Earlier this week Indian Army’s top brass, comprising the Army Chief, the Vice Chief and the 7 Army Commanders, met to clear the promotion of nearly two dozen Major General rank officers to Lt. Generals. One of these to be promoted officers–the names of those approved for the next rank should become public in less than a month’s time–will have the honour to raise and head India’s 1st dedicated Mountain Strike Corps, to be most probably numbered 17, cleared by the government in July.
South Block, the British time building that houses among others the Army Headquarters, is right now in the middle of fine tuning the contours of the formation to be reportedly based at Ranchi in Jharkhand.
Top sources say while Panagarh in West Bengal will witness the raising of two new Mountain Divisions, the location for the third is in the final stages of discussion. All the three new divisions will eventually come under the new 17 Corps to be based in Ranchi. Significantly, Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh was in Ranchi over the last two days, ostensibly to pay a visit to the 23 Division based there. So what will it be called? 17 Corps? Or 17 Mountain Corps? I am yet to get a clarity on this though surely Army HQ has already thought about it or even finalised it.
India already has 13 full-fledged Corps. Three of them, the Bhopal-based 21 Corps, Mathura-headquartered 1 Corps and 2 Corps, located at Ambala, are designated as Strike Corps. But all of them are tasked for an offensive against Pakistan. The 17 Corps–as a dedicated Mountain Strike Corps–will specifically provide an offensive option against China if required.
The budget of Rs 64,000 crore for the new corps is to be spent over seven years –- which is just as well since raising new formations as large as a Corps is not an easy task. It is further difficult to make that formation capable of mountain warfare. For mountains gobble up troops; they take a heavy toll on man and machine.
The decision on 17 July was somewhat reminiscent of a similar choice exercised by the UPA government almost over four years ago.
The then outgoing UPA-I government’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was meeting for the last time before the results of the 2009 general elections were to be announced. The sole item on the agenda: Enhancing India’s military preparedness against China.
According to insiders present at that meeting, some of the members of the CCS wanted to leave the decision to the next government but better sense prevailed and days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first UPA government went ahead and sanctioned raising of two new Mountain Divisions for deployment in India’s north eastern State of Arunachal Pradesh, an area claimed by China as South Tibet. In addition, the Indian Air Force was given the go ahead to reactivate half a dozen Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs) spread all along the Arunachal-Tibet portion of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries and base additional squadrons of Sukhoi-30 combat jets in Assam.
The goal was to plug existing gaps in India’s preparedness along the Arunachal Pradesh-China frontier. The two new divisions were to include a squadron of India’s armoured spearhead—Soviet-built T-90 tanks–and a regiment of artillery.
Now four years later, the two mountain divisions have completed their recruitment, equipping and orbatting in the North-east. One of them–the 56 Mountain Division–after being raised in Nagaland’s Zakhama area has been placed at Lekhabali, north of the Brahmaputra adding teeth to Indian Army’s presence in East and Central Arunachal Pradesh. The other new Division–71–headquartered at Missamari in the plains of Assam, will enhance troop deployment beyond Tawang in West Arunachal Pradesh in addition to the 5 Mountain Division already stationed at Tenga.
The new mountain corps will require light artillery which can be easily transported, even airlifted in the highest mountains. Given India’s painfully-slow process of weapons acquisition, empowering the Mountain Strike Corps quickly will be a big challenge.
It is all the more necessary for the government to walk the talk in making the new formation a reality by adhering to timelines.
Thankfully, both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh on the frontier with China, India’s strategic planners have started to make amends for decades of lethargy and apathy.
China watchers will recall that it was in 2006 that the Cabinet Committee on Security(CCS), which takes the final decision on India’s security matters had decided to reverse the decades old policy of NOT building infrastructure in the border areas, lest the Chinese get easier access to Indian areas in the event of a skirmish!
The late realisation and start to improve infrastructure–both military and civil–in these remote areas however means that at least for decade, India’s military preparedness there will remain tenuous.
Over the past one year, having travelled to both Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, I am convinced that India has the right intention but somehow lacks the means to get its act together in building and improving infrastructure. There are multiple agencies involved in planning and giving clearances for border projects. Although the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is primarily responsible for road and bridge building in these areas, it is hampered by a number of shortcomings. Having told the BRO to construct 73 strategic Roads in 2006, it was expected that these roads will be ready by its original deadline of 2012. Unfortunately on a fraction of the work has been completed
As a quasi-military organization the BRO is entrusted with building and maintaining these strategic roads and come rain or winter, its labourers work to keep the only road link to Tawang in Arunachal Prdaesh open through the year but at the moment they are fighting a losing battle, as I saw during my travel there. The fault lies not with them but with people higher up who planned the widening of the only road without building an alternative.
Constant landslips, frequent blockades are a recurring challenge. But landslides apart , BRO officials told me that they are plagued by a shortage of labour in this sector. Earlier, large groups from Jharkhand and Bihar made their way to these parts. No longer, since now plenty of work is available in their home states. Excruciatingly slow environmental clearances both by the central and state governments add to the delays. In Arunachal Pradesh, nearly five months of Monsoon followed by a couple of months of intense cold and snowfall means, the working season is limited to less than six months.
In Ladakh too, the situation is no different. Snow and severe winter leaves the road and infrastructure builders just about six months of work time through the year. But as state government officials in a remote sub-division like Nyoma in south eastern Ladakh told me last fortnight the clearances have started flowing in faster than before. The road from Upshi to Demchok for instance is currently witnessing intense broadening and improvement work. Demchok is the place where maximum face offs have occurred between Indian Army and Chinese PLA patrols. The Indus also enters India at this extreme south-east corner of Ladakh.
India owes it to its own forces to put in place better infrastructurealong the China frontier and provide border guarding forces like the ITBP better facilities than the current ones. Although there is clamour to entrust the India-China border fully to the Army or bring the ITBP fully under the Army’s control, so long as the ITBP is deployed on the front line, it deserves better treatment.
Similarly, the Centre and the State government must go the extra distance to support the nomadic tribes that live along the remote Ladakh frontier. The further these grazers keep going in search of pasteur for their cattle, the better it is for Indian authorities to lay a claim on the undemarcated borders. These nomads should get full material help in their quest for a better life and access to more grazing land in the border areas.
We all recognise that 2013 is not 1962.
India’s military capability is far far better than it was then; And finally there is too much at stake for Beijing to launch any overt aggression.
But as I wrote earlier, what has not changed is the Chinese tendency of bullying weaker neighbours and its policy to keep redefining ‘core’ interests according to circumstances. Policy making in China is one continuous process. In India on the other hand, it varies according to personalities and political parties in power. While the military in India has overcome the trauma of the 1962 defeat, civilian policy makers appear to be still bogged down by the burdens of the past in dealing with China.
Policy makers in India must be mindful of the fact that military preparedness and trying to improve diplomatic relations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Following is the list of India’s Corps with their locations:
3 Corps–Rangapahar (Dimapur)
33 Corps–Sukna (Siliguri)