Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM retired as Adjutant General of the Indian Army. The Former Corps Commander, Leh Corps engages internationally acclaimed conflict analyst, celebrated author of several books on security and strategy Jaideep Saikia and presently Fellow, Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA in a conversation about the withdrawal of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AF (SP) A and certain aspects of the India-China relations.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: Jaideep, you recently convened a webinar titled “Rebuilding Trust in the Indo-Naga Peace Process” which apart from you had the former Union Home Secretary of India, G.K. Pillai and Lt Gen (Dr) K. Himalay Singh as participants. In the webinar which was aired on 19 March, you clearly sought a phased withdrawal of the controversial AF (SP) A from certain areas of the North East. Are you surprised by the sudden withdrawal of the Act from many districts of three states in the North East twelve days after the webinar?
Jaideep Saikia: No, I am not surprised. The phased withdrawal of AF (SP) A from certain parts of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland was on the cards ever since the unfortunate incident that took place in the Mon district of Nagaland on 4 December 2022. A committee that was set up by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the backdrop of the killing of 13 civilians in Mon district’s Oting recommended the phased withdrawal and it has been accepted by the government. The webinar that I had convened and recorded on 14 March 2022 and which was aired on 19 March 2022 was a coincidence. Indeed, I had recommended a phased withdrawal of the AF (SP) A when I was questioned about the Act in the context of the Mon incident during the webinar. I am not aware whether the government was listening to what I was stating in the webinar, but the fact that the withdrawal of the Act came close on the heels of my recommending it publicly in an avidly watched webinar was to my satisfaction.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: Was there any follow-up to the webinar by any of the other participants or you? If so, in what manner and form?
Jaideep Saikia: Yes, we culled the salient points from the webinar and drafted a policy brief and sent it to the competent authorities in New Delhi. Enumerated excerpts of the draft are appended below.
- Keep the negotiations and negotiators low-key, away from front pages wherever possible. Hype, continual promises of imminent peace, condemnation and public spats have characterised post-2015 negotiation politics.
- Avoid complicating interlocutor responsibilities. R.N. Ravi’s appointment as Governor of Nagaland placed his constitutional responsibilities at odds with maintaining good-faith relations with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim–Isaac-Muivah (NSCN (IM)).
- At the same time, do not drag out negotiations excessively. While a “peace dividend” has decreased the risk of a full mobilisation/return to the jungle, any future changes to the NSCN (IM)’s post-Muivah leadership may risk a more belligerent position. NSCN (IM) remains a large, active militant organisation able to shape ground-level law and order realities, whether extortion-related or active operations in contested areas of Manipur or Arunachal Pradesh. Perceptions of a Kautilya-esque strategy of wearing out insurgencies undermine the spirit of goodwill and honourable solution.
- Confidence-Building Measures should be seen as interventions into a delicate ecosystem of actors and not just to repair bilateral relations with the NSCN (IM).
- Establish a Task Force to rework the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Bill 2021. A revised bill could redress longstanding inequalities in land purchase rights, presents an opportunity to equitably distribute power and lay the basis for connecting with a Naga “Autonomy Plus” deal even as it assuages the concerns of the Manipur Valley.
- A phased, district-specific withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AF (SP) A) will build confidence with stakeholders in Nagaland and build support.
Jaideep Saikia: General, now that the AF (SP) A has been withdrawn in a phased manner from several districts in three states of the North East where would you expect them to be deployed?
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: This is not the first time it has happened. In 2015 the Government withdrew the provisions of the Disturbed Areas Act and AF (SP) A from Tripura. It is a matter of professional analysis and judgment at the highest level. It is also the state governments who have to first withdraw the Disturbed Areas Act. And, to answer your question about deployment, it is not a matter of the redeployment of army units and formations relieved. In no way was there any laxity of deployment on the Line of Actual Control even earlier. Indian Army units have to be turned over, retained as reserves and as part of offensive formations. There is better and more effective management within the Army, as also more time to train for conventional wars which is the primary role of the Army.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: You have visited the entire India-China Boundary in the Eastern Sector. What is your prognosis about the border management posture of the Indian army?
Jaideep Saikia: I think the Eastern Sector is safe and secure. I am saying this despite the fact that there are people in our country, especially in the armed forces, who are of the opinion that the Eastern Sector is the most vulnerable of all the three sectors. I am not a military man, but I am convinced that the Eastern Sector is perhaps the most well-fortified sector in the entire India-China boundary and in good hands.
Jaideep Saikia: By the way, I understand that there continues to be number of friction points in the India-China Boundary, particularly in Eastern Ladakh (which I would like you to identify), do you think it is possible for both the countries to closely look at other sectors in the India-China boundary where at least a pre-formal dialogue process can be taken up. I am primarily referring to the central and the eastern sectors.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: Personally I disagree with the formulation of “Friction Points”. These are not isolated points that have disagreements on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It is the entire Aksai Chin that is under contention. Being boxed in my very high mountain ranges, the access to Aksai Chin is from limited avenues which are breaks in the mountain chain or rivers and nullahs. These become the avenues of domination up to the LAC, and hence where opposing forces are in contact and there is prolonged stand-offs. These are in places like the Bottleneck, Galwan, Hot Springs, Gogra, Fingers at Pangong Tso and Demchock.
Sectoral discussions in the Central and the Eastern Sectors are possible. Although previously some principles were enunciated, we need to re-establish those that should be discussed. However, let us not forget there is a total trust deficit since the Galwan incident of 2020 when we lost 20 of our soldiers. To accept that the People’s Liberation Army of China means well in discussions on the Central and the Eastern Sectors would require some iron-clad parameters.
Jaideep Saikia: What according to you was the real reason for Wang Yi’s sudden visit to New Delhi?
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: There can be many reasons for Wang Yi’s visit to India at such short notice. The following are proffered:
- The primary and most apparent reason was to extend an invitation to the Indian Prime Minister for the BRICS summit scheduled later this year.
- Wang Yi was visiting South Asia—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and after his stopover in India, to Nepal. Logically speaking, bypassing India would have looked incorrect.
- India’s principled stand on matters of the Russia-Ukraine war, withstanding the pressures of the US and the West would have been well recognised in China. The visit may have been to acknowledge the independence of India’s policies.
- There was also an apparent desire on the part of the Chinese to move ahead of the status quo on the LAC and focus on economic and geopolitical issues. Obviously, this approach is not acceptable to us.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: I am aware of your novel concept of the “Line of Amity”. However, could you spell it out once again for the readers?
Jaideep Saikia: I think that the history of Indo-China relations is fraught with a surfeit of mistakes. Despite attempts by both countries to bury the past and make a new beginning, indications are that misunderstandings continue to simmer over certain fundamental issues. These, in my opinion, stem primarily from a misperception of the exact alignment of the LAC in certain sub-sectors. The dispute stems from such ambiguities. Indeed, it would not be entirely incorrect to state that in effect there are two LACs, an Indian one and a Chinese one. Indeed, it is expected that the Special Representatives of both countries would be able to determine one LAC which is acceptable to both India and China. However belligerence from the Chinese have stymied the dialogue process and the progression has got mired in suspicion and at times intrusions from the northern neighbour as was the case when the Galwan incident took place, or for the matter, Doklam. While the most important aspect that must govern the border talks should be to introspect as to why the Chinese intruded in both places, an imperative that gains in importance is the “report” that the Chinese had “informed” New Delhi “in advance” about its plan to build a road in the Doklam is factored into. If this information is correct then the conflict can be said to have been unnecessary. The point that is being made here is that if the Chinese were bent upon constructing a motorable road that would take it right up to the Royal Bhutan Army post at the base of Zampheri Ridge, a course of action that would severely compromise the security of the tenuous 22 Km Siliguri Corridor which connects the North East of India to the rest of India, then expedience should have egged Indian strategists to find a way to circumvent the problem instead of involving itself in both pointless rhetoric and tedious logistical activities such as advanced troop deployment. Indeed, if the building of the road (and consequently putting in place sophisticated infrastructure in the “base”) poses a security threat to the “Chicken’s Neck”, the circuitous route that could (and, indeed can still be!) have been adopted was to seek out other “corridors” and routes to the North East, calling, thereby, not only the Chinese bluff, but negating the threat which the road would pose. Such pragmatic acts should not be too demanding an affair in the present times, especially as New Delhi has an able partner in Dhaka. In any event, Generals are Generals and notwithstanding the fact that Sun Tzu, too, was a general, the fact of the matter is that rhetoric seems to be taking a front seat in the present imbroglio when it could have perhaps been conveniently avoided.
The Bhutan-Sikkim junction is just one of the sectors that make up the India-China boundary. Dissonance has erupted all along the long boundary on a variety of occasions. The policy of resolving the entire boundary in on fell-swoop (which seems to be the preferred option of both New Delhi and Beijing) is just too much to hope for. The periodic intrusion-driven skirmishes and stand-offs have ascertained that. The accent therefore must be on concentrating on stand-alone sectors or even sub-sectors, the resolution of which would provide not only new-found confidence in both the countries, but considerably lessen the rhetoric which normally governs such confrontation. The sectors that should be chosen should be the ones that have a history of the least amount of disagreement and ones that seem to satisfy both the countries by way of the manner in which they are dug in.
At any rate, a solution of sorts—with an eye to circuiting the status quo that prevails—was proposed by me on 26-27 August 2014 during the course of an “India-China Track II Dialogue” in which I was a member of the Indian delegation. With the knowledge that neither side would surrender ground (the instances which were quoted were that of Thagla Ridge held by the Chinese and the southern bank of the Namka Chu River that runs south of the Ridge held by the Indians) as well as the fact that the only solution lies in converting the “Line of Actual Control” (the “as-is-where-is” basis) into an International Boundary, I took recourse to semantics. The phrase “Line of Actual Control”—if even a step is to be taken in the direction of later-day resolution (even by the generation that is to come!)—must be replaced by a classification that does not ring of belligerence. “Line of Amity” was the name that was proposed. If unyieldingness is inevitable and status quo is the only outcome of protracted negotiations, it is my considered opinion that at least a change of nomenclature that resonates of accommodation could herald a positive mindset change from continual and non-progressive status quo. I also laced my plea by stating that altering the name from “Line of Actual Control” to “Line of Amity” would not have any legal implications or bring forth questions about the principle by which delineation of boundaries are normally undertaken. I hazarded this aspect despite the fact that the watershed principle is generally applicable to the Thagla Ridge which the Chinese presently occupies. The name “Line of Amity” also has the distinct possibility of bringing future leaders of both countries to the table without the baggage of the past as well as the suspicion that has accompanied almost all India-China boundary dialogue and could well be the prerequisite for entente cordiale.
Jaideep Saikia: Incidentally, what is your candid view about my “Line of Amity” concept?
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma: Candidly speaking, the concept of the LAC is incurably flawed. We have to eventually work to finalize the border. However, the present is not the time for it. China is still in a belligerent mood. China is also doctrinally the master of deception and Information Warfare. Attempts may be made to lull us into complacency. Therefore, the short answer is that there is a complete trust deficit between the two countries. The “Line of Amity” is a faulty and grossly misplaced concept and may put us in an irretrievable situation. The LAC needs to be reworked. There is no need to create one more Line.