New Delhi: The India-China face-off in Eastern Ladakh has been labelled by some as “unprecedented”, especially due to the high number of deaths of Indian soldiers in the 15 June clashes in the Galwan Valley, even though the two countries fought a war in 1962 and were involved in a bloody conflict in 1967.
But another confrontation in the summer of 1986, almost exactly 34 years ago, on the other end of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh, has many similarities with the tensions between the world’s two most populous nations today.
It was June of that year and New Delhi was caught in a sweltering summer when the temperature in the capital’s policy-making circles went up several notches — the result of the heat being felt high up in the Himalayas.
On the morning of 14 June 1986, a patrol party of the Indian Army’s 12 Assam Regiment spotted a Chinese post and a few structures right near the Thandrong pasture on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu rivulet in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
Alarms bells immediately went off and the information quickly made its way up the ranks.
The patrol informed its divisional headquarters, which then relayed the news to Fort William in Kolkata (then Calcutta), the headquarters of the Eastern Command.
By the time it reached the Ministry of Defence as well as the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi’s South Block on 16 June 1986, the classified note from the Assam Regiment also mentioned the presence of 40-odd People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in the area. Some Indian media reports, however, had pegged the number to be 200.
The development shattered a long-held assumption in New Delhi that the land on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu rivulet belonged to India.
A rattled Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government set out to resolve the issue. Within 10-12 days of the alert from the Assam Regiment soldiers, the government lodged an official protest with the Chinese. It even summoned the then Chinese Ambassador to India, Li Lianqing, and handed over a diplomatic note.
But even amid the diplomatic haggling, Beijing increased its troop presence rapidly to over 200 soldiers and by August, had even built a helipad and a few permanent structures there.
The two sides also set out to control the narrative, with the Chinese denying New Delhi’s allegations of an intrusion, and adopting the tone they did in 1962 — a Xinhua report of 1986, made available by the US government, quotes the Chinese complaining that it was India that was “nibbling at and expanding into Chinese territory”, adding that the McMahon Line was “illegal and null and void”.
The Chinese media was also awash with reports that it was India that had first built a “seasonal” post there in 1984, which they noticed and destroyed in 1986. They called it ‘Sangduoluo He’ in Chinese.
The Indian government quietly worked the channels and made the first offer of a truce in July that year — offering to not patrol the area that the Chinese have occupied if they pulled back. It was turned down.
Instead, it would take a whole nine years for the conflict to be resolved.
In those nine years, the issue saw a whole host of ups and downs — a series of diplomatic wrangling, a feisty, defiant Indian General keen on “teaching the Chinese a lesson”, a Prime Minister more inclined towards diplomacy, and a country, having tasted defeat once, determined not to be cowed into ceding any more territory.
But far more significant is the fact that in those nine years, when Indian and Chinese troops were eyeball to eyeball, not a single shot was fired, nor a drop of blood spilt along the then contested Tawang region.
The hotly-contested Sumdorong Chu Valley region
The Sumdorong Chu Valley lies near the Thag La Ridge, which was one of the fighting hotspots during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. But the valley itself was seen to be “neutral” by both sides, and hence neither monitored it until 1980.
India resumed patrolling in the region in 1981 and by the summer of 1984, had already built a post in the valley, which was being manned by the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), the central police force that mans parts of the border region.
The Chinese began building infrastructure in 1986, including the helipad atop a hill overlooking the Sumdorong Chu Valley right as negotiations were under way in July of that year. They also positioned heavy guns there, according to Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner, who has given a detailed account on what led to this faceoff and how it was resolved in his book, China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World.
For Indian soldiers stationed at the flashpoint there was very little information on developments in Delhi. “We had no idea what was going on in New Delhi. All we knew and cared for was that the Chinese had come in and occupied our territory and we had to push them back,” Col. Ashish Das (retd) told ThePrint over the phone from his home in Kolkata. Das was then a Captain with the Assam Regiment and posted in Tawang when the situation flared up.
“They were not aggressive and they did not want to fight us. They did not want to fight us even in 1962 had we not provoked them,” he added. “They know they cannot fight us. They know that even to this day. Their Army is not battle hardened, it’s a political army not a professional one like ours.”
Das has a ridgetop in the area named after him, ‘Ashish Top’, as he played a vital role in recapturing it. He, however, said it wasn’t easy engaging the Chinese back then. “It was not a mapped area. We just moved on in the darkness of the night just by following the shadows of the mountains. There were days we went without food,” he said. “The operation was not even sanctioned then. But we did push the PLA back and we came back to the plains by 1987-88 when India and China started talking on confidence-building measures.”
Exploring and identifying confidence-building measures became the cornerstone of diplomatic talks at that time even as disengagement began taking place, albeit slowly and gradually.
“The government of India made an offer to China to withdraw from the area with an understanding that India would not reoccupy the vacated area, the following summer. This was rejected by the Chinese,” writes Major General Mandip Singh, who has done extensive research on the incident. “At the seventh round of border talks that were held from 21-23 July 1986, despite the standoff, the issue was discussed intensively with no solution, resulting in acrimony and tension.”
By the time autumn had set in, India realised it had to be ready for a long haul even as talks continued.
“The Indian government initially responded with confusion as its knowledge of the strength of this new PLA post at Sumdorong Chu was very sketchy. P. Shiv Shankar, the Indian Minister of External Affairs argued on 1 August 1986 that the PLA had not built a helipad in this region only to be countered by his deputy, K. R. Narayanan, three days later that there indeed was a PLA helipad in that region,” writes Manjeet Pardesi, a senior lecturer of Political Science and International Relations and Asia Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
“Shankar went on to state that there was some confusion over the exact location of the McMahon Line because of ‘the thickness of the line’ that was drawn on the original map at Simla in 1914,” Pardesi added, further writing that the Indian government became “extremely concerned” of China’s intention on the McMahon Line and of Beijing’s plan to collect taxes in the region.
Between September and October of that year, the Indian Army embarked on what came to be known as ‘Operation Falcon’, which involved the occupation of ridges overlooking the Sumdorong Chu valley, including Langrola and the Hathung La ridge across the Namka Chu rivulet, that fell on the south of Thag La.
“The Chinese dug in to prepare to stay through the winter of 1986. The Indian Army then airlifted a Brigade from the 5 Mountain Division to Zemithang and occupied the ridges dominating the Sumdorong Chu,” writes Major General Mandip Singh.
“Troop reinforcements on the Indian side – which had begun with Operation Falcon in late 1986 – continued through early 1987 under a massive air-land exercise. Titled Exercise Chequerboard, it involved several divisions of the Army and several squadrons of the IAF and redeployment of troops at several places in the North-East,” said Maj Gen P.K. Mallick, VSM (retd).
“The Indian Army moved three divisions to positions around Wangdung, where they were supplied and maintained solely by air. Ground support and fighter-bomber aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) were brought in to airfields in Assam and North Bengal,” he added.
The Chinese were taken by surprise at the firmness of the Indian Army and the “over display of military power” by India, which had “effectively neutralised any adventurous step” by China, writes Keshav Mishra in ‘Rapprochement Across The Himalayas: Emerging India-China Relations In The Post Cold War Period’.
According to Neville Maxwell’s China’s Borders: Settlements and Conflicts, the then leadership in Beijing was gearing up for a “planned and prepared” divisional attack from India to remove the Chinese personnel from the Valley.
At the helm of the Indian Army was the legendary General K. Sundarji, who, according to a former diplomat who refused to be named, had categorically told Prime Minister Gandhi that while he was not opposed to the matter being settled diplomatically, he would “teach the Chinese side a lesson and a fitting reply if needed without even thinking for a second”.
Lintner writes in his book that Sundarji “wanted to show the Chinese that this is not 1962”. “He wanted to flex his muscles and demonstrate to the Chinese that it’s a different Indian Army they were facing today,” the Swedish journalist writes.
According to Lintner, Gandhi was “alarmed” even as he learned about the developments and wanted to visit Zemithang but could not as his officers warned him that bad weather made it tough for helicopters to land there.
“Gandhi and Sundarji were never really on the same page on this matter,” said a former Army officer, recalling how visible differences arose between the two when the PM was shown a presentation at the army camp in Tawang. The Army chief had sought to deploy more troops and artillery on the frontline, which the prime minister opposed.
Arunachal Pradesh gets full statehood angering China
Matters escalated in 1987 when India granted full statehood to Arunachal Pradesh on 20 February that year. Until 1972, Arunachal was known as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) but was granted union territory status on 20 January 1972.
Western diplomats began murmuring that India and China were preparing for another 1962-like conflagration even as the Chinese began to establish a counter build-up, with Beijing’s top leader Deng Xiaoping proclaiming that it was going to “teach India a lesson”.
During this time, India was recognised as an emerging nuclear power but it was also known for taking a “recessed deterrent” posture, as described by Shivshankar Menon in his book Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy. Menon is a former National Security Advisor, prior to which, he was Foreign Secretary. He also served as special representative of the prime minister of India on the China boundary issue from 2010 to 2014.
“Western diplomats predicted war and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s advisers said Sundarji’s recklessness was responsible for this. But the general stood firm, at one point telling a senior Rajiv aide, ‘Please make alternate arrangements if you think you are not getting adequate professional advice’. The civilians backed off, so did the Chinese,” writes French author Claude Arpi, who is also historian and Tibetologist.
Beijing’s ‘olive branch’ to PM Rajiv Gandhi
Even though the Prime Minister preferred diplomacy, his government stood its ground in the face-off.
On 3 March 1987, in a speech in Parliament, Gandhi said, “There has been tension on our border with China. We want a peaceful settlement of the border issue. It will need wisdom and statesmanship. It will need vision and firmness. Firmness is included in wisdom…It is this perspective that should guide our countries in seeking a solution to the problem.”
Subsequently in April, then Defence Minister K.C. Pant told Parliament that Beijing’s reaction to New Delhi’s legislation on Arunachal “made it obligatory for India to take appropriate measures for the defence of the border”.
In the same month, Pant also made a short visit to Beijing to find a way out of the crisis. This was followed by another visit to China by then External Affairs Minister N.D. Tiwari in May that year. Tiwari’s visit was more of a stopover at Beijing while he was on his way to Pyongyang, North Korea.
All this culminated into another round of border talks in August when both sides agreed to “end military confrontation” even as they decided to “pull back”, which finally ended with China extending an “olive branch” to Gandhi. The Prime Minister visited Beijing in 1988 even as the border standoff continued with both sides deploying heavy military personnel along the McMahon Line. It was the first such Prime Ministerial visit since Gandhi’s grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru.
During his visit, Gandhi took the stance of a statesman and indicated that he was keen on injecting a fresh lease of life in the bilateral ties between India and China. This paved the way for a series of talks on the boundary question between both sides.
These talks did not end the crisis immediately but they at least soothed nerves on both sides that the political leadership in New Delhi as well as in Beijing was giving the matter topmost priority.
Then External Affairs Minister of India P.V. Narasimha Rao told Parliament in November 1988 that the dialogue “is an ongoing one pending a lasting peaceful and mutually acceptable solution of the boundary question, it has been agreed that peace and tranquillity should be maintained all along the border”.
By December, both sides set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) on the boundary issue. This was seen as a “major step forward”, recalls a former diplomat who was then involved in the matters as a junior officer at the Ministry of External Affairs.
But the larger solution was seen in the bonhomie between Gandhi and Deng, with the latter informing the Indian Prime Minister that due to his visit amidst a standoff, “China and India will restore friendship between the two countries, peoples and leaders”.
Sumdorong Chu crisis comes to an end in August 1995
The first meeting of the JWG took place in Beijing from 30 June until 4 July 1989, thus triggering a series of high-level visits between both sides even as soldiers sat eyeball-to-eyeball at Sumdorong Chu.
Eventually in October 1989, then Chinese Vice Foreign Premier Wu Xueqian visited India to meet Gandhi and Rao.
In March 1990, then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen visited India, which also coincided with the 40th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. This visit also ended on a positive note.
“In the Sumdorong Chu or Wangdung crisis, which began in 1986, although our troops were eyeball to eyeball with Chinese troops, the numbers were much smaller than the current standoff in eastern Ladakh. However, that crisis was resolved through dialogue and negotiations over several years,” said Gautam Bambawale, former Secretary (East) at the Ministry of External Affairs and former Indian envoy to Beijing.
With improvement in bilateral ties, India and China finally signed the key 1993 agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
“Sumdorong Chu crisis went on until August 1995. It took nine long years to resolve the crisis but it was solved through diplomatic talks. When the confrontation happened the Chinese and Indian troops were in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation. But we were finally able to negotiate a pullback,” said another former Indian envoy to China, who refused to be identified.
Under the agreement, India and China negotiated that both sides will remove their posts. It was agreed that each side will remove two posts from their respective sides. “Although they wanted us to pull back from our original position, we didn’t. We stayed firm on their withdrawal,” the former diplomat said. “But the larger point is it was resolved without any bloodshed and only through talks even though it took nine years.”