It was circa 2001, when the Kargil war and Pakistani misadventures shaped most of the thinking around India’s immediate foreign policy responses and defence postures. Alongside the euphoria of the victory of Kargil war, the subject of a growing threat of Pakistan-backed militancy dominated public debates. However, obscured by the Pakistani threat and undermined at that time, a familiar menace was re-emerging from the shadows.
That year, a general from the army headquarters was making a routine visit to one of the battalion locations along the India-China line of actual control. In his presentation to the senior officer, the commanding officer of the battalion Colonel Bipin Rawat chose to highlight how China was the chief adversary to India and went on to describe the growing threat in years to come. The doughty CO also laid out a plan to counter Chinese incursions in his territory. That was twenty years ago when China was focused on economic revival but was still a decade away from revealing its aggressive global military ambitions. At that time, 5/11 Gorkha Rifles (the battalion) with its commanding officer Colonel Rawat at the helm, had arrived at the location where incursions of Chinese incursions into Indian territory had been reported earlier. After Colonel Rawat had presented the Chinese threat to the senior visiting officer, he decided to put his plan locally into action.
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Chinese patrols were known to make incursions into Indian territory as a show of domination, but had met with little resistance. However, a new Indian army battalion had come to occupy the location. Anticipating the next Chinese move, the CO planned a suitable counter-action and assigned tasks to his company commanders to study the patterns of Chinese patrols. For the next few weeks, the Chinese movements were observed – in terms of their numbers, the timings of such moves and the weapons they carried.
A few days later, a Chinese patrol set out to conduct domination of the area and entered the Indian territory. It was a usual patrol but this time, the PLA soldiers found themselves surrounded by Indian troops who quickly occupied a higher ground and pushed back the Chinese in an aggressive manner. The PLA colonel, surprised by the unexpected speed and aggression of Indian troops, panicked and decided to withdraw. Humiliated and humbled, the Chinese troops never set foot on Indian soil in that area again for the next couple of years that Colonel Rawat’s battalion was stationed there.
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General Bipin Rawat’s former officers of that time speak of the clarity he displayed about his plans against the Chinese incursions and the boldness his actions reflected, which gave the junior officers the confidence. Every company commander under him knew that their CO would stand by them. It was a stellar example of a young leader having faith in his own ability and in his subordinates to take on a difficult task through unprecedented action.
There was aggression minus the firing: The Chinese commander soon realized that the Indians were no pushovers. The limited incident was a throwback to the pushback the Chinese had encountered in 1986-87 at Sumdorung Chu, when an entire Indian brigade was he lilifted to press back the Chinese troops. General Rawat’s battalion was among those deployed along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh during the 1987 clash.
Early on in his career, through his on-ground experiences, General Rawat had countered Chinese commanders at a local level. By the time General Rawat became the Army Chief in 2016, China had grown, under Xi Jinping into a mammoth, ambitious global power – a far cry from the Chinese of 1987 or even that of 2001. However, the Indian army chief had an instinctive ability to gauge Chinese psychological motives that may have shaped his thinking on China during his tenure. In 2017, when the Chinese PLA chose to make an incursion towards the Doklam plateau on the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction in June 2017, Gen Rawat successfully countered the PLA moves. The Chinese were stopped by the Indian army from building a road to the Jampheri ridge which would have given the Chinese a strategic and psychological advantage. In 2020, it was the offensive of 29-31 August on the south bank of the Pangong Tso that forced the PLA to restore status quo ante on the north side of the lake.
Often, the strategic thinking of commanders are shaped by their experiences at a leadership level early on in their careers. The story of General Rawat and his thinking on the Chinese in his years as the Chief and CDS goes back to that incident in 2001. At that time, then Colonel Rawat’s action plan, presented as a battalion commander to his senior commander, was vindicated by the subsequent success of his actions against the Chinese, much like in the instances later in 2017 and 2020.
About The Author
Probal DasGupta is the Author of Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China