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Galwan Valley: India-China skirmish


Galwan Clash Site. Pic credit: KnowYourHeroes/GoogleEarth

Hrishabh Tiwari

29/04/2021

 

Complex, composite and disputed, that's how Indo-Sino relations could be described. India shares 3,488 kms of land border with China, along certain stretches there is no mutually agreed line to separate the territories. Since the British era, Ardagh-Johnson line proposed by British Major General John Ardagh in 1897 between Indo-China abutting Kashmir was followed. Post Independence India has been firm on the boundaries it has inherited by British and thus claims authority of Aksai Chin, however China feels that British had left legacy of disputed boundaries between the two independent nations. Chinese encroachment in Aksai Chin began in 1950s, slowly they began to establish camps and bunkers. During 1962 Indo-Sino war, China took hold of most parts of Aksai Chin and was firm on its own views about LAC. No bullets, no winter sustaining gears, no water and no food yet the Indian soldiers fought the war with exceptional courage to give a tough fight to Chinese. On December 1, 1962 China unilaterally declared ceasefire under various global pressure, since then the border has remained the same and ceasefire has been respected by both the nations. However various aggressions of the Chinese People's Liberation Army(PLA) have been a constant along the McMahon line(Demarcated border between Indo-China abutting Arunachal Pradesh) and Line of Actual Control(LAC), these incursions as Indian media calls "Chinese transgressions" are often resolved with talks. On June 15, 2020 Indian Army objected to China's construction of observation post near the Galwan river Valley, the clash that followed resulted in 20 Indian brave soldiers 'Killed In Action'. The People's Liberation Army carried spears, rods and sharp weapons to effect the attack on Indian Army. The clash took place on a ridge that resulted in casualties to both sides, according to various intelligence, more than 50 PLA troops were killed. No bullets fired yet so much lost, to understand the Indo-Sino border disputes, one needs to dig deep back to British era.

 

The 3,488 kms of land border shared between the two nations could be divided into three sections, viz Western, Middle and Eastern regions. There are 23 sensitive and disputed regions along the whole Line of Actual Control. The border dispute remains on all the three border sections. The western boundary dispute abutting Kashmir pertained to the Johnson Line in 1900s and now with the Line of Actual Control. The dispute along the middle border region is a minor one, only the border region along Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh is discoursed but now both the nations seem to be contented. The eastern border however has a long dating dispute, the McMahon line covering 890 kms along the north-eastern states of India is not accepted by the Chinese government. To understand the border situation, one needs to study the three sections independently as the motive of Chinese encroachment is different along different borders.


Western Land Borders of India-China

 
Various Border Lines followed since British times

The Johnson Ardagh Line is one of the three boundary lines considered by the British-India government, the other two being the MaCartney-Macdonald line and line along the Karakoram Ranges. The preference and use between these line by the British varied from time-to-time according to their strategic interests in India. The Johnson Ardagh line was proposed to British India government by Major General John Ardagh in 1897 based on the surveys of British Surveyor William Johnson in 1865. The Johnson line represented the "Forward School" that wanted to extend the boundaries as far as possible pretext to the growing Russian empire. But the Chinese showed reluctance towards the extending boundaries by British India government. The MaCartney-Macdonald Line was proposed by British India in 1899 via its Chinese envoy Claude Macdonald, however the Chinese never responded to the proposal hence British India government reverted back to the traditional Johnson line, once again including all of Aksai Chin. Since the 1890s China was interested in the Aksai Chin, starting 1950s China began slowly encroaching the hilly and valley regions of Aksai Chin and established various posts. This is a long dating method of Chinese to occupy territories, by 1962 a larger part of the Aksai Chin was held by China. The Line of Actual Control came into existence after the 1962 Indo-Sino war, both the nation agreed to respect the LAC in a bilateral agreement without demarcating the line itself. Chinese were superior in those times with respect to weaponry, artillery and political willingness, Indian government on the other hand showed a lot of negligence towards our troops fighting in the 1962 war. In the year 1954 China published map showed 38,000 sq. km of Aksai Chin as its part, instead of raising the issue with the Beijing, Nehru gov showed immense strategic failure. The whole of Aksai Chin is now under the control of China but India remains firm and India's map shows PoK and Aksai Chin as its integral part.


The Middle Land Border

 
Disputed areas along the State of Uttarakhand. Pic credit:TOI

Out of the 13 districts of Uttarakhand, 5 are border districts sharing border with Tibet(China). The 625 kms of the border can be termed as the least disputed among the three Indo-Sino borders. The middle border runs from Ladakh to Nepal, Pulam Sumda and Barahoti are the two villages in Uttarakhand where many transgressions from the Chinese is seen.

Disputed areas abutting Himachal Pradesh. Pic credit:TOI

Kaurik and Shipki La in Himachal Pradesh are the ones that have witnessed Chinese interference. Incidentally the Central Indo-Sino border is the most peaceful, both the nations have some territorial disagreement but they have exchanged maps on the border alignment unlike in the western and the eastern sectors.


The Eastern Indo-Sino Border

 
Indo-Sino eastern border. Pic credit: KnowYourHeroes/Oxford Analytica

India witnesses around 350 transgressions from the Chinese every year and this count shot up to 430 in the year 2017 during the Doklam dispute. The McMahon Line marks the border between the Chinese occupied eastern Himalayan territory and Indian regions. The McMahon line was demarcated between Tibet and British India in the year 1914 as a part of the Shimla convention, 1914. Henry McMahon, a foreign secretary in British India signed the convention with Lonchen Satra on behalf of Tibet government. Chinese on the other hand deny to believe the McMahon line stating that the Tibetan government had no authority to sign an agreement. Apart from this Chinese claim over whole of Arunachal Pradesh, marking about 85,000 sq. km of territory as its own and publishing it as part of Southern Tibet in its map. In the eastern sector India shares about 1,140 kms of land border with China, in the year 2017 the dispute between the two nations erupted over the road construction by Chinese at the Doklam trijunction of India-China-Bhutan. The standoff took place after the Indian troops along with the Bhutanese counterparts objected to the road construction. On June 8, 2017 Chinese PLA soldiers came in and destroyed "Self Help Bunkers"(SHBs) on the eastern slope of the ridge, slightly north of Doka La(Indian name for Bhutanese Doklam), the SHBs are in the Bhutanese territories but are needed by the Indian Army as first line of Defence against incomings. The Chinese brought 4-5 Bulldozers and destroyed the bunkers completely in clandestine to road construction. The flare-up saw around 300-350 Indian troops of ITBP and Army taking stand in Doklam. Doklam plateau is of great significance as it connects the north-eastern state with the rest of the country and often described as "Chicken Neck"(due to the thin stripe of area in the plateau). The border dispute of Indo-China is known to be the longest & largest border quarrel in the whole world. After several level of talks between the Commanding officer and External Ministries of both nation, the Doklam fire was doused. No bullets fired since the Nathu-La faceoff which took place in Sikkim in 1967, with Indian Army bearing 80 casualties and over 400 Chinese troop killed in the clash, but there remains an unsettled peace between the two nations along the length of the border. In the official records, it was 1975 Tulung La ambush where last time shots were fired, four Indian soldiers fell but the claims of clash was denied by the guileful Chinese.


The Disputed Pangong-Tso Lake

 
Pangong-Tso(Lake)

Yeah! you got it right, even the most scenic, picturesque and beautiful Pangong lake is not left out of dispute from the cunning Chinese government. Pangong Tso is located in Leh, Ladakh with 1/3 part of the lake in the Indian territory and the balance in the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin. Pangong Tso name arises from the Tibetan word meaning "high grassland lake", the lake itself extends up to 134 kms in length, 700 sq. km in area and 6 km at its max width. The Pangong Tso is a landlocked lake between the two nations at height of about 14,000 ft. Although not of much direct significance but it lies in the path of Chushul approach(LAC lies only 5 kms east from Chushul) which China can use to offense in Indian territory.

Pangong Tso Lake. Pic credit: KnowYourHeroes/GoogleEarth

In the 1962 Indo-Sino war Indian Forces were defeated in battle for Pangong with China, beginning September, 1962 Chinese PLA were encroaching with their troops in the Indian territory but Indian Army did not open-fire immediately- a decision of the Nehru government that was to be regretted when war broke out just 30 days after the incursion.

"Fingers" marked along Pangong Tso

The mountain ridges jutting into the lake are referred to as "Finger" in the military jargon. There are 8 fingers along the north bank of Pangong Tso, India claims it territory up to the Finger 8 while China claims up to Finger 4. Last year in mid 2020, the Pangong dispute erupted back as China's PLA occupied up to Finger 4 and set up permanent posts, jetties, vehicles were brought too along with tanks on the southern bank of Pangong Tso. The engagement saw eye to eye ball confrontation between both camps but nearly 10 months after the flareup and more than 12 rounds of talk between the Corps Commanders, both sides agreed on a mutual disengagement.

China's PLA withdrawing from Pangong Tso to inward posts. Pic credit: India Today
China's PLA dismantling a post in eastern Ladakh near Pangong Tso(left); PLA tanks withdrawing from southern bank of Pangong Tso(right)

The Galwan Clash

 

Indian Army time and again prove their mettle and caliber in the battlefield, this time it was in the narrow valley of the Gallowan river, the river flows into Ladakh from China occupied Aksai Chin. The utterly steep and narrow Galwan Valley has been a flashpoint between India and China, even in the 1962 war China attacked and erupted the forward posts of India in the upper reaches of Galwan Valley. On June 15, a bloodletting clash between the troops of the two sides transpired leading to 20 Indian soldier "Killed in Action" and more than 50 People's Liberation Army's troop dead.

 

10 days before the clash, Lieutenant General level talks had taken place account to disengagement from Patrol point 14(Patrolling Points are areas that the militaries of both India and China patrol and not the whole of 1,100 km border), since the both side troops had mobilised very close to the LAC. Indian Army patrolled up to PP-14 but never did any construction and from time to time China's PLA patrolled PP-14 as well. However Chinese PLA constructed an observation post at the vertex of the bend of Galwan river which was proven in the Commander level talks between both sides and China agreed to dismantle the post and it was decided that both sides would fall back from PP-14. The talk was held on June 6, 2020 between 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen. Harinder Singh and his Chinese counterpart Major General Lin Liu, commander of the South Xinjiang Military District. Col Santosh Babu, CO 16 Bihar Infantry battalion even had talks with the Chinese counterpart after the dismantling of the post. China being utterly unpredictable and untrustworthy, built the camp post again at the very same place overnight on June 14, 2020. On June 15, 2020 at about 5 pm after the sunset, Col Santosh Babu lead a team of 35 soldiers to check if the posts were again erected by China as a mistake. Usually a Major Rank(Company Commander) goes on such a check but Col Santosh Babu himself went to check and did not leave it to "Young Blood" of the unit. At about 7 pm Col lead his team along with two Major rank officer and marched on foot to the Chinese erected post.

Maha Vir Chakra awardee Colonel Santosh Babu, CO 16 Bihar Infantry Battalion

Colonel Santosh Babu went in only with a mind to check presence of any PLA post in the PP-14 area and not with a preparation to involve in a brawl. The first thing they noticed on reaching that it wasn't the usual Chinese PLA but "outsider" PLA troops deployed in that area. Although the Indian troops were aware of the deployment of "new" PLA troops from Tibet but wasn't expecting them to be this far inside the LAC. When Colonel Santosh tried to open a conversation about the erection of observation tents, he was pushed back hard by PLA soldier with obscene Chinese language. The young Indian troop was quick to pounce on the Chinese and there was a proper fist-fight that took place. In Indian Armed Forces, Commanding Officers are like father figure, CO Santosh Babu pushed by Chinese was already a red line crossed by them. The angered Indian troop gave a befitting fight and burnt the observation post to ashes. This was the first brawl of that night that ended in about half an hour with injuries sustained on both sides. Col Babu had figured out something big was planned by the PLA, he ordered his injured men to go back to camp and send more troop, the tempers were very high and even the injured brave soldiers didn't want to move an inch. However cool-headed Colonel Babu calmed the situation and sent them back.

"The boys were angry and aggressive. You can imagine how much they wanted to teach a lesson to the aggressors" - an Army officer deployed near the Shyok-Galwan confluence a few km from the clash

Few hours later, Colonel Santosh Babu's speculation came true, the "new" PLA troop deployed across LAC were waiting on a large number on both the banks of the Gallowan river, suddenly a stone is hurled toward Colonel Babu and struck by the stone on the head, Commanding Officer falls into the river. Seeing their CO killed in front of their eyes, enraged Indian soldiers ambushed towards the Chinese PLA. The 45 minute of brawl that followed saw pile of dead bodies falling into the river, bloodshed all around the LAC, infact the troops from both sides were fighting in groups. 300 men were taking on each other, Indian soldiers with fist, stone, stick while the Chinese attacked with daggers, wired wrapped rods, metal spiked clubs. At about 11 pm, the situation quietened after full energy spent in a vicious fight, this gave time to both sides to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers. The emotions were infuriating since the Commanding Officer of the unit was killed. While the Indian troops were recovering the bodies, they heard noise from a quadcopter potentially giving visual feedback to PLA of the damage and attacking the survivors, hence followed a third and final brawl.


The backup that was earlier requested by Indian troops came in large numbers and even the Ghatak platoon(usually backup team of unit and acts as shock troops) from the 16 Bihar and 3 Punjab Regiment joined in. Indian soldiers went in deep so that the aggressive Chinese don't cross the LAC. The brawl continued well past midnight, the third fight saw many soldiers hit by rocks, few soldiers falling from the ridge and few into the river. After plunging all the energy in one of the ugliest and vicious fight, both troops disengaged as medics from the both sides arrived and bodies were starting to be recovered. 10 Indian men - 2 Major, 2 Captain, 6 soldier were held in captive in the Chinese camp, just to be released few days later.

Indian Soldiers seen at Galwan Valley

The Indian men had fought with excellent courage and gallant, giving a fight to enemy who is better prepared and has pre-planned an attack is always hard but what followed in the dark night of June 15, 2020 can only be described as bravery of Indian men, second to none. Commanding Officer of the 16 Bihar Infantry battalion who led his team under dreading circumstances was honoured with Maha Vir Chakra, second highest war time decoration. All the 20 fallen soldiers were honored with gallantry decoration, 1 Maha Vir Chakra, 4 Vir Chakra and 15 Sena Medal were awarded to the "Heroes of Galwan". India had made it clear that this clash was being taken as war.