The events that began on May 5 and culminated in a disaster on the night of June 15 in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh should prompt India to take a closer took at its China policy.

India lost 20 soldiers, including Commanding Officer Colonel Santosh Babu, that night. That is an unacceptable level of loss. An examination of the contours of India’s China policy over the past 60 years in order.

A useful starting point is 1962, when India suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of China in Ladakh. That defeat itself was the result of the policy that Nehru had laid down since China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1950, despite being cautioned against this by Sardar Patel in 1950. Nehru held certain romantic notions about India-China relations, which he believed could contribute to global peace. That expectation was shattered when Mao Zedong decided to “teach India a lesson” in 1962.

The next important development in India-China relations took place in 1988, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing. He agreed with Deng Xiaoping to put the India-China boundary issue on the back-burner while going ahead with developing relations in other fields. Gandhi did so in good faith, believing that he could trust China. That was a major strategic blunder because China had no intention of returning Aksai Chin – lost in 1962 – to India. China saw India’s decision as a willingness to forego Aksai Chin and began thinking of expanding its territorial claims on India.

That’s what it did in 2006 when it announced that Arunachal Pradesh was a part of China, calling it “South Tibet”. China did so after becoming a “strategic partner” of India in 2005. Its true intentions should have been clear to Indian policymakers by that time, but they weren’t. In the meantime, China had built powerful lobbies in India, which had begun the task of undermining India’s security from within. Chinese influence had, by then, permeated all walks of life in India.

China’s most serious act affecting India’s security was the transfer of nuclear technology and materials to Pakistan in the 1980s. It is not a coincidence that Pakistan launched cross-border terrorism in Kashmir in 1989, after declaring that it had acquired nuclear capability. China’s objective was to keep India bogged down in Kashmir, which it largely succeeded in achieving. It also protected Pakistani terrorists such as Masood Azhar in the United Nations Security Council by preventing their designation as global terrorists.” Unfortunately, even that did not induce a change in India’s China policy.

Meanwhile, during all these years, China had been slowly occupying Indian territory in Ladakh and elsewhere. When questioned, Indian policymakers tried to explain away the matter by saying that Chinese encroachments on Indian territory were the result of “differing perceptions” of the border between the two countries.

Late former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with then Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong. Credit: Wikipedia

This “differing perceptions” theory was advanced by the Indian side for several decades, resulting in the loss of an undetermined amount of Indian land to China. The main reason why India did not stop Chinese “salami-slicing” tactics to grab Indian territory was a fear psychosis going back to 1962.

Galwan Valley attack

The “differing perceptions” theory could not be continued indefinitely. Its shelf life had expired quite some time back. And therefore, when Chinese troops intruded into Indian territory in the Galwan Valley to block work on a link road branching off from the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road, India had to respond. The link road was part of an infrastructure project on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. China does not want India to improve its infrastructure so that the country remains vulnerable to a 1962-type attack.

Chinese troops have also encroached upon Indian territory on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso, between “fingers” four to eight. They have built bunkers and other fortifications there and refused to dismantle them, claiming that the area belongs to China.

The incident on the night of June 15 occurred when Chinese troops erected a structure in the Galwan Valley on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, after agreeing to vacate the area in talks between the military commanders of the two sides on June 6. When Colonel Babu and his men asked the Chinese side to dismantle the structure, they were brutally attacked, as a result of which the Colonel and 19 of his men, lost their lives.

The Indian side was unarmed, in keeping with the protocol agreed on between the two sides decades ago. They were subjected to the most inhuman attack by clubs studded with nails and barbed wire. Many of them fell into the Shyok river and froze to death.

Indian reinforcements were, however, rushed in, which engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Chinese troops, killing a large number of them. The structure that the Chinese had erected was dismantled and the area was restored to the Indian side. Work on the branch road to the Daulat Beg Oldi will continue.

However, the issue regarding the Pangong Tso has not been resolved. It remains to be seen what happens there. Indian armed forces across the entire Line of Actual Control are on alert.

The main lesson from the above developments is that the time has come for a paradigm shift in India’s China policy. The “differing perceptions” theory has finally been discarded. A clear signal has been sent to China that “creeping annexation” of Indian territory will no longer be tolerated. And the days of Indian troops patrolling the border without weapons are over for good. India will now deal with China differently. The ghosts of 1962 have been exorcised.

Niraj Srivastava is a former Ambassador of India.