 1993, the Indian soldiers were patrolling a line at altitudes of above 10,000 feet which had little sovereign sanctity in the eyes of successive dispensations in New Delhi.
  2. The other approach was of political and diplomatic appeasement of China by India. All bilateral agreements signed starting 1993 were done with the clear knowledge of New Delhi that Beijing had not accepted the 1993 LAC. Beijing had been firm, clear and consistent on the 1959 LAC.

China, thus, can hardly be blamed for rubbishing these agreements by triggering the 2020 Ladakh crisis. Moreover, India’s repeated public demand that the PLA go back to positions held in April 2020 makes no sense after the two sides have signed the joint statement of 10 September 2020 in Moscow.

  1. Once the 10 September 2020 statement is implemented, the word LAC will be replaced by the term ‘border areas’ to be drawn inside Indian Territory. Doing so could take many years if not decades. This will increase the manpower burden on the Indian Army to guard against PLA’s grey zone operations (also called information war) along the yet undefined ‘border areas’. This explains the need for the Agneepath scheme as well as the proposal to have the paramilitary (Indo Tibetan Border Police) replace the Indian army on the LAC.

However, owing to a lack of understanding of advances in warfare, the biggest challenge facing India is this: The Indian military leadership believes that the war will be a skirmish or salami slicing operation fought at the tactical level. Therefore, India has placed undue importance on infrastructure building, which is meant to cater to the threat from the PLA’s excellent border management at the tactical levelthis is a distraction from priorities essential to meet the enemy’s juggernaut. The PLA’s border management threat began with India’s 1998 nuclear tests when China’s intrusions and transgressions on the LAC increased. This threat was enhanced to forces-in-being or troops in situ requiring little or no preparatory time for assault after the 2017 Doklam crisis.  The present threat is a combination of the PLA’s informatised (information domination and its denial to the enemy by systems destruction warfare) and intelligentized war (combat operations conducted with intelligent weapons using intelligent platforms with artificial intelligence as its core, and with technical support by intelligent networks, cloud, big data, and Internet of Military things [IoMT]) preparedness where border infrastructure meant to facilitate Indian troops and weapon platforms movement to the LAC for tactical war will not help meet the Chinese military challenge.

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