Days after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in clashes with Chinese troops in Ladakh, and a day after 10 Indians were released from Chinese custody, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there had been no intrusion or take-over of any Indian post.
The statement from India’s prime minister raises numerous questions about the actual situation on the ground along the India-China disputed border that saw its first military fatalities in more than four decades this week.
“Neither has anyone intruded upon our borders, not is anyone currently intruding, nor is any Indian post in the hands of anyone else,” Modi said. “In Ladakh, 20 of our soldiers have died but those who have raised their eyes at Bharat Mata, they have been taught a lesson.”
The official release on the statement omits a portion of Modi’s comments, saying, “at the outset, Prime Minister clarified that neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured.”
A few questions follow from Modi’s comments directly addressing the clashes, after he had earlier spoken abstractly about the matter.
Is Modi saying the Ministry of External Affairs got it wrong or lied?
The Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement issued on Wednesday after a phone call between Union Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said this:
“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.”
Here is the key portion of that statement: “the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC”.
It is impossible to read this without concluding that the Chinese intruded upon Indian territory to erect a structure. The ministry statement is quite unequivocal on the matter, especially since it represented added information from the previous statement, which spoke of an “attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo”.
If there has been no intrusion upon territory that India claims – as Modi insisted – then how is China attempting to change the status quo? And what does the ministry mean when it says that the Chinese side sought to erect a structure “on our side of the LAC”? Is Modi over-ruling the ministry statement?
Do the Chinese currently hold land that was previously patrolled by Indian troops?
A cynical reading of Modi’s statement might conclude that he is being deliberately ambiguous with his use of the word “border”.
The Line of Actual Control represents contrasting perceptions of where both India and Chinese believe their territory to lie, and it is neither delineated – meaning the two countries do not agree on even a line on a map – or demarcated on the ground. One way that the LAC, as identified by India, can be defined is as territory up to where Indian patrols go.
Numerous media reports have covered the fact that Chinese troops are currently occupying or controlling territory that until recently were being patrolled by Indian soldiers. These reports have spoken of the Chinese controlling as much as 60 sq km of land that was previously being patrolled or claimed by India.
Is it Modi’s assertion that these reports are untrue? Is it now the Indian government’s stance that the Chinese have not come into control of territory that was previously patrolled by India?
Or is Modi falling back on the “different perceptions of the LAC” argument, that Bharatiya Janata Party national general secretary Ram Madhav disparaged as the “same old defeatist argument” of the previous government in a recent Op-Ed?
If there was no intrusion why are 20 soldiers dead?
Reports of the actual fighting suggest that the Chinese used brutal weapons, in some cases bludgeoning Indian soldiers to death with clubs and sticks that had nails studded. These details are deeply disturbing and it is crucial that Indian citizens understand why soldiers were dealt such a gruesome fate.
The reports suggest that the soldiers had sought to destroy tents and other infrastructure on the Indian side of the LAC after the June 6 agreement between the two militaries saw an assurance that the Chinese would retreat from the area.
Yet Modi is now claiming that there has been no intrusion by the Chinese troops. If so, what explains the deaths of the Indian soldiers? Why were they fighting in the first place?
Did the Indian soldiers have firearms?
Another question arises from a statement made by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Twitter on Thursday. Jaishankar claimed, in response to numerous questions, that the soldiers who died in the melee as well as the others who were injured and captured by the Chinese, were carrying arms.
The minister pointed to long-standing agreements that establish a convention of not using firearms along the Line of Actual Control to prevent localised conflicts from escalating into bigger fights.
Yet his statement only raises more questions.
Reports have suggested that the Indian soldiers were fighting bare-armed against Chinese troops with bludgeons and improvised weapons. Jaishankar seems to suggest they were armed, yet chose not to use them.
Yet it has been pointed out that in a tactical military situation, soldiers can use weapons at their disposal – not least if they are being attacked. Is it the Indian government’s stance that these soldiers had firearms with bullets with them and chose not to retaliate even in the face of life-threatening attacks from the Chinese troops?
Did the political and military leadership miss intelligence alerts?
Reports have emerged that there was credible intelligence of a build-up by Chinese troops along the other side of the LAC before the attack. Others have referred to the situation, beginning in early May, as being akin to Kargil, in that the Indian side was not sufficiently prepared to hold key positions.
While reports about intelligence alerts post-facto are always tricky to examine, since hindsight is 20-20, it does raise the question of whether there had been a mistake or complacency in the strategy or tactics used by the Indian Army that permitted whatever activity the Chinese took that led to the 20 deaths.
Again, it is harder to even understand the deaths without sufficient information and with the government claiming that there had been no intrusion. The Indian government has also not officially acknowledged the widely reported fact that 10 soldiers had been captured by Chinese troops.
Is it the government’s position that no soldiers were captured? And if they had been captured, what explains this development if there was no intrusion? Reports seem to suggest that there have been changes to the status quo not just at the point of the fighting in Ladakh but at several other places along the LAC. Will the government clarify, or has Modi – by asserting that there have been no intrusions – decided to simply accept the Chinese changes to the status quo?