We are almost a year into the abrogation of the de-operationalization of Article 370 of the Indian constitution which granted a special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (which also included Laddakh). So far, it has given boasting rights to the ruling party who used this issue in all subsequent elections, sycophancy rights to almost all opposition groups who capitalised on the abrogation to bandwagon on the popular nationalist rhetoric while violating all fundamental and human rights of common Kashmiris that you can imagine.
From a six-month-long communication gag to the return of 90’s style military crackdowns, the post-370 era in Kashmir is exactly what most of its people imagined it to be: Brutal, chaotic and uncertain. All this, however, was expected for the people in the state and acceptable to the people outside it.
What was unexpected for the people of the erstwhile state, people of India and most of all to the Indian Government was that this little myopic, populist and the supposedly “domestic” move will have geopolitical implication affecting the whole South-Asia dynamic.
The trouble in Laddakh as opposed to what most of us believe began a long time before June 15, 2020. In September 2019, in the immediate aftermath of the 370 abrogations, was witnessed the first scuffle between Indian and Chinese armies along the Pangong in years. As per media reports, 10 Indian security personnel were injured in that scuffle.
This kettle kept boiling throughout the cold winter months and what went down in June this year was a long time coming. Since May 5, Chinese position along the contentious LAC has stiffened. The PLA started blocking Indian patrols between ‘Finger-4’ and ‘Finger-8’ inside what is India’s perceived territory. That is when the alarm bells in New Delhi went off. Diplomatic efforts along with military-level talks to de-escalate the situation followed and what subsequently followed were their failure.
On 15th June 2020, the Eastside dragon revealed its fangs. The Indo-China relations hit a new low as the two armies clashed head-on in the Galwan valley, marking the first fatalities in military engagement between the two countries in almost five decades. The Indian media went berserk with unproved conjectures and laughable theories.
The discourse in the Indian media around the increased Chinese build-up in the Galwan region and the developments both before and after the lethal combat of June 15 has been maddeningly unhelpful to the either uninformed or mostly misinformed Indian people with an undue focus on the number of soldiers killed or injured on both sides. As far as the incident of June 15 is concerned, the emphasis on casualty count is logically misleading and strategically irrelevant. What really determines the outcome is whether the objectives of either of the actors were achieved. In a military engagement between two bordering nations, the objectives of both the aggressor and the retaliator are very clear.
As has been the case with China’s numerous attempts to nibble at India’s perceived borders, its intention is to create a new status quo. The objective for the Indian side thus by default was to reconstitute the status quo ante. That means the Indian goal here was to push the Chinese back to the pre-standoff position, preferably by diplomatic and contingently by military means.
Where things stand today, the Chinese objective of creating a new status quo has been realised. The Indian objectives are as far from realisation as they can be. So irrespective of the number of casualties that both sides may or may not have incurred, this is clearly a small victory for China. The victory for China may be small but the loss for India is big and one that it is desperately trying to underplay.
Indian Prime Minister’s statement which came at an all-party meeting on June 19 was at two very different decibels. These two-decibel levels were for two different audiences. One was to convince the common Indian masses that India had given it back to China in every possible manner, almost justifying the death of 20 Indian soldiers by saying, “Woh maarte maarte mare (they died fighting)”. The other decibel was less muscular. It refuted the claim of any Chinese intrusion into the Indian Territory, very subtly shrinking the perception of what ‘Indian’ territory is by 30 odd square miles.
India’s unilateral decision in Kashmir restricts New Delhi from taking the issue of Chinese aggression to the international platforms. Having disregarded the United Nations Convention on Kashmir with its August 5 move, New Delhi has lost the moral authority to invoke the UN on any matter which involves the region referred to in the 47th Security Council Resolution.
On the other hand, China has forced a discussion on Kashmir in the Security Council twice in the last year. Even though nothing materialised in those close door discussions, they have surely paved the way for an aggressive Chinese posture along the LAC in Laddakh with a reduced risk of consequences. The other important developments in the region have been the shocking departures from the normal Bonhomie between India and Nepal and also India and Bhutan.
Both these departures have an indication of a pro-China inclination in the policies of what were generally known to be as India’s client states. This along with a new trade deal between Bangladesh and China is suggestive of a slip-on India’s part from the position of an undisputed Hegemon in South Asia. Chinese build up along the LAC continues and no matter how much we refuse to see and acknowledge it, the Dragon has got the Elephant cornered.
How far will the Chinese go with their Laddakh adventures? Only time will tell. But what can be a reasonable conclusion, for now, is that India’s attempt to change the status of Jammu Kashmir unilaterally may have opened the Pandora’s Box to a period of extreme uncertainty in South Asia.
Note: The author is a student of International Relations and Area Studies from Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi (For feedback- Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)