Column | Hotlines are not passé, India works them well to nip trouble on borders

Representational Image
Representational Image

As summer spreads across India, international hotlines became hot news last week. First was about the announcement by S Jaishankar and Wang Yi, the foreign ministers of India and China, that there would be a hotline where they would speak to other instantly in times of diplomatic crisis. The second was on the director generals of military operations of India and Pakistan speaking after a long time over the hotline between the two countries, and agreeing to a cease-fire on the volatile Line of Control between the two neighbours.

The Indian government wanted to send the message on how much importance was given to eliminating military and diplomatic misunderstanding with the country's two nuclear-armed neighbours after two years of heightened tension with Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack of 2019, and with China after the Galwan scuffle which left soldiers dead on both sides in 2020.

It is not that Jaishankar and Yi have not spoken to each other after the Galwan flare-up. They have talked to each other on phone and also met in Moscow during a multilateral event where they discussed the provocations for the confrontation and on how both sides should disengage to restore normalcy to the Line of Actual Control between the two sides. The Chinese minister also had told Jaishankar that India should withdraw economic restrictions on Chinese trade and investment, while Jaishankar wanted China to stop its aggressive postures in eastern Ladakh and other border regions.

Outdated concept?

Yet it is argued that the establishment of a hotline conveys more seriousness to nip any future crisis in the bud, rather than allowing public comments and postures to escalate the differences. But many strategic experts feel that hotline is very much an old 20th-century concept devised and implemented when there were no modern communication links between countries. They feel with the technical advancement including instant videoconferencing secured by the technology available to governments at any location on the globe, the link between two static points in different countries is an outdated concept.

Though India and Pakistan have an agreement that the director generals of military operations speak to each other on the hotline every Tuesday (when it is 12 noon in New Delhi and 11.30 am in Rawalpindi, where military headquarters are located), rarely the DGMOs have spoken. Instead, it is the brigadiers who are in charge of the hotline who speak to each other and convey violations of the cease-fire. However, when there are serious cases, the governments summon the high commissioners or charge d'affairs of the other country to the foreign office and convey displeasure in person.

Before the India-China hotline was established, it was a late-night ordeal in 2008 for the then-Indian ambassador to China Nirupama Menon Rao who was summoned to the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing to admonish India over disturbances in Tibet.

S Jaishankar and Wang Yi
India's S Jaishankar and China's Wang Yi pose for a photo.

Not so special anymore

Hotline has lost its early uniqueness as it is now in use at different levels of governments. Earlier the fact that the president or prime minister alone could speak to his or her counterpart on a dedicated phone line and thus settle issues lent the hotline a unique aura. For example, more than 40 hotlines have been set up between the militaries of India and Pakistan along the International Border as well as the Line of Control, where field commanders of both the armies and the border security forces can speak to each other directly on issues at the local level. Similarly, there are several local hotlines between the Indian Army and China's People's Liberation Army. Recently, when five youth from Arunachal Pradesh had strayed into the Chinese territory, a hotline chat between the local military commanders settled the matter and the youth was returned to the Indian side.

Interestingly, though China and India agreed to establish a hotline between the military officers in charge of operations, a protocol issue has prevented the system from being operationalised. That is because while India has a single officer in charge of operations for the country at the level of the Lieutenant-General, China's head of operations for the border with India is of the Major General rank. Since the officers are not of the same rank, the linkage has become an issue. Reciprocity is a major issue among both military and civilian bureaucracies.

Why hotlines are still needed

Hotlines establish a secure one-to-one communication link between the designated and equivalent leaderships of two normally hostile countries with serious military differences. Interestingly, the need for a hotline between Washington and Moscow came in a comedy film first and later a journalist lobbied with the American President John F Kennedy in 1962 to have a direct link to Soviet strongman Nikita Khrushchev after the Soviet move to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, which is at the doorstep of the United States, threatened nuclear war. Kennedy and Khruschev agreed despite misgivings on both sides, as earlier there was no direct contact between the two leaders. Ironically, the first major message conveyed over the hotline from Washington to Moscow was on the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963 and it was one of the first acts of new President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was written carefully to convey that Moscow should not consider any military adventure against the United States at the hour of national mourning.

It is rare for friendly countries to have hotline communication though the United States and Britain do have a little-used hotline between the leadership. Another hotline among friends is between India and the United States, agreed upon in 2015 during the visit of Barack Obama to New Delhi. The first hotline linked the national security advisers of the two countries, and as military co-operation between the two countries increased there is a hotline between defence ministers Rajnath Singh and Lloyd J. Austin.

The United States has a hotline with China also.

The first non-official hotline involving two countries was the one between the North and South Koreas established by the Red Cross committees in the two countries. It was meant for the exchange of information concerning those trying to cross over from the North to the South. Later it was expanded to include military officers and between the two presidents. A temperamental North Korea would show its displeasure by disconnecting the hotlines for long periods. Even China had disconnected its hotline with Washington twice in the last five years to show its anger towards Americans.

The early format

Even though the popular image is that of a red phone ringing on the desk of presidents and prime ministers, technically the link between Washington and Moscow was a teleprinter where messages composed in English (by the United States) and in Russian (by the Soviet Union) would be typed and sent over a secure underground and undersea line. The text would be translated and a reply sent in the host country's language. Voice contact was very less even though both countries kept experts and translators round the clock in the communication rooms. While the American President and his aides would confer in the situation room of the White House, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and his commanders would meet in the war room of the Kremlin when a message from Washington was imminent.

The Indian system

Apart from permanent hotlines, whenever the Indian president or prime minister travels within and outside India, temporary ones would be set up linking them to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Prime Minister's Office.

When the prime minister addresses rallies, the three important criteria are a strong stage, a functioning toilet and a secure telephone and computer link to Delhi. A separate team from the telecom department travels in advance to countries as well as Indian states to set up the communication link.

But there have been unavoidable incidents. Once when a President was in Europe, the single dedicated line was linked to the Rashtrapati Bhavan telephone exchange. But a senior officer could not dial Delhi as the line was engaged for long. Inquiries revealed that the President's butler was having a long conversation with his wife, as the operator connected the call to the butler's residence at the President's estate! Another time during a prime ministerial visit, local officials at a historic guest house reserved for the use of the Prime Minister and his entourage were aghast that telecom technicians were drilling the wall to lay cables for the hotline. The only problem was that the wall contained a much-valued 17th-century fresco painting! After these incidents, a longer protocol is observed for not only setting up the hotline but also its use by the central government.

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