Defence infrastructure still not adequate
Nepal and China have just signed ten agreements. One of these is on extending the existing railway line from Tibet to Nepal “to boost connectivity”. China has also assured Nepal to “safeguard” her “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” and non-interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. In the backdrop of the recent cooling off of India-Nepal relations, the strategic significance of the extension of the railway line and the Chinese assurance on safeguarding Nepal’s sovereignty is obvious.
China has been relentlessly pursuing its programme of logistic build-up against India in Tibet. It has been engaged in building all-weather roads for many years now. The Chinese military strength in Tibet has increased. A number of airports and airstrips have been built in Tibet. To bring troops from the mainland of China right up to India’s borders has become far easier than ever before. A decade ago, in July 2006, the 1956 km long Golmud-Lhasa railway line was inaugurated, enabling quick movement of Chinese troops to Tibet and thence to the Indian border. (Golmud is a town in China’s Qinghai Province).
In November last year, the SF group, one of China’s biggest logistics firm, announced a major programme of expansion into South-East Asia that would rapidly build up its fleet of aircraft. It was not India-specific but covered India as well.
Indian preparations to meet the Chinese threat started quite belatedly. Even the humiliating military defeat in 1962 did not wake up India sufficiently to future threats from the Chinese, despite China’s increasing hostility to India. It is only during the later part of the UPA rule that the decision was taken to raise a Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) to counter the growing Chinese threat in our northern borders.
The Corps was to be built over a period of seven years at a cost of Rs. 64,678 crore. Preparations started in right earnest for raising, initially, two infantry divisions and one independent armoured brigade which was to be trained to operate in Tibet in the case of necessity. When fully raised, it would have 86,000 troops with two independent and one infantry brigades. The MSC was to have its headquarters at Panagarh in West Bengal where huge Hercules 130J transport planes would be stationed to ferry troops at a short notice. (The Corps is now temporarily headquartered at Ranchi in Jharkhand).
The defence establishment also made it clear that to be fully effective the Corps must have a logistic supply line and adequate infrastructural support which would require additional funds. Apparently, the UPA Government agreed to it.
However, when the NDA came to power in 2014, its defence priorities seemed to change. It adopted a conciliatory policy toward China. This was in sharp contrast with the anti-China belligerence shown by the BJP when it was in the Opposition. First, it was reported that the new government was “reviewing’” the MSC project and thinking of “downsizing” it because of its “high cost”. But in May last year, Defence Minister Parrikar categorically stated that the Government was going to freeze the MSC at its current level, without elucidating what the “current level” was. This was a setback to India’s defence preparations in the north-east.
Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force is doing its bit to reinforce air defence in the border areas. In Arunachal Pradesh, the IAF is building eight Advance Landing Grounds. These are expected to be completed by the year-end. They will be capable of handling the Super Hercules transport planes. The British built some airstrips in the present Arunachal Pradesh during the Second World War. These are being renovated and made serviceable. Some will be equipped with night-landing facilities.
But the Air Force is not a substitute for the Army. The army has to be there, both to defend the country against aggression as also to carry out offensive operations whenever necessary. The importance of the MSC with its full potential cannot, therefore, be minimised. Of late, contradictory signals are emanating from the Government and the defence establishment.
The Defence Minister says that MSC has been frozen but the army officers maintain that work on raising the Corps is in progress and by 2021 it will be completed. In fact, the MSC in its present form held wargaming exercises in January this year, keeping in view possible war scenarios and Chinese strategy. The details of the exercises have not been made known.
The Government should assure the people that there is no let up in the efforts to strengthen our defences in the north-east; that the MSC has not been frozen; and that necessary infrastructural and logistic facilities, integral to the project, are being created. There has been no news about the progress made in the construction of road and railways all along the northern border with China as was promised with great fanfare, or about the proposed 378 km long railway line running from Missamari in Assam to Tawang in Arunachal at an altitude of over nine thousand feet.
India-Nepal relations have to be viewed in this larger context. India has to cultivate Nepal and be extra careful to her sensitivities.
India must not appear to be taking a big-brotherly attitude. Nepal was hurt by India’s attitude when the trouble with the Madhesis erupted last year.
(The author is a senior commentator on political affairs. Views expressed are strictly personal)