The Pangong Tso Disengagement: Devils in Details?
The current disengagement at Pangong Tso will certainly prove significant if it leads to status quo ante as of March 2020 throughout the Ladakh sector.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement on both floors of parliament about the ‘disengagement’ with China in the Pangong Tso area is commendable for its clarity. Unlike in the past, the ruling party and its supporters refrained from celebrating, or claiming a victory, in a military standoff vis-à-vis China. The Defence minister’s statement, rather, brought the focus back on the precarious situation along the Indo-Sino Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh sector. The current disengagement at Pangong Tso will certainly prove significant if it leads to status quo ante as of March 2020 throughout the Ladakh sector.
A follow-up statement of clarification by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), on the other hand, is more political in its overtone and hence unwarranted. The political strategy of disallowing discussion in either houses of parliament on the Defence Minister’s statement while using the MoD to respond to the opposition parties’ charges is a rather unwise act on the part of the government.
The MoD stated that “the effective safeguarding of our national interest and territory in the Eastern Ladakh sector has taken place because the Government has reposed full faith in the capabilities of the armed forces. Those who doubt the achievements made possible by the sacrifices of our military personnel are actually disrespecting them.”
This statement practically bars citizens from asking any questions and clarifications on the minister’s statement on the ongoing dialogue with China, on the actual agreements for disengagements by both the countries and on the actual process of disengagement. Surely raising questions and asking for clarifications on any of these matters are not even remotely connected to doubting sacrifices of our military personnel or amount to showing disrespect for them. As the MoD correctly put it, the effective safeguarding of our national interest and territory in Eastern Ladakh became possible only because the government reposed full faith in our armed forces. The questions are on the capabilities of this government whose Prime Minister and his ministers were in full charge of handling affairs with China till April 2020. The questions are on the Prime Minister’s statement of no incursions taking place inside Indian terrain and there being no occupation of Indian posts or land by anyone, which had come in the aftermath of supreme sacrifices of no less than 20 brave soldiers and officers of Indian army at the Galwan on June 15, 2020.
The primary question is whether citizens of India have any right to ask any questions to its own government, including on the issues of national security, without being disparaged or being branded as insensitive to the armed forces or being castigated as the anti-national? No question is a stupid question. And no one believes in this dictum more than this government and its followers. Hence, any question, doubt, allegation raised by the one branded by the regime as the most stupid person must be responded to and countered. Sadly, the government has reduced the MoD to the level of a party spokesperson, not caring about the honour and prestige of the great institution.
As important and problematic as the political overtones are the technical statements made by the MoD in its clarification. The MoD emphatically clarified that India has persistently maintained the right to patrol upto Finger 8, including in the current understanding with China. However, it is not clear whether China has accepted this Indian right and practice which was followed by the Indian patrolling troops prior to the current standoff. The Defence Minister’s statement as well as the MoD’s clarification stopped short of saying that India would continue to patrol upto Finger 8. Perhaps these are not issues that one can mention in official statements; but matters to be put in practice on the ground. The truth should be deduced from what is done on the ground in the near future.
The Minister and his ministry, in their respective statements, cleared the air regarding the situation in other areas in the Ladakh sector. Both statements not only acknowledged the outstanding problems at the Hot Springs, Gogra and Despang areas, but assured the country that they would be taken up with China within 48 hours of the completion of disengagement at the Pangong Tso. Colonel Ajay Shukla (Retired), who has been closely following the developments at the LAC and incisively commenting on them, has pointed out that the Chinese have, so far, refused to talk about other areas. Thus, it needs to be clarified whether the Chinese side has, in its current understanding reached with India, agreed to talk about the three crucial areas. What if the Chinese decline talks on other areas after the Pangong Tso disengagement? The more important question Colonel Shukla has raised is about the logic behind disengagement at the Pangong Tso first and discussion on disengagement in the other areas being subject to the success of the disengagement in Eastern Ladakh! Was this demanded by India or by China?
In the words of Ajay Shukla, “the MoD statement was silent on why it had agreed to disengagement in the South Bank of the Pangong Tso, where Indian troops held dominating heights on the Kailash Range and, consequently, held a tactical advantage over the Chinese posts nearby. It has been argued that India should have held back on disengagement from the Kailash Range, using that as a trump card to force Chinese concessions in areas such as Depsang, where they hold the advantage.”
India must be wary of deceptive Chinese tactics. Particularly in the aftermath of Doklam, where India claimed victory without a fight, and the Chinese silently went on building infrastructure on its side. By doing so, it has effectively changed the status quo on the line of control between China and Bhutan in the Doklam area, which will have long term implications. This time, although the Pangong Tso disengagement is in place, that the government is not in a celebratory mode speaks volumes by itself. Instead of just issuing official statements, the government would do well by engaging all the stakeholders in India in a dialogue. Afterall, if the government can hold discussions with the Chinese side during times of crisis in bilateral relations, why shy away from talking to fellow Indians with sincerity and honesty?