Jo ucchit samjho woh karo (Do whatever you deem appropriate), this is what Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told the then Army Chief Gen MM Naravane on the night of August 31, 2020 following a tense situation arising out of Chinese PLA moving tanks and troops in Rechin La mountain pass on the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.

In his memoir Four Stars of Destiny, Naravane recounts Singh’s direction as well as a flurry of phone calls between the defence minister, external affairs minister, the national security advisor and the chief of defence staff that night on the sensitive situation.

After Singh’s call, Naravane says a hundred different thoughts “flashed through” his mind.

“I conveyed the criticality of the situation to the RM (Raksha Mantri), who said he would get back to me, which he did, by about 2230 hours,” writes Naravane.

“He said that he had spoken to the PM and that it was purely a military decision. Jo ucchit samjho woh karo (Do whatever you deem is appropriate).”

“I had been handed a hot potato. With this carte blanche, the onus was now totally on me. I took a deep breath and sat silently for a few minutes. All was quiet save for the ticking of the wall clock,” he says.

“I was in my den at Army House, with the map of J and K and Ladakh on one wall, Eastern Command on another. They were unmarked maps, but as I looked at them, I could visualise the location of each and every unit and formation. We were ready in all respects, but did I really want to start a war?” he writes.

In the memoir, Gen Naravane reflects on his thought process that night.

“The country was in bad shape, reeling under the Covid pandemic. The economy was faltering, global supply chains had broken down. Would we be able to ensure a steady supply of spares, etc., under these conditions, in case of a long-drawn-out action?”

“Who were our supporters in the global arena, and what about the collusive threat from China and Pakistan? A hundred different thoughts flashed through my mind,” he writes.

“This was no war game being played in a sand model room of the Army War College, but a life and death situation.”

Naravane says after a few moments of quiet reflection, he called up Northern Army Commander Lt Gen YK Joshi.

“‘We cannot be the first ones to fire,’ I told him, as it would provide the Chinese with an excuse, a casus belli, to escalate and paint us as the aggressors.”

“Even at Mukhpari (on the Kailash Range) the previous day, it had been the PLA who had fired first (being only two rounds by the PLA and three rounds by us, it had escaped the attention of the media),” he writes.

Naravane says he felt that the Army should maintain this stance.

“Instead, I told him to move a troop of our tanks right to the forward slopes of the Pass and depress their guns so that the PLA would be staring down the barrels of our guns,” he writes.

“This was done forthwith and the PLA tanks, which had by then reached within a few hundred metres of the top, stopped in their tracks,” he says.

“Their light tanks would have been no match for our medium tanks. It was a game of bluff and the PLA blinked first.”

Naravane writes the PLA moved troops from Moldo to the area of Chuti Changla towards the South Bank of the Pangong Tso on the intervening night of August 29-30.

By evening itself, they moved forward some troops in the area of the Kailash Range, he says.

By the evening of the 30th, the Indian Army was in a strong position both on the North and South Bank of Pangong Tso as well as the Kailash Range.

“The PLA reaction was not long in coming. On the 30th evening itself, they moved forward some troops in the area of the Kailash Range, stopping about 500 metres short of our locations and started digging in,” he says.

Naravane says the PLA locations were at lower heights and directly under our observation.

“As such, they were of no threat to us, but if they were to come up in strength and try to outflank or surround our localities, then we would have to take action. The situation was tense and nearing breaking point,” he says.

Naravane says the daylight hours of August 31 saw a lot of movement on the PLA side, even as the Army consolidated its own position.

Towards the afternoon, movement of PLA armour was also observed in the area of their garrison at Moldo. Seeing this, our tanks at Tara Base were also ordered to move up to Rechin La, he says.

Naravane says mobilisation of PLA troops was seen in some other locations as well.

“At 2015 hours on the evening of 31 August, Jo (Joshi) rang me up, quite worried. He reported that four tanks supported by infantry had slowly started moving up the track towards Rechin La,” he says.

“They had fired an illuminating round but this had had no effect. I had clear orders not to open fire, ’till cleared from the very top’. A flurry of calls followed, between the RM, EAM, NSA, CDS and myself over the next half-hour,” he adds.

“To each and every one my question was, ‘What are my orders?’ At 2110 hours, Northern Command again rang up, the tanks had continued moving ahead and were now less than a km from the top.

“I rang up the RM again at 2125 hours, with the latest and once more asked for clear directions. The situation was tense. Telephone lines were buzzing.”

Meanwhile, there had been an exchange of Hot Line messages and the PLA Commander, Maj Gen Liu Lin, suggested that both sides should stop any further move and that the two local commanders should meet at the pass at 0930 hours the next morning.

Naravane says he called up Defence Minister Singh and NSA Ajit Doval at 2200 hours to share this news.

“I had hardly put the phone down when Jo (Northern Army Commander Joshi) rang up once again at 2210 hours.

“He said that the tanks had started moving up again and were now only about 500 metres away,” he says.

Naravane says Joshi recommended that the only way to stop the PLA was by opening up with our own medium artillery, which he said was ready and waiting.

“My position was critical…,” he says as he explains how the situation was handled.

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