New Delhi: On the intervening night of 29 and 30 August, the Army took proactive steps, something that we have not seen them do vis-a-vis the Chinese in a long time, and occupied the high ridgeline of the Kailash Range opposite the Chushul Bowl, said ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta in episode 563 of ‘Cut the Clutter’.
The Army, for the first time in four months, changed the status quo of the region.
So far, all proactivity came from the Chinese. The Indian forces thought the Chinese were again trying to act proactively in the Kailash Range area as they had done on the North Bank of the Pangong Lake, Depsang, Galwan, and Gogra Hot Springs.
In each of those cases, the Chinese had made the first move, after which India was defending or trying to restore the status quo. So, in the Kailash Range case, there was suspicion that the Chinese were trying to alter the status quo by coming up to the ridgeline, said Gupta.
The Chinese claim that they own land up to Finger 2 along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while India claims the land up to Finger 8. In the past, both have patrolled as far as the other would let them. It’s only lately that the Chinese have come up to Finger 4, and given half a chance, they will try to push to Finger 2 as well.
The entire ridgeline of the Kailash Range runs through Helmet Top, then Finger Four and Black Top. However, the Helmet Top feature coincides with Finger 4, so the Chinese logic is that if we control it we also control area up till Finger 4. However, India believes that the Helmet Top is within the LAC.
After the war in 1962, India never went up to occupy the ridgeline because it’s very uncomfortable and extremely demanding. The weather conditions are very bad, supplies are very challenging, and it also puts you eyeball to eyeball with the other side. The idea was to create distance because to move too close seemed to be escalatory.
However, those equations have now changed. In the past few months, with China moving in, it looks like now it’s ‘whoever moves into a territory keeps it’. Which is why India decided not to take any chances and got its forces up on the entire ridgeline.
Importance of Spanggur Gap and Chushul Bowl
Behind Pangong Tso is another lake called Spanggur Tso, which is the original international border as inherited by India in 1947. In fact, this is the area where the gap between the LAC and the international border is the narrowest.
It’s also true that most of this area is not what the Chinese had taken earlier by stealth, as part of the Aksai Chin grab, but these were areas that they captured in 1962 and never vacated.
There is an area of flatter terrain within the Kailash Range, which on the Chinese side is called Spanggur Gap and on the Indian side is known as the Chushul Bowl. The Chushul Bowl is very important for India, because it is from there that a road goes straight to Leh, the heartland of Ladakh.
Whosoever controls the heights on the Kailash Range — from Pangong Tso to Rechin La — dominates all routes to the east and west, and forces the other side to hold defences on the next ridgeline 6-8 km away, or occupy positions of disadvantage on lower heights.
For China to attack Chushul, they have to go through the Spanggur Gap. With a frontage of about 4 km by 6 km, it gives you a flat surface allowing you to drive tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, rocket launchers and you can also move into large bodies of forces through it.
Essentially, a big battle can break out between the mountains. If India were to decide to take the offensive, the one place where they can induct a large number of forces, including armour, artillery, large bodies of troops, is through the Chushul Bowl in India.
Which is why these areas are very crucial for both sides — whether they take a defensive route or an offensive one, Gupta said.
‘Big countries should not go to settle scores’
So, two things have happened. One, that Spanggur Gap through which Chinese would have liked to move in and threaten India with large bodies of forces, is now hemmed in at all these heights by well-armed soldiers with very good resources. So anybody coming into the Chushul Bowl or the Spanggur Gap, then faces the wrath of fire and surveillance and everything coming in from all these directions, Gupta said.
Second, he said, the troops, units and infrastructure that the Chinese have on the south bank of Pangong Tso, can be threatened should India choose to threaten it, because it is now in the direct line of sight of these Indian troops sitting on these ridges.
Like Lt. Gen H.S. Panag (retd.) said, China will try and do what they had done in 1962, which is take these heights one by one and clear Indian forces out of there. But will the Chinese risk a firefight for that?
The game the Chinese are playing is a game that the other side can also play. It’s better now to talk at a higher level.
Big countries go to war with each other when they have a big strategic objective. They don’t do it to settle scores over something that happened 58 years ago, Gupta said.
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