Among the Indian Army’s operational commands, the Northern Command is perhaps strategically the most important one. It oversees the LAC between India and China, among other things. HS Panag, a former commander of both Northern and Central commands and author of the recently released book The Indian Army: Reminiscences, Reforms & Romance, speaks to Ajay Sura:
How would you assess China’s approach to India?
The whole issue is about comprehensive national power, military capabilities and economic factors. China’s defence budget is three times and GDP six times more than India. China has controlled its population and uplifted its standard of living. Because of these phenomenal and amazing achievements, China is far superior to India and has been asserting its hegemony over India. China genuinely believes these areas as their territory, like we believe Aksai Chin belongs to us. However, India is the only country in the region that does not accept the political, economic and military hegemony of China. India directly threatens two Chinese vulnerabilities, Tibet and the strategic sea lanes of communications through the Indian Ocean.
How would you compare Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach with that of his predecessors’ strategic restraint?
I don’t think we followed strategic restraint with China even in the past. We have been very aggressive at the LAC in the past. We went up to Tawang in 1950; we planted our flag in Aksai Chin. Former PM Jawaharlal Nehru became aggressive without having the military capability.
However, for a long time peace and tranquillity prevailed and nothing had happened at LAC because China was not far ahead of India in terms of the economy, and India was quite capable.
Development of infrastructure by India at the LAC is the main reason behind such confrontations. Doklam was the first serious confrontation. India’s strategic partnership with the US and its expanding diplomatic/ military relationships with Japan, Australia and Vietnam are also perceived as a direct threat.
Do you think the Indian army should now rethink its strategy on deployment of forces along the China border?
In Ladakh, we were not defending the LAC because there is only the ITBP, not the army. If we cannot demarcate the LAC, we will have to defend the areas and the need of the hour is to have one more division of the army to defend that area.
What’s your take on the loss of 20 soldiers in unarmed combat?
There is no such 1993 agreement which says that nobody can use arms, but there is mention of maintaining “maximum restraint”. ITBP had started going without weapons at the LAC. There is an overriding norm that if the lives of soldiers are threatened or territory is threatened, the commander can use the weapons at his disposal. Indian army is defending the borders not policing the borders and there was no reason to follow this norm. As far as the current incident is concerned, we underplayed and misread the situation presuming the Chinese will go away after some time. The exact reasons behind the current casualties will come after an inquiry by the army in due course.
What’s the state of military reforms?
I don’t think any major reform has taken place in the army recently and fundamentally we are still the same and not suited for modern warfare. Last military reforms were planned in the late 70s, which were largely executed in the 80s. The army today is still based on those reforms.
War in the future would be based on high technology and be of short duration. A strategic review is needed and should be done by the government, not army, as the national security strategy and defence planning is government’s responsibility. This requires money, which comes from the government but our defence budget was perhaps the lowest in the last 58 years.
How serious is the issue of politicisation of armed forces?
Armed forces are always popular among the public. They are admired and backed by phenomenal public support. I think all political parties tend to exploit this image of the army for their own purposes. However, during the Modi government and to some extent during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime the concept of nationalism, which is opposed to patriotism, was used more for political purposes though the army is an organ of the state. Post-2014 the army was glorified and was involved in all kinds of activities and, to some extent, the sacrifice of soldiers was exploited for electoral purposes. As the selection for higher ranks is done by the government, such things may lead to a tendency among military hierarchy to bend with the government.
Is patriotism or nationalism the primary motivation for soldiers in battle?
Soldiers adhere to the Constitution, irrespective of which party is in power. Patriotism is an integral part of the military training curriculum, omnipresent in our insignia, salutations and ceremonial functions. This practice must continue.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.