The Northern Boundary (History & Management)
The words “and hence to the north to the glaciers” are as confusing to a layman as the problems pertaining to the northern borders of the country. These bones of contention, sprawling across the borders of India, have over years brought new neighbours, new fronts, and new diplomatic ties in the conflict. The historical context and the issue of management have subsequently gained paramountcy and accompanied with it are the trajectories thought by successive governments on either side of the borders to alleviate or unwittingly aggravate the issues surrounding the northern boundary.
At the Savoy Post Office, the Moderator, Shiv Kunal Verma, a military historian and author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling books, The Long Road to Siachen and 1962: The War That Wasn’t, engages in an erudite conversation with two of the foremost experts on the subjects: Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi, Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag, and Mr. Maninder Kohli, a member of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, over the umpteen visible and invisible facets that revolve around the core issue of the Northern Boundary.
Analysing the historical context, it’s important to note that India never bordered with China prior to 1949. With the annexation of Tibet and the subsequent recognition of the People’s Republic of China, PRC began sharing immediate borders with India, ending up in umpteen unresolved border issues.
“Boundaries, like power flow through the barrel of a gun, and they are used to establish a country’s hegemony,” remarked Lt. General H.S. Panag in his opening statement. China, in his opinion, wants India to be a junior cooperative partner in its aspirations. Territories are never an end-issue for China; it’s the aim to establish hegemony that matters to China. This neighbour was, therefore apprehensive of (a) India’s alliance with the USA; (b) India’s road construction all the way from the bottle-neck to the LAC (c) India’s opposition to the Belt-Road Initiative of China. There have been immediate causes for skirmishes; it was, for instance; India’s road construction at areas near the Finger Four that led to the recent Galwan conflict.
According to Lt. General H.S. Panag, one of the cardinal mistakes on India’s part was the negligence towards troop-deployment while construction of roads. Lt. General H.S. Panag was quite straightforward in expressing unrealized realities. He categorically stated that our mountain warfare has been romanticized and blown out of proportion. We aren’t really ready for a full-fledged battle; there’s a significant technological difference between the two countries to the disadvantage of India. We are politically unfit. The best alternative, therefore, would be to hold on to what we have. If at all the matter escalates beyond control, we would have to go out for an all-out offensive from the areas wherein we have operational and strategic freedom. The Kailash range, for instance, threatens the Chinese the most. We should be ready to send Chinese to the extended buffer zones.
Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi calls the Doklam incident a major misadventure on the part of the Chinese. The session witnessed several myths in the public discourse getting busted. One of them was the fact that Doklam was never the Chinese objective; it was the Jhamperi ridge, instead. He also pointed out the absence of a national security strategy and border management failures, on India’s part. International borders, as a matter of fact, are guarded by doctrines like absolute sovereignty, absolute integrity, limited territorial integrity, and commonality of international resources and correlative rights. “The problems emerge when you have a rogue nation bordering you that doesn’t bear out to aforesaid doctrines”, says Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi.
India’s border with China has been volatile and contested. The Kargil Review Committee had made a recommendation of one border-one force for all contested borders of India. Lt. Gen. Pravin Bakshi drew our attention to how conveniently this had been ignored. We have, amidst others ITBP for the borders with China, B.S.F. for the borders with Pakistan, and Assam Rifles in areas bordering Myanmar. Three ministries, namely the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Defence have their own say and regulations over the different armed forces organizations. One of the most important takeaways from the session was, as Lt. Gen, Bakshi opined, “Indian Armed Forces are not for border management; it’s for border guarding.”
While the ambit of the Savoy Post-office seemed to be heated up with intense military strategy deliberations, Mr. Maninder Kohli came up with a distinctive yet pragmatic solution to de-intensify the border issues. This was, through the promotion of adventure sports like mountaineering. “In India,” according to Mr. Kohli, “we have immense opportunities that need to be realized to their fullest potential. Indians are keen to explore. Creating the right infrastructure for the promotion of mountaineering sports in these expanses of rugged highlands would not just help in the promotion of adventure sports, but also boost-up employment and India’s claim to those areas.” Mr. Shiv Kunal Verma seemed to agree with the plan and responded saying that Indians needed to ‘discern the whale of secrecy’.
There were also issues and questions on how the disputes in the North-Eastern region should be dealt with. Improvement of communication remains of the prime concern even today. Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi opined that the tunnelling of the Brahmaputra river would be a game-changer for North-East India. “The North-East is crying for it and we need this with immediate effects, without bureaucratic delays. The idea is already present with the concerned authorities.” said Lt. Gen. Bakshi. Adding on to it, Mr. Verma put forth the idea of creating a hovercraft troop in the Indian Armed Forces to monitor closely the inland waterways. It was also suggested to increase the troop-deployment and strengthen regions in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh as an efficacious step towards pre-preparedness.
The insightful discussion was followed by an equally intriguing question-answer round, wherein the viewers had pitched in their questions through the well-developed chat interface on the VoW portal. Most of the questions in some way pertained to figuring out and analysing the way forward. As unanimously agreed upon, it would, henceforth, be difficult to pre-empt Chinese offensive actions (unlike we did in the recent events). The solution, therefore, lies in strengthening the national security strategy, border management, effective diplomatic ties, and advancement through technology.
The closing remarks from the moderator, Mr. Verma were quite consequential. He quoted from one of his books, “In 1962, we did not lose to China. We lost to ourselves.” The gravity of managing the issue at the earliest can be figured out in his last statement of the session, where he hoped that twenty-or thirty years down the lane some other military historian may not have to write something similar-“lost to ourselves”; while talking about the wars of 2020-21.