New Delhi: It was a combination of “treachery” and breaking the terms of an agreement by the Chinese that led to the violent face-off in the Galwan Valley on the night of 15 June that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and several injured, ThePrint has learnt.
However, it was not a one-sided battle and the night witnessed an over 1-kilometre-long chase by the men from 16 Bihar Regiment and other units as the Chinese ran back to the safety of their units posted just across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), sources said.
ThePrint has spoken to a number of individuals in the know and has been able to construct a sequence of events that eventually ended with the Chinese being pushed back from the Indian territory that they briefly intruded into by a kilometre at the mouth of the Galwan Valley.
Before 15 June: A military agreement
The events of last Monday night occurred along the Galwan River, which originates from Aksai Chin, and reaches the Shyok river, also known as the river of death. There is a particular point at which the Galwan river takes a sharp turn left and later meets the Shyok.
Patrol Point 14 (PP 14) is just ahead of this confluence of the Shyok-Galwan river.
Indian troops have traditionally patrolled till PP 14 but has never built a camp or any structure in accordance with the understanding between the two sides at the local level.
Similarly, the Chinese also patrol up to PP 14 from time to time. This is also the spot where the two sides meet to talk.
Early May, a Chinese tent was spotted at PP 14. This is deemed to be in Indian territory and the Indians challenged this construction in May itself and also confronted a group of Chinese soldiers who were attempting to trek down to the Shyok river.
Sources said that the Chinese later dismantled its tent and went back to their side beyond PP 14.
However, both sides had built up troops and were literally in a stand-off at PP 14.
After the 6 June meeting between 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen. Harinder Singh and his Chinese counterpart Major General Lin Liu, commander of the South Xinjiang Military District, it was decided that both sides will fall back by about 2 kilometres from their current positions at PP 14.
Accordingly, Indian troops moved behind and the Chinese did too.
However, sources said that a few days later, India found that the Chinese had reneged on the agreement and erected two fresh tents on a slope, including one which was suspected to be an observation point.
The Chinese were repeatedly asked to remove them and Indian troops forcefully dismantled one of the two tents and set it on fire on Sunday, 14 June.
On 15 June: The big fight
On 15 June, the Commanding Officer of the 16 Bihar Regiment, Col Santosh Babu, held talks with his Chinese counterpart at PP 14. It was decided that both sides would strictly adhere to the 6 June decisions, which would also mean that the Chinese would have to remove the structure on the slope.
At around 7 pm that night, as reported by ThePrint, Colonel Santosh along with a small group of officers and personnel went up to PP 14 to check if the Chinese had kept up their end of the agreement.
This is where the account blurs. Some sources say initially a Major and some non-commissioned officers (NCOs) had gone to PP 14 and were taken hostage, but others say it was Colonel Babu who went.
What is confirmed is that Col Santosh had about 40 other personnel with him, including officers and unit videographers, when he neared PP 14.
Seeing the tent still present, the CO asked his men to remove the tent. A small group of Chinese soldiers then came forward and began a verbal spat.
Sources said this slowly turned into pushing and shoving. At this time, the Indians outnumbered the Chinese.
This continued for about half an hour, and during the melee, the temporary structure was dismantled.
However, a larger group of Chinese soldiers came to the spot armed with iron rods, stones and even sticks with nails and barbed wires on them.
The Chinese had the tactical advantage here in terms of numbers, weapons and the geography.
The Chinese attacked the Indian soldiers and the Commanding Officer (CO) was hurt since he was at the forefront.
He fell in the icy cold waters of the Galwan River below even as the soldiers fought back with the sticks they were carrying.
The attack on the CO fired up the soldiers, who managed to wrangle the weapons being used by the Chinese away from them and turned it on them. They even fought with sheer physical force, the sources said.
“This was treachery by the Chinese. The attack on the Indian team was planned. The CO had gone there with his men in good faith because talks were held in a positive atmosphere during the day,” a source said.
Sources said that since the fight was happening over a ledge, many soldiers from both sides fell into the icy cold river water.
They added that of the 20 dead on the Indian side, about eight died directly as a result of hypothermia because they had injured themselves by falling on the rocks in the river below. It was Tuesday morning by the time a rescue was possible.
As the Indian side found out about the fight breaking out, back up was rushed in. This included troops from the 16 Bihar and other units that were posted in the area due to the stand off.
The names of these unit are not being disclosed for security and tactical reasons.
While more Indian soldiers armed with sticks rushed in, the Chinese threw stones and rolled down bigger stones onto the Indian team.
In the hand-to-hand combat, many Chinese soldiers were grievously injured, the sources said.
Such was the confusion at this point that each side pelting stones was also hitting their own soldiers.
“The area of the main fight was very narrow. In the melee, at one particular section, the Chinese were again overwhelmed by the Indian troops and they ran off to the main area of PP 14 behind which there was Chinese build up,” a source said.
A group of Indian soldiers chased them and crossed over what is the Line of Actual Control (LAC), an undrawn line.
It is here that 10 Indian soldiers were held captive since the Chinese had a bigger build-up, sources said.
The fight continued for several hours into the darkness till it subsided with both sides pulling apart.
16 June: The morning after
In the morning, both sides decided to halt the fight and rescue the injured and take away bodies.
Some of the soldiers who ended up in custody on the other side were returned following the Major General level talks near PP 14.
Both sides made sure that the injured were taken care of.
However, it was only on Thursday that the Chinese returned the 10 who had crossed over the LAC in the chase.
“It was a clash that began with Chinese treachery. It was a clash of great heroism of the troops posted there who fought back the Chinese and taught the Chinese a lesson not to mess with India,” a source said.
Since the Monday clash, the Chinese have withdrawn from the Indian territory at PP 14 and have gone back to their side in accordance with the decisions taken on 6 June.
The Indians too have gone back but have maintained a strict vigil. The future talks, including the one held on 22 June, will focus on more de-escalation and will follow a policy of specifying how many troops will be at what distance from the LAC, besides new patrolling tactics.