Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to troops during his visit to Nimu in the territory of Ladakh. Photo: AFP / Indian Press Information Bureau

Chinese diplomats have been accusing Indian frontline troops of either violating the chain of command or being misused by their seniors.

They claim that the savage clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley on June 15 was a result of the grave failure of the Bihar Regiment of the Indian Army to uphold the military doctrine of command control. Consequently, 20 of the regiment’s soldiers, including a commanding officer, Colonel Santosh Babu, and an unknown number of Chinese troops lost their lives.

Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, published a report on June 17 citing Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressing an earnest need to probe the incident and demand the strict punishment of those who should be held accountable. China also demanded that India strictly discipline its frontline soldiers.

Wang expressed such views to his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in a telephone conversation held two days after the deadly skirmish. The phone call was arranged to lower the tension between the two countries. On the same day, Indian media also ran stories about the Chinese demand for an inquiry and punishment for the culprits.

In an exclusive interview for The Wire with a prominent Indian journalist, Karan Thapar, on June 18, a former Indian ambassador to China and foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, also cast doubt on the wisdom of Indian soldiers entering Chinese territory at night.

When Thapar asked her whether questions could be raised about the fact commanding officer Colonel Babu decided to check whether the Chinese had withdrawn as they had committed to do at 7:30pm when it is dark, in an area that is mountainous and dangerous, rather than during daylight hours, Rao replied, “That is definitely a question that needs to be answered.”

She added that it was unclear “whether it was Colonel Babu’s own decision as … the battalion commander to verify the Chinese withdrawal at 7:30pm or whether he was doing this on the instructions from higher-level leaders.”

H S Panag, a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army, in a June 18 column in The Print, wrote, “The military hierarchy itself failed in its professional responsibility to advise the government to use force as per professional norms. The blood of these soldiers is on the hands of the government and the military hierarchy.”

However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the nation for the first time after the Galwan clash on June 22, highly praised the deceased soldiers, saying, “Desh ko is baat ka garv hoga ki ve marte marte mare” – the nation will be proud to note that they died while killing the enemies.

Similarly, on his Independence Day eve address to the nation, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said, “The entire nation salutes the martyrs of Galwan Valley…. Their bravery in combat has demonstrated that while we believe in peace, we are also capable of giving a befitting response to any attempt of aggression.”

However, about two months after the Galwan clash, on the eve of India’s Independence Day, the Chinese ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, again reiterated the Chinese stance.

In the magazine China-India Review published by the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, he said, “We urge the Indian side to conduct a thorough investigation, hold the violators accountable, strictly discipline the frontline troops and immediately stop all provocative acts to ensure such incidents will not occur again,” The Indian Express reported.

Finally, the Indian government admitted that its military committed a blunder in the Galwan clash, not by words but by its actions.

India awards medals for its military and paramilitary troops for their extraordinary courage to protect the borders on the occasion of Independence Day on August 15 every year. None of the 20 Indian soldiers killed in the Galwan clash were included in the gallantry decoration list. It seems the exclusion of their names from the list was a posthumous punishment.

It would seem natural that if 20 Indian soldiers died killing their Chinese enemies while defending the border, as claimed by the prime minister, and India feels proud of them, as the president describes, they would have been posthumously decorated with higher-order gallantry medals. Therefore, why that didn’t happen is a question that Indian citizens must ask their government.

The exclusion of these deceased soldiers’ names from the decoration list lends weight to the Chinese claim that Indian armed forces are not under the control of their military commanders and civilian leaders. The Chinese demand for an investigation therefore seems to be based on plausible grounds.

There was a strong chance that senior military commanders influenced the Bihar Regiment to act as it did, or that the soldier did so on their own initiative, violating the command control to provoke the Chinese. If the former is the case, senior military leaders might have done so with an eye toward their own political clout after retirement. Increasing numbers of retired military commanders have been entering Indian politics recently.

Besides, India tried masquerading as the victim of Chinese “territorial expansionism” and “aggression” after the Galwan clash. India also attempted to use the Galwan incident as a “victim card” to seek international support for its anti-China campaign.

However, China has repeatedly claimed that the Indian soldiers acted against the military code of ethics and their oaths of office. The Chinese consider this a breach of the military doctrine of command control.

The incident has serious implications for India domestically and for regional peace and stability in the future. Various stakeholders and their appropriate responses are desirable now.

First, Indian taxpayers and voters should hold their government accountable for the incident because the Indian state’s military credibility is under question.

Indian foreign-affairs journalists, strategic analysts, academia, and think-tanks should set their jingoism aside. They must act astutely because their state’s credibility is under question. They should ask questions of their prime minister, defense minister, chief of defense staff, and army chief about the Galwan incident and press for an investigation.

Second, this is a vexing issue for India’s rivals China and Pakistan, and its immediate neighbors Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. All of those countries should collectively hold India accountable to ensure that all of its forces are under the control of military commanders and their civilian leadership.

Last, India possesses a nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles. If the command control is not under the military leaders and their civilian masters, Indian atomic and strategic arms could be misused. In such cases, the strategic doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is likely to be broken in the future.

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.