By Malay Mishra* in Puri, June 21, 2020: Right from early May the Sino-Indian standoff in Ladakh (at three notable areas of differing perception, ADBs, Finger points 4-8 of Pangong Tso lake, Hot Springs- Gogra at Patrolling Point 15 and Galwan Valley Region at Patrolling Point 14) has passed through several inflection points culminating in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s baffling denial that “there ever was nor is any intrusion into the Indian side of the LAC nor any Indian post captured”. The PM made this statement at the end of his interaction with leaders of opposition parties leaving no room for any debate or discussion.

The PM’s statement has left military analysts, foreign office mandarins and political leaders bewildered as it directly contradicts the official statements of the Indian Foreign Ministry as well as the military that there were intrusions at several points in eastern Ladakh leading to the horrific clashes at PP 14 (east of the confluence of the Shyok and Galwan rivers) deemed to be well within India’s part of the LAC.

The incident at the above point happened on June 15 when a party of three army personnel led by the Commanding Officer of the 16 Bihar regiment went to inspect whether the Chinese had dismantled a structure (tent) as per the agreement reached on June 06 at the Lt. Commander level talks where both sides had agreed to move back 2 kms each side from the presumed LAC to make room for a no-man’s land.

The tent being still there, the Indian party razed it down by which time over 250 Chinese soldiers well prepared and armed with spiked batons, heavy metals and stones attacked the Indian soldiers who had been joined by some more from the battalion. In the ensuing fight 20 Indian soldiers were clobbered to death with a few pushed off the rugged cliffs to the choppy waters of the Galwan river. There were unspecified casualties on the Chinese side though the exact numbers were not given out.

The unprecedented incident of unarmed soldiers dying on the LAC happening after 45 years shocked the collective conscience of the nation while alarming the political leadership and military brass faced with the tragic loss largely due to Chinese deception and not keeping to the 2005 Protocol on Modalities of Implementation of CBMs.

PM Modi in a stern message on June 16 following meetings with the Defence Minister, CDS and all three Defence Chiefs cautioned China of any aspersion to Indian territory. He said that India had always been peace-loving and cooperative towards its neighbours but if provoked had the strength and will to give back. Stating that the sacrifices of the 20 Indian brave hearts would not go in vain he declared that India would never cede an inch of its territory to any outside power.

In an astonishing turn of events, however, three days later the same PM demolished the GOI’s stated position that there was no intrusion into Indian territory!

Did the PM’s statement mean that the Chinese assertion that the entire GVR was part of their territory as successively proclaimed by the Chinese State media The Global Times, spokesperson of the Western Theatre Command of the PLA and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, the last on June 16, correct?

If that be so, why was India perturbed with the Chinese “incursions” in GVR, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso on May 05-06? Why then was the Indian military (as also the media) reporting on the steady military build-up and encroachment on the Chinese side for which India had to match similar enforcement of men, arms and equipments?

Why then were the talks for disengagement of troops held at the level of senior army officers on June 06? And importantly, why since then has the Indian Foreign Ministry been accusing China of not respecting the June 06 agreement and taking unilateral action to alter the LAC?

In fact, the Indian External Affairs Minister minced no words in stating that the violent clashes of June 15-16 were “pre-planned and premeditated”. The Chinese Foreign Minister, on the other hand, said “The Indian side would do best not to make an incorrect judgment of the situation, would best not underestimate China’s strong determination to safeguard its sovereign territory”. The Chinese contention has all along been that India has transgressed their part of the territory and destroyed their structure.

The PM’s statement that there had been no intrusion into Indian territory contradicted his own Foreign Minister and nullified all that had happened on the ground. The consequences of this could be far reaching and highly deleterious for the region. The fact is, the GVR has never been shown as China’s territory, this was a new claim being made by China and the LAC actually altered to its strategic advantage.
The name ‘Galwan’ belonged to a Ladakhi mountaineering guide, Ghulam Rasool Galwan, whose ancestors still lived in Ladakh, and who had accompanied British cartographer and adventurer Francis Younghusband to discover the region.

The day after the PM’s statement, the Foreign Ministry reasserted India’s claim on the GVR with the PMO pointing out that the PM’s statement has been “mischievously interpreted”. While the Congress party has raised several questions on the credibility of the PM’s assertion with all parties generally going along to pledge support at this critical hour, the matter is likely to snowball and voices critical of the PM’s denial of Chinese intrusion could increase. The government’s decision to boost army and air power in the region could send out mixed signals with the Chinese reciprocating.

Some observers feel that the situation could lead up to a limited-scale conflict in which case economies of both countries would recede by many years. By all calculations India would be the worse sufferer what with the coronavirus pandemic having taken a heavy toll on lives, resources and public health facilities. With a ‘Boycott China’ campaign gaining ground and Chinese companies and projects being systematically disavowed notwithstanding a $55 billion trade deficit and China having moved into practically all sectors of India’s manufacturing and technology sectors, India could hurt much more than China.

It is evident from all this that China, after having increased its presence at Pangong Tso from Fingers 4-8 which were hitherto being treated as the Indian side and patrolled by Indian boats, has been virtually taken over by the Chinese with several camps having come up. The Chinese have further entrenched their position at Hot Springs-Gogra and could mount their presence over the vital Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road, recently completed by India, leading to Karakoram and the DBO airport on the east. With that, as per its strategic calculus, China could aim at accessing Karakoram pass and secure Siachen to reinforce the CPEC cutting off India’s hold of the region.

*The writer is a former Ambassador and an occasional columnist

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