How to win wars, not just battles – Shiv Kunal Verma

Indian troops at the LAC in Ladakh (2020)

Shiv Kunal VermaLet us make no mistake here—the disengagement in the Galwan Valley and possibly at the Pangong Tso means nothing in the larger scheme of things, for they were most probably a smokescreen anyway. – Shiv Kunal Verma

Field Marshal William Slim, better known among the vast multitude of troops under his command that made up the XIVth Army in Burma as “Uncle Bill”, was an extraordinary man. Fighting against the rampaging Imperial Japanese Army that swept through Southeast Asia, he not only stemmed the onslaught but then ruthlessly decimated the enemy forces. As was to be expected, Slim had his ups and downs, but eventually he succeeded in converting a “defeat into victory”. Few men in history, over such a sustained period of time, would have lived with the loneliness of command. His one mantra, by his own admission that kept him going, was “that things were never as bad as they seemed, nor as good as they looked.”

Slim grappled in the steamy jungles of Burma against an extremely competent and professional army. The bulk of his own fighting forces, that included Australians, New Zealanders, West Africans, later the Americans and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese, were his Indian Divisions that by the dint of their “ability to fight with very little”, eventually succeeded in holding the line, culminating with the now famous Battle of Kohima, after which the tide was to turn completely.

Slim’s assessment of the Indian soldier has stood the test of time, and how! Plunged into a near-impossible situation in Jammu and Kashmir in the October of 1947, the officers and men of the Indian Army saved Srinagar from a fate that had already befallen Baramulla, where the brutality of the tribal raider columns was there for everyone to see. Though the Western world’s attention was on the mass rape of nuns that had taken place, Kashmiri girls of all ages were carted off by the truckloads as war booty. In fact, by going back to deposit the loot and the women, the tribal lashkar heading for Srinagar gave the handful of airlifted Indian troops a toehold, from where they then fought back tenaciously.

A decade and a half later, the same Indian Army came a cropper and to paraphrase from the Chinese version of events, “scattered like pigeons at the twang of a bow”. Having written what most critics most generously called the most definitive book on the war, one thing to me at the end was crystal clear… we had not lost the conflict to the Chinese, but as I repeatedly have said, to ourselves. Just how and why that happened, I was to receive a stark reminder in the form of a video clip from a friend on social media last week, even as the attention of the country remained focused on the events in Ladakh.

Borrowing a page from Swami Nityanand, the accompanying message read: “You must listen to You and You will draw for You the frightful parallels!” My friend “the Wag” had sent me a video clip where I had summarized the lessons drawn from the events of 1962. As I listened to myself, a voice talking from the recent past about what that happened more than half a century ago, the over-riding thought at the end of the eleven-minute monologue was, “nothing ever changes even though nothing ever remains the same”.

On the face of it, the similarities are uncanny, but that should not be surprising, for India is facing the same enemy who over a period of time, has not wavered from his single-track ideology. If anything, the Communist China of today sees itself as the emerging dominant power on the planet who will, sooner or later, brush aside even the United States. What is alarming, however, is that we seem to be playing the same confused game that we watched ourselves play where we seem to be stuck in a quagmire where the optics of each battle seem to be the priority. So much so that it even overrides our ability to effectively fight the larger war. We run the danger of becoming victims of our own optics!

Galwan could be a smokescreen

Let us make no mistake here—the disengagement in the Galwan Valley and possibly at the Pangong Tso means nothing in the larger scheme of things, for they were most probably a smokescreen anyway. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are batting on a different wicket and the sooner we realise that, if we haven’t figured it out already, the better. One of the most bewildering questions in the minds of most Indians had been, why is China doing what it is doing? This question remained in the main unanswered as events unfolded rapidly, culminating with the bloodbath at PP-14 in the Galwan Valley where 20 of our soldiers were killed along with an unconfirmed number of Chinese troops.

We have to be brutally honest with our own people and then let the various institutions that exist handle the situation as per a collective national response. Despite being at the receiving end of China’s naked aggression (yet again) we let the narrative get hijacked by a few select individuals who immediately seemed to treat the emerging Chinese threat as a great opportunity to embarrass the present government in power. What happened to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who was at his zenith in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion in 1962 was not lost on these worthies and they went about fanning the embers in a desperate bid to ignite the flames.

The Chinese moves have to be seen for what they are. The troops opposite Eastern Ladakh did not materialize overnight and the chances are that this is in a way a continuation of what happened in Doklam three years ago. After the Chinese reorganized their theatre commands in 2015-16, General Zhao Zongqi was moved from the Jinan Military Region to the newly constituted Western Theatre Command as its commander. In June 2017, Zongqi had made the first move, extending the road on the Doklam Plateau further south towards the tri-junction. Though this in no way impacted the security of the Chicken’s Neck corridor as was made out in the Indian media at the time, it did hinder access to the Jampheri Ridge, which was militarily not acceptable to India. In many ways it was typical of the Chinese—probe into an area that had little strategic value and then see what happens, especially since there was also a third party involved, which in this case was the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The reaction of the Indian Army was pragmatic and to the point—the commanders on the ground took the decision and Chinese ingress was physically blocked. That should have been that but then the war of words started and once again the optics came into play. First, the Doklam Plateau was painted to be of critical importance by some writers who should have known better and many a column in print and man-hours on television were dedicated to the “situation in Eastern Sikkim”. As a result, when the Chinese gave up the idea of extending the road, there was some chest-thumping and three years later the optics of Doklam have been given the aura of a major military victory.

Government of India missed a beat here—after the Kargil War, where the Pakistani ingress into the heights around Drass, Kargil and Batalik had been discovered, a daily press briefing highlighting the day’s events used to be held in New Delhi. Maybe the Doklam incident was too small and insignificant by itself to warrant a briefing, but in the absence of any formal narrative, the new breed of satellite experts got their first crack at honing their new found calling.

Even if you have been caught napping and there have been glaring lapses (what we love to call intelligence failures), that transparency will always stand in good stead for it does not create an information vacuum that gets filled in a manner that at times seem to become even more important than what is actually happening at the site. Based on this sort of deliberate misinformation, we now seemingly have a call from a senior Opposition leader for an independent inquiry on the ground. By whom I wonder? Imran Khan? You cannot reduce matters to a joke for no one will be laughing when their pants are actually on fire! Already a narrative is being put out by the same lobby that India has lost territory and PP 14 is no longer with us. How idiotic can this be, especially since the entire fighting took place around Colonel Santosh Babu to deny the Chinese any observation of the Galwan-Shyok junction. This is simply not true. PP 14 remains with the Indian side as per the prescribed strength agreed upon in the initial discussions with the Chinese.

Today we are living in a world where everything is under the scanner, and if you are a democracy, then even more so. In this scenario, it is not just the so-called Opposition, but the entire country that needs to know what is going on. In the process, if a few hits need to be taken on the chin, so be it! Any cover ups that require resorting to half-truths or untruths will only further complicate the situation. Nehru had repeatedly covered up for the Chinese in Parliament, so when Longju and Khenzemane happened, the entire country was unprepared.

Prime Minister Modi needs to understand this, as also the fact that he himself cannot and should not become the spokesperson himself. His flying visit to Ladakh and his calling out the Chinese on expansionism was indeed a welcome step, but by taking the entire top brass along and choosing Nimu as the venue diluted the value of his own actions. A photograph of the PM being briefed by GOC 3 Infantry Division with the COAS looking on around the junction of the Shyok and the Galwan River with a curt accompanying message to the PRC would have perhaps been more appropriate. An entire wedding party accompanying him seemed excessive and once again the optics dominated the narrative.

Time to think Navy

Three Chinese divisions opposite Eastern Ladakh and two sitting on the Gilgit flank in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, are perhaps aimed at keeping India’s entire attention on the northern border, giving us no time to think Navy. The latest noises made against Bhutan even while de-escalation is being discussed in Ladakh, is also indicative of the Chinese designs. Their newfound interest and claims on the eastern flank of Bhutan is probably an effort to get more concessions on the ground in the Chumbi Valley, which is in the western flank. It’s yet another probe being put into place by Zhao Zongqi, who probably has a point to prove to the CCP about his own military genius.

For decades now, instead of working out which are the areas of our strength and preparing to fight around them, we have been playing havoc with our established institutions. First the Congress and then the BJP have repeatedly destroyed the institutional integrity of not just the Armed Forces, but have also done the same thing with the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police, the para-military and even manipulating the fourth estate, which is but a pale shadow of what it should be. The weakening of these pillars of our society are today the biggest fault lines that are obviously also visible to the Chinese.

1962 for all its sound and fury woke us out of our slumber. Hopefully, while the Armed Forces, despite all that has been done to degrade them in the past, will continue to hold the line, the Indian leadership must move beyond focusing on the optics to the serious business of fighting the Chinese in a manner where Xi Jinping and the CCP start to hurt. The Chinese believe that there can be no two tigers on the hill—so be it. If PM Modi does not want to be remembered by history as JLN 2.0, he needs to make sure the similarities with what happened almost six decades ago end here. Optics only make the fall that much harder, while true leadership a la Slim ensures it is you who will be the last standing tiger on the hill! – Sunday Guardian Live, 11 July 2020

Shiv Kunal Verma is an acclaimed author, film-maker and military historian.

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