Govt clarification on LAC vital, shows accountability critical to democracy, reinforces need for transparency

Bhopinder Singh

Given the sovereign stakes and the accompanying emotional outpouring, the press statement following the all-party meeting held on Friday was a reassuring and much-needed clarification. Indeed, India is a democratic country with freedom of speech and 'questioning' as a cherished element of our democratic traditions, as against the authoritarian single-party construct of the Chinese system.

Such a liberality in the Indian context allows for the much-needed 'checks and balances' on the dispensation of the day, that ensures transparency and accountability €" conversely, this also allows for the play of reckless partisan politics, as Opposition parties could use the opportunity, to embarrass the government. This really is the less relevant sideshow and eventuality, as all political parties are guilty of having partaken in the same smallness of spirit, whether in the treasury benches or in the Opposition benches.

Serious matters pertaining to issues of national security are often subject to confidentiality and privileged-access, therefore to some extent, the hesitation to discuss the same threadbare, could be warranted. There are even laws like the Official Secrets Act that denies the access of information that could be helpful to the enemy nations, or the National Security Act to ensure that matters of confidentiality, remain so. However, without getting into the legalities and specifics of the information-containment framework, ensuring that the narrative developing in the country is one that reflects the overarching truth is dependent to a large extent, on the concerted efforts of the government of the day.

Herein, it is important that no contradictory statements are issued by those in positions of responsibility and that the citizenry is updated on the evolving developments, without prejudicing or compromising with either facts or details, which could be inimical to the interest of the nation.

Two good examples of crisis management communication are the Swedish government €" that has entrusted COVID-19 management details to its chief epidemiologist, Ander Tegnell, who remains the single source of all coronavirus-related initiatives and updates €" and the sharp debrief of the evolving situation (albeit, with necessary information withholding) by Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), Lieutenant-General Ranbir Singh, during the surgical strikes. There was neither ambiguity nor interpretation issues, and matters were explained with clinical efficiency by domain experts.

That sort of approach was glaringly missing in the recent crisis and numerous people in authority were expressing their own views. This opened the field for cross-examination, as the 'facts' stated by these officials often contradicted each other. Therefore, in that light, the explicit clarification that "As regards transgression of LAC, it was clearly stated that the violence in Galwan on 15 June arose because Chinese side was seeking to erect structures just across the LAC and refused to desist from such actions" and that "there was no Chinese presence on our side of the LAC pertained to the situation as a consequence of the bravery of our armed forces" should be accepted by all and the measures for de-escalation of tensions, supported across the partisan divide.

As the din lowers on the Galwan incident per se, the government must willingly welcome and brace itself for more 'questioning' on the overall India-China relationship, and the restiveness in the neighbourhood, including that with traditional allies like Nepal. For whatever reasons, none of which are the doing of the Opposition parties in India, the country is facing unprecedented turbulence in South Asia and that has to do with the management of foreign relationships.

Therefore, to attribute these hard 'questions' to a malicious agenda by Opposition parties against the armed forces to 'lower their morale' is fallacious, diversionary and equally partisan. The Opposition owes the nation a duty to play the role of a constructive Opposition, and in that role, 'questioning' the acts of any individual is not tantamount to 'questioning' the sovereignty of the nation or the armed forces €" the delineation between the nation and an individual or a party, is extremely important. For its part, the Opposition must respect the sensitivities and statements without implying outrageous import or pejorative language that diminishes the discourse of the nation.

At the end of the day, the government must realise, that usually it has the presumptive 'monopoly on truth' as it were, and therefore, needs to handle its clarifying statements and reactions with more diligence, facts and sobriety than the Opposition would (and should), as it must seek to punch holes in the narrative.

The real end to the Galwan 'questioning' would be when an unambiguous status quo ante is confirmed. This confirmation entails the unequivocal understanding of the LAC from an Indian perspective with the three 'physical control' realms ie the area with India, secondly the area that was with China, and thirdly and most importantly, the 'no-man's-land' between the two sides €" the restoration to that prior equation without any dilution in the Indian 'physical control' or the 'no-man's-land' is key, as the cartographical contours of India encompass a lot more than just the Galwan Valley.

There are a lot of semantics, terminological and interpretative contexts that can be afforded and affixed to obfuscate the issue, both from the perspective of 'questions', as well as from the 'answers' on the issue, therefore it may be prudent to call the leadership of all major parties to convince them with the privileged information that addresses the concerns of the citizenry. Clearly there have been contradictory communications and even wilder allegations, and from that perspective, the clarification from the PMO is welcome €" even though in the process, it worryingly diminishes contrarian statements from the other official functionaries.

The entire nation, across partisan lines, is united in supporting its government to handle the de-escalation process and restoration of status quo ante, and in the same spirit, the government has to show matching grace, accommodation and sincerity in answering the pointed questions without attributing ulterior motives, deflective whataboutery or using the 'morale' of the soldiers as a pretext.

The author is a retired lieutenant-general and former military secretary to presidents KR Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam

Also See: PLA death squads hunted down Indian troops in Galwan valley; army suffered its worst losses since Kargil War

Galwan incident was no mere 'security' issue; India's diplomacy needs to kick in with rigour to counter China

'Surender Modi': Rahul Gandhi's latest swipe at prime minister over India's Galwan Valley stand-off with China

Read more on India by Firstpost.