The danger of shooting from the lip

Politicians with a limited understanding of military operations are known to let words fly like unguided missiles

Sujan DuttaUpdated: Sunday, November 27, 2022, 04:53 AM IST
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Representative Photo | File

In a cottage by a heap of stones on a November like this one, a Chinese army officer was offered gulab jamun, the brown round ball of an Indian dessert dipped in sugar syrup. He coughed and his Indian Army counterpart wondered if he was choking. The Chinaman asked for dollops of ketchup to spice it up because he found it too sweet.

This was at Bum La, above Tawang in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh on the India-China frontier that is marked often by heaps of stones called cairns. In 2006, when the meeting took place in that hut on the Chinese side of the un-demarcated frontier, the two armies were still playing friends. Regular Border Personnel Meetings (BPMs) were held and there were exchanges of gifts and sweets. On one occasion, the Chinese offered an Indian officer a delicacy fashioned from stewed poultry claws. The Indian commander, a vegetarian Tamil Brahmin, would not be enticed.

On the Chinese side, Bum La is a white snowy plateau in winters, a field of rock and scree that 4x4 vehicles wheeze up to. The road from and to Tawang on the Indian side is flanked by pillboxes hewn from grey and black stone. Many of these pillboxes were overrun by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army as they rolled down nearly up to Bhalukpong, the trout-fishing point on the Arunachal-Assam border during another winter exactly 60 years ago.

There are newer and more modern Indian gun emplacements now. Again, exactly a week ago (Nov 20) in 1962, Mao Tse-tung’s China announced a unilateral ceasefire and the PLA began withdrawing after having militarily humiliated Nehru’s India. In the defeat, an Indian Army brigade was destroyed and its commander, John Parashuram Dalvi, was taken prisoner of war. After his release, Brigadier Dalvi wrote a book.

The Himalayan Blunder: A Curtain Raiser to the Sino-Indian War of 1962 went against the official Indian narrative. The Army’s own investigation into the war, the Henderson-Brooks Report, is still a classified document. Even successive BJP-led governments have refused to declassify it after having demanded its publication when the party was in the Opposition.

In the literature of the 1962 war, however, one point that stands out is the wrong assessment, both politically and militarily, of the capabilities of Mao’s China. And the wrong assessment of India’s own military prowess, tactically, strategically, probably also in fieldcraft and the bandwidth to employ airpower.

Even if they are more unpalatable than gulab jamun with tomato sauce — for they are tales of spilt blood — the events of 1962 are worth recalling today. Spaced 60 years apart, there are ringing echoes of the bravado and the rhetoric.

This week, the Indian Army’s head of the Northern Command was the second senior officer after the Kashmir Valley corps commander to endorse Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement of India’s unfinished business of taking back Pakistan-occupied Jammu & Kashmir, including Gilgit and Baltistan.

Politicians with a limited understanding of military operations are known to let words fly like unguided missiles. In the lead-up to 1962, too, Nehru was notoriously known to have instructed the Army to eject the Chinese overnight though the military under him was executing a forward defence policy.

In 1999, then Defence Minister George Fernandes had said it would take “just 48 hours” to eject Pakistani intruders from the heights of Kargil. It took about three months, more than 500 lives and several thousand casualties, and permanent militarization of the icy ridgelines at physical and financial cost.

And in 2019, the Prime Minister doubted the efficacy of radars in penetrating clouds when an Indian fighter plane (a MiG-21) was shot down while bombing Balakote, its pilot taken hostage in Pakistan before being released, and India’s air defences shot down an own helicopter killing the soldiers on board.

When a person as senior as the General Officer commanding the Northern Command endorses such rhetoric, however, they have to be taken seriously. The Indian Army’s Northern Command faces two fronts — Pakistan and China. Even now, Chinese forces occupy territory in his area of responsibility that includes Ladakh. India, too, is underplaying its own words — that there must be a restoration of the status quo ante. Buffer zones are euphemisms for territory the Indian Army once patrolled but are now no-go areas. Shepherds in Eastern Ladakh near Chushul are saying that the Kugrang Valley to which they used to take their Pashmina-rearing sheep are inaccessible.

In the interim, officers of the Indian military let fly an unarmed Brahmos missile in March this year. The missile crashed into the village of Mia Channu in Pakistan 124km to the west of their launchpad. After first calling it an accident, the Government in August sacked a group captain, a wing commander and a squadron leader of the Indian Air Force who were manning the missile battery.

It is precisely because unguided missiles fly off — India is no exception; a Ukrainian missile that landed in the Polish village of Przewodow earlier this month killing two men was initially suspected to be Russian — that the rhetoric of war is dangerous.

Spilt blood stinks decades later, unlike an unpalatable sugarball with tomato sauce.

Sujan Dutta is a journalist based in Delhi. He tweets from @reportersujan

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