What a tangled web New India’s defence analysts weaved around Chinese incursions

But why?

WrittenBy:Saikat Datta
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The Chinese may or may not have intruded into the Galwan Valley, Ladakh, depending on who reported or analysed the story. But what is unprecedented is how an act of external aggression has led to reams of infighting between journalists and strategic analysts, jostling for mind space during a major crisis.

Never before have analysts fought with such determination with those who disagreed with them regarding the Chinese incursions. On one side, analysts asserted right until June 15, when 20 Indian soldiers were killed by the Chinese military, that there were no intrusions or minor ones at most. On the other, it was argued that the Chinese were close to changing the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border in the Ladakh sector.

To understand why India’s media reported such a major crisis through a polarised political lens, it’s important to know how defence correspondents and analysts work nowadays.

At the centre of this story is the incumbent government of India. It can’t be seen doing any wrong or worse, as a weak centre of power, especially during an external crisis. Recall that raids conducted by the Indian army’s special forces in retaliation for attacks by insurgents in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir sparked celebration in the media, mainstream and social. It was declared through tweets, articles, books and, finally, Bollywood, that this was the “New India”. Not only did New India barge into the enemy’s house, it beat them up as well. “Yeh ghusega bhi aur maarega bhi”.

The mood changed a little when 40 paramilitary men were killed by a suicide bomber in Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14, 2019. But the subsequent air raid on Balakot reiterated that “New India” was capable of establishing a new threshold for retaliation despite Pakistan’s status as a nuclear weapons state.

China’s aggression has brought home a new dilemma. It has refused to follow a script and led to uncharacteristic silence from the government and the “usual suspects”.

Here are some interesting stories behind the story of this crisis.

Off-the-record briefing

While the first Chinese “intrusions” took place on May 5, the initial news reports came out on May 10, based mostly on an off-the-record briefing by government officials. The easiest way to spot an off-the-record briefing is to see if reports published by various media outlets have nearly the same details and tone.

The daily Hindu reported on May 10 that Chinese soldiers had crossed over into Indian territory. The Economic Times reported the same facts that same day as did the Print.

On most occasions, those briefing the media lack the insight of what the briefing is intended for or what strategic value it is meant to deliver.

So, it was left to a few military veterans to counter the establishment’s version of the story based on personal knowledge or access to serving military personnel or other government officials. A veteran who has been a strategic and defence affairs journalist for around 15 years took the lead in exposing the real story behind the incursions into the Galwan Valley and other sites in Ladakh. His May 22 report was revealing and warned that the Chinese “intrusions have gathered momentum”.

But analysts close to the government maintained that there were no intrusions, or minimal at most. A report in the Print, published on June 1, reiterated that the intrusions were “limited” and had been “pushed back”. The author of the article continued this line of argument on Twitter, using publicly available satellite images to back up his claims. He was also frequently seen on Asianet Newsable, a digital publication from the investment portfolio of Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar of the BJP.

In the Print, the analyst argued:

Satellite images from a classified and proprietary report in possession of the defence ministry, seen by one of the authors, have been visualised below. Given the extremely high-resolution, sensitive and proprietary nature of the original images, we are unable to share them.
Those images have confirmed three things: 1) the intrusions in Galwan were at a single point, involving not more than 40 to 50 Chinese troops; 2) the Chinese intrusion lasted at best for two weeks and had been cleared by the third week of May, when the status quo was restored in the Galwan sector. 3) However, a serious situation has arisen due to China cutting off the waters of the Galwan river, which amounts to a weaponisation of China’s upper riparian rights. If not challenged immediately, this could lead to cutting off of waters to other rivers with serious consequences for agriculture and potable water in India.

Downplaying the Chinese incursions was a consistent theme for many “journalists” and “analysts” considered close to the government. A former strategic affairs editor, known for his deep knowledge of military issues as much as his proximity to the government, tweeted on May 27 that “de-escalation” had begun with India firmly in control.

Previously, on May 23, in his video analysis of news reports about the Chinese intrusions, denied by him earlier, he had cited India building a “small feeder road” as the immediate cause of the crisis. Significantly, he claimed the first incursions took place on May 9-10, even though news reports stated May 5 as the date when the first clashes broke out.

China was moving “aggressively” in the Galwan Valley, he said, describing it as a Chinese bid to “divert attention” from President Xi Jinping’s “mishandling” of the coronavirus outbreak.

On May 30, his show pushed the narrative that India’s military was now ready to deliver a major blow to China’s PLA. He also used an image from the war film Haqeeqat to show how India had given a “bloody nose” to the Chinese in Nathu La in 1967.

Another senior editor, once a nominee of the government to head the Press Trust of India, pushed a similar narrative: that all was well as the government claimed.

His June 7 report claimed that India and China were taking “sure steps” to “resolve” the crisis. On June 10, a day before the meeting between local Indian and PLA commanders, he reported a thaw in the standoff.

“China is withdrawing soldiers deployed in the Galwan area of eastern Ladakh and thinning out troops in the Pangong Tso sector where it was locked in a standoff with Indian military for a month, people familiar with the development told Hindustan Times.
Top government officials said the process of the Chinese side withdrawing troops had started yesterday. “We have also reciprocated and moved back our troops,” a top government official said on Tuesday evening.”

But reality bites

The killing of the commanding officer of the Bihar Regiment’s 16th battalion and 19 soldiers on June 15-16 suddenly changed the script in play since May 28. The narrative promising de-escalation, the withdrawal of the Chinese and India’s inevitable triumph suddenly collapsed. Those who had argued that the incursions were “minor” at most quickly changed tack as well.

A cover story in the magazine India Today based on briefings from government sources tried to add a fresh perspective to the deaths of Indian soldiers. It reported that:

  • There were three clashes, reported as brawls, and not one.

  • A significant number of Chinese troops – 16 – were killed in the clash as well.

  • There was a major Indian counterattack.

  • India was comfortably holding areas perceived to be on its side of the LAC.

By this time, the government was scrambling to explain how the Indian soldiers had died. Soon, though, the story became about how many Chinese troops had been “killed”. Just like after the Indian Air Force raid on an alleged terrorist camp in Balakot in 2019 and the “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control in 2016, higher “enemy casualties” made the loss of Indian soldiers palatable for the domestic audience.

It eventually fell to one of the government’s favourite news anchors to rise to the occasion. On the day India banned 59 Chinese apps, he thundered how the “suddenness and decisiveness” of the government had put China in its place. He referred to a “top government source” who had briefed him about the ban. He did not explain why the same source had forgotten to brief him a few days earlier when 20 Indian soldiers were killed.

Meanwhile, another channel, whose chief promoter is now a Rajya Sabha MP, christened the same day as Galwan Vijay Diwas, or Galwan Victory Day. It is another matter that as per the final disengagement plan, India will no longer have the right to go up to Patrolling Point 14 where the clash took place, leading to the deaths of 20 Indian army personnel.


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