India-China clash: Piecing together what happened in Ladakh, as per Indian media
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India-China clash: Piecing together what happened in Ladakh, as per Indian media

They differ in some details but the news reports published today provide a rather clear outline of the deadly conflict in the Galwan valley.

By Ayan Sharma

Published on :

It emerged late on Tuesday that Indian and Chinese soldiers had clashed in the Galwan valley in Ladakh. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed and over a hundred injured. The clash on the night of June 16 occurred even as the two sides were working to de-escalate tensions and barely days after the Indian media declared victory in the prolonged standoff, sparked by the Chinese troops intruding into what India considers its territory.

India and China share a 3,488-km border and while disputes, even confrontations, aren’t uncommon, this is the first time Indian or Chinese soldiers have been slain since 1975, when Chinese border guards killed four Assam Rifles soldiers. In 1967, at least 80 Indian and over 300 Chinese soldiers had been killed in a clash at the Nathu La pass in Sikkim.

In a statement on Tuesday night, the Indian Army confirmed that 20 of its men had been slain, including the commanding officer of the 16 Bihar Regiment Colonel B Santosh Babu. The Chinese have not provided any casualty figures, prompting the Indian media to make unsubstantiated claims.

Still, for probably the first time since the standoff in Ladakh started making news last month, news reports published on Wednesday agree on several key facts. So, despite the coverage differing on some details, there are common themes.

Scene of action

Most reports agreed on the location and nature of the clash.

  • It happened near Patrolling Point 14 between the Line of Actual Control and the junction of the Galwan and Shyok rivers. It is Indian territory breached by the Chinese, even though the BJP IT Cell chief Amit Malviya tweeted saying there had been no intrusion. The area falls in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector.

  • The clash did not see the use of firearms from either side. Yet, all reports indicate that the Chinese troops were brutal in their assault. Apart from hand-to-hand combat, stones, rods, sticks, clubs, bats, bamboo poles wrapped in barbed wire were used. Many Indian soldiers also died after either falling off or being pushed from a narrow ridge into the Galwan river. Most succumbed to the serious injuries but some also fell to hypothermia.

The trail of events that led to the deadly clash had begun about a month and a half earlier.

In the Business Standard, Ajai Shukla had been reporting on Indian intelligence reports indicating Chinese buildup along the LAC in late April. The Indian Army didn’t immediately deploy a force to counter the threat, and a large Chinese contingent soon crossed the LAC into Galwan and Pangong Tso areas.

On May 5, Indian and Chinese soldiers and border guards clashed, causing injuries on both sides. The commanding officer of 11 Mahar Regiment, Colonel Vijay Rana, is still being treated for life-threatening wounds sustained in that fighting.

After a month-long standoff, India and China finally launched efforts to ease the tensions. On June 6, Lt General Harinder Singh, who commands the Leh-based XIV Corps, met Major General Lin Liu, the head of the Xinjiang military district, at Patrolling Point 14.

At the meeting, according to News18 and the Indian Express, the two sides agreed to create a “buffer zone” between the LAC and the junction of the Galwan and Shyok rivers. While the Indians would stay west of the junction, the Chinese agreed to remain east of the LAC to prevent any faceoff. Agreement was also reached to withdraw from three disputed locations – Point 14, Point 15, Point 17. Briefing reporters about the de-escalation efforts last Saturday, Indian Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane said both sides were disengaging in a phased manner, starting in the Galwan area.

Then, the situation took an about-turn.

The fateful night

According to India Today, the Chinese crossed over and set up a new post at Point 14, in territory claimed by India, early last week. This defied the agreement.

Colonel Babu’s unit was asked to ensure the new post was removed, The Tribune reports. The Chinese refused to leave, for reasons that remain unclear. Indian troops then burned the tent down, sparking a scuffle. The Economic Times claims that the Indian Army demolished and burned down several illegal Chinese structures on the Indian side of the LAC. The faceoff involved a “Chinese force in excess of 250” assembling near Patrol Point 14. Though neither side carried firearms, the Chinese used spiked sticks to attack.

A report in The Print doesn’t mention a new post or that it was burned down. It simply states that both parties had agreed to undertake some de-escalation steps which China failed to do. This led to a verbal spat between the two sides that soon “turned into pushing and jostling”.

The most dramatic account of the clash appears in News18. The report describes it as a “savage combat, with few parallels in the history of modern armies”. Rocks were thrown at the Indian positions by Chinese troops, the report says. Though some Indian soldiers fought back using the improvised weapons carried by the Chinese, most had no means of defence. The report notes that Chinese assault teams “hunted down and slaughtered” soldiers of the 16 Bihar Regiment, citing a senior government official familiar with the debriefing of survivors at hospitals in Leh. The dead include soldiers who jumped into the Galwan river in a desperate bid to escape, the report adds.

While India Today maintains that the clash continued for over three hours, according to News18, it continued for well over eight hours.

There is a lack of clarity on the number of soldiers engaged in the fight. While the Business Standard claims that around 300 Chinese soldiers attacked a group of about 50 Indian soldiers, News18 states that around 150 Indian soldiers engaged in the fight. India Today mentions that “the Indian party was vastly outnumbered by the Chinese”.

The Tribune, though, puts the numbers much higher on both sides. “More than 900 troops on each side were involved in a physical clash, which started Monday night and ended in the early hours of Tuesday,” it claims.

Chinese casualties

The Chinese authorities have not issued a statement about the clash while the country’s media has mostly buried the news. In the absence of a Chinese version, varying “source-based” numbers have floated in the media.

The news agency ANI was the first to claim that 43 Chinese soldiers had been killed or seriously injured. This number, provided by “sources”, was quickly relayed across channels and news websites. The Times of India, on the other hand, invoked the figure of 43 for Chinese deaths alone. ANI also said the commanding officer of the Chinese force involved in the fight was among those killed. Again, there is no clarity on who ANI’s source is or even which ministry or government department has made such assertions. Official communication from the Indian Army has not put out any casualty figure on the Chinese side. News18, though, claims that “over 40 PLA soldiers may also have been killed or injured”. The figure is based on what “Indian Army sources” claim to have learned from intercepted Chinese military communications.

The number of Chinese casualties will continue fluctuating unless Beijing clears the air.

Meanwhile, according to the Indian Express and the Business Standard, Chinese troops have also entered the Depsang area, which is north of Galwan in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector. Here, they have reportedly secured areas up to Patrolling Point 12 and 13. Depsang is where India and China were engaged in a tense standoff in 2013 as well.

Clearly, we are in this for the long haul.

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