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In Ladakh India’s problem is bigger than China

  • Mosharraf Zaidi
  • July, 2020
  • 151
  • Sino-India Clash

In Ladakh, India’s political and military leaders may decide that it is better to swallow the bitter pill of humiliation than to escalate matters with the 2020 version of Xi’s China.

But these leaders do not make decisions based on intelligence reports, or wisdom and the principle of living to fight another day. They make decisions based on how it will play in the peanut gallery of India’s oft-cartoonish mainstream news networks. This should worry regional and global actors with stakes in India

For India, the trouble in Ladakh is much more serious and profound than what meets the eye. The reported bludgeoning to death of at least 20 Indian soldiers in a conflict with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army of China is of course, as serious a disruption in China-India relations as one can remember. The wider South Asia region, and the world community at large needs to do everything they can to urge restraint and calm between these two Asian giants.

But the problem in Ladakh for India is much more profound than simply being overwhelmed by the onslaught of Chinese muscle in the Himalayas. As Indian mourns its fallen soldiers, it also exposes the slow but unmistakable undoing of two decades of the meticulously managed arc of India’s strategic trajectory, in the region and around the world.

The last time India suffered an embarrassment of the kind that it has experienced in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley in the past week was over twenty years ago in the mountains of Kargil, at the hands of the Pakistan Army. The Kargil conflict that ended in the summer of 1999 was the last major conflict Indian soldiers faced in the Himalayas. That conflict eventually consumed Pakistan’s political system, leading to the overthrow of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup, but it also left all of India in a daze: How could this happen to India? How could India be so lacking in preparation?

Those exact same questions echo through the hallowed halls of India’s South Block, where its foreign policy, national security personnel and political leadership converge to protect and enhance India’s place in the world. As the flag draped coffins of India’s soldiers killed in Ladakh began to stream through the television news channels, it was those same questions about the standoff against China once again: How could this happen to India? How could India be so lacking in preparation?

When India’s political leadership sought to answer these questions after the Kargil conflict in 1999, it reached out to a man known as K Subramanyam.

Subramanyam died in 2011, but is widely seen by India’s friend and foe, as the architect of the strategic arc that India has followed since the turn of the century. Among Indian strategists, he is considered a hero. For good reason, Indian’s strategic trajectory has been on a constant upward curve since 1999. This curve has a number of moving parts, from India’s new intimacy with the United States, to its economic muscle, to its success in burying its brutal actions in Kashmir beneath an avalanche of cultural and economic power. But at the core of this curve is something much more prosaic and uncomplicated: it is the long-standing Nehruvian principle of a strong and capable Indian republic.

The Kargil conflict came as a major surprise to India, and was widely seen as a major intelligence failure. The Kargil Review Committee that Subramanyam chaired recommended a wide array of measures that would strengthen India’s ability to anticipate, respond to, and counter the hostile actions of its enemies. Many of those recommendations were immediately implemented, and some were aligned with a broader shift in how India’s government was structured that had begun in the early 1990s and picked up pace by the turn of the century. One of the outcomes of the Kargil Review Committee was a more coherent means of collating military and civilian intelligence.

The Committee recommended the establishment of a range of organizations and institutions whose overarching singular aim was to maximize and streamline the availability of high quality information for India’s decision-makers. Among the only major recommendation of the Committee that was not implemented in the years following Kargil was the creation of an office of Chief of Defence Staff, who would be the single point of contact for the Indian prime minister on defence matters. The Indians call the principle behind the need for this office, jointmanship.

In the years that followed Kargil, India has grown both economically and in stature as a regional and global power. While the country faced many national security crises over the two decades since Kargil, none was deemed to be so blatant and explicit a military embarrassment for India as the Ladakh standoff with China has turned out to be...

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