Psychological profiling of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers done by Indian Army officers—both officially and informally—paints a sad picture of China’s Army. These Indian Army officers were or are posted at India’s eastern border, which it shares with China, including at Nathu La.
The Sunday Guardian spoke to serving and retired Army officers, on and off the record, who have spent a considerable time at the India-Chinese borders, to find out the reality of the PLA, which, thanks to its focus on psy-war and image building, has created a larger than life image for itself in the virtual arena.
All these Indian officers had engaged in one-to-one confrontations with their Chinese counterparts multiple times during their posting.
According to these veterans and serving officers, the PLA’s men, especially those who are asked to serve at the India-China borders, are not very motivated because of the physical hardship they have to endure and the low pay, which, in their view, does not justify the hardship that they have to face.
Indian Army officers have also learnt, while interacting with PLA officers, that the PLA is an extremely corrupt force. This is also evident from the punishment meted out to more than 100 PLA officers at or above the corps-level.
These men included two former Central Military Commission vice chairmen who were investigated and punished in the last few years by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The PLA needs to rely on “fear” to push its men, especially its lower ranks, to keep them motivated in inhospitable terrains like Nathu La, where action takes place at a height of more than 14,000 feet.
The PLA, as these Indian officers shared with the department concerned in the South Block, lacked cohesiveness among its cadre, who have massive disrespect for their superiors. The lack of fraternal feelings among the PLA men is easily visible.
“Theirs is not a motivated Army. PLA relies on fear to extract performance, which does not work in a place like Nathu La. They are extremely low paid.
My counterpart once told me that he gets one third of what I get. In PLA, there is no recognition of the fallen, as was evident from the recent 15 June standoff, unlike in our country where the fallen are treated like God and their names are engraved in memory for eternity,” a retired colonel, who was posted at Leh until recently, told The Sunday Guardian.
In his interaction with his fellow officers of the PLA, the colonel learnt that the PLA officers compensate their low pay through authorised perks like free rations, liquor, cigarettes, domestic help, children’s school and college fees, vehicles etc.
“Basically, the officer cadre depends on these perks for survival, which is withdrawn very quickly on slightest suspicion. The majority of PLA officers are highly insecure about their career. The CCP (Communist Party of China) controls the lifestyle of their individuals very closely.
In a second incident, both my counterpart and I were alone (in a ceremony loosely called “private tea” by the Chinese). Both of us decided that once we join the tea party we will identify, from each other’s contingent, people who are not from the regular Army.
I took about 5 minutes to do that with 100% accuracy; he took about 10 minutes—basically political commissars (political officers of the CCP) from their side and intelligence guys from our side. I could see the hate my counterpart had for the political commissars. I did not find the PLA a cohesive force like our infantry units,” the officer said.
An Indian officer was once told by his Chinese counterparts that most of them were on a four-year conscription that allowed them free further education if they served in the PLA.
“I once saw were a lot of celebrations on their side. I called their company commander and asked him why his men were celebrating. He told me that they were celebrating their ‘freedom’ as they were being ‘released’ that day to pursue their studies. At that point, I wondered how many of them would die for their country voluntarily,” Colonel (Retd) Bhupinder Shahi recalled.
According to him, the PLA men were also known for showing aggression when there was a camera or a video around.
“They were more interested in capturing their aggression on camera, most probably to show it to their superiors. They would also take snaps of their GPS coordinates, to prove that they were exactly where they were ordered to be. In fact, I would offer them water, tea and pakoras once the aggression photo session was over.
They even asked for water and tea after showing initial aggression on camera. Their psychological profiling will conclusively prove that should push come to shove, we will certainly get better of them in a localised environment,” said Shahi, who spent eight years in the Ladakh region in his 27-year-career.
Explaining the inhospitable terrain, Shahi said that it was one of the most inhospitable terrains because of heights that start from 14,000 feet and go beyond 18,000 feet. “To explain it to you in layman’s terms, when we used to play cricket and when there was a possibility of taking two runs, we would take one as every step required massive efforts.
Having a fistfight there is the most difficult task. Only those who have massive stamina and acclimatization built by staying in these areas for years can throw forceful punches beyond two punches,” the officer recalled.
Another serving officer who has been posted there recalled that until 2010-11, the infrastructure in the Ladakh region bordering China was very “inadequate”.
“Till 2010-2011, Jonga jeeps, Tata 407 pickups, Maruti Gypsies and horses were airdropped once every few months to patrol the area. Now, we are able to move heavy artillery in the same area with ease because of our roads that have come up which have irked the Chinese. Earlier, we had very weak boats and they would topple us as we patrolled our part of the Pangong Lake. Now we have Tampa boats and it is an equal fight now,” he said.
Colonel (Retired) L.P. Singh, who has considerable experience of the LAC, said that it would be wrong to think that the Chinese were invincible.
“We are better trained, better led and better battle-hardened/inoculated than them at the tactical level for sure. There are many examples that many of our officers can offer you to substantiate what I am saying,” Singh said.
Singh recalled an incident of August 2003 when he was posted in Ladakh Scouts and was deployed as Sub-Sector Commander at Track Junction, a point which is just short of the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) post. He was supported by two more companies from ITBP, overlooking the Depsang Plateau in the East.
“Daulat Beg Oldi, Gapsan and KK Pass were in my area of responsibility. KK Pass lies approximately 8 km from DBO and 12 km from Track Junction. The LAC is on the east of the posts.
Regular patrolling to various points and locations including KK Pass was carried out by both of us. Every time we went to KK Pass and other patrolling points we would find tell-tale signs left behind by the Chinese patrols to say that the territory belonged to them.
We would replace them with our booties to convey the same to them. The varying perception of LAC delineation on ground has been the major reason for calling every transgression of the adversary’s patrol as LAC violation. Our patrols would also traverse up to the line of our perception.
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So, it was very much possible that two patrolling parties of the adversaries could come face to face at some point of time. But then there was SOP laid down to deal with such situations. I am sure it exists even today.
In the event of face-to-face confrontation, the two sides would follow the SOP and eventually return to bases without getting into physical fight,” Singh told The Sunday Guardian.
“However, on one fine morning in the month of August 2003 around 8 am, the Chinese decided to cross even their own perceived LAC and come right into our territory.
Our OP (Observation Post) was reporting the movement continuously right from sighting the Chinese patrolling party from the time when they were well inside their territory to the crossing of our perceived LAC to the crossing of their perceived LAC.
The situation drastically changed when their truck didn’t stop at their perceived LAC and continued to move towards our Tactical HQ. We swung into action. I quickly moved with my section Quick Reaction Team to confront the erring Chinese and we blocked them approximately 600 meters from our tactical HQ.
As a drill, I issued warning orders to the ITBP Company commander and the DBO Post Commander to mobilise. They were 10 and so were we. Both sides dismounted from their respective vehicles and got deployed,” he recalled.
“Were we without weapons? No sir, we were with our personal weapons with on-weapon ammunition. While the troops were deployed on ground to limit the other side from getting out-manoeuvred, I, with my operator in tow, was trying to communicate with the Chinese patrol leader as per the SOP asking them to go back.
The Chinese responded back by saying ‘No English’. The clever Chinese officer had come prepared. He had his second section of men as reserve waiting in the depth. This became clear to us when I was trying to communicate with the Chinese.
We were outnumbered by twice the strength. We remained encircled for 45 minutes. However, I had made my orders very clear to the rest of us that if they got physical, we would fire.
Then the first reinforcement of our men arrived and in another 30 minutes, two more platoons from DBO arrived. Now, the game had changed drastically. We were overwhelmingly six times superior in number to them,” Singh said.
“The arrogance of the Chinese officer and his troops had vanished. All this time I was in constant touch with my Battalion HQ located at Partapur and the Divisional HQ at Karu.
I had asked all my troops to take tactical positions on the ground and had made my orders clear to the respective Platoon Commanders that they were free to fire if I became a casualty. At that time, I with my operator and three more, were the only ones exposed,” Singh recalled.
“Taking film shots from our newly acquired digital camera and handycam was important. Finally, the resistance in the Chinese officer gave way to reasonableness.
He lifted both his hands and started walking towards me along with another soldier. I asked him to halt 2 metres away from me. His name plate was in English, read Tashi and was a Lieutenant. He had to be a Tibetan. He told me in ‘English’ that they wanted to go back.
The circumstances had changed 180 degrees from asking us to go back to requesting us to let them go back. Finally, at approximately 1600 hours, I was asked to let them go back. During this intervening period, we made them sit on the ground. We give them tea, biscuits and shakkarparas. Some of them took it, others didn’t.
Then we did the ‘repatriation’ our way. I conveyed to Lt Tashi that they could go back, but they would have to remove the magazine from their weapons, keep all the weapons in one truck, magazines and ammunition in the second truck, troops distributed in the two vehicles, but without weapons on the body. They complied surprisingly.
I in my Gypsy and four section escorts in four 2.5 tonnes (with the rest deployed on ground giving us cover) led them further 1 km across our perceived LAC. They went back and we returned to Tac HQ. The Chinese didn’t show up in that area again in my balance two months there,” Singh said.
All such incidents were shared by these officers with their higher-ups, as per the rules, as and when they had taken place.