FOR A DEVOTEE of Lord Shiva like me, bhaang or Cannabis indica is a great facilitator of expanding consciousness and insight. However, for members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), opium has traditionally been the facilitator of insight. From the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, China was hot on Indian opium from Bengal and Malwa. The problem arose when Chairman Mao stopped opium imports and China became self-reliant in it during the 1950s. That was when the paradigm of double vision took shape in the perceptions of the CPC about the Sino-Indian border. There was a problem with China’s homegrown opium as it was deluding its users of their reality. They insisted that not one but two separate and distinct lines defined the ground position between the two armies of India and China.
After using Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s support in launching his 1962 invasion of India, Chairman Mao became quite cocky. Although he backed Pakistan President Ayub Khan’s attack on India in August 1965, he wanted more. The bully in Mao issued India with an ‘ultimatum’ on September 16th, 1965 to vacate the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim. However, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 17 Mountain Division, Major General (later, Lt General) Sagat Singh refused to do so and stood his ground. Consequently, Mao shifted his focus to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh. On September 19th, 1965, the PLA crossed the then unformulated Line of Actual Control (LAC) into Ladakh and kidnapped and killed three Indian armed personnel in the vicinity of Tasaskur. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) issued another ‘ultimatum’ demanding that India dismantle two outposts on some territory claimed by Beijing within three days, by September 22nd, 1965. However, to Mao’s chagrin, Pakistan capitulated and accepted a UN call for ceasefire before China’s ultimatum had expired.
Mao had not forgotten this humiliation in September 1965. By August and September 1967, there were a lot of PLA encroachments at Nathu La, but Major General Sagat Singh refused to be browbeaten into making a withdrawal. Singh had decided to demarcate the LAC, albeit without a change of its status, since the Chinese had already carried out an intrusion and constructed a structure at the North Shoulder (north of Nathu La), on August 17th, 1967. It was becoming clear that further escalation may occur and thus, notwithstanding Delhi’s tepid responses, Singh had briefed his superior commanders, the Corps Commander, Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora, and the eastern army commander, Lt General Sam Manekshaw, about his plans.
On September 10th, 1967, Sagat Singh briefed Lt Colonel Rai Singh and ordered him to construct the military (Cat Wire) fence. On September 11th, in the early morning, the PLA political commissar at the Chinese post at Nathu La led a section of his infantry down to prevent Indian troops from starting work on their fence. An argument started which soon built into a scuffle. Just minutes after the commissar disengaged himself from the scuffle and led his troops back to their bunker, the Chinese posts opened coordinated machine gun fire on the Indian troops. In this standoff, there were nearly 200 Indian casualties. The Indians retaliated, attacking Chinese positions and there were twice the number of Chinese casualties as well. Sagat Singh took the initiative and ordered artillery fire directly into the Chumbi Valley and the road axis. The artillery and medium-to-small arms duel continued for five days, after which the Nathu La fight effectively came to an end.
Sumdorong Chu is a rivulet flowing north-south in the Thag La triangle, bounded by Bhutan in the east and the famous Thag La ridge of the 1962 war, to the north. On June 26th, 1986, New Delhi lodged a formal protest with Beijing against intrusions in this region by Chinese troops that had occurred starting from June 16th, 1986. Beijing, of course, denied any such intrusions.
The then Army Chief, General Krishnaswamy Sundarji took a leaf out of Lt General Sagat Singh’s playbook. Between the days of October 18th to 20th, an entire Indian Army brigade of the 5th Mountain Division was airlifted in new heavy-lift MI-12 helicopters to Zemithang, a helipad very close to the Sumdorong Chu valley. Referred to as Operation Falcon, this involved the occupation of ridges overlooking the Sumdorong Chu valley, including Langrola and the Hathung La ridge across the Namka Chu rivulet, but south of Thag La.
Then Chinese supremo Deng Xiaoping issued New Delhi with a warning. This threat was communicated by the US Defense Secretary during a stopover in Delhi from Beijing. The rise in tensions was aggravated; Arunachal Pradesh was made a full state of the Indian Union in December 1986. Rajiv Gandhi replied with a resounding slap on Deng’s face. There was a chorus of protests from the PRC and the Indian Government’s reaction was that any change in Arunachal Pradesh’s administrative status was an internal matter. Troop reinforcements on the Indian side, which had begun with Operation Falcon in late-1986, continued through early 1987 under a massive air-land exercise called Chequerboard. Strangely, Naga rebels supported by Beijing suddenly stepped up the heat and staged three ambushes killing 11 Army soldiers at the same time when Sumdorong Chu was making the headlines.
The latest crisis in Pangong Tso and the Galwan Valley in Ladakh and at Naka La in Sikkim is unique because of the geographical spread. The Chinese were clearly sending a message. Despite Modi and Xi’s post-Doklam summit meetings in Wuhan in 2018 and Mamallapuram in 2019, it appears that China not only wishes India to acquiesce in vacating more territory in Ladakh but it also wants India to sit down with both China and Pakistan in a trilateral setting and resolve the issue of Jammu and Kashmir to their advantage and satisfaction
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The spring and summer of 1987 saw media reports of heavy troop movements on both sides of the Sino-Indian border. A peeved Deng, clearly rattled about being ignored, sent another ultimatum in March 1987 via the US Secretary of State. By that time, Indian and Chinese troops were placed eyeball to eyeball in the Sumdorong Chu valley. By early April, China had no choice but to move eight PLA divisions to eastern Tibet as a prelude to possible belligerent action. Rising tensions were lowered after a visit to China by then Indian External Affairs Minister ND Tiwari, on his way back home from Pyongyang in May 1987, where both sides reaffirmed their desire to continue talks on the border issue and to cool things down on the border. In August 1987, Indian and Chinese troops moved their respective posts slightly apart in the Sumdorong Chu valley, after a meeting of the field commanders.
In 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi visited China, Deng Xiaoping wanted to retain the initiative at the border and a Joint Working Group was formed. This led to the formalisation of the concept of the LAC in Ladakh, which came into being in September 1993 when PV Narasimha Rao and Li Peng signed the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA). Thereafter, this folly of 1993 was successively repeated and a continuous stream of deeply flawed agreements was signed in November 1996, April 2005 and October 2013. All of these agreements were a strategic illusion. This should have become abundantly clear when in 2003 the then Indian Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal, and Wang Yi, the head of the Chinese delegation, met in New Delhi to exchange maps. The story goes that Wang opened the Indian map, took a long and detailed look at it, folded it and returned it to Sibal. That was it and the meeting ended there and then. By ignoring and belittling the Indian map, Wang freed China from being bound to it and, by extension, also freed China from India’s perception of the LAC. The PLA does not need to limit or temper its freedom of military action in Ladakh.
Even then, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee never got the message when he signed a deal with China in 2003 recognising China’s sovereignty over Tibet. Nor did his successor Manmohan Singh articulate his reservations when he signed yet another flawed deal with Beijing in 2013. Narendra Modi, who succeeded Manmohan Singh, first got a taste of the Chinese medicine when in September 2014 he was perched on a swing with Xi Jinping on the banks of the Sabarmati river. News came in that substantial numbers of PLA troops had intruded into the Chumar area in Ladakh. This was perhaps the lowest form of crude disrespect that Xi could hand Modi at the start of their relationship. Hard bargaining resulted in the PLA withdrawing from their intrusions a few days later. To his credit, Modi paid a return visit to China in 2015 and floated a proposal to clarify the LAC. This was, however, rejected by the Chinese.
And then came about the 70-day Doklam crisis in 2017, when the Indian and Chinese armies faced-off in Bhutan. China may have backed down, because local PLA units were caught off-guard by India’s rapid response ordered by the then Indian Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, who religiously upheld the traditions left by Lt General Sagat Singh in 1965 and 1967 and by General Sundarji in 1987.
The latest crisis in Pangong Tso and the Galwan Valley in Ladakh and at Naka La in Sikkim is unique because of the geographical spread. The Chinese are clearly sending a message. Despite Modi and Xi’s post-Doklam summit meetings in Wuhan in 2018 and Mamallapuram in 2019, it appears that China not only wishes India to acquiesce in vacating more territory in Ladakh but it also wants India to sit down with both China and Pakistan in a trilateral setting and resolve the issue of Jammu and Kashmir to their advantage and satisfaction. Modi’s riposte to this Sino-Indian face-off of the summer of 2020 was to sign a landmark defence deal with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on June 4th, 2020, just two days before Sino-Indian border talks were to take place on June 6th, 2020 at the level of lieutenant generals. The talks were inconclusive.
Perhaps China’s homegrown opium is the reason for this sustained duality of their perceptions? It is time for the Indian Government to go back to its historical records and precedents and consider permitting the cultivation and export of Indian opium to China. Boris Johnson would make a good landing agent for such Indian cargos in Hong Kong!