Tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors simmered to a new high as the Galwan Valley stand-off between India and China turned fatally violent on Monday 15th of June.
Twenty gallant Indian soldiers including the commanding officer (CO) laid down their lives in the line of duty in Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh while ensuring compliance of disengagement as discussed in the meeting of lieutenant generals of the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The act of violent hostility at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) happened as Delhi and Beijing brainstormed de-escalation of the ongoing military stand-off between the two nuclear-armed Asian powerhouses.
The Chinese military confirmed that clashes between the two sides have led to casualties. It, however, refrained from releasing the exact numbers. A Chinese twitter handle shared information pertaining to injuries to 11 PLA troops while 5 succumbed to their injuries in a brawl at LAC on Monday. If sources are to be believed, the Chinese have suffered more than double the number of Indian casualties. Ever since 1975, these are the first fatalities involving India and China when four members of an Assam Rifles patrol party were ambushed and subsequently killed in Arunachal Pradesh.
Watch: India China Standoff Explained
Although no firearms were used and of course no shots were fired, the murder of Indian troops was no less brutal. According to highly informed sources, led by its commanding officer, the unit of 16 Bihar Regiment was waiting at patrol point 14 awaiting the compliance of scheduled disengagement. The PLA troops were supposed to fall back 5 km the East to a location christened as Post 1. A group of PLA troops turned back immediately after dusk and attacked the CO and the two soldiers accompanying him with iron rods, batons, and stones. Indian troops, on seeing their officer being attacked physically, retaliated leading to a gruesome brawl that continued until midnight.
Official statements reporting casualties have been issued by both the armies. While China refrained from mentioning any numbers, India reported 43 casualties on the Chinese side apart from the 20 it sustained.
How can a frontier that hasn’t seen bloodshed since 1975, witness a fatal standoff?
While more information about the fatal standoff is yet to surface, the surprising act of aggression from Chinese soldiers is up for contemplation. Border troops of the PLA are not known to act on their own accord. For a country that forcefully bans the use of social media tools for even civilians, how can PLA troops escalate tensions when negotiations for de-escalation are ongoing?
Although not officially stated, the Indian Army follows a Cold Start Doctrine that envisages swift deployment of troops days in advance if a situation for a full-blown war arises. This involves mobilizing a unified battle group containing various branches of India’s military. Nevertheless, India’s Army has never been seen as the aggressor in the seven decades of its independent existence.
The PLA, however, has contrary antecedents. It forced a full-blown war on India back in 1962 under the garb of ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ (Indian & Chinese brethren) following the Panchsheel Treaty (The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence) between the two neighbors. It was in the same war, in the same terrain of eastern Ladakh, that a brave company of Indian troops, led by Major Shaitan Singh Bhati, PVC, prevailed over hordes of Chinese soldiers at the famous battle of Rezang La. That, however, was a full-scale war.
The casualties inflicted on both sides on Monday did not involve guns or gunpowder. Iron rods and stones did maximum damage while some soldiers were also reported to have slipped into the Galwan River (that flows in the vicinity).
While this may seem to appear a localized skirmish, but the time chosen by the Chinese indicates a more sinister gameplan. Armies across the world are known to attack immediately before dawn or after dusk to gain from the limited visibility the timeslot offers. The timing chosen for the Monday brawl by the PLA falls in that category.
The episode was not like the 1999 Kargil War when occupying Pakistan forces perched atop mountains enjoyed a position of strategic advantage as the Indian army undertook the challenging task to dislodge them.
What could be the reason for Chinese aggression?
If China-specific defense experts are to be believed, there has been a significant change in the attitude of the Chinese on the LAC. PLA troops appear more aggressive, which they say has been apparent from their body language. Also, it appears that the PLA’s command structure has some clarity issues. Experts claim the Chinese troops take longer than usual to respond to the commands from their officers.
A communication gap is one probable reason why the standoff could have taken place. Interpreters are a scarce resource for both the armies making communication difficult. Lack of understanding and one-upmanship could be a factor too. Moreover, experts also believe that the harsh terrain of eastern Ladakh takes a massive toll on the bodies and minds of those defending frontiers often leading to erratic but minor confrontations.
Interestingly, amid the pandemic and heightened global tensions, war-mongering from China’s propaganda machine is at an all-time high. Editor-in-chief of English and Chinese editions of Global Times, Hu Xijin, tweeted in the aftermath: “… China doesn’t want to have a clash with India, but we don’t fear it.”
Responding to the aggression, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Our soldiers laid down their lives in their bid to repel the aggressors from Indian soil in eastern Ladakh. Martyrdom of our gallant soldiers will not go in vain. The Indian defense establishment is capable of maintaining our sovereignty and territorial integrity. Indian forces will retaliate if provoked.”