There has been a phased but continuous source-based coverage and commentary about the lack of progress on the disengagement process — with special reference to Gogra-Hot Springs and Depsang Plains — since the 11th Corps Commander-level talks held on 9 April. In the past, deliberate ‘government leaks’ on the situation in Eastern Ladakh were given as handouts to all media houses and the story was broken almost simultaneously.
This time, such reports have appeared in different media outlets intermittently with slight variations to ensure their credibility. The intent seems to be to justify and shape public opinion to accept an ‘unfavourable peace’ that is being imposed on us by the Chinese.
The themes of the ‘unofficial briefings’
The Indian Express reported that Depsang was a legacy issue dating back to April-May 2013 intrusion, after which our patrols have been prevented from going beyond Bottle Neck/Y Junction up to Patrolling Points 10, 11, 12 and 13. The source emphasised that nothing new has happened in Depsang Plains during this entire crisis since April 2020, and that it was added to the list of friction areas so that it gets resolved. Thus, as of April 2020, the status quo has not changed in Depsang Plains. Even during the height of the standoff last year, the Chinese, the source quoted in the Express report said, were “not organised” for combat in Depsang Plains and Gogra-Hot Springs. The theme being propagated for public consumption is that there is nothing to resolve in Depsang Plains and that status quo never really changed.
The second theme being plied by the so-called “reliable sources” is that the Chinese are refusing to withdraw from Gogra-Hot Springs area, but they have a very limited presence — of approximately a platoon to a company on our side of the LAC — in areas of Patrolling Points 15 and 17A and that it is not really a flash point. This theme of information dissemination via the media plays down the serious implications of the Chinese intrusion in Gogra-Hot Springs and the threatening presence of a large number of Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) troops in this area.
The third theme of the “unofficial briefings” is that North and South Pangong Tso were the only areas where troops and tanks were in very close proximity to each other that could have escalated to war. The intent here seems to be to justify the now apparent “stand-alone agreement” for simultaneous withdrawal and the loss of “leverage” of our relatively advantageous deployment on the Kailash Range.
The fourth theme that has been brandied about is that China now wants deescalation of additional troops deployed before further disengagement takes place. The aim is to convey to the public that our massive deployment checkmated China and now there is no harm in agreeing for the same to diffuse the situation. More so, when there is nothing to resolve in Depsang Plains and differences in Gogra-Hot Springs with respect to disengagement are of a minor nature that will soon get resolved.
In the past one year, there has been no formal briefing about the situation in Eastern Ladakh. The quantum of Chinese forces, the extent of the intrusions and the details of the operations carried out have not been put in public domain. The media has not been given access to the operational area and has been spoon-fed through these “unofficial briefings”. Denial and obfuscation has been the predominant feature of the government’s political/unofficial statements. The media, afraid of annoying the government, failed to critically analyse the open domain information and provide a realistic assessment of the situation.
Let there be no doubt that China strategically surprised and preempted us with two/three mechanised divisions to secure areas up to the 1959 Claim Line in Depsang Plains and North of Pangong Tso, and in Gogra-Hot Springs even beyond the 1959 Claim Line. The Chinese were poised to capture the Daulat Beg Oldi Sector and entire area north and north-east of Pangong Tso, apart from threatening the Indus Valley up to the Ladakh Range. In early May 2020, our limited forces in Ladakh were no match for the PLA and all the above objectives were achievable. However, China had only a limited immediate aim of securing the 1959 Claim Line and preventing development of border infrastructure in critical areas, apart from the obvious assertion of its hegemony. Hence, it put the onus of further escalation on us.
After the initial surprise, we responded by confronting the Chinese with massive counter-deployment. Terrain configuration makes DBO and Gogra-Hot Springs sector defensively untenable in a limited war and, hence, rightly our focus was in North and South of Pangong Tso and the Indus Valley. Given the differential in military capability, we opted to stalemate the Chinese rather than resort to evicting them by an offensive action. This did not change the situation in the DBO Sector and Gogra-Hot Springs, which remained our critical vulnerabilities.
Our brilliant offensive manoeuvre to secure the Kailash Range on the night of 29-30 August created a military and political embarrassment for China. This led to diplomatic engagement and more meaningful military talks that culminated in disengagement from the North and South bank of Pangong Tso between 10 and 18 February. The 10th Corps Commander-level talks took place as per agreement exactly 48 hours later.
Let me reiterate that Depsang Plains and Gogra-Hot Springs continue to be our critical vulnerabilities and the Chinese have no intent to withdraw from there. The withdrawal from the North and South bank of Pangong Tso was a “stand-alone agreement” with no commitments from China to disengage from other sectors. Note the alleged contemptuous quote attributed to the Chinese in the recent talks — India “should be happy with what has been achieved”.
In a nutshell, the endeavour of the unofficial spokesperson(s) of the government is to obfuscate the reality and shape public opinion, possibly for an ‘unfavourable disengagement’ in Depsang Plains and Gogra-Hot Springs.
Two questions deserve to be answered. Why did India agree to a stand-alone agreement and vacate the Kailash Range? What are the terms of unfavourable peace likely to be imposed on us?
India’s securing of the Kailash Range was a great embarrassment for China. Domestically and internationally it lost face. The LAC passes over the crest of the Kailash Range, and thereafter there is a gradual plateau to the east, one to two km wide. India did not cross the LAC to secure this plateau and the eastern slopes. The PLA deployed its soldiers in matching strength opposite us on the plateau and also posed a threat to us from the Black Top, which also we had not secured. Moldo is not a garrison but a small post of PLA Border Guards. The main PLA base is well away. Thus, militarily, we were not posing a serious threat. In fact, our more serious threat was in the Indus Valley where we had concentrated our reserves.
It was the embarrassment and loss of face that led China to give up its absolutist position and come to the negotiating table. India insisted on an all-encompassing package to include North and South of Pangong Tso, Depsang, Gogra-Hot Springs and Demchok. It is my assessment that the Chinese issued a direct/indirect threat to go on the offensive in DBO and Gogra-Hot Springs sector. Given our critical vulnerability in these areas, we agreed to a “stand-alone agreement”.
The DBO sector is defensively untenable in war. China is unlikely to make any compromise in Depsang Plains and we seem to have accepted it as a fait accompli. Hence, the narrative that it is a legacy issue where status quo April 2020 has not changed and that it was a dormant sector during the entire crisis.
We also seem to have accepted the intrusion south of Demchok in Charding-Ninglung Nala. Indeed, this is a legacy of the past. This intrusion does not create any vulnerability, and the 1959 Claim Line still remains 30 km to west and is under our firm control.
In Hot Springs-Gogra, the 1959 Claim Line and the LAC coincide. India has been aggressively developing roads along the Kugrang river and Chunglung Nala from where approaches lead north to upper reaches of the Galwan river. To ward off this threat, the Chinese have intruded from Changlung Nala and via upper reaches of the Kugrang river to deny us access to nearly 30-35 km-long and 4 km-wide Kugrang river valley beyond Gogra. We have no scope for any counter-action to gain leverage due to the 100-km-long tenuous road linking this area to Lukung. In the event of any escalation, the entire Chang Chenmo valley becomes defensively untenable as the road leading to it can be cutoff at Tsogtsalu / Marsimik La/ Phobrang. At best, what we can hope for is a buffer zone in the entire Kugrang river valley, which will entirely be in territory on our side of the LAC and which was under our control before May 2020.
We have stalemated the Chinese and denied them absolute victory. But Depsang Plains and Gogra-Hot Springs continue to remain our vulnerabilities and we have no counter-military leverage. It may be prudent to diffuse the crisis by negotiating buffer zones in these critical areas even if these entirely are on our side of the LAC. Rather than rely upon a false narrative, it is better to explain the situation to the public. It may appear to be “unfavourable peace” but given our vulnerabilities, it is the best we can hope for.
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.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey