Since the 1971 War of Liberation in Bangladesh, the Eastern Command of the Indian Army has regularly complained of receiving far fewer resources than those in the north and west of the country. The festering conflicts in Siachen and Kashmir, the threat of war with Pakistan and the relative quiet in the east since the signing of the 1993 Treaty of Peace and Tranquillity with Beijing were complemented by the Naga ceasefire and the withering away of many of the northeastern insurgencies. Collectively, this added up to a massive scaling down of military involvement in the east.
All of this is changing thick and fast. Major initiatives are afoot at the behest of an army chief who served in the east before taking over the top job, at a time when Sino-Indian sabre-rattling has resumed. General V K Singh, before and after he took charge of India's 1.1-million strong army, has already pushed several new proposals through the Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs, and several more are lined up that are likely to be cleared soon.
After the 1993 treaty with China, India scaled down to two mountain divisions (the Fifth and Second) in Arunachal Pradesh with two other mountain divisions redeployed to counter-insurgency roles in the rear (the 20th in Assam and the 57th in the Manipur), to be redeployed in the Himalaya as quickly as required. But now, New Delhi is raising two new mountain divisions, the 56th and the 71st, specifically for the state of Arunachal, bordering Tibet. Some 1260 officials and more than 35,000 soldiers have been already assigned to these two divisions, Indian military officials say. In addition, two independent brigades, trained and equipped for 'limited crossborder strikes', will also be deployed. If Gen Singh has his way, a mountain strike corps will also be created, to provide command and control to these new formations, which will be raised for the Eastern Himalaya by the end of 2011.
Since 1962, India's military doctrine against China has been focused on defence. 'These new formations will ensure there is no physical gap in our defences in Arunachal Pradesh,' said retired Major-General Gaganjit Singh, who commanded a mountain division in the Northeast. At the same time, he certainly has not missed the proposed creation of new formations for strike roles. 'If offence is the best defence, we need to have the capability to take the battle across [the border], at least in some places,' he said. Another retired lieutenant-general who has commanded a corps in the Northeast suggested on condition of anonymity, 'The Indian Army strength in the Northeast will cross the 100,000-mark by end of 2011. Much of these troops will face China straight and hard. We will also see major upgrades in equipment and communications.'
The army's proposal, now under consideration at the highest levels of government, envisages an expenditure of INR 95 billion. This would primarily be for new equipment such as ultra-light howitzer guns and helicopters required for creating these highly mobile units, which will operate like rapid-reaction forces. The army is also moving forward with a long-standing plan to raise 'home and hearth', or locally raised, battalions for placement along the unresolved border with China. In a recent conference of army commanders chaired by Gen Singh, a decision was made to raise battalions of Arunachal and Sikkim Scouts, patterned after the Ladakh Scouts, which played an important role in dislodging Pakistani militants during the 1999 Kargil conflict. The Ladakh Scouts were actually raised in June 1963, after the rout in the 1962 war with China, with just eight companies; the battalion gained the status of a full-fledged infantry regiment after it became one of the first units to fight in the 1999 Kargil war. The Scouts are an 'eyes and ears' formation that assisted the regular army with reconnaissance, tactical intelligence, support warfare and liaising with the local population, not unlike the 'special police officers' raised in several Indian states to fight separatists and Maoists.
'Like the experience with the Ladakh Scouts has shown, people hailing from high-altitude areas are better adapted for deployment at such heights,' said former army chief J J Singh, now serving as governor of Arunachal Pradesh, at a time when the state is witnessing a military build-up. Singh said that the local communities are not only acclimatised to the terrain and altitude, but can also be a crucial link between the army and local populations – assist in 'border-level intelligence gathering'. The proposal for the new Arunachal and Sikkim Scouts battalions, which could have 5000 soldiers each, has already been agreed upon 'in principle' by the Indian government.
The furious Indian build-up in the Eastern Himalaya follows Beijing's ramping-up of Chinese presence in Tibet, particularly the quantum leap that has taken place in recent years in the plateau's rail, air and road infrastructure. These new installations contrast with the scaling down of the Chinese deployment – reciprocated by India – that followed the 1993 treaty. At that time, both sides cut down forward deployment of troops by two full divisions, along with consequent reduction of support arms, and set up a system of regular border meetings including annual crossborder visits to generate confidence – though this has not happened for a year.
As India gave up its one-time distance with the US and started to develop a major strategic relationship (alongside negotiations for the '123' civilian-nuclear deal), Beijing stepped up the ante along the Arunachal border, claiming the state as its own. Indian military officials say that immediately after the military-to-military relations with the US started improving and the two armies started regular exercises, the number of Chinese incursions across the border began to mount. Chinese patrolling became increasingly aggressive, as one Chinese patrol chopped off the nose of a Buddha statue near Bumla Pass in June. At the diplomatic level, Chinese claims to Arunachal, dormant during the decade after the signing of the 1993 treaty, became increasingly strident, with Chinese websites beginning to describe the state as 'Southern Tibet'. Indian military patrolling also increased, and plans were undertaken to step up the deployment. The shrill Indian television media whipped up public opinion by playing them up as evidence of 'dangerous Chinese intent'.
All of which is certainly not conducive for those who argue for peace and mutual prosperity as the driving force of Sino-Indian relations. 'India should be truly non-aligned, rather than act as a US lackey,' says Dibyesh Anand, author of Modern Tibet: A victim of geopolitics? 'We have so much to gain from good relations with China.' But Anand says, in both China and India, the military is becoming increasingly influential on determining border policies – 'so the chances of a border settlement are evaporating.'
There are indeed striking similarities between the sharp deterioration of China-India relations now and the way this took place in the run-up to the 1962 war. Then, as now, the US shadow is casting an ominous shadow on this relationship. India is not currently backing a raging US-aided insurgency in Tibet, as it was doing then, but there is little doubt against whom the Indo-US strategic relationship is directed. 'India missed out on an historical opportunity to settle its border with China in 1960,' says Neville Maxwell, author of India's China War. 'It seems Delhi has not learnt any lesson.' In Maxwell's view, New Delhi should not be repeating the mistake of the 1960s: provoking the Chinese to please the Americans.