The paradoxical account of the enduring face-off between the Indian and Chinese armies along the disputed line of actual control (LAC) in Ladakh and the subsequent death of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley provided recently by Prime Minister Narendra Modi evokes three parallels.
The first is appositely analogous to the April 1999 Times of India headline – ‘Nobody killed Jessica (Lal)’- that later became the title of a Bollywood biopic on the shooting dead of the 34-year old model of that name at a party in a trendy South Delhi nightspot.
Dozens witnessed Jessica’s shooting at point blank range by one of the guests, enraged at being refused a drink by her. But thereafter it incredulously emerged that nobody had actually killed her, despite dozens of guests at the gathering having identified Manu Sharma, the son of a prominent Congress Party MP, as the shooter.
The sessions court acquitted Sharma, prompting the beguiling newspaper headline; but to complete the tale, he was later indicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, only to be released in early June this year.
Twenty one years later, 19 Indian army soldiers and their commanding officer Colonel Santosh Babu were killed on June 15 in a barbaric scuffle with Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) personnel armed with bayonets, clubs wrapped with barbed wire and rocks in the Galwan Valley. Hundreds of soldiers on either side witnessed the fracas.
But in his June 19 all-party meeting, Prime Minister Modi elaborately obfuscated the circumstances surrounding these deaths in riddles and semantics. He wrapped the ingress of the LAC by the PLA in early May in the fog of war, despite satellite imagery and ground reports from multiple sources giving a clear picture.
The PM’s perplexing account, which contradicted the Ministry of External Affairs’ statement a day earlier accusing the PLA of transgressing the LAC, necessitated a clarification a day later which only further muddied the narrative.
Besides, the account of the circumstances leading to the capture of 10 Indian army personnel, including four officers by the PLA after the same scuffle and their subsequent return 72 hours later, was equally ambiguous and contradictory.
It appeared from these collective declarations, PM downwards, that the militarily critical situation along the LAC was, at best mystifying to the ruling establishment – and one to which it had neither a credible riposte nor leverage to restore the status quo ante that had prevailed along the disputed frontier in early April.
A more generous explanation for Modi’s account can be the tale from the Mahabharata of Yudhishthira and his half-lie concerning Ashwathama, the son of his guru and adversary Dronacharya.
When asked publicly by Drona whether Ashwathama had died fighting on the battlefield, Yudhishthira replied in the affirmative. He deliberately omitted to add – as it did not suit him at that point to be clear on this point – that he was actually referring to an elephant of the same name who had been killed by his brother Bhima on the battleground.
Modi and his government’s explanation of events in the Galwan Valley and the subsequent taking of Indian army soldiers by the Chinese uncannily resembles Yudhishthira’s half-lie, a term which the dictionary defines as ‘something that a person says that they know to be partly true’. At the all-party meeting Modi declared, Yudhishthira-like, that there was no one inside Indian territory nor was any Indian post captured.
This elicited an outburst from Opposition leaders, retired military officers and commentators, all of whom disbelievingly wondered that if this indeed was the case, what then was the military impasse with the Chinese at the LAC all about. The PMO then hastily ‘clarified’ that Modi was referring to the present and, by inference, not to what had occurred earlier.
Ineptly, a similar yardstick was employed regarding the fate of the 10 Indian soldiers captured by the PLA. After they had been handed over by the PLA, New Delhi declared that no Indian army personnel were missing at that point in time. Technically that was accurate. What these senior officials omitted to mention – by resorting to a half-lie – was that these soldiers had actually just returned from Chinese captivity.
The third and crowning paranormal analogy, that can be equated with Delhi’s version of the PLA’s activities along the LAC is the celebrated Indian rope trick.
The simplest of these tricks has a long piece of rope in a basket placed in an open field by the fakir magician. At his command the rope levitates, with no apparent external support and once erect his jamoora or sidekick climbs up and descends to applause. The second and marginally more elaborate version has both the magician and his associate disappearing after reaching the top of the rope, and then reappearing at ground level.
But the third is the most memorable and one with uncanny similarities to what occurred in the Galwan Valley brawl. In this rendering, the jamoora climbs the rope and is lost to view. His master summons him, but on receiving no response he grabs a sword and climbs the rope and vanishes as well. An argument is heard, after which human limbs begin to fall, cut presumably from the assistant’s body by the magician’s scimitar. When the entire body, including the torso and head land on the ground, the sweating magician climbs down the rope, his sword dripping blood.
He then collects the severed limbs and puts them in a basket. Within minutes, the jamoora appears from underneath, smiling and unharmed, mesmerising the audience that has been lulled into suspending its disbelief.
From the reaction of many opposition leaders, it seems that all these denials, half-truths and illusions peddled by the government have succeeded. Obviously they are highly susceptible to fantasy, not realising that the magicians obfuscation in this instance is simply hazardous.