India-China border tension: Has PM Modi been unfairly targeted for his remarks?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement made at the all-party meet on June 19 has drawn sharp criticism from the Opposition, particularly the Congress party leaders.

Since PM Modi made the statement denying any loss of land to the Chinese troops, the Congress has been posting satellite images and news reports to call the remarks as “a lame attempt to obfuscate the truth”.

At the all-party meet, PM Modi referred to the Galwan Valley violent-face-off and said, “Na wahaan koi hamaari seema mein ghus gaya hai aur na hi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamaari koi post kisi doosre ke kabze mein hai.”

This has been interpreted by most critics as denial of any intrusion or attempts to intrude by the Chinese. As such, it is in contrast to the statements made by the external affairs ministry.

The MEA statements and also External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s principal contention to Chinese claim showing India as an aggressor was this: That Chinese troops attempted to erect a structure in the Galwan Valley on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LAC) which led to violent face-off. It was this post that the military leaders had agreed on June 6 to demolish and pull back.

This establishes intrusion or attemtp to intrude by the Chinese. India has said Chinese troops tried to alter the status quo unilaterally.

In the backdrop of sharp criticism and to address the confusion over PM Modi’s statement on India-China border tension, the PMO issued a clarification note June 20. The PMO called the controversy over PM Modi’s statement as “mischievous”, “motivated propaganda”, and branded it as an attempt to “lower their [soldiers at the LAC] morale”.

THE CONGRESS ONLAUGHT

But it did not deter rivals, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, to target PM Modi. Rahul Gandhi referred to satellite images to say that China had occupied Indian territories near Pangong Tso.

Kapil Sibal, another Congress leader, sought to know, “Why did PM tell the all-party meet that no one intruded our territory? How did 20 soldiers die?”

In between, Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece Global Times welcomed PM Modi’s statement and quoted Chinese experts as saying that this will help restoring bilateral ties. This was interpreted as validating China’s position that Indian troops were responsible for the violent face-off and that Galwan Valley was a Chinese territory.

This could be the reason why former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has cautioned his successor in the PMO, Narendra Modi, to “always be mindful of the implications of his words” and “use his words as a vindication of their position” on the LAC.

Manmohan Singh today said, “This is a moment where we must stand together as a nation and be united in our response to this brazen threat. We remind the government that disinformation is no substitute for diplomacy or decisive leadership. The truth cannot be suppressed by having pliant allies spout comforting but false statements.”

BENEFIT OF DOUBT IN NUANCES

But did PM Modi actually say what the Congress leaders have accused him of saying?

Recall his statement: “Na wahaan koi hamaari seema mein ghus gaya hai aur na hi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamaari koi post kisi doosre ke kabze mein hai.”

To be fair in nuances, PM Modi did not deny attempts to intrude.

He did mention about the soldiers sacrificing their lives in defending the territorial integrity: “Maarte maarte mare hain” [soldiers died giving a punishing reply].

This remark of PM Modi was largely focused on the Galwan Valley clash of June 15-16 night, and he spoke three days after the incident by when the reports suggest that Chinese observation post had been destroyed at the PP 14.

Read: A detailed account of what happened at Galwan that night

This could be the reason why some other bitter critics of the Modi government, including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, former Defence Minister Sharad Pawar and BSP chief Mayawati, have only expressed solidarity with the government on the issue.

Separately, chief ministers of some states and party chiefs too extended their support to PM Modi after his statement at the all-party meet. These names include YSRCP chief Jagan Mohan Reddy, the Andhra Pradesh CM, and TRS chief K Chandrasekhar Rao, the CM of Telangana, the home of Colonel Santosh Babu who led the fightback to the Chinese on June 15 evening and sacrificed his life.

Is the Congress targeting to deflect attack on its previous governments?

The BJP and the Modi government have been unequivocal in holding the Congress governments since Independence responsible for India-China border dispute and also for the loss of Aksai Chin. Even during the all-party meet, PM Modi vaguely drew parallels without ostensibly naming the Congress.

Referring to infrastructure building near the LAC, PM Modi told the all-party meet, “we are better informed about the developments at LAC and consequently are able to monitor and respond better. The movement of those which used to take place without any disruption earlier is now checked by our jawans, which at times leads to build up of tension.”

The Congress has historically felt an unease on the question of China since the days of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, when the Indian forces were overwhelmed which was basically a “betrayal” of his trust in the Chinese leadership.

But Chinese “betrayal” had set in much earlier than the 1962 war. Years before the Chinese attacked India, it had taken sizeable control of the Aksai Chin.

A CONGRESS RECORD

Nehru had made his frustration over inability to deal with Chinese advance in his December 1961 reply in the Rajya Sabha, where he infamously described Aksai Chin as a region, “where not even a blade of grass grows”.

This statement has haunted the Congress for long so much that it never attempted to build its success narrative of the 1967 India-China conflict in which Indian soldiers gave a bloody nose to the Chinese.

Even during the Manmohan Singh government, China reportedly sliced away 640 sq km of Indian territories across Depsang, Chumar and Pangong Tso.

Around 600 Chinese incursions were reported in three years from 2010 and 2013 of 10-year period of relative tranquility along the LAC.

On the contrary, the Modi government has been able to put across its rebuttal of China despite a record 18 meetings between Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping including informal summits to boost friendship.

The Modi government has been able to build a positive Indian narrative of the 73-day Doklam stand-off over a territory belonging to Bhutan. India was among the countries which strongly favoured independent probe into the origin of novel coronavirus pandemic at the WHO’s World Health Assembly – a move that China has deeply resented.

Is the sharp attack on PM Modi over his Galwan statement a show of “offence is the best defence” strategy by the Congress?

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