20 Indian soldiers killed in LAC stand-off with Chinese troops
Days after they appeared to have settled the six-weeks-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between their troops along the undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC), India and China, on Monday evening engaged in their first deadly conflict in at least 45 years, resulting in 20 deaths on the Indian side, including that of a commanding officer, and possibly 43 casualties including injuries on the Chinese side, pushing the bilateral relationship between the two nuclear powers to an all-time low.
The immediate spark for the conflict at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh isn’t known, although it could have been about Chinese soldiers dragging their feet about removing some of the installations they erected in May in an area India claims as its own. The troops have since disengaged, the Indian Army said in a statement confirming the number of dead at 20. Indian Army officials claimed 43 Chinese were killed or seriously injured, citing radio intercepts and other intelligence. HT couldn’t independently verify this.
The ministry of external affairs’ spokesperson Anurag Srivastava blamed Chinese troops for the incident, and referred to the meeting between army commanders of the two sides on June 6 that agreed “on a process of de-escalation” after the two sides deployed heavily on their respective sides of the LAC, which has never been defined. “While it was our expectation that this would unfold smoothly, the Chinese side departed from the consensus to respect LAC in the Galwan Valley,” he said.
Colonel Zhang Shuili, a spokesperson for the PLA’s Western Theater Command, in turn, blamed India for the clashes, on similar lines that the Chinese foreign ministry did earlier.
“In the evening of June 15, in the area of the Galwan Valley on the Sino-Indian border, the Indian Army, contrary to its commitments, once again crossed the LAC and carried out illegal activities, deliberately launching provocative attacks,” Zhang said in a statement issued in Mandarin.
Earlier, a spokesperson for that country’s foreign ministry said that on “June 15, the Indian side severely violated our consensus and twice crossed the border line and attacked the Chinese forces”.
Experts said the motives for China’s aggression in eastern Ladakh could be varied. “Is this about Indian infrastructure development along the DSDBO [Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie] road? Article 370? To settle the border unilaterally on their terms through fait accompli? General assertiveness East and West? Something else?” asked Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
These are the first Indian casualties in a border skirmish with the People’s Liberation Army since October 1975 when Chinese troops ambushed an Indian patrol in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tulung La sector and shot four soldiers dead.
However, no shots were fired this time. Hindustan Times has learnt rival soldiers exchanged blows, threw stones at each other and Chinese troops even attacked Indian soldiers with rods and nail-studded clubs during the brawl that went on for over six hours. Under an informal understanding between the two sides, evolved over years of discussions over a contentious LAC, forward troops either do not carry guns, or, if they do, keep them slung on their backs with the magazines in pouches and not clipped on. Some soldiers on both sides fell into the water.
This wasn’t the first time the two armies engaged in fisticuffs or used stones and rods to attack each other in the area.
In New Delhi, defence minister Rajnath Singh briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the developments along the LAC and also held two meetings with chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat and the three service chiefs to assess the ground situation and review options, defence ministry officials said. External affairs minister S Jaishankar was also present in one of the meetings.
Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane cancelled a scheduled visit to Pathankot on Tuesday in the wake of the border confrontation.
The Chinese army also suffered casualties in the face-off but there was no immediate confirmation of the numbers.Indian Army officials who asked not to be named said 43 may have died or been injured. They added that enhanced air activity was witnessed on the Chinese side, possibly indicating the bodies of the PLA soldiers were being lifted.
The flashpoint came when the Indian soldiers removed an observation post set up by the Chinese troops on the Indian side of the LAC, officials said. The deceased included Col B Santosh Babu, commanding officer of 16 Bihar, Havildar K Palani of 81 Field Regiment and Havildar Sunil Kumar Jha, also of 16 Bihar.
The army statement added that “17 Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty at the stand-off location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries, taking the total killed in action to 20.”
The army said the incident took place at a time the de-escalation process was “underway in the Galwan Valley”. It said senior military officials of the two sides met to defuse the situation.
Major General Abhijit Bapat, commander of the Karu-based HQs 3 Infantry Division and his Chinese counterpart held talks at the site of the clash. The outcome of the talks was not immediately known.
The ongoing border scrap began with a confrontation between rival patrols near Pangong Tso on the night of May 5-6. It now seems to have gone from bad to worse even as army delegations from India and China have held a series of discussions along the LAC to break the stalemate.
Former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd) flagged concerns about the “serious escalation” along the LAC, saying that it reflected the heightened tensions on the ground. “This will require diplomatic intervention,” he said.
The deadly clash came on a day army delegations from India and China held talks at two locations along the LAC --- brigadier-ranked officers met in the Galwan Valley and Colonel-ranked officers in Hot Springs --- as part of continuing efforts to resolve the standoff.
Army chief General Naravane last week said disengagement of Indian and Chinese forces was taking place in a “phased manner” along the LAC where the situation was “under control”.
Officials said limited disengagement of forces at Galwan Valley, Patrolling Point 15 and Hot Springs began after a meeting between Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, commander of Leh-based 14 Corps, and Major General Liu Lin, commander of the People’s Liberation Army in the South Xinjiang region, on June 6.
The situation remains tense at Pangong, which has been at the centre of the ongoing border scrap and where troops are still locked in a face-off.
Last month’s violent confrontations between Indian and Chinese soldiers in eastern Ladakh and north Sikkim triggered a military buildup on both sides of the LAC that stretched from Ladakh to Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, as reported by Hindustan Times last week.
The Chinese buildup began immediately after clashes between border troops in Ladakh and Sikkim on May 5-6 and May 9, and predated the June 6 meeting between Lieutenant General Singh and his Chinese counterpart.
HT was the first to report on May 10 about border tensions between India and China flaring up when 150 soldiers were involved in a tense standoff in north Sikkim a day earlier.
Four Indian and seven Chinese soldiers were injured at Naku La during the confrontation.
Scores of soldiers from the two countries were also injured near Pangong Tso on the night of May 5-6, with the scuffle involving around 250 men.
“We remain firmly convinced of the need for the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue. At the same time, we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the external affairs ministry’s Srivastava said.
(With inputs from Sutirtho Patranobis in Beijing and Rezaul H Laskar in New Delhi)