Doklam: the word from Ground Zero - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 4 August 2017

Doklam: the word from Ground Zero

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th Aug 17

On Friday, with China’s defence ministry warning New Delhi that: “restraint has its bottom line”, Indian Army officers participating in the Doklam faceoff have provided Business Standard the first detailed accounts of how the situation has evolved.

They say the Doklam bowl – which is disputed between China and Bhutan – currently has an extended, 200-metre long line of Indian infantry soldiers confronting a smaller number of Chinese border guards. Just one metre separates the two lines.

At any time, there are about 40 Chinese border guards in the disputed valley, facing off against three times that number of Indian jawans.

Backing up the Chinese front line are another 1,500 troops, a mix of border guards and regular People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers. These are positioned outside the disputed Doklam area, but cross in and out of the disputed area, relieving those on the front line at regular intervals.

Indian troops standing guard in Doklam are similarly relieved by a full infantry battalion (600 troops), located in Indian territory to the west. Backing up this battalion is a full infantry brigade (2,000 troops), ready to respond to any military moves from China.

In addition, a second fully acclimatised infantry brigade, slightly further away, stands ready to respond to a crisis.

“We fortunately had two brigades training in high altitudes nearby, so we have plenty of acclimatised troops. If needed, we can muster far more forces than the Chinese in Sikkim. This would never be an area where they start something”, says a senior Indian commander.

According to these officers’, tension began in early June, when Indian forces in the vicinity observed Chinese patrols reconnoitring the track in the disputed Doklam bowl. Intelligence assessments concluded that China was going to try and extend the road towards the Jampheri Ridge, at the farthest edge of China’s claim line.

Indian commanders strongly rejected yesterday’s statement by China’s foreign ministry, which claimed that India had been notified on May 18 and June 8, out of goodwill through the border meeting mechanism”, that China would be building a road in Doklam.

They say, the Indian army reported to Delhi that road building seemed imminent, and were granted permission to cross into Bhutan-claimed territory to stop construction.

When India crossed into Doklam and confronted the Chinese construction parties, “they were taken completely by surprise and offered no resistance”, says an officer privy to events. “These are no soldiers; they are conscripted border guards, who live in heated barracks and periodically patrol the border in vehicles. They don’t walk much”, says an Indian commander.

“Our soldiers, in contrast, live a far tougher life. In Doklam, they stand guard without moving, while the Chinese keep breaking the line and going back for cigarette breaks. Indian morale is sky-high; soldiers know they are participating in something unprecedented – crossing a border to defend an Indian ally”, says the Indian officer.

Eventually, the Chinese had to send in a political commissar, recount Indian officers. “The commissar ordered up martial music and the hoisting of Chinese flags to stiffen resolve. They clearly had problems”, he says.

In the macho manner of militaries, the Indian Army is using a large number of Sikh and Jat soldiers to man the line in Doklam – in the expectation that their height and sturdiness would intimidate the smaller Chinese.

Army officers are elated also at having kept the confrontation out of the media for a full ten days, until Beijing was forced to make the incident public. “The Chinese have always complained that India’s media is too shrill and pro-active. This time, China had to mobilise their media, because we were there on the ground and nobody knew.”

Indian soldiers also point out that China has begun building bunkers and creating defences on the border. “That’s another first. They are recognising our capability to act decisively”, says an officer.

According to a senior Indian general: “The situation in Doklam has plateaued. Militarily, the Chinese know they can do nothing here. Eventually it will have to be a negotiated withdrawal, or the Chinese will have to open a front in another sector.”

With Beijing warning on Friday that “Chinese armed forces will resolutely protect the country's territorial sovereignty and security interests”, the PLA could choose its next move anywhere on a long, 3,500-kilometre border that stretches from Ladakh to Myanmar.


  1. Ajai sir,

    You have been one of the best, balanced and reliable source of News in so far as the Doklam conflagration is concerned. Its really heartening to see how our Armed forces, Diplomats and Government have responded in the most calm and dignified manner. I have grown up reading up about the events leading up to and the aftermath of border skirmishes in 1962, 67 and the 86-87. But this whole episode playing out the way it is when conventional media, social media and common citizens have their eyes and ears plugged in is riveting. Keep up the amazing job you are doing sir

  2. Yes, it seems we acted decisively and fast. Army should be proud of it. However, there is nothing very intricate in moving a brigade or two, a few hundred kms, in peace time. Without in any way detracting from the excellent implementation, the more important question is - all this for what? Pure brinkmanship and no more. Very risky, with no real benefits. Concept of intimidating shorty chinks with tall masculine Sikhs and Jats is too childish. Chinks were short in 1962 too. So were the Vietcong all along.

  3. Sir, don't infantry batallion are at a strength of around 1000 and brigades at around 3000 frontline? Or have there been some changes over the years.

  4. Could you tell me if there have been changes made to an inf battalion/brigade strengths? I remember they used to have 900 and 3000 troops respectively.

  5. What difficult in understanding this:
    "The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gimpochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nipal territory."
    The Sikkim border is settled.
    The Chinese are entitled to consider their territory along the highest point along the watershed upto mount Gompochi.
    Beside 24 rounds of talks were held by China and Bhutan not once (and the minutes are there) was this area discussed as being under dispute by China or Bhutan.
    The third party India stepped into Chinese territory territory without being invited by Bhutan. There has been NO statement from Bhutan Government asking India for assistance.
    The Chinese are patient people, we strike a balance, is this area worth causing a long term deterioration of relations with India, we do have a significant trade in our favour, and a large future potential of trade with the worlds largest country in population, India.
    A short sharp skirmish is not going to solve the problem China would need to prepare and attack all along the frontier with India in a war given our much larger economy and Pakistan China will win.
    This small piece of land Donglang is not worth it. But China has learned from this experience, never again will the PLA be caught at a disadvantage, our contingency plans will be made now in line with the new reality. The PLA will reinforce and build infrastructure in Tibet in preparation of any future conflict anywhere along the border.
    This has only succeeded in the Militarisation of both sides at the cost of development priorities in our respective countries.

  6. Dear Mr. Asthana,

    The point is to prevent the bulldozing of Dokalam by Chinese industrial machinery followed by the PLA allowing them to swallow the area.
    The Indian Army just did their job, while risking their lives.
    No real benefits?? Thats a shame.

  7. Dear Sir, It is heartening to see that we have not backed down and are staring the Chinese in the face at Doklam. But there are two pertinent questions which beg to be asked - 1) Is Bhutan for whom we purportedly entered the fray willing to go the distance with us if push comes to shove? 2) Are we militarily 'well - prepared' if war is ultimately thrust upon us?

    The answers are not encouraging.

    Unfortunately, India's immediate neighbours - Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Myanmar - have all shown a predilection to sleep with China (pardon my language!). One wonders if Bhutan might follow suit! So, let us shed any pretence that we are doing this for Bhutan. We are doing this for us, that China does not separate the NE from the Indian mainland.

    Secondly, the CAG reports detailing the glaring gaps in India's defences - shortage of critical ammunition, failure of Akash ADMs in random tests, etc. is worrying, to put it mildly.One hopes that the current dispensation has factored all these and our bravado at Doklam is backed up by real steel!

  8. Doklam maybe advantage india....but the Chinese will open other areas of conflict...

    then what will we do.a full scale conflict seems to be in the offing

  9. The Chinese will open other areas of conflict

    This brinkmanship will lead to full scale wR

  10. I have been seeing you right from your NDTV days and by far you are the most credible media personality who has presented the ground situation as it exists. Well done job and we feel elated over your positive stories boosting the morale of our jawans.


  11. It seems abated for now. But if those @ NCR remain as indecisive(placative)as before,they may run out off good fortune.

  12. Ajai,

    I'm confused. I thought the boundary was disputed and the Chinese did one of their usual forward creep? If so, can we be on their side of boundary in first place?

  13. Absolutely fantastic reporting. Keep doing excellent work.
    Request you to please publish an article about possible scenarios in next few weeks. As well as our presentation and readiness for each scenarios, let public be educated with real scenarios.

  14. What lasts long... Vijender showed...

  15. When you fail to see the benefits you fail to see what China really is. Its a bully that believes that China discovered the world and that world must kneel to it. From borders is laddakh to AP, Chinese have no regard for anyone else but there own claims. The nine dash line of south China sea is another example.
    I think that establishes the need to stare back at dragon.
    By standing up for Bhutan we have chosen the best possible ground. If China resolved to intervene against India - its belt initiatives will take a hit. If it doesn't India wins by default and becomes a rallying point for countries like Vietnam. Either way China will learn that this new world is no longer a place for a heavy duty muscle flexing.

  16. Dear NS Prasad - Soldiers risking their lives does not automatically accrue benefits to the venture. Indian soldoers risked their lives in 1962 as well as in Sri Lanka. We should distinguish between respect for martyrs and the politico-military benefits of the war in which they die.

  17. @Jazz - What you seem to be saying is that China has become too big for its boots so it becomes India's responsibility to cut it to size. Well, no country must go to war for anything except to advance its own cause. Certainly not to cut someone else to size. Let us leave that philosophy to USA.They have the dollars for it.


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