The Government of India has a near perfect ground game in terms of messaging domestically on matters related to Pakistan and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Yet, ever since the standoffs with China began in early May, the government’s communications have been limited, confused, and confusing.
This is not to say that India’s military responses to either Pakistani or Chinese provocations — based on such information as is available in the open domain — has been wanting. In the case of the former, one could argue that even such an incident as Balakot where India attacked Pakistani territory, was calibrated well given that it did not lead to escalation.
In the case of the Galwan Valley incident of June 15, too, the official statement on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the All Party Meeting on June 19 quotes him saying, “that twenty of our brave soldiers made the supreme sacrifice for the nation in Ladakh but also taught a lesson to those who had dared to look towards our motherland”. This suggests that the Indians at least gave as good as they got. The Chinese, too, seemed to acknowledge casualties on their side. In dealing with a power like China with its superior military capabilities, that is as good as one can expect, and even something of a victory for India.
However, the question here for the government is of communicating its position and version of events accurately both at home and abroad. The June 19 statement shows the Prime Minister prefacing his reference to the deaths of the soldiers by saying “that neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured”. In reality, this obscured more than it clarified. While the present tense suggested that he could technically be accurate insofar as the situation at the moment of his speaking was concerned, the Hindi version – “न तो किसी ने हमारी सीमा में प्रवेश किया है, न ही किसी भी पोस्ट पर कब्जा किया गया है” (na to kisi ne hamari seema main pravesh kiya hain, na hi kise bhi post par kabza kiya gaya hain) — appeared to make a somewhat larger claim covering the entire period since confrontations started in May that neither had anyone entered Indian territory nor captured any Indian posts.
The statement is problematic for a number of reasons.
For one, he forgets the fact that the Chinese are, in all instances along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) actually sitting in Aksai Chin which is Indian territory as per the boundaries defined by the Government of India. Even if the Prime Minister might lay the blame for the loss of the area on “past neglect”, he remains duty-bound like his predecessors to maintain claim on Aksai Chin and to provide no grounds for ambiguity.
Two, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement of June 16 following the deaths the previous night stated specifically that “the Chinese side departed from the consensus to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley” and that “a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there”. Now, even if ‘status quo’ here can imply a wider set of conditions such as adherence to treaty obligations and protocols and not just crossing the LAC, the direct reference to it also suggests the Chinese did violate it in some form.
The widespread understanding within the Indian Army is that unlike in the case of Pangong Tso, there has never been any difference in the perception of the LAC at Galwan. Given this, the violation can only have been of Chinese troops crossing over into “our territory”, howsoever the Prime Minister might seek to define the expression.
Three, the ambiguity in the Prime Minister’s statement also undermines his External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s declaration in his telephone call to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on June 17. The MEA readout states, “the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC”. For good measure, Jaishankar had also stressed the two countries “should strictly respect and observe the Line of Actual Control and should not take any unilateral action to alter it”.
Four, where differing perceptions of the LAC exist as in at Pangong Tso, an argument can be made that while the Chinese are indeed patrolling up to their perception of the LAC at Finger 4, developments over the past weeks also indicate they have sought to actively block permanently any further Indian patrolling beyond Finger 4 up to India’s perception of the LAC at Finger 8. The Chinese building up troop strength and permanent structures here as evident from reliable satellite imagery analysis suggests that they are violating the letter and spirit of various bilateral agreements on the LAC.
Modi’s statement at the All Party Meeting, therefore, ended up casting doubt on India’s own behaviour and claims along the LAC, and actually encourages further Chinese assertiveness all along disputed sectors on the LAC as well as the temptation to open up fresh disputes.
The Prime Minister’s statement on June 20 attempted to fix these ambiguities. He points out, “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India” and specifically states that “As regards transgression of LAC (एलएसी के उल्लंघन, LAC ke ulangan)… the violence in Galwan on June 15 arose because Chinese side was seeking to erect structures just across the LAC [emphasis author’s]...” The Hindi version - एलएसी के नजदीक (LAC ke nazdeek) — is slightly different in meaning, but because as mentioned before, the Indian understanding is that there is no difference in perceptions of the LAC at Galwan, “transgression” can here be taken to mean that the Chinese were building their structures on the Indian side of the LAC.
A few lines later in the second statement, matters are complicated a little with the line, “The sacrifices of the soldiers of the 16 Bihar Regiment foiled the attempt of the Chinese side to erect structures and also cleared the attempted transgression at this point of the LAC on that day”. It would appear then there are at least two separate incidents being described here, a sense, which is stronger still in the Hindi version. This, however, has not yet been confirmed officially.
While the second statement clarified much, it was still found wanting in explaining the situation at Pangong Tso, where the status quo on the LAC had unambiguously changed as of the time the Prime Minister was delivering his remarks.
The ambiguities in the two statements can be put down to poor drafting and translation. Surely, the government can do better in conveying its positions without such slip-ups and against an adversary that has the well-oiled propaganda apparatus and diplomatic presence and resources across the world to amplify every mistake India makes.Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal.