As the armed forces play a major role in helping the country tackle the COVID-19 crisis, Chief of the Army Staff General MM Naravane on Wednesday said the Army is geared up to face any kind of situation. “We are an Army of the people, for the people," he said in an exclusive interview to CNN-News18.
Speaking on the issue of India-China relations post the agreement to disengage along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, he said, “Both sides are observing the disengagement in letter and spirit. There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing."
Speaking on the COVID-19 vaccination drive, “The experience with the vaccination has been very good. In fact, the entire vaccination process also went through smoothly." At least 97 per cent of the forces have received the first does of vaccine and 90 per cent have been administered the second dose. “Soon we will touch 95 per cent in double vaccination," said General Naravane.
“There is no hesitation. We are an army of the people, for the people. We are defending for our citizens and there is no slightest hesitation. We are there for the people," he said.
Talking about Army’s role, he said, “There is no difference in mobilising for the pandemic. This is because time to time we also assist to other natural calamity. We are quite well geared up. All three branches of armed forces have been working collectively. Those which came in abroad were mainly brought in by Navy and Air Force. The transport within the country were taken over by Army."
“Fortunately, the spread in the rural areas has been less. Our reach is far and wide. One must report to the nearby unit and after that it becomes our responsibility. We should not make distinction especially when we are confronted with a natural calamity or a pandemic of such sort," he said.
The Indian Army will have an “enhanced” presence on the entire northern front from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh till talks with China are underway and “de-escalation” is achieved, Naravane said.
He also said the disengagement process between the neighbours, who are locked in a year-long standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), has been “cordial so far”, hoping the trust that has been built over the past three months will help both sides make a “forward movement” in resolving pending issues. At the same time, he pointed out that “disengagement has happened, (but) not de-escalation”.
Gen Naravane said 11 rounds of military talks have taken place between India and China, and stressed that no “transgressions and violations” have happened since the beginning of the disengagement process in February.
“What is important is that we are talking. And what is important to know is that between two phases, there are periods where the trust has to be built up…I think the trust has (been) built up…because of that trust, maybe we will be able to make forward movement in other areas where issues are still to be resolved. I think this is a continuous process which will take time, but (it) will happen,” he added.
When asked how many troops were deployed on LAC, Gen Naravane said the numbers keep changing as the personnel are “rotated”. He said the deployment on the northern frontier is “what they were at the height of the stand-off”.
“Around say 50,000-60,000,” he said.
In the same breath, he added: “It is very difficult to say this is the figure…the whole front will see this enhanced presence till such time we keep talking and de-escalation happens. We have to be ready to be deployed for the long run as well.”
Gen Naravane clarified that “when I say northern front, it is not just the area of Eastern Ladakh, but the whole front — from Ladakh down to Arunachal”.
Last year, tensions between India and China soared in the wake of the border standoff that was first reported in May. Ties hit a new low after a deadly clash in Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley that killed 20 Indian soldiers. After months, China officially announced that it suffered four casualties, though observers think the number could be much higher. It was the first deadly conflict between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the LAC in 45 years.
In the midst of spiralling tensions, both sides deployed tanks and artilleries in an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff. While the two sides have managed to achieve disengagement in Pangong Tso, outstanding issues remain in other key friction points such as Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang.
When asked about China’s efforts to bolster border infrastructure, Gen Naravane assured that India was not lagging on that front.
“Infrastructure development is a continuous process. After all, when you are deployed, you don’t want to be in harsh conditions or sub-standard infra for months to come. So, obviously he (Beijing) is also improving his facilities, his infra and storage. And so are we. We are monitoring each of these developments and let me assure you, we are in no way lacking or behind in our infra development.”
The Army chief also spoke on the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan that was announced on February 25, terming it a “very positive development” that “has been fairly successful”.
“There has only been one — sort of violation, but that border has been in the IB sector, the International Border (IB) area between the (Pakistan’s) Rangers and the BSF (Border Security Force),” he said.
Gen Naravane stressed that India has made its position clear that a ceasefire agreement will not be a deterrent to its “counter-terror ops on our own side”.
“Obviously, when it is sometimes closer to the border, firing will take place. But ceasefire violation with one post firing on another post — in the classical sense — whether small arms or heavy calibre, hasn’t happened at all. So, definitely it is a good thing…almost two months now the ceasefire has been in effect, and we are hopeful that it will continue,” he said.