“You can never take your eyes off the Chinese," an army officer once told me.
We had been discussing how India lost one war (with the Chinese) and won three others (Kargil had not yet happened at the time). He had been posted in Kashmir as well as Gangtok over different times and he regaled me with stories about how it was easy to divert the attention of the Pakistani soldiers but never that of the Chinese. Indian soldiers routinely tempt those on the Pakistani side of the border with various things including material goods and often compromise their interests, he said. But you can never stare the Chinese down. They will not blink an eyelash, they will not reply to a raised greeting across the line of control, if you are close enough to offer them a smile, not even as much as a muscle or tick will move on their faces in return, he said.
“They are absolutely focussed on their mission. A Pakistani soldier might bend to subjects of shared religion , lost families on the other side of the border or even tempted by visions of a better life across the border. But the Chinese have no such feelings, no temptations, no quirks you can exploit. And their commitment is supreme.”
So we can never win a war with China, he said. But there were other reasons too – the Chinese recruit every last person in border villages into their army to act as their eyes and ears . They may not be posted in any cantonment and are actually allowed to continue to work in their fields or other professions. But any untoward movement over the enemy lines have to be promptlyreported back to the commanders. Any stranger in your village is an enemy to be caught and interrogated
“Whereas here you have someone from Tamil Nadu or elsewhere posted on the border. He does not understand the language, is not familiar with the terrain, has no idea about our limits. He won’t even know if the stranger in our midst is a local or an intruder. So if we take our eyes off the Chinese, they can take our land inch by inch or by moving just one foot a day over time and our army guys will not even be the wiser. You invade their territory and you are a dead duck.”
I think that is exactly what has happened in Galwan in Ladakh. They invaded our tertitory inch by inch and not only did we not wisen up in time, we have actually ceded to them without a fight.
Ah, a fight! You can forget about a surgical strike across Chinese borders or taking two of their soldiers for one of our own. For quite apart from the Chinese army's superiority to the Pakistani army, our government neither has the guts nor the political will to do so - unlike, I might add, one Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who tried even if we lost. But at least our soldiers died the death of warriors and not one of common goons being bludgeoned to death with rods by who, I am sure, were those villagers trained to be alert to any invasion by the enemy.
I am not qualified to speak in expert terms about our military operations but having grown up among army personnel, I can say that our political establishment has compromised our armed forces as never before, not even by VK Krishna Menon whose arrogance and penchant for superiority over army commanders lost us the war in 1962. And now my distrust of the Chinese and thought of what exactly they are holding over the Modi government is complete.
Actually, I have always been mistrustful of the Chinese. Put it down to growing up in the 1960s with the wounds still fresh from the China war. Even before Corona virus and the incursion in Ladakh, I could never interact with any Chinese without suspicion or any degree of comfort. Even though my father's library had Lin Yutangs and my mother had stacks of exquisite Chinese embroidery books from before the 1962 war, I grew up among army families who lost so much during that and the subsequent wars with Pakistan that their pain and trauma somehow went deep down to my own roots. So I never lost my hostility to both China and Pakistan even after India restored diplomatic ties with both countries and much interaction began with both nations.
But while hostility to Pakistan was easy to overcome, suspicion of China was not. I once got into an argument with a Chinese diplomat when he mocked our secularism and actually told him off about his inability to understand our sarva dharma sambhav. “If you had, you would never have violated the panchasheel way back in the 1960s,” I snapped at him that got him all riled up. But both of us thankfully let the issue go at that point.
So many years later, I never downloaded payment apps that had Chinese stakes though it has been rather difficult to escape Chinese invasion of much of our economy. Although, I never agreed with Narendra Modi, I was not unsympathetic to his “laal aankhen" comment vis-a-vis China during the UPA regime.
But now I am deeply disappointed in how the man has taken his eyes off China nd I am faced with a sense of betrayal at how the current dispensation has handed Ladakh over to them on a platter. But the bigger betrayal, hailing from a background where loads of family and friends were in the armed forces, was how we have allowed the Chinese to bludgeon our brave soldiers to death without a single bullet in retaliation.
It is also a betrayal that we should avow that the Chinese have not conquered any bit of our territory when their expansionist intentions have been clear for decades, notjust in Ladakh but also in Arunachal Pradesh. And we have betrayed the memory of those soldiers killed by the Chinese as well as failed those captured and then released by them without India so much as showing them a red eye in return.
As a child listening to army officers’ talks in their messes and clubs, there was much criticism of how Pandit Nehru and VK Menon had handled the Indo-China war. But at the risk of overemphasising the point, at least they fought, and fiercely at that, for what they perceived as Indian territory even if the Chinese laid claim to it on various grounds.
Now giving up even the diplomatic offensive - we could easily have had world opinion on our side by acknowledging the invasion – we may have stalled a war but we have sold our souls, our soldiers and our people down the drain. The Chinese clearly have proved they, after all, have more S. T. R. E. A. N. H!
(The columnist is a veteran journalist and author based in Mumbai. Views expressed are her own.)