‘Continuing to engage in a positive atmosphere (with China)… I am sure it will lead to resolving our differences’

General M M Naravane demits office Saturday after an eventful stint as chief of the Indian Army. During his 28-month tenure as Chief of the Army Staff, some momentous events took place including the military standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, the Covid-19 pandemic, ceasefire with Pakistan and removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from some districts in states of the North-East.

Esha Roy and Shubhajit Roy spoke to General Naravane on these key issues and challenges. These are edited excerpts from the interview:

* The major challenges during your tenure

The two Cs — China and Covid. When the pandemic began, we visualised that things would go bad, much before March when the lockdown happened. So, we had initiated precautionary methods under Operation Namaste — that is, folded hands replacing the handshake. Our endeavour was that if we wanted to help our countrymen, we needed our forces to be safe. Otherwise, how would we extend help when called to aid civil authority? We, therefore, took simple, common sense steps for our force preservation. We restricted movement, stopped leave, kept separate barracks for those who came back from leave/postings to enable planned and institutionalised quarantine in planned modules, without intermixing.

We were, therefore, well prepared when we were called upon by the nation. We did not have a single case of Covid at any of our forward posts — every individual was tested several times before being sent to forward locations. We had sensitised troops not to hide (if they contracted the disease or were symptomatic) and that there was nothing to be ashamed of. It ensured that reporting of cases was always correct, timely and truthful.

* On China’s posture in eastern Ladakh, change in the last two years

The events of 2020 have brought about a paradigm shift in force posturing in eastern Ladakh by both sides. PLA today has a deployment of approximately 60,000 troops opposite eastern Ladakh from the erstwhile deployment of approximately 8,000 troops, and this deployment has been sustained since the last two years. Our own deployment is in equal measure and the Indian Army is well seized of the extant situation in eastern Ladakh and is well poised to counter any belligerent actions of the PLA in the future.

* On lessons learnt from the Galwan incident

Galwan was amongst one of the many places along the LAC in eastern Ladakh where friction occurred in 2020. All these events brought to fore the primacy of the northern borders, based on which certain measures were undertaken, some of which are still ongoing. They include augmentation and rebalancing of forces. Based on the reviewed threat perception, rebalancing of forces was carried out, in which reorientation of forces to the northern borders has been done, while retaining effective capability along the western front.

Development of requisite infrastructure to support operational and logistic requirements on the northern borders is being undertaken to include construction of critical roads and railway lines along with tunnels, construction/resuscitation of airfields, advanced landing grounds and helipads to enhance connectivity in difficult terrain and weather conditions.

There was a felt need to upgrade our Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, especially along the northern borders. Towards this, all-weather ground and air/space-based ISR capabilities for sustained durations at strategic/operational and tactical levels have been achieved and real time inputs from drone and satellite imagery are being made available at short notice. In addition to these, integrated human intelligence, electronic intelligence, space, cyber intelligence capabilities from various agencies are being made available to field formations.

* On why Galwan happened

We have been asking ourselves this question as well for the past two years about China’s move, but have

not been able to fathom why this (Galwan incident) happened. Was it due to internal/external dynamics or pressure regarding the Covid pandemic which led China to take this step? We don’t know.

* On the progress of talks at the remaining friction points

Till date, both sides have engaged in 15 rounds of Corps Commander-level talks, some of which have yielded disengagement from some friction areas. Talks for resolution of balance frictions points are ongoing, both in military and diplomatic domains. However, such processes take time and we must not expect an outcome after each round of talks. What is important is that both sides are continuing to engage in a positive atmosphere and I am sure it will lead to resolving our differences.

* On Army officers as negotiators

On the borders, we have always been talking to each other. We have been meeting on important occasions, such as the national day of each other. This has always been the case. It’s not that we have suddenly started talking at a military level. We have always been engaging with each other. Sometimes we have incidents of some people inadvertently straying across the border, so we have always had measures in place to engage with our neighbours to resolve such issues.

* On ceasefire between India and Pakistan

Ceasefire violations along the border are in no one’s interest. Peace and tranquility all around us is our aim. If the neighbourhood is stable, then we automatically as a nation become safer. The instability in Myanmar, for instance, has led to refugees fleeing to India. The civilian population along the LoC has greatly benefited from the ceasefire, and their quality of life has improved.

* On whether there is hope of forward movement

When your neighbouring country is unstable, it doesn’t help. Instability in our neighbourhood doesn’t help. Let’s hope that our western neighbour sees the light of reason. We are more than keen to have good relations with them, but they have to first rein in their support to terrorism and attempts to draw international attention to J&K.

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* Nexus between China and Pakistan, the possibility of a two-front situation

The Indian Army is well poised and prepared to deal with any emerging contingency not only in eastern Ladakh, but all along the northern borders. While collusivity between China and Pakistan continues to remain a challenge in both physical and political-military domains, the Indian Army maintains preparedness to meet the challenge. The current ceasefire along the Line of Control is an ongoing CBM between India and Pakistan and should in no manner be construed as dissipation of a collaborative threat. Engagement on both the fronts simultaneously would be challenging. However, our armed forces are well poised and disposed to handle both the fronts simultaneously including the internal security challenges.

* On the missile misfire incident

It would be more appropriate if you contact the Air Force on this issue.

* On impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on India’s defence supplies

We are dependent on both Ukraine and Russia for a number of our weapons and military equipment. However, we have always maintained a buffer in our stocks and, therefore, will not be impacted in the near term. Just as an analogy, like we all keep two months of salary in our bank accounts as a buffer, in case we lose our jobs due to some reason. So we too have buffer stocks. In case we continue to conserve our equipment, the stocks will last longer.

* On Russian equipment malfunctioning in the battlefield

In today’s era of information warfare and curated narratives, there will be an American version, an East European version and a Russian version. However, at this point of time we are still not very sure of the true picture. May be two years or three years from now, when books are written and the politico-military strategy and the true numbers of losses have been analysed threadbare, then the situation will be clearer… it will take time to assess this… and probably, history will be able to judge the conflict more objectively.

* On diversification of India’s weapons procurement

Some measures have been initiated at the Service HQ to diversify procurement. Due to the ongoing conflict, Soviet origin equipment has been a cause for concern. The measures initiated include critical assemblies and spares. Major assemblies of AFVs (Armoured Fighting Vehicles), guns and AAD (Army Air Defence) systems have been identified for manufacture in India. Due impetus has been given to indigenous manufacturing to reduce dependence on foreign OEMs (original equipment manufacturers).

The Department of Indigenisation has been making all efforts to ensure the sustenance requirements of the Indian Army. Critical assemblies and spares have been identified and indigenous manufacturing of spares is being vigorously pursued. Indigenisation of ammunition of foreign origin equipment has been in vogue since 2017 and 12 cases have been initiated through private industries. AON (Acceptance of Necessity) has been accorded by the Defence Minister and the cases are in progress.

Alternate sources of supply from Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovakia and Czech Republic have been identified for equipment, which is considered a criticality. The capacities of these alternate sources and the likely timeframe for supplies are being ascertained from respective Defence Attaches.

* On removal of AFSPA from the North-East

This question of removal of AFSPA is like “Putting the Cart before the Horse”. If the law and order situation turns adverse in an area and the state administration is not able to handle it, then the area is declared ‘disturbed’ and the Army is called in. AFSPA is an enabling Act which empowers the Army or security forces to operate in insurgency-affected areas and as long as the area remains ‘disturbed’, the need for the Act remains.

The Act affords minimum essential protection to members of armed forces to ensure fulfilment of the constitutional obligation and to discharge our duties. It is no different from the kind of powers that the police also enjoy. It doesn’t give immunity or carte blanche powers for us to do whatever we want and has inherent safeguards built in.

The review of AFSPA is closely linked to the prevalent security situation in the states where the Act is applicable. As and where the security situation has shown improvement, like in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, the applicability of the Act has been withdrawn. If the law and order improves, then there is no issue with its removal.

We were definitely consulted before AFSPA was lifted from certain areas. It is always a consultative process and a ‘whole of government’ approach. Since in these areas the security situation has improved, we had no objection to AFSPA being lifted here. Removal of the Army from such areas which are no longer ‘disturbed’ helps us in focusing on our primary task — dealing with external enemies.

* On support for partial lifting of AFSPA from N-E states

The recent decision of the government to reduce areas notified as “disturbed” in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur is based on assessments from various security and intelligence agencies wherein the security situation has been assessed to be within the capabilities of the existing law and order mechanism to effectively act if there are any infringements.

Internal security situation in North-East states has improved considerably and the Army and Assam Rifles have been instrumental in creating a congenial atmosphere, ushering peace and stability to the region. Periodic review of the security situation is carried out at inter-ministerial level and considered decisions are taken thereof. The recent lifting of AFSPA in a phased manner from certain areas is a fallout of the overall improvement and upliftment of the North-East region.

* On whether similar removal can take place in Kashmir as well

The situation in J&K has improved over the last few years and the same stands vindicated by successful implementation of varied government-run initiatives and large-scale participation by awaam (public) in such programmes. However, these signs of near normalcy, though a welcome change for all, have been hurting Pakistan’s narrative of gross human rights violations in the Valley and have, in turn, exacerbated the problems for Pak-Separatists-Tanzeems nexus.

Pakistan’s intransigence to disrupt various initiatives by the government continues, primarily in the form of rhetoric and attempts to draw international attention to J&K. Based on the assessment of the government, there may be certain areas within the UT wherein a reappraisal of AFSPA might take place in case the security/law and order situation is conducive and the area is no longer ‘disturbed’. This has also been stated recently by the Hon’ble Raksha Mantri when (he was) speaking about the possibility of partial withdrawal of AFSPA from J&K.

* On the instability in Myanmar

Engagement between governments is different from engagement between militaries. Since we share a long land border with Myanmar, we have to remain engaged with the Myanmar Army. There are a number of areas that India and Myanmar armed forces cooperate on. These include combating illegal drug trade, smuggling of wildlife, human trafficking.

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