This is our river and mountain: The seven Chinese characters etched onto a wooden plank meant little to the Intelligence Bureau reconnaissance unit operating in the mountains north of Tawang. Long before headquarters in Tezpur interpreted the text, though, a platoon of Indian soldiers was already pushing its way up the Namka Chu river on a brutal five-day march from Tawang into the shadow of the Thagla Ridge. As the soldiers moved forward, the People’s Liberation Army melted away – the warning at the gates of Thagla amounted to nothing.
Ever since 1959, the PLA had been pushing deeper into India, ambushing patrols and overrunning military positions. Frustrated, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the Army to assert its presence on India’s furthest frontiers. Following a meeting on 22 September 1952, his government issued a terse message of its own: “Throw the Chinese out.”
Last week, hundreds of Indian Army and PLA soldiers fought with nail-studded clubs and slings—the most serious clash on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since the 2020 clash in Galwan. Even though the two militaries moved quickly to disengage their soldiers, the fighting has demonstrated that the LAC remains dangerously volatile.
To avoid being drawn into an unsustainable confrontation along the LAC, therefore, India will have to avoid the missteps made in the build-up to 1962—carefully judging just what lines to hold and how to defend them.
The shrine that sparked bloodshed
Eleven centuries ago, local legend holds, the monk Lawapa, founder of the dream yoga technique, unleashed the falls that wash over Chumi Gyatse using a mantra to draw water from stone. The water is reputed to cure illness and bless the faithful with children. Teschu, the local hamlet, is just metres from the LAC, and it was common for visitors from both countries to photograph each other. Last week, the shrine almost set off a war.
Since 2019, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu has encouraged tourism in the area, inaugurating a new monastery in Teschu. Following the crisis at Galwan, efforts to draw tourists into the area acquired greater momentum. Even though few in India paid attention, the PLA was watching this effort to entrench Indian control with anxiety.
Last year, Chinese scholar Liu Zhongyi reasserted China’s claims to Yangtse, the region around Teschu. New Delhi, he argued was acting in the belief that “occupation means possession”. Even as a military clash erupted in the Yangtse sector in September 2021, fighting also erupted on Twitter, with some pro-China propaganda users claiming that the PLA was preparing to recapture Chumi Gyatse.
Tensions had been building up for years, though. Early in the new millennium, India began asserting its claims north of Tawang, building checkpoints to regulate cross-LAC access to pasturelands, and stationing soldiers near Chumi Gyatse. The PLA tried pushing back, sending out patrols to reassert its own claims.
Following the 2017 Doklam crisis, the PLA began building a new road along the Thagla Ridge to enhance its mobility. The road allowed it to bring down temporary shelters built by Indian soldiers on the heights. From 2020 onward, ever-larger PLA patrols began to push into the Indian side of the LAC. Efforts to push patrols toward Chumi Gyatse, Indian government sources have told ThePrint, precipitated minor brawls, erupting into last week’s clash. The PLA, the sources said, pushed towards a post code-named Yanki, on the ridgeline south of Chumi Gyaltse, seeming to push the army out through weight of numbers.
But exercising military pressure isn’t China’s only tool. Following the Doklam crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping accelerated efforts to settle local nomadic communities in model villages across the border from Arunachal Pradesh. “Like Galsang flowers,” Xi wrote that year, nomadic families had put down roots and become guardians of the border. The pace of infrastructure construction like railways and roads also significantly stepped up.
Earlier this year, a group of scholars concluded that the PLA’s incursions seemed strategically planned to bring about “more permanent control over specific contested areas”. The question Indian military strategists have grappled with, though, is how hard to push back—and exactly where.
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Pushing the PLA back
Even as Indian soldiers crossed the Namak Chu River in June 1962, their commanders wondered if a dangerous line was being crossed. Local residents—as well as the cartographical principles used to draw the colonial-era Henry McMahon Line—suggested that the border ran along the Thagla Ridge. Even the maps used by the military, the official investigation of the 1962 war by Lieutenant General T.B. Henderson Brooks recorded, put the new post north of India’s borders.
To protect Dhola Post, the XXXIII corps knew it needed to establish another post at Tsangle, west of the Bum La Pass—but Tsangle, according to the military’s maps, was in Bhutan.
Evicted from the Tawang area in 1962, expert Manoj Joshi has written in a seminal book on the conflict, Indian generals had long planned to abandon the town in any future war. Instead, the Army thought it would hold the PLA at Se La, the gateway to the plains. In skirmishes in 1967, though, the Army proved tougher than the PLA expected. From 1983 onward, India began to again assert its presence on the LAC, sending out covert units from the Intelligence Bureau among herders headed to high-altitude summer pastures.
Then, in 1986, Intelligence Bureau reconnaissance detected the presence of the PLA on the Wangdung grazing ground on the Sumdorong Chu River. The detection of the PLA presence led to a military face-off that ran for months.
Following the crisis, the two sides agreed that there were 12 areas where there was a difference of perception over the LAC—among them Yangtse. Interestingly, the key regions the PLA has asserted its claims to after the Galwan crisis—Pangong Tso, the Kugrang valley, Depsang, and Galwan itself—did not figure in the August 1995 list.
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The shadow of history
Early in September 1962, as officials cogitated, hundreds of PLA troops surrounded Dhola Post. An officer who visited the Namak Chu in 1989 recalled: “There were skeletons everywhere…There was nothing much that we could do—we just stacked them together, poured kerosene on them, saluted, and cremated them.” The outcome had little to do with hubris: The Director of Military Operations, General Brooks Henderson recorded, declared the PLA was “in no position to fight”.
Everyone wasn’t convinced, though. Lieutenant General Daulet Singh, commander of the Western Army, even suggested in the build-up to the war that China left to hold its occupied territories until India had built up its defence. He was ignored by the government.
After the Doklam crisis, Chinese commentator Zhu Bo argued that the China-India border “would not be the same again, to India’s disadvantage…China will most probably enhance infrastructure construction along the border. India will follow suit, but it will in no way be comparable in either speed or scale, given China’s more robust economy.”
This time, instead of trying to overwhelm India in war, the PLA is seeking to lock the country into a resource-sapping confrontation. For New Delhi, China’s willingness to use intimidation as a means to push its claims on the LAC—and as Asia’s principal power—presents a strategic dilemma. Even though the Indian Army has shown its determination to push back in Tawang, terrain and logistics give the PLA significant advantages. The PLA, moreover, has a long lead in modernisation and resources.
Led by the imperial civil servant James White, British soldiers had confronted Tibetan soldiers at the Naku La in 1902—the first-ever confrontation on the contested border in Arunachal Pradesh. Tibet insisted the border lay at the wall, put up in the 19th century to mark its grazing grounds. White carried a copy of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890, which placed the border 2 km north on the Naku La Pass.
The clash, like the ongoing one, wasn’t about that 2-km-long territory. The prestige of the empires of China and Britain was the real prize.
Even as India considers new strategies to protect its claims—including greater use of kinetic tools that can deliver credible punishment without having to hold endless swathes of territory—the time has also come for bold diplomacy. The idea of conceding China’s claims on Aksai Chin, in return for its recognition of Arunachal Pradesh, has been raised several times since 1952. China’s hubris, and India’s hurt pride, have made progress hard, but it isn’t a problem two powerful, committed leaders ought to find impossible to deliver.
The autism of great powers often leads to their talking past each other. “You may flick a dog once or twice without his biting, but if you tread on his tail, even if he has no teeth, he will turn and try and bite you,” a retreating Tibetan muttered to the soldier and adventurer Francis Younghusband.
“I suppose it is always difficult for one party to see the other party’s point of view,” Younghusband reflected, “But, of course, his contention regarding us precisely applied to what we thought of the Tibetans.”
This war gives either State little—and holds out the potential of ruin for both.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)