The video of the alleged scuffle between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the banks of Pangong lake in eastern Ladakh, posted online by Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd) on August 19, was visual confirmation of what had been reported about the incident that took place on Independence Day morning.
A day before the video surfaced, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs had confirmed “an incident”, without going into details. The video, which the Army is yet to officially authenticate, shows unprecedented physical violence between the two sides — including kicking and punching, the throwing of stones, and the use of sticks and steel rods, leading to severe injuries.
In normal course, the two patrols, after coming face to face, would have engaged in a “banner drill”, displaying a banner asking the other side to vacate its territory. This drill could last a few minutes to an hour — but barring some occasional jostling, the two sides would disengage quietly. That the Chinese chose to initiate violence against the Indians this time, can be linked to the state of heightened tensions between the two armies due to the two month-old standoff at Doklam on the Sikkim border.
But why did this incident take place at Pangong Tso, 1,300-odd km west of Sikkim? What is Pangong Tso, and why is it important to the two sides?
In the Ladakhi language, Pangong means extensive concavity, and Tso is lake in Tibetan. Pangong Tso is a long narrow, deep, endorheic (landlocked) lake situated at a height of more than 14,000 ft in the Ladakh Himalayas. The western end of Pangong Tso lies 54 km to the southeast of Leh. The 135 km-long lake sprawls over 604 sq km in the shape of a boomerang, and is 6 km wide at its broadest point.
The brackish water lake freezes over in winter, and becomes ideal for ice skating and polo. The legendary 19th century Dogra general Zorawar Singh is said to have trained his soldiers and horses on the frozen Pangong lake before invading Tibet.
The Line of Actual Control (LAC) cuts through the lake, but India and China do not agree on its exact location. As things stand, a 45 km-long western portion of the lake is in Indian control, while the rest is under China’s control. Most of the clashes between the two armies occur in the disputed portion of the lake.
By itself, the lake does not have major tactical significance. But it lies in the path of the Chushul approach, one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Indian-held territory. Indian assessments show that a major Chinese offensive, if it comes, will flow across both the north and south of the lake. During the 1962 war, this was where China launched its main offensive — the Indian Army fought heroically at Rezang La, the mountain pass on the southeastern approach to Chushul valley, where the Ahir Company of 13 Kumaon led by Maj. Shaitan Singh made its last stand. This was made memorable in Chetan Anand’s 1964 war film, Haqeeqat, starring Balraj Sahni and Dharmendra.
Not far away, to the north of the lake, is the Army’s Dhan Singh Thapa post, named after Maj. Dhan Singh Thapa who was awarded the country’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra. Maj. Thapa and his platoon were manning Sirijap-1 outpost which was essential for the defence of Chushul airfield. The award was announced posthumously for Maj. Thapa, as reflected in the citation, but he was subsequently discovered to have been taken prisoner by the Chinese. He rejoined his unit after being released from the PoW camp.
Over the years, the Chinese have built motorable roads along their banks of the Pangong Tso. At the People’s Liberation Army’s Huangyangtan base at Minningzhen, southwest of Yinchuan, the capital of China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, stands a massive to-scale model of this disputed area in Aksai Chin. It points to the importance accorded by the Chinese to the area.
Even during peacetime, the difference in perception over where the LAC lies on the northern bank of the lake, makes this contested terrain. In 1999, when the Army unit from the area was moved to Kargil for Operation Vijay, China took the opportunity to build 5 km of road inside Indian territory along the lake’s bank. Last Tuesday’s skirmish took place in this area. The 1999 road added to the extensive network of roads built by the Chinese in the area, which connect with each other and to the G219 Karakoram Highway. From one of these roads, Chinese positions physically overlook Indian positions on the northern tip of the Pangong lake.
The mountains on the lake’s northern bank jut forward in major spurs, which the Army calls “fingers”. India claims that the LAC is coterminous with Finger 8, but it physically controls area only up to Finger 4. Chinese border posts are at Finger 8, while Indian border posts are located close to Finger 3.
On the water, the Chinese had a major advantage until a few years ago — their superior boats could literally run circles around the Indian boats. But India purchased better boats some five years ago, leading to a quicker and more aggressive response. Although there are well-established drills for disengagement of patrol boats of both sides, the confrontations on the waters have led to tense situations in the past few years. The induction of high speed boats has ostensibly provoked the Chinese, who have responded by increasing the number of transgressions in this area in recent years.
Finally, if you go as a tourist to see the lake that the climax scene of Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots made famous, will you be able to travel up to the Chinese border?
No, because tourists are only allowed up to Spangmik village, around 7 km into the lake. In fact, tourists were not allowed at all at Pangong Tso until 1999, and even today, you need to obtain an Inner Line Permit from the office of the Deputy Commissioner at Leh. Scenes of Indian and Chinese soldiers allegedly clashing on the lake or on its banks will per force have to be limited to videos posted by retired generals.