Going After Richa Chadha Won't Alter What Happened in Galwan, or Why

Just how did the Chinese manage to amass 50,000 troops in Tibet close to the Line of Actual Control in March-April 2020 and occupy areas that were supposed to be routinely patrolled by the army?

The world and their uncle came down on actress Richa Chadha when she reminded the Indian Army about Galwan.

Chadha was reacting to a statement by the Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant General Upendra Dwivedi, that the Indian Army was ready to take back Pakistan-occupied Kashmir from Pakistan. Referring to an October statement from Union defence minister Rajnath Singh on reclaiming the territory, the general said that the army would be ready to act whenever  the government ordered them to do so.

An honest interpretation of Chadha’s tweet is that she was reminding the army that the real world was different from the flights of fancy. To imply that she disrespected those who died in Galwan is patent dishonesty. Perhaps “Galwan says Hi!” may not have caught the inherent sarcasm of her  tweet; a simple “Remember Galwan?” would have been sufficient.

Anyone who has studied the history of the campaigns in the western sector in 1947, 1965, 1971 and the Kargil mini-war ought to know that Rajnath Singh’s fulminations should be taken with a tonne of salt. Pakistan may be in the midst of a political crisis today, but the notion that the Indian Army can liberate PoK quick time is far-fetched. They would have to confront well-entrenched troops in defences prepared over decades. There is nothing in the Indian Army’s equipment, doctrine and organisation today that suggests that things could be different now. But then, such considerations do not constrain politicians or social media warriors, though a defence minister ought to have a better understanding of issues.

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Gilgit-Baltistan is an old story. What should be of greater concern is the ongoing tussle between India and China in eastern Ladakh. There are many questions that remain unanswered when we speak of Galwan, Pangong Tso, Depsang, Charding Nala (Demchok) and the Kugrang river valley (Gogra-Hotsprings), where the Chinese suddenly established blockades in 2020. The government, the army and the intelligence services have provided little by way of information. Just how did the Chinese manage to amass 50,000 troops in Tibet close to the Line of Actual Control in March-April 2020 and occupy areas that were supposed to be routinely patrolled by the army?

What happened in Galwan and those who died there was a consequence of this lapse and can hardly be attributed to Chadha. Surely Indian military satellites and technical reconnaissance should have picked up the Chinese amassing of forces in the Galwan river valley and elsewhere. Even commercial imagery was revealing that the Chinese were camped on the Indian side of the LAC on the river. More important, they had been telegraphing their intentions by raising the issue of Indian road construction in this valley earlier.

On May 18, 2020, a month before the clash, the Global Times had complained about India violating the “boundary line in the Galwan Valley”. Indeed, the report said that the Chinese had “bolstered border control measures” in the region and boasted about China’s “military advantage in the Galwan Valley region”. Yet, we were caught unprepared.

The government has acknowledged that India lost 20 dead and scores injured in the clash. Lesser known is the fact that the Chinese also took more than 100 officers and soldiers prisoner. In other words, the Galwan clash went worse for us than has been acknowledged. The army has yet to comment on some pictures on the internet showing Indian jawans in Chinese custody, but they have not denied them either.

India has never acknowledged any of our soldiers were in Chinese custody. But on June 17, two days after the incident, the New York Times cited two Indian military officials to say that “a number of Indian soldiers had been captured” . There was no comment from the government. But 24 hours later after their release, the army spokesman blandly stated that no Indian soldiers were “missing in action”. This is part of the prevarication and obfuscation relating to eastern Ladakh, where points of Chinese blockades are conveniently termed “friction points”.

The Indian and Chinese forces have disengaged in the Pangong, Kugrang and Galwan “friction points”. But there is little known about the biggest blockade of them all which has denied India the right to patrol the 950 sq km Depsang Bulge, in the northernmost reaches of the border. Here the Chinese came in 18 km into the Indian side of the LAC to establish the blockade. Yet the government has studiously avoided referring to the region.

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In his statement to parliament in September 2020 providing the first authoritative version of the events in Ladakh, Union defence minister Rajnath Singh omitted any reference to Depsang or the Charding Nala area near Demchok.

Lt Gen Y.K. Joshi, Gen Dwivedi’s predecessor as Northern Army commander, claimed that the Depsang problem was different from the other blockades. It was, he claimed, “a legacy issue” alluding to the earlier blockade the Chinese had established in 2013, but later vacated.

Fortunately, another senior army officer took up the issue with him. In an article, Lt Gen (retd) Rakesh Sharma, who had commanded the Leh Corps asserted that the army had been sending a minimum of eight to ten patrols per year from 2013-2019  and another news report confirmed that India had patrolled the region in January-February 2020.

Given all this, to make Richa Chadha the villain of the piece is a bit much. But with tweets from Akshay Kumar and BJP spokespersons weighing in, we know where the attacks were coming from. For them, papering over the serious setbacks we suffered in 2020 in eastern Ladakh seems to be the preferable option.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.