Pune, 7th October 2021: Deepti Singh’s latest book ”June 2020 Road To Galwan From Where It Began“ is both a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, with the beginning being the ‘ Night at the Cliff’ which recounts the events that night seen from the eyes of a young soldier who had yearned to join the Army following his family traditions.
The ethos of the brave men who sacrificed their lives for the country can be summed up by his grandfather’s words;” Let your choice be to walk every difficult step and when you choose to walk, you will be proud of what you are. Take long leaps and jump across frozen rivers to save our motherland from enemies across the border.”
In reality for those heroes in uniform who were present on those icy heights that night, this is a night that will forever remain etched in the memory of those who survived.
Thereafter, the book has been divided into five chapters each dealing with a different theme. The first ‘Drawing the Invisible Lines’ gives the historical background of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) a term given by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in November 1959, in a note to Prime Minister Nehru. It traces the history of the two Ancient civilisations over the centuries and the fact that Buddhism was a common thread between knitting strong diplomatic, cultural and commercial ties.
The part on the Western border is most detailed and gives us an understanding of how complex the issue of resolving the border dispute is. What she brings out is the disparities in the three lines of the survey carried out by the British under WH Johnson, Sir John Ardagh and McArtney. The aspect of the British wanting a frontier and not wanting a border with Russia and thereby willing to accede territory to China lies at the crux of the unsettled borders. As Lord Hardinge stated in 1889; “The stronger we can make China at this point and the more we can induce her to hold her own over the whole of the Kashgar- Yarkand region, the more useful she will be to us as an obstacle to Russian advance along this line.” The fact is that while the British took great pains at surveying the border, they kept changing their policies and stance on its delineation leading to a situation where one is literally ‘defending the undefined’. Surprisingly, the border between Xinjiang and Ladakh was clearly defined right from the sixth century.
Regarding the boundary in the East, once again Deepti has gone into all the relevant details and also highlighted the role played by Major Bob Khathing, from Ukhrul, Manipur who had been awarded the Military Cross in World War II and as an officer of the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS) after an arduous trek from Tezpur raised the Indian flag at Twang on 07 February 1951. Incidentally, this was done on the orders of the then Governor of Assam which was not appreciated by Prime Minister Nehru who ordered a complete cover-up of this historic event.
‘Friend or Foe’ covers the period of the fifties and talks about the differences in the mindset of the Chinese who were governed by Sun Tzu’s school of thought including ‘deception’ and ‘pretention’ and India who advocated peaceful coexistence and defence of their territory. It talks about the letter written by Sardar Patel to the Prime Minister where he talks of the language spoken by China being ‘not of a friend but a future enemy’.
Other historical issues touched upon are the occupation of East Turkmenistan; now Xinjiang and the Army undercover reconnaissance mission by Lieutenant Colonel RS Basera to ascertain the status of the highway which had been constructed through Aksai Chin. Surprisingly, the Prime Minister when confronted with the report felt that “partial information without proof would taint the flourishing rapport with the neighbours.”
‘Swords Were Raised as Language Failed’ is an interesting heading for events leading up to the 1962 conflict. The Prime Minister’s approach was transformed when he declared “not an inch of territory will be ceded to China”. The Forward Policy was put into effect in November 1961 and Deepti brings out the differences of opinion between Defence Minister Krishna Menon and the Army Chief General Thimayya, she also talks about euphoria after the Goa Operations which took place in 1961 which may have led to a false sense of self-belief. The question that the author tries to answer is; “Whether the war was provoked by political leadership as a result of army deployment at the borders, so-called the forward policy.”
She brings out that the lessons learnt in Exercise ‘Lal Quila’ conducted by Lieutenant General SPP Thorat in March 1960 which highlighted the preparedness of the Army were dismissed as “futile“ by Krishna Menon and never put up to the Prime Minister.
The next Chapter ‘1962: The War Front’; predictably covers the war. What is interesting is the quotation of Chairman Mao at a meeting with the top leadership of PLA; “Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him: for us not to fight him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy demands reciprocity”.
The face-off at Thagla and subsequent engagements bring out how soldiers fought against overwhelming odds with nothing much to boast of other than raw courage and a sense of pride in belonging to a particular unit. An example is given of Subedar Pratap Singh of 9 PUNJAB who was to proceed on retirement but instead of going to the Regimental Centre remained with his battalion as it was likely to be involved in the action and subsequently laid down his life while defending the country. The differences in perceptions of various boundaries, as well as the manner of deployment of troops, is well elucidated but what stands out is the bravery and commitment of the troops in contact at Thagla, BumLa, Walong and Rezang La. After the unilateral ceasefire, the Chinese withdrew from the Eastern Theatre but retained their gains in Aksai Chin.
The last chapter ‘The Road to Galwan’ now jumps to a period of over fifty years. Unfortunately, it does not do due justice to the intervening years and merely highlights the economic progress made by both nations. In spite of numerous confidence-building measures very little was achieved on the ground. Unfortunately, the events in Sikkim in 1967, Sumdrong Chu in 1986 and the more recent Doklam incident in 2017 as well as the frequent transgressions by the Chinese have not been covered. What has been brought out is the geography of the area where Galwan is described as ‘one of the most treacherous landscapes on earth’ and the history of tensions in this region. Ironically 58 years later, China wished to occupy areas from where she withdrew in 1962.
The question which remains unanswered is the reasons for this conflict timed in the middle of the most severe pandemic which affected all nations, leaving them grappling with the world’s most serious health crisis. As the author says there are only postulates ranging from; increased unrest in China due to the pandemic, Chinese concerns on the infrastructure development in the vicinity of the LAC, as well as the change in the constitutional status of J&K. But there are no rigid answers.
A book that will appeal to readers, it is an easy read however could have had better maps and there are some editing mistakes. Undoubtedly the author has been able to present substantial facts on the background of Indo-China relations and events leading up to the conflict in 1962 in a lucid manner with a great deal of clarity. She has also highlighted certain issues that merit the reader’s attention.
The solution offered of a demilitarized Zone as exists between the two Koreas is novel but is unlikely to be pushed by either India or China. Unfortunately, no template can be applied presently to ensure that the uninhabited areas remain unoccupied. In this case, the gap between idealism and realism is very wide.