Following weeks of uncertainty about what exactly was taking place between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh and two days after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in clashes that New Delhi says resulted in casualties on “both sides”, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs on Wednesday gave the clearest indication yet of the events that had taken place.

“At the meeting of senior Military Commanders held on 6th June, an agreement was reached on de-escalation and disengagement along the Line of Actual Control. Ground commanders were meeting regularly to implement this consensus throughout the last week.

While there was some progress, the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC. While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.” 

In other words, after repeatedly refusing to acknowledge that there had been a change in the status quo – a position that continues to be parroted by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s propaganda chief – India’s External Affairs Ministry has made it clear that the Chinese troops:

  • crossed over to the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control
  • sought to erect a structure
  • “took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties”.

This is the clearest enunciation of why Indian and Chinese troops have been in a face-off along the LAC since May, though it doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the full extent of concerns about changes to the status quo.

New Delhi’s earlier assurances that disengagement was taking place came without telling citizens what engagement had occurred in the first place, though reports suggested that the Chinese troops had grabbed as much as 60 square kilometres that used to be patrolled by Indian soldiers, and had deployed artillery and tanks in the area.

‘As bad as 2013’

In an Op-Ed in the Indian Express on Thursday, the bulk of which contained accusations that the previous government had been soft on China, BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav effectively admits to this.

“When the Chinese had infiltrated and pitched tents 19 km deep inside our territory in the Depsang plains area in 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meekly repeated the same old defeatist argument that the Chinese have a different ‘perception’ about the LAC... 

The incursions in 2013 were as bad as they are now.”

In his first comments on the deaths of 20 soldiers and the confrontation in Ladakh, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday spoke both of peace and a “fitting reply”.

“No one should be in any doubt. India wants peace but when provoked, it is capable of giving a fitting reply, be it any situation... The country will be proud to know that our soldiers died fighting the Chinese... I would like to assure the nation that the sacrifice of our jawans will not be in vain. For us, the unity and sovereignty of the country is most important.”

Modi has also called an all-party meeting on Friday to discuss the India-China situation, another indicator that his government is now treating the matter as one of national concern, which would necessitate taking all parties into confidence.

It is clear, especially from the tone taken by the Chinese in their version of events, that Beijing is “moving forward into territory where it has neither been a disputant nor does it have high stakes... [to create] new buffer zones, new standards of behaviour, and new realities on the ground.”

‘Fitting reply’

Giving a fitting reply to the Chinese will not be easy. India’s strategic options are limited, not least because of the wide gap in the economic and military capabilities of the two countries.

The immediate imperative, already begun by India’s External Affairs Ministry, is to provide a clearer picture of what has happened on the ground to both Indian citizens and friendly nations. This would build national consensus and create grounds for a more concerted pushback if necessary.

The more complex part will be attempting to restore the status quo without the situation escalating into further conflict. To get there, it is crucial that the government also examine if any lapses, political or military, led India into a weak spot.

Finally, the scattered efforts by some Indian citizens to boycott Chinese goods may be well-meaning but will achieve little. If India wants to wean itself off Chinese imports, an effort that many other countries will be attempting in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, it requires a national strategy, state support to crucial sectors and economic management that acknowledges the dire situation most Indian businesses find themselves in today. The pretence that India has a vibrant economy must be abandoned, as must the suppression of data.

On all three counts, transparency and accountability – drawing in institutions, experts, the Opposition and the public at the appropriate junctures – will help make India’s response more robust. Though the BJP government tends to score badly on both these counts, if it wants to build the capability to genuinely take on the Chinese it will need to embrace these principles. Else, India is likely to lapse into a cycle of confrontation followed by Wuhan-style summits.