Rinderpest is also more commonly known as the “foot and mouth” disease and in the past, it has swept through the subcontinent with catastrophic results. In the last ten-odd days since the tragic loss of 20 Indian soldiers in the icy region of the Galwan Valley to Chinese machinations, one can only watch in mind-numbing amazement as many of our countrymen, some of whom have once donned the uniform and served, have suddenly taken leave of their senses.
Add to this the mushrooming crop of self-styled defence experts and analysts. Just as the Pakistanis at Longewala in 1971 were intercepted, radioing for help as IAF Hawker Hunters decimated their tanks, “ek jata hai toh ek aata hai aur bees-bees minute ooper nachta hai” (as one goes, the other comes and dances around above us for 20 to 40 minutes) we watch equally helplessly as we evolve into a country of professional blabber mouths.
From a channel even describing the intake of a certain type of fighter aircraft that had landed at Leh and speculating on what sort of armament it could carry, another was showing satellite maps and pointing out where our tanks were harboured. The presenter was in so much of a breathless hurry to spill even more beans that he was actually running from screen to screen.
In matters relating to national security, the standard response across the globe is “we neither confirm or deny”, and the media by and large self regulates and does not give out any information that can compromise the safety of your own troops, or your own larger interests. However, for Indian journalists, schooled in the desperate need to get “breaking news” and blurting out whatever information they may have, the threat from the Chinese is today secondary to ratings.
This then has been having a cascading effect, getting worse day by day. Soldiers on the ground watch in amazement as their frontlines and assets are being discussed by didactic anchors sitting in far-away studios. Unfortunately, these “reports” fuel a piranha-like frenzy, and more and more teams armed with cameras descend on the area. Those who cannot somehow get to where the action is, then start putting out “human interest” stories, which more often than not, add to the confusion.
If only the same zeal of our reporters could be exported and applied to the Chinese or Pakistani side of the border. Then not only would we know which troops, battalions, companies of the PLA were deployed when and where, we would even soon know the dietary preferences of their previous commanding officers.
And since they are the aggressors here, we would have had their plans as soon as they were hatched—though it’s a different matter that we may have still not acted on it. In this cacophony of opinions, it doesn’t take long for the pressure to start building on the entire system. And pressure situations, especially in a democracy like ours, invariably lead to the abandonment of cold reasoning and logic. Statements once made, like the waters of the Galwan or any other river, cannot flow backwards.
Unlike Doklam, in all probability, Galwan is not necessarily the critical point of conflict and may well have been a feint for consolidation in the Pangong Tso or maybe even the Depsang Valley. For that matter, the incidents in Ladakh may all together be an even bigger smokescreen for yet something else. Unfortunately, the Chinese media has not as yet told us what President for Life Xi Jinping or his Communist buddies are thinking. Our intelligence agencies, most of them reporting directly to the highest office in this land, also obviously had no clue. That Military Intelligence had been defanged around 2012 is also one of the strange quirks that ails India, but therein lies another tale.
The Chinese have been intruding, pushing and probing for the last four years. That they are today in the Pangong Tso area, the Galwan River Valley and the Depsang Plains is not something new and these events in the past have been handled by the ITBP and sometimes by the Army.
What is interesting this time, apart from the numbers, is the selective playing up of the intrusions by a certain journalist, whose information, though accurate on the ground, seemed aimed at stirring up a hornets’ nest. Given the fact that this person had served in the Army and was extremely well connected through marriages, it has been presumed he got his information from “highly placed inside sources”. Smokescreens are wonderful things—ask any tank man and he’ll tell you how well it works. With all the sophisticated equipment at NTRO’s disposal, it would indeed be interesting to know who his real sources were.
‘SIACHEN HAND OUT’
It is not the fact that the intrusions were brought out that is bothering in this case—it is how and at what level it was done. The same person, this time around perhaps acting on behalf of himself or other puppeteers had ironically played a major role just eight years ago in what was then termed as the “Siachen Hand Out”. It is perhaps worth recounting briefly just what happened then.
The United States was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and at that time Pakistan needed sops to keep it honest. It was speculated that the highest office was offered a Nobel Peace Prize if indeed he could “disengage” the troops from the glacier and withdraw to the Shyok River. Talks between India and Pakistan had been going on for a while, but they were not making any headway.
The Indian side in the natural flow of discussions, saw the talks falter. The Army, on its part, was extremely vocal about any disengagement, but had there been a settlement, they would have had no choice. Commanding 14 Corps in 2005, Lieutenant General Milan Naidu, bluntly told the Prime Minister that if ordered to pull out so be it, but do not ask us ever again to recapture the area. General J.J. Singh, the COAS, had told the PM a withdrawal was “doable”. As DGMO he had even worked out a plan to “hold the heights”
After official talks had failed, as reported by M.D. Nalapat at the time, the PMO activated its Plan “B”. This involved a retired Indian one-star general (yes, the same one with the energetic son) who was sent to Ottawa in Canada to work with a Pakistani brigadier on a “workable” plan for the “disengagement”. The blue-print having been prepared, it was fairly obvious that even though there was a pliable chief, others down the chain of command were not going to be as amiable.
A carefully selected team was then put together under the umbrella of holding Track 2 discussions to build confidence building measures. The Indian side, consisting of 12 members, was headed by a former IAF chief, while the 12-member Pakistani delegation was led by their former army chief, General Mirza Beg, who after retirement was involved in all sorts of murky deals where millions of dollars from intelligence funds were involved.
The lowest ranking member in the Indian delegation was a well-connected-former-Army-cum-journalist. In 2012, when the PM finally decided that all the bases were covered and it was time to implement the “Siachen Sellout”, fortunately Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch, who had commanded the Siachen brigade, got wind of what was happening. However, the PMO, monitoring and shepherding the “deal” ensured no television channel or paper would expose what was going on. Katoch, by then joined by M.G. Devasahayam and me then briefed General V.K. Singh, who had just retired as the chief.
Time was fast running out and at that time we only had the broader picture. I had written the story based on what we had pieced together and fortunately at that time, Anil Tyagi, the enterprising editor of G-Files, decided to cock a snook at the PMO and run the article. The Hindi edition of Outlook then followed suit with a two-page write-up where I asked just one simple question—if we withdraw from Siachen, where will the new defensive line be? As expected there was no answer to that question.
At the time we had no idea that the journalist was the kingpin in the deal. Furious that the deal had been exposed and scuttled, he then wrote three e-mails in the space of two hours—first to Katoch, then Devasahayam and finally to me. Apart from the profanity and personal attacks (he also called me fat), in the first mail to Katoch, like a petulant child who hadn’t got what he wanted, he wrote saying “you are jealous because you didn’t get the goodies”, which others on the Track 2 team got. In 2013, in a formal complaint to the Press Council and the Ministry of Home Affairs, General V.K. Singh had filed a complaint for treason against not just this person, but also an editor of a daily who had made up and perpetuated the coup story. Needless to say nothing happened.
NO MORE LEAKS
With this background, let us return our attention to Ladakh while keeping an eye on the entire 3,500 km-long border extending up to Kibithu. The Chinese have declared their intent, and though we might engage them diplomatically or otherwise, we have to make sure there are no more leaks in INS India. Taunting the PM saying “at least Nehru fought in 1962” and trying to whip up fear hysteria, clearly show what the person’s agenda was as the Galwan talks were on. India is in for a long haul—the Chinese haven’t built up in Ladakh to have a picnic—and it is imperative that the commanders on the ground have the country’s full trust and support. Even in 1962 our men were rock solid, but they were ordered to withdraw, sometimes even from a position of strength. The bulk of our people were shot in the back by the PLA after the ceasefire—that is something we must never forget.
Government after government on our side of the Himalayas has been playing merry hell with our own security apparatus over the years. It wasn’t just Chacha Nehru who tampered with the structure and acted as if we didn’t need an Army. The similarities with what happened in the build-up to 1962 and many things that are happening now are all too obvious. With the dragon at the door, even now there is time to try and repair some of those horrendous cracks.
For a start, the government should pass a whip saying no one, especially retired service personnel, should comment on the China situation. Like in the case of the Kargil War, keep the public informed through official briefings for a lack of information can also be extremely counter-productive.
China has played its hand and the fireworks have only just begun. Given our centralized way of functioning, the fuse has to be in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s absolute control. He has to read the tea leaves carefully and take every decision far from the glare of publicity. Those advisors who have already failed him must go and more competent people brought in. Just remember, in War there is no place for the loser.