Defence ministry statement on LAC taken down, row erupts
A political row erupted on Thursday over a defence ministry statement on Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh --- uploaded on the ministry’s official website but later removed --- in which the government acknowledged that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had transgressed into multiple areas in the sensitive sector, with the Congress accusing the Prime Minister of lying on the Chinese intrusions.
The statement, posted online on August 4 but removed two days later without any explanation, said Chinese aggression along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) had gone up and the ongoing border standoff was expected to be prolonged.
It described the situation in the Ladakh sector as sensitive.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi mounted an attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the statement, which summed up the major activities of the department of defence in June, was unexpectedly removed from the website.
“Forget standing up to China, India’s PM lacks the courage even to name them. Denying China is in our territory and removing documents from websites won’t change the facts,” Gandhi tweeted.
The defence ministry refused to comment on the statement or why it was removed, although it was widely seen as a belated move to skirt controversy.
In a previous tweet and later addressing a virtual meeting of party workers from Bihar, Gandhi accused the PM of lying on Chinese intrusions. At an all-party meeting to discuss the situation along the India-China border on June 19, the PM said there was no intrusion into Indian territory.
“Our soldiers have sacrificed their lives and the PM is saying that China has not entered our territory. Who will tell the family members of the soldiers how they were martyred? If Chinese forces had not intruded into our territory does that mean our soldiers had crossed over to China?” a senior Congress leader quoted Gandhi as saying during the virtual meeting.
Gandhi was referring to the brutal Galwan Valley skirmish on June 15 in which 20 Indian and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed.
Gandhi paid tributes to the Bihar Regiment soldiers killed in the violent brawl. “Our PM did not stand with our soldiers by saying that Chinese forces did not intrude into our territory. The fact is that China is still occupying our land in Ladakh,” the leader cited above, who requested anonymity, quoted Gandhi as saying.
“My blood boiled and I was very angry when I came to know that China had captured a part of our territory and our soldiers were killed,” another Congress leader quoted Gandhi as having said.
Meanwhile, BJP spokespersons declined to comment.
The statement said the Chinese PLA transgressed into the Indian side in the areas of Kugrang Nala (near Hot Springs), Gogra and the north bank of Pangong Tso on May 17-18.
A transgression along the disputed border is of a fleeting nature and takes place when rival soldiers patrol grey areas on the LAC that both sides stake claim to, while an intrusion refers to the PLA troops encroaching into Indian territory and holding ground there. Both sides report hundreds of transgressions every year, but intrusions leading to standoffs are few and far between.
“In any crisis, it is important that our communications are absolutely clear and convey our intent. Any kind of flip-flop only heightens confusion and should be avoided,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), on the statement and its subsequent removal.
While the scope of the statement was confined to older developments, it came at a time when military talks on disengagement have hit a roadblock due to serious differences between the two armies related to the Finger Area near Pangong Tso and the PLA’s reluctance to vacate positions held by it in what New Delhi claims to be Indian territory.
The statement said Chinese aggression was increasing along the LAC, with specific reference to Galwan Valley where it (aggression) has gone up since May 5.
“Consequent to this (the developments on May 17-18), ground level interactions were held between armed forces of both sides to defuse the situation. Corps commander level flag meeting was held on June 6. However, a violent faceoff incident took place between the two sides on June 15, resulting in casualties of both sides,” it said.
The June 6 meeting was the first one between the corps commander-ranked officers after border tensions erupted in early May. The senior military commanders have so far met five times, with the last round of talks held on August 2.
Limited military disengagement was initiated in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra after the June 6 meeting between the senior commanders. However, the June 15 clash dashed disengagement hopes.
The document, which only refers to developments in June, said subsequent military talks took place on June 22 to discuss modalities of the de-escalation process. “While engagement and dialogue at military and diplomatic level is continuing to arrive at mutually acceptable consensus, the present standoff is likely to be prolonged,” it said.
The ministry said the situation in eastern Ladakh arising from unilateral aggression by China was sensitive and required close monitoring and prompt action based on the evolving scenario.
The Finger Area --- a set of eight cliffs jutting out of the Sirijap range overlooking the Pangong Lake --- has emerged as the hardest part of the disengagement process with little hope of immediate resolution, people familiar with the developments said. The next stage of disengagement has become highly complicated with the PLA proposing a mutual and equal withdrawal of soldiers from Pangong Tso, a proposal that has been rejected by India, they said, requesting anonymity.
Before the PLA grabbed positions on Finger Four overlooking Indian deployments, the Indian Army would patrol right up to Finger Eight that New Delhi considers is within Indian territory. The new positions held by the PLA have curtailed the scope of Indian patrols. Fingers Four and Eight are 8 km apart.
The external affairs ministry on Thursday made it clear once again that the disengagement and de-escalation process along the LAC had not made progress because of the lack of cooperation from the Chinese side.
Responding to several questions on the troubled disengagement process during a weekly news briefing, external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “India remains committed to this objective. We also expect that the Chinese side will work with us sincerely for complete disengagement and de-escalation and full restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”
Though China has sought to give the impression that the disengagement had been completed at most locations along the LAC, the Indian side said last month there had been “some progress” but the process “has as yet not been completed”.
Srivastava also referred to the July 5 phone conversation between the Special Representatives of India and China on the border issue – National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and foreign minister Wang Yi – and reiterated that the two officials had agreed that early and complete disengagement and de-escalation in border areas in line with bilateral agreements and protocols and full restoration of peace and tranquillity were “essential for the smooth overall development of bilateral relations”.