The political slugfest on Twitter between Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar about the death of 20 soldiers in a violent faceoff with the Chinese in Ladakh brought home the fact that the Indian troops were armed, but did not open fire. The minister said that “all troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving post. Those at Galwan on 15 June did so. Long-standing practice (as per 1996 & 2005 agreements) not to use firearms during faceoffs”. Read in Tamil
The protocols Jaishankar referred to are from agreements signed between India and China in 1996 and 2005. The 1996 agreement is on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas.
“With a view to preventing dangerous military activities along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas… Neither side shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres from the line of actual control. This prohibition shall not apply to routine firing activities in small arms firing ranges,” says Article VI(1) of the 1996 agreement.
However, it is Article VI(4) that is more applicable in the current instance: “If the border personnel of the two sides come in a face-to-face situation due to differences on the alignment of the line of actual control of any other reason, they shall exercise self-restraint and take all necessary steps to avoid an escalation of the situation. Both sides shall also enter into immediate consultations through diplomatic and/or other available channels to review the situation and prevent any escalation of tension.”
But the 1996 agreement comes with a proviso in Article X(1) that “the full implementation of some of the provisions of the present Agreement will depend on the two sides arriving at a common understanding of the alignment of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas, the two sides agree to speed up the process clarification and confirmation of the line of actual control”.
In Article 1 of the 2005 agreement, “the two sides will resolve the boundary question through peaceful and friendly consultations. Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means”. The 2013 agreement on Border Defence Cooperation also stated that neither side shall use its military capability against the other.
None of these articles pertains directly to the situation that emerged on Monday where soldiers were brutally assaulted to death by the Chinese side in Galwan Valley area. As Jaishankar explained, it was as per longstanding practice in the area flowing from these agreements that the soldiers did not open fire.
The Indian Express spoke to Army officers, who confirmed that most of the soldiers in that group which clashed with the Chinese soldiers were carrying their personal weapons, and had ammunition on person. This is as per prevalent practice, borne out by videos and pictures of certain patrols coming face-to-face in the recent past that show soldiers carrying weapons, but with the barrels pointing downwards. That is part of a local drill followed to avoid any accidental firing or misunderstanding because of the rifle barrel pointing towards each other.
Even though not strictly coded in any rules, officers said these practices have evolved over a period of time and have been firmed as part of a routine on the LAC. Since no round has been fired on the Sino-India border in Ladakh after 1962 and with a view to preventing any escalation, these routines of not firing have been drilled into the soldiers.
In such an environment, every other weapon short of firing has become acceptable to use for the soldiers, who have used them during previous clashes. Even though people have been injured in such clashes, no one has died due to use of rocks and sticks. However, the ferocity of the use of these weapons has been increasing over time, as observed during the clash at Pangong Tso on May 5/6 which left more than 70 Indian soldiers injured.
As per some reports, even the Army recently ordered full body protectors and anti-riot gear for its soldiers deployed there, further lending credence to the notion that opening of fire was strict taboo on the LAC. The incident on Monday happened under these circumstances, even though the Army’s rules of engagement allow soldiers from opening fire if lives of their uniformed brethren is threatened.
Questions have been raised in many quarters, including by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, about the fact that no officer in the chain of command thought it fit to open fire in a clash that lasted a few hours. Some military veterans have even argued that even calling for artillery fire would have been fully justified as per rules in such a scenario.
Army officers, however, argue that there is another side to the story. In the melee during the clash, where Indian and Chinese soldiers were grappling with each other in a hand-to-hand combat, it was very difficult to open fire without hitting one of your men. That, they say, was the reason soldiers did not open fire even when their Commanding Officer and 19 other men were killed, and 10 others taken captive.
Arriving at judgments about complex military situations is fraught, especially for those not present on the ground. Decisions are taken on the spur of the moment, which change the course of events, and their consequences have to be borne by posterity. Whatever be the reason for Indian soldiers not opening fire, their decision prevented the situation from escalating. That said, the killings have put a question mark on the terms of engagement between the two armies going forward.
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