No Lasissez-Faire After Ladakh

 By Kanchana Ramanujam
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The India-China tensions continue across the border and as per some reports, the Chinese troops have possibly built up defensive positions at the same place from where their observation post was removed initially by the Indian troops.[1] In light of this, the border tensions are likely to continue and India should chalk out immediate and long-term measures to deal with China and hybrid threats of the 21st century. These measures should be centered around, inter alia, information, economy, and empowering the citizenry.

  1. Improve Strategic Communication

Immediately after the Ladakh crisis broke out, China activated its propaganda machinery. Their psychological operations (PsyOps) have been well-coordinated, covering all facets  – showing off China’s military preparedness, China’s Twitter ‘army’ posting cartoons of the incident, Chinese spokespersons pinning the blame on India and portraying India as the aggressor, Chinese media houses talking about shared economic interests of China and India, and so forth. This makes one wonder why India, despite being a superior mountain force, has not put in place its Psy-Ops. Why have the heroic acts of the Indian troops in the Battle of Rezang La (where 120 Indian soldiers fought against 1300 People’s Liberation Army troops) and the stories of Major Shaitan Singh, Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, etc. not made it to Chinese platforms such TikTok and Weibo? Why have the Chinese not been reminded of the Indian Sikh soldiers posted in port cities of China during the build-up to the Opium War? So imposing was the presence of the Indian soldiers that the British thought they did not need guns! Why has India not exploited the local Ladakhis, the Tibetan community and the Dalai Lama in the PsyOps? Why is the Indian media not reporting the Indian perspective on Chinese social media platforms? While India released the list of Indian casualties (unlike the CPC which chose not to honour the fallen), why didn’t she simultaneously also make public the valour with which they fought? Gunner Gurtej Singh, for example, all of 23 years of age, killed 12 soldiers single-handedly! In fact, he was seen carrying 4 Chinese soldiers and throwing them over the ridge.

Entities/individuals concerned with the dissemination of information, such as media houses, need to be present on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo to bring a non-Chinese perspective of events. This would, however, be tricky as Chinese platforms can easily censor information, and reciprocal censorship of CPC (Communist Party of China) officials on free platforms of the West is not possible. An attempt should be made to empower the Chinese people to breach the Great Firewall of China[2] by popularising the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) on their platforms.

A major handicap of the Indian Armed Forces is that they do not have an independent, professional strategic communication team. One gets the impression that the ADGPI (Additional Directorate General of Public Information), true to its name, just disseminates ‘information’. The Indian Armed Forces should seriously consider setting up a social media warfare team consisting of journalists, law and history experts, regular citizens for spreading the message across multiple platforms, etc.

Media management is of utmost importance in today’s times. Irresponsible reporting greatly jeopardises a country’s position, especially in the war of narratives. An example is a coverage of the ongoing India-China standoff at Ladakh by one media house, where the author has written about ‘unarmed’ Indian troops being ‘hunted down and slaughtered’, attributing the information to ‘senior government official familiar with the debriefing of survivors’.[3] Not only is this piece factually incorrect (the External Affairs Minister has clarified that all the troops were indeed armed[4]), but is also highly demoralising and demotivating for the readers, let alone troops. Besides, neither were the troops ‘hunted down’ nor ‘slaughtered’! The author would do well to note that the brave Indian soldiers fought till the last breath, inflicting many more casualties on the adversary, and both sides fought without resorting to the use of guns despite being armed. The Army should take cognizance of such irresponsible and incorrect reporting. There should be some forced/self-regulation in media houses to disclose the identity of the sources at least to some authorities in the Army, while reporting on such sensitive issues. Simultaneously, the Army should also reflect on the root cause of such irresponsible reporting – lack of timely information from the Army. If the Army does not communicate, dubious ‘sources’ will do the same, rendering the space fertile for misinformation and speculation. Information is one most key aspects of hybrid war requiring agility and transparency, and the Army looks woefully ill-prepared for the same. Even if the Army does not deem it fit to communicate information, it put out a statement on when it would issue a statement, ask the public not to mistake opinions for facts, and strongly advise the media to desist from publishing hearsay.

  1. Focus on Enhancing Human Capital

The Ministry of Human Resource Development needs to be impressed upon to make immediate changes to the academic curriculum. Grey-zone and unconventional warfare tactics, such as data harvesting, and social and economic manipulation through virtual means, target individuals, not armies. Hence, a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach is needed to secure every facet of national security. It is imperative that topics like cyber hygiene, legal awareness including aspects relating to data privacy and use of third-party applications, spotting fake news, and responsible online-behavior are part of the curriculum. Students need to be adequately sensitised on how their behaviour on virtual platforms impacts a country’s perception and how sockpuppets and bots could lead to significant friction in societies.

Geo-politics and national security are impacted by myriad factors – technological, military, economic, ecological, and so forth. India should be in a position to not just guard against these but also weaponise the same. As such, the water-tight separation of the Science, Social Sciences/Humanities, and Commerce streams in the Indian curriculum has to be done away with. Subjects of relevance to national security, such as China Studies and Pakistan Studies, need to be offered across streams to get the assessment from all possible perspectives. Additionally, given the evolving character of warfare, these subjects should necessarily form part of the curriculum in higher institutes of education in science, technology, engineering, medicine, economics, and law.

  1. Sustainable Economic Warfare Strategy

India should carefully study all the business interests of the top Generals of the People’s Liberation Army in India and immediately find alternatives to those and also conduct a critical study of the extent to which Chinese hardware has entered India’s critical infrastructure, including telecommunication and electricity. It would also be desirable to see whether Chinese hardware in defence equipment, such as the S-400, poses any threat to us.
In fact, all the sectors that represent opportunity and threat for India need to be studied. As brought out in this paper published by CLAWS, India’s dependence on China for APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) continues at appalling levels. As discussed in the same paper, an opportunity for India would be the rare earth industry where India should challenge China’s monopoly.[5]

While there is a nation-wide, anti-China sentiment which has resulted in the call for the boycott of Chinese products, this may not be the most effective approach. It is necessary that Indians favour domestic produce over Chinese, but what is more important is that Indian companies bring out alternatives to Chinese products. While the Ministry of Home Affairs has issued an advisory against the use of the Zoom platform (and a detailed protocol for ensuring safety while using the Zoom platform if it cannot be avoided), it makes no mention of alternatives. Alternatives to Chinese products need to be worked on. The focus has to be not on getting alternatives as soon as possible, but on getting a permanent and sustainable switch of Indian audience from potentially dangerous Chinese apps. The Mitron app, for example, was immediately promoted as an ‘Indian’ alternative to the Chinese TikTok. However, there were allegations that the source code for Mitron app was purchased from a Pakistan-based company – Qboxus.[6] Hence, a long-term perspective of the same has to be taken.

In this hour of crisis, all instruments of national power should come together and fight united against the adversary and repeat offender.

End-Notes

[1] Som, V., 2020. Chinese Structures, Soldiers Spotted in Galwan Valley in New Satellite Images. [online] NDTV.com. Available at: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/chinese-structures-soldiers-spotted-in-galwan-valley-in-new-satellite-images-2251440  [Accessed 24 June 2020].

[2] It refers to the legislations and technologies enforced by China for domestic internet-regulation.

[3] Swami, P., 2020. PLA Death Squads Hunted Down Indian Troops in Galwan Valley; Army Suffered its Worst Losses since Kargil War – Firstpost. [online] Firstpost. Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/india/pla-death-squads-hunted-down-indian-troops-in-galwan-valley-army-suffered-its-worst-losses-since-kargil-war-8491391.html#:~:text=PLA%20death%20squads%20hunted%20down%20Indian%20troops%20in%20Galwan%20valley,worst%20losses%20since%20Kargil%20War&text=For%20reasons%20that%20remain%20unclear,burned%20down%2C%20the%20sources%20said.  [Accessed 24 June 2020].

[4] Subrahmanyam, J. 2020. Let us get the facts straight. All troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving post. Those at Galwan on 15 June did so…[Twitter]. 18 June. Available at: https://twitter.com/DrSJaishankar/status/1273564859704266756. [Accessed 24 June 2020].

[5] See https://www.claws.in/publication/alt-bullets-non-military-weapons-of-war/

[6] Singh, J., 2020. Mitron App Co-Founders Address Made-in-Pakistan Claims. [online] NDTV Gadgets 360. Available at: https://gadgets.ndtv.com/apps/features/mitron-app-tiktok-alternative-pakistan-link-2244726  [Accessed 24 June 2020].