The situation in eastern Ladakh at the face-off points between Indian Army and the PLA–Pangong Tso, Hot Springs and Galwan river–remains unchanged from what I wrote in my last column in ThePrint. By now, the additional formations that would have been inducted by both sides to cater to escalation and further operations as per respective operational strategies, would have fully acclimatised to operate in these high-altitude regions.
Officially, both sides have been restrained in their statements and reiterated faith in diplomacy. Defence minister Rajnath Singh has said that diplomatic and military-level talks as per existing border management mechanism are in progress. While harping on “differing perceptions” about the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Singh said the Chinese presence along the LAC was in “achhi khasi sankhya (sizeable numbers)”. Major General-level talks have been conducted on 2 June and Lieutenant General-level, that is, talks at the level of Corps Commanders, are scheduled on 6 June.
China now has an upper hand in talks
Having seized the initiative by securing approximately 40-60 square km of Indian territory in three different areas, China will be negotiating from a position of strength and will try to impose unacceptable conditions–no further development of border infrastructure on the Indian side–to restore status quo on its own terms. If diplomacy fails, China has come prepared for a border skirmish or a limited war.
India’s task is cut out. It has to ensure that status quo ante 1 April, 2020 prevails for quasi sanctification of the “un-demarcated” LAC, so that China does not advance similar claims in future to gain tactical advantage and embarrass/humiliate India at will. If it cannot be done diplomatically, then it must be done by force. However, rather than evolving a clear strategy and broadly sharing it with the nation, the Narendra Modi government and the military have gone into ‘denial’ about any loss of territory, attributing the present situation to differing perceptions about the LAC.
Some journalists and activists are also busy peddling their interpretation of the alignment of the LAC to prove that no territory has been seized by China. A perception is being built for diplomatic acquiescence. What else does China want? We are playing into its hands.
I explain the ground situation in the three areas where loss of territory has taken place and analyse the dangers of justifying the loss to “differing perceptions of the LAC”.
Pattern of defence in Ladakh
The term LAC is not demarcated through a formal agreement, either side can vary in its perception. And this has remained the case despite the numerous confidence building agreements signed since 1993, and two informal summits. Out of the 857-km-long border in Ladakh, only 368 km is international border (IB) and the rest of the 489 km is the LAC. This was the line reached by China in 1962, which is exactly as per its 1960 claim line.
It is a treacherous high-altitude terrain with the valley height being 14,000 – 15,000 ft and hill features being at heights of 16,000-18,000 ft. The main defences cannot be physically located along the LAC because the terrain is not tactically suitable. These are located on the Ladakh Range, Pangong Range, along Shyok River and in the Depsang plains. The distance to the LAC varies from 10 to 80 km, depending upon the terrain. The main defences are manned by the Army and the LAC is secured by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). The security of the vast spaces ahead of the main defences is ensured by covering elements deployed at selected places, mechanised forces and by physical/electronic surveillance. The ITBP posts are along the routes of ingress and in disputed areas, but are not continuous like we have on the IB in plains.
There are vast gaps between the ITBP posts along the LAC. There are areas where the ITBP posts are well short of the LAC due to lack of infrastructure. To defend the entire length of the LAC, in strength and man, the main defences, as we do at the LoC, we will require at least 4-5 divisions instead of just one that is committed now. Even in the present pattern, the ITBP strength has to increase tenfold to effectively cover the entire length along the LAC.
The map shown above is at slight variation from the one in my last column based on fresh inputs.
Some journalists are misinterpreting the ‘Fingers’ north of Pangong Tso to justify the denial of loss of territory. The annotated satellite image of Google Earth above gives the correct location of the Fingers and the territory lost. In 1962, we were holding the area up to Sirijap. This was captured by the PLA in 1962 and consequently the LAC runs west of it at Finger 8, on to Ane La pass. The PLA post with a jetty (in pic above) is located east of Sirijap. Till 2011, our ITBP post was located well to the rear at Phobrang. The Chinese Claim Line is up to Finger 4. ITBP patrolled up to Finger 8 and the PLA up to Finger 4.
In 2013 – 2014 we developed a road to Finger 3 and Ane La pass. The ITBP established a new post near Finger 3 in 2013. The PLA patrols started blocking our patrols between Finger 4 and 8. The Chinese considered the establishment of the post at Finger 3 a violation of border management agreements. The frequent patrol blocking by either side led to a violent scuffle on 15 August 2017 and thereafter jostling by patrols became common. The PLA post remained at Sirijap and no post was established between Finger 4 and 8. Our patrols continued to patrol upto Finger 8.
In end April and beginning May this year, the PLA moved in regular troops and physically secured the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 and now sits on top of Finger 4 . As per my assessment, based on my experience and media reports, the PLA has secured the entire area from Finger 8 to Finger 4, a distance of 8 km, and are overlooking our ITBP post between Finger 4 and Finger 3. It has also secured the heights along Fingers 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 up to height of 4,500 – 5,000 meters ie 4-5 km to the north. Total area secured by the PLA is 35-40 square km. The PLA has deployed one or two battalions to defend the area as marked (on Image 1) with one or two battalions as reserve at Sirijap.
In Galwan sector, the PLA has secured the heights north and south of the Galwan river with. The PLA seems to have come across the LAC for 2-3 km in the valley and then climbed up the heights. It is also possible that it climbed the heights from China’s side of the valley and then moved along the heights westwards up to 3-4 km. What matters in mountains/ high-altitude is the control of the heights. The valleys become untenable when surrounding heights are with the enemy.
It is likely that the PLA has secured the heights with two battalions with one held as reserve at the LAC.
For the apologists of the “differing perceptions” who have theories to deny loss of territory, it is pertinent to point out that there are no differing perceptions about the LAC along the Galwan River. The intrusion here is deliberate to threaten the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DS-DBO) Road and prevent us from defending it by securing the Galwan valley and the heights north and south of the river.
As per my assessment, at Hot Springs/Gogra, the PLA with nearly a battalion has almost surrounded the post and effectively denied the approach to Kongka La pass, which lies on the LAC but is not held by us. The aim here is to prevent road construction by India to the Kongka La pass. At Hot Springs and Kongka La, which is 4-5 km away from Hot Springs, there is no “differing perception” about the LAC.
Playing into the hands of the Chinese
The justification of “differing perceptions” is just playing into the hands of the Chinese. We are very clear about the alignment of the LAC as we have cremated/buried our comrades who were killed in action in 1962. China stopped exactly on its claim line of 1960 and our rear posts were located on this line during the ’62 War. It is the Chinese claim line that has been changing since 1950.
It should be clear to the discerning reader that to be in denial and acquiesce to explain the loss of territory to “differing perceptions” will open pandora’s box, and in future, result in loss of more territory, possibly at Chumar, Demchok, Fukche, Kailash Range, Hot Springs, along the Shyok River and in Depsang Plains. Who knows China may apply the same logic at Tawang in the near future?
China cannot be allowed to get away with usurping Indian territories like it has done till now. This confrontation must end with status quo ante 1 April, 2020 and sanctification of the LAC with formal exchange of maps. Major Shaitan Singh, PVC and Major (later Lt Col) Dhan Singh Thapa, PVC who defended Rezang La and Sirijap in 1962 and 3,000 of our soldiers who were killed in action would be very unhappy in Valhalla. They died fighting in areas that lie along the current LAC. It would be a shame if we now acquiesce to give up those areas without firing a shot using the fig leaf of “differing perceptions”.
No wonder the Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu said some 2,500 years ago: “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.