Sumdorung Chu revisited

War games with China


The last couple of months have witnessed high decibel media and public outcries over the Chinese intrusions across the LAC (Line of Actual Control) and McMahon Line into Indian territory. There have been diplomatic protests about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese outburst about our PM’s visit to this border state spices up India-China relations.

The latest twist in this drama being orchestrated by Beijing is the identical stand taken by India and China at an international forum on global warming. This does not mean that we should make the mistake of believing that all is well. The verbal acrimony both in the Chinese media and diplomatic channels is the outcome of the long outstanding border and territorial disputes between the two sides. The Chinese strategy has always been to use this methodology to pressurise India and try to keep us in a state of strategic imbalance.

The Indian response by both the prime minister and the external affairs minister has been firm and mature. This posture has evolved thanks to relatively greater military preparedness to cope with such contingencies on the ground. For instance, the army and the air force continued with their planned exercises in Arunachal Pradesh.

All this is in stark contrast to New Delhi’s reaction to the Chinese intrusion into the area of Sumdorung Chu valley in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh in June 1986 and the events that followed during the next two years. At that point in time, India and China appeared to be on a collision course; but their bilateral relations settled down by mid-1989 after the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China and the eighth round of talks took place between the two sides. By then ground realities had changed.

In this backdrop it would be in order to re-visit to Sumdorung Chu incident as it, in my opinion, was the turning point in our military and political psyche towards China.
There appeared to be some minor doubt over the alignment of the McMahon Line in a couple of areas and the China Study Group (CSG), was formed in New Delhi to provide inputs to Indian delegations before talks with the Chinese. The CSG had laid down small kinks south of the McMahon Line beyond which no army or para-military forces could patrol and Sumdorung Chu was in one such area.

On June 23, 1986, the Intelligence Bureau reported to the local army commander that a large number of Chinese troops had intruded into Sumdorung Chu. It appeared to be an abnormal pattern of intrusion. The intruders had brought five or six tents and appeared to be digging in. The Chinese troops were in a tactically unsound area but could move up.

Timely action

The local army commander occupied the Langrola heights overlooking the Chinese post. This was followed by starting the construction of a mule/vehicle track for logistics. The Chinese had a motorable track up to Leh which was close by. To give security to forward troops an artillery battery was deployed 3- 4 km short of the McMahon Line. All these actions were reported to New Delhi through army channels.
The army on its part undertook operational preparations to ensure the security and integrity of the international border or the McMahon Line. These events seem to have sent alarm bells ringing at New Delhi, more so at the CSG. The local army commander was asked to withdraw his troops from the forward posture, preferably in full view of the Chinese troops!

However, the local commander resisted any such move which would not only affect psychologically the army, but also the people of Tawang who had seen the army debacle in 1962. The Rimpoche at the Tawang monastery expressed his concern and support for the army’s actions. Meanwhile, the Research & Analysis Wing indicated the additional induction of Chinese troops into Tibet. This time Indian Army was not coming second best.

Accordingly, the military mandarins in New Delhi launched a series of operational discussions, war games and so on to mentally and physically prepare the troops on the ground to tackle any escalation. The tension passed and thereafter, for the last two decades, the tenor of the Chinese side seemed to have mellowed down till it decided to ratchet up its activities again again over the last couple of years over Arunachal Pradesh.

Lately, the Chinese military commanders must have observed the construction of the defence works, helipads and roads and would have concluded that this time there may not be any possibility of ‘low cost’ options. India now has the psychological advantage over its adversary.

While Indian military strategy should be reactive, it should not aim to start a war or a skirmish but prevent one and keep our powder dry. Meanwhile, we should expedite infrastructure development to support military operations along the India-China border. It always helps to make your adversary clearly know your strengths.

(The writer was the corps commander at Tezpur in 1986-88, and was responsible for the security of Arunachal Pradesh)

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