Following the path of the caravans that once set out from Leh to the great East Turkestan cities of Yarkand and Kashgar, the small Indian Army patrol had begun to march east into the Chang Chengmo, turning north-west into the Kugrang Tsangpo river, pausing nights at the ancient camp-grounds of Katajila and Panglung before heading north-east across the 5,500-metre Changlung La pass. Then the path led north to a river whose name few Indians had then heard of: the Galwan.
The 30 Gurkha soldiers, and their commanders, knew the mission was critical. “If the Chinese commanded the Galwan valley,” Intelligence Bureau chief BN Mullik had warned in a September 1961 letter, “it would give them easy access to Skardu, Gilgit, etc. and our routes to Murgo, Daulat Beg Oldi, Panamik would be cut.”
Yet, perils lurked along the path the soldiers had to travelled on. In 1959, Indo-Tibetan Border Police officer Karam Singh had led a nine-man patrol into the Chang Chenmo. Ambushed by the People’s Liberation Army near the mouth of the Kugrang, where a hill is now named in Karam Singh’s memory, the patrol was annihilated.
Last week, China and India agreed to disengage troops at Patrolling Point 17A, near the Gogra pasture ground. Point 17A is part of a long arc of positions that mark the Line of Actual Control, numbered sequentially from Point 1 at Karakoram, then running through the Depsang Plains to Pangong Tso lake. The agreement, which follows on a similar disengagement deal north and south of Pangong Tso lake in February, marks small steps back from the abyss.
In 1962, Galwan Post—reached through the same Gogra region where the Indian Army and PLA have been facing off—was wiped out. Early that July, a People’s Liberation Army patrol discovered the Gurkha soldiers in the Galwan, and cut them off. In October, a company of 5 Jat were flown in on Mi-4 helicopters to replace them—only to be overrun by an entire PLA battalion in October, among the spearheads of the war of 1962.
This time around, India seems to have stood its ground on the Line of Actual Control—but the story isn’t as simple as it might seem. The disengagement process involves significant concessions by India. Yet, it also trades territory for time, giving India a chance to prepare for even bigger challenges.
Government sources familiar with the discussions have told Firstpost that agreement was almost reached at the military-to-military talks last week on Patrolling Point 15, north of Gogra, falling through only because the PLA was unwilling to move its position back as far as the Indian Army wanted.
Army negotiators are, however, optimistic there will be forward movement on Point 15. The PLA also appears to discuss the even-more contentious arc in the sprawling Depsang Plains, from Point 9 to Point 13, which Indian troops are unable to access because the PLA has cut off patrol routes.
This much is clear, though: the agreement on Point 17A is a somewhat unhappy compromise. Although the official statement on the disengagement is conspicuously short on detail, Government sources say the agreement commits Indian troops to fall back to their permanent posts at Point 17, near Gogra, at the confluence of the Changlung La stream and the Kugrang river. In turn, the PLA will pull back to semi-permanent positions some two kilometres north-east of the LAC.
Now, the statement suggests, India will suspend patrolling between Point 17 and 17A, an important concession. That Point 17A lies on India’s side of the LAC was never, before last summer’s crisis, contested by China.
Last year, though, China asserted that it continued to insist on border claims made by then-Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai in 1959 and rejected by India. In 1960 discussions by government experts on border issue, China claimed the border “followed the watershed between the Kugrang Tsangpo river and its tributary, the Changlung”. The border, China’s negotiators precisely claimed, crossed the Changlung at Longitude 78°53’ East, Latitude 34°22’ North—in other words, to south of Point 17A.
The agreement not to patrol up to Point 17A means India will not, for now, assert its claims on the LAC at Point 17A—but with no reciprocal renunciation of China’s claim that the LAC lies at 78°53’E,34°22’N, a position it has never held.
As strategic affairs expert Manoj Joshi has pointed out, the agreement on Pangong also involved such asymmetric concessions. Indeed, China’s claims to Finger 4—one of a series of eight ridges along the north bank of Pangong Tso—run well to the west of its so-called Claim Line of 1960. In the 1960 discussions, coordinates provided by China placed the LAC along Finger 7 and 8.
In other words, the demilitarised zone created in February between Finger 3 and 8 lies in territory which China has acknowledged, in formal negotiations, to lie on the Indian side of the LAC. To create this zone, moreover, India has used up an important bargaining chip, the positions it seized on the Kailash range, south of Pangong.
Future negotiations on Point 15, similarly, could require more Indian concessions. Like Point 17A, the PLA has never disputed Point 15 lies on the Indian side of the LAC. In 2015, Army sources say, China even pulled back bulldozers found to be building a road one kilometre on the Indian side of LAC—acknowledging where the line in fact lay.
To bring about a disengagement, though, India may well be compelled to make concessions. The PLA fears Indian troops at Point 15 might, in in the future, cut off its road to Galwan should it pull its own soldiers back. The creation of a no-patrol zone will, necessarily, weaken India’s defensive posture along the Kugrang river.
Any disengagement in the Depsang Plains, similarly, will likely involve the painful decision to give up patrolling to the arc from Point 10 to Point 13, in return for China pulling back troop positions that have built up east of the Indian post at Burtse—effectively giving up the right to physical assertion of the LAC.
Fundamental disagreements on where the Line of Control actually is, moreover, remain. From recent digital maps of the prefectures of Ngari and Hotan County, adjoining Ladakh, it is clear the claimed territorial boundaries of China lie well to the east of the Line of Actual control in many areas. That means more trouble could lie ahead.
Also Read: Explainer: What is the LAC?
Even though India’s concessions might upset military hawks, the uncertain future of the China-India relationship means they make sound strategic sense. The crisis on the LAC has involved a grinding and expensive forward deployment, which has sucked-in ever greater numbers of troops. The Army has already repositioned two infantry divisions earlier committed to the I Strike Corps, facing Pakistan, and moved the Allahabad-based 4 Division and the Bareilly-headquartered 6 Mountain Division to guard Ladakh.
Although media reports have spoken of a Strike formation being positioned in Ladakh, this is not the case: the I Corps’ Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division will remain in the plains, since its tanks have little relevance in mountain warfare.
Larger numbers of troops, moreover, won’t fix India’s problems. Logistics experts estimate China’s high-speed rail and roads could allow the PLA’s 76th and 77th combined-arms Group Armies to move up to seven division-sized formations into the TAR inside a week, and over 32 inside a month. The PLA already has all-weather road access to the 31-odd major passes across the LAC, linked to highways cutting across the TAR.
In essence, Ladakh—terrain where India, facing the high mountains, faces an inexorable geographical disadvantage against the PLA, which is on a plateau—threatens to become a black hole, swallowing up already-strained Army resources.
As ever-more-powerful China aggressively projects powers across its peripheries, from the South China Seas to the Himalayas, India will have to grow the resources to meet the challenge—and conceive of new ways to use the defensive and deterrent capabilities it develops.
“Five kilometres more land we have or five kilometres less—this is not important,” Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev admonished Mao Zedong after the 1959 clashes in India. In 1962, India’s core mistake was believing the assertion of minor territorial claims, using inadequate forces, was more important than building robust defensive and deterrent capabilities. The disengagement process might just have avoided that trap.