Hours after the Indian Army confirmed that three of its soldiers had been killed by Chinese troops in a confrontation in Ladakh, a number that later rose to 20 with many others injured and at least four critical, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave an address to Indian chief ministers that was also televised.
Modi spoke of the coronavirus crisis, the need to remain vigilant and the green shoots in the Indian economy. He did not, however, mention the dead soldiers or the first fatal clashes between India and China in more than 40 years.
By Wednesday morning, the day after the news emerged, there has still been no statement or comment from the prime minister. The first few statements came either from the Army or the spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry.
The only senior person who spoke to the public on Tuesday about this was not even in government: Bharatiya Janata Party President JP Nadda.
This silence, despite the death toll, prompted questions from many quarters, including former Congress President Rahul Gandhi.
Will Modi say anything? The prime minister avoids having to give bad news to the country as much as possible, preferring to leave that to bureaucrats or other Cabinet members. When Pakistan shot down and captured an Indian fighter pilot after the Balakot incident in 2019, Modi maintained a studied silence on the matter until Islamabad decided to release him.
Which is why it was always likely that any statement would come from Defence Minister Rajnath Singh who said – after repeated questions on Chinese incursions even before the deaths – on June 14, “I’d like to inform opposition that our government won’t keep anyone in the dark..”
Eventually, in the afternoon on Wednesday, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh posted two tweets about the matter, making no reference to China.
The prime minister is set to meet chief ministers of Covid-19-hit states yet again over video conferencing on Wednesday, with no clarity on whether he will address in more detail the disturbing events of Monday night along the Line of Actual Control, the disputed border between India and China.
Read this explainer for a sense of what took place between the troops, leading to at least 20 dead and casualties on “both sides” according to the Indian Army.
Public in the dark
The simple fact is that the Indian government has, for nearly a month now, refused to be transparent about the situation on the ground in Ladakh, where according to some news reports, Chinese troops are sitting on as much as 60 square kilometres that until recently was patrolled by Indian soldiers.
The authorities have repeatedly spoken about disengagement and de-escalation, without offering clarity on what occurred to require several rounds of talks and stepping back. Now 20 Indian soldiers are dead, and yet information is not forthcoming.
This lack of clarity is particularly striking because it is exactly what the Bharatiya Janata Party, including some of the very same leaders, demanded from the government when they were in the Opposition, in similar circumstances.
Sample these news stories from 2013, when India found itself in a stand-off with Chinese troops in Ladakh:
“Terming the government’s approach towards China as ‘very weak’, BJP today asked the Centre to spell out steps being taken to tackle the danger arising out of the Chinese troops’ incursion in Ladakh. It said the government should tell the nation the truth about the issue and take the opposition also into confidence.
‘China’s interference in India is very serious. The nation should be told the truth. BJP is deeply concerned about the reported interference by China on the borders with India at quite deep level. It is a very serious matter,’ BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
“Rajnath Singh accused the UPA government of being casual in its approach towards Beijing. Talking about a protracted standoff between the two countries in 2013 summer after Chinese troops stayed in Indian territory of Dulat Beig Oldie for 21 days, Singh said that once the issue was settled through negotiations, ‘We were told both the armies have gone back to their earlier positions.’”
He added: “We want to know that if only Chinese troops had barged in, how was Indian army made to retreat and to where?”
Even if the Modi government does not want to reveal all the details to the public, out of a desire to not have its hand tied behind its back because of jingoistic public opinion – which it is happy to whip up at other times – and to keep operational details confidential, the prime minister could do what is conventional when India gets into a confrontation with other nations: take the Opposition into confidence.
This is what The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan argued for even before the deaths reported on Tuesday.
“With every incident, they are, however, getting increasingly politicised in an environment where there is a 24/7 demand on social media for information – and unprecedented capacity for disinformation,” Krishnan wrote.
“Rather than wish away this reality – and adopt a stand that it is above questioning – the government needs to come to terms with it. First, it needs to keep the Opposition informed, which it is clear it hasn’t. Second, it needs to proactively engage with the media, even if that may be through low-key engagement as was the case on June 9, that does not escalate into a public war of words. The media cannot be muzzled. India, after all, is not China. So it is in the government’s own interests to ensure what’s reported is well-informed, and not speculative or exaggerated.”
Jabin T Jacob, a scholar of India’s China policymaking, has argued that Modi should actually go much further and drop the official approach of trying to downplay everything that takes place along the disputed Chna border, even as it uses events on the Line of Control with Pakistan for domestic politics.
The Indian government actually gains nothing from keeping its own public in the dark about goings on along the LAC or by infantilising its citizens by portraying them as being unable to understand India’s international interests,” Jacob wrote. “On the other hand, open and accurate dissemination of information by the political leadership on the general state of relations with China as well as at the LAC specifically, would have helped with the current situation.”
What is more, the deaths of Indian soldiers on the LAC will probably now also set off great confusion about how such a situation could come to pass when the average Indian thought all this while that the only real existential threat came from Pakistan.
In fact, even without the Indian casualties on the LAC, it could be argued that the Modi government had created an unintended consequence in the form greater Indian public attention on China precisely by focusing frequently and loudly on its tough responses to Pakistani provocations and claiming that it had done what previous governments had failed to do.
In terms of responding to Chinese provocations, therefore, ‘yeh dil maange more’ (the heart wants more) might now well become the attitude of the average Indian on China, too.”