Colonel B Santosh Babu, Commanding Officer, 16 Bihar and 19 other ranks of this battalion and some other units were killed in the most violent and barbaric close-quarter confrontations over the past 53 years, begun by Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) personnel, who attacked them with iron rods studded with nails, rods with barbed wire wound around one end and boulders / stones. This was on the night of 15-16 June 2020, at Ladakh’s extremely cold Galwan valley in high altitude, near the 4057 kms long disputed/perception-based India-China border termed as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The confrontation reportedly erupted as the 16 Bihar detachment, which was overseeing PLA’s disengagement process, tried to remove a Chinese tent at Galwan Valley. A physical fight started after the detachment objected to PLA, which did not follow the disengagement process agreed upon in earlier meetings between commanders of both armies. The Chinese soldiers targeted Colonel Babu and killed him with the deadly weapons. The fact that PLA troops were armed with such weapons makes it obvious that such an attack was well planned by the Chinese.
After the 1962 Chinese aggression, PLA quite often opened fire with small arms on Indian troops who they claimed had violated the LAC. In 1967 at Nathu La, Sikkim, when PLA upped the ante by using artillery, the Nathu La brigade commander who wanted to respond with artillery could only do so after approval by the government. When his request reached through proper channel to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, holding the defence portfolio also, she gave her approval. The end result was about 400 PLA being killed and a convoy of Chinese vehicles and many bunkers being destroyed. Thereafter PLA decided to avoid reacting to perceived intrusions by Indian troops with firearms but instead, by discussion between the commanders on ground. If at all there was any physical confrontation following very frequent transgressions/incursions, almost always by PLA troops they were dealt with for 53 years, till the 73 days Doklam stand-off in 2017, by Indian Army troops initially joining hands to stop their PLA adversaries from advancing, or pushing/grappling, or worse, some fisticuffs and eventually- every time- resolved by dialogue/discussion between officers of both armies deployed on ground/ higher field commanders/diplomatic levels, as required.
However, since early May 2020 onwards, PLA beat all earlier records of this very mild form of unarmed combat and violated all agreements made for “peace and tranquility” till both the 2018 Wuhan and 2019 Mamallapuram summits.
On May 5, 2020, around 250 PLA and Indian Army personnel clashed with iron rods, sticks, and even resorted to stone-pelting in the Pangong Tso (lake) area, in which soldiers on both sides sustained injuries. On May 9, nearly 150 Indian Army and PLA troops were engaged in a face-off near Naku La Pass in the Sikkim sector. Varying reports of the injured on both sides then, ranged to 100. Some more incidents initiated by PLA, at Demchok, Daulat and Beg Oldi (DBO) and more, increased aggressive patrolling and fresh deployments in other sectors, are definite indicators of a considered ratcheting up by China. Indian Army reportedly matched and mirrored all Chinese moves.
Following the June 15, 2020 evening attack by PLA, while China has not disclosed PLA’s fatal casualty figure, it is believed/widely reported as 43. They were reportedly killed later by Indian troops who reorganised themselves and returned later in the night to avenge the killing of their 20 comrades. Not carrying the barbaric weapons that PLA was, they made deadly use of bayonets. Indian Army’s bayonet training is of an exacting standard.
While PLA’s strategic infrastructural development in many parts of the Chinese side of the LAC has been going on since decades, the same much required, long overdue and vitally important task on India’s side began in recent years. One such major project completed at a faster pace is the construction of the 255 kms long Darbuk–Shyok-DBO road, also called the Sub Sector North road, including a bridge over the Galwan river, well inside Indian territory, which has miffed the Chinese. They did not react much to the construction of road mentioned per se, but it is a lateral to this road with bridge over the Galwan river leading towards the LAC, which became a strong reason for the May 2020 standoff after PLA inducted 5000 additional troops with artillery guns and infantry combat vehicles at locations close to the LAC and pitched 100 tents.
Driven by its hegemonic mindset along with constant greed for power and grabbing foreign territories, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-PLA combo has always been paranoid about its adversaries or neighbours or target nations improving strategically or acquiring more or better weaponry. Some earlier developments, which also irked the Chinese were two exercises conducted by Indian Army in September and October 2019 in India’s forward areas of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, respectively.
The one in September 2019 was an integrated military exercise involving tanks, mechanised infantry, paratroopers and various other arms of service in eastern Ladakh and that too, just days after a faceoff between the Indian and Chinese troops in the region. The second one in Arunachal Pradesh was an exercise to test the capabilities of the newly conceived integrated battle groups, which was carried out in phases in the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh near Tawang and faced some resistance from China but the matter was resolved through diplomatic channels. Also, a greater irritant for China in the larger context is India’s abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, since August 05, 2019 along with Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh being designated as separate union territories.
Having made the aggressive May 2020 military moves, that too during the peak period of the Covid 19, or to be precise the Chinese/CCP virus’ worldwide outbreak and then accusing India of aggressively trespassing its territory and blocking PLA patrols and President Xi Jinping exhorting PLA to “be prepared to defend the nation” is a clear indication of China drawing a red herring / attempting to distract attention of China being the emanator of the deadly virus and 125 nations raising issues against it.
Interacting with this author, Lt Gen SL Narasimhan (Retd), Director General, Centre for Contemporary China and Studies and Member, National Security Advisory Board, commented: “Wolf warrior diplomacy, a euphemism for aggressive behaviour by China’s diplomats has been on for a few months now…… China’s increase in comprehensive national power seems to be driving this behaviour….. It appears that PLA simply wants to assert its perception of the LAC. Therefore, India’s armed forces must be prepared for a long haul and ensure sanctity of India’s perception of the LAC. Also, efforts must continue to get the LAC clarified so that such incidents can be avoided”.
After about twelve meetings since the first week of May on the LAC, on June 06, 2020, the Indian and Chinese corps commanders were to meet to discuss and resolve the stand-off in Eastern Ladakh at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC. However, the Chinese commander who met Lt Gen Harinder Singh, GOC, 14 Corps, was Maj Gen Liu Lin, commander of South Xinjiang Military Region. The Chinese appointing an officer one rank junior to meet/confer with Lt Gen Singh was a clear move aimed as an insult-unbecoming but not surprising. They addressed the ongoing tussle in Eastern Ladakh over the heavy military build-up by the PLA along the LAC there. This was soon followed by another Maj Gen level meeting.
On June 09, 2020, it was reported that PLA’s process of moving back had begun but only in the areas around patrolling points 14 and 15 in Galwan Valley and another in the Hot Spring area, but not in Pangong Tso.
On June 15, 2020, it was this process that Col Babu and a detachment of 16 Bihar were overseeing, when the PLA troops attacked with the deadly crude weapons mentioned earlier. In doing so the PLA adhered to its post-1967 Sikkim skirmishes method of not using firearms against Indian Army, but resorting to medieval methods and yet again violating / neutralising every agreement for peace and tranquillity on the LAC since the past many decades, including Wuhan and Mamallapuram, or for that matter, any discussions by India’s 14 Corps Commander on June 06, 2020 or thereafter by Maj Gens.
The fact that such moves have been made against India during the peak period of Covid19’s worldwide contamination only confirms that China is aiming at total world dominance-both economic and military. While militarily, India has been a thorn in China’s side, with the countrywide anti-China sentiment building up on the streets in India as the 20 brave soldiers last rites are being seen on tv screens, China may feel the economic sting too.
The May 2020 and much more so in June 2020 Chinese attacks amply indicate that China intends to continue its hegemony with more force and try to change the status quo of the LAC by driving out Indian troops from some of their locations well within Indian territory.
The CCP-PLA have obviously planned this major attempt to change the status quo on the LAC by also involving Pakistan and Nepal, which gave New Delhi an unpleasant surprise of cartographic changes including Lipulekh etc. That too is an old Chinese ploy of beginning hegemony. Pakistan in any case is China’s long- term lackey and may already be part of its grand plan. It has kept India’s security forces quite busy in Union Territory Jammu & Kashmir.
The gloves are indeed off. Now New Delhi must ensure that Indian Army’s mountain corps is made fully ready for foiling further Chinese military moves. While PLA may be feeling gung-ho about launching land-grabbing moves, Indian Army must be allowed to respond to PLA in the “language that it best understands”-like Nathu La with firearms or Sumdorong Chu without them. CCP-PLA must also keep in mind that PLA has for many decades been a grand but un-blooded army.
The writer is editor WordSword Features. He is also a strategic analyst and former spokesperson, Defence Ministry and Indian Army, and can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.