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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Explained: In India-China border standoff in Ladakh, why Chushul sector is critical

Chushul has an airstrip, and its connectivity by road to Leh gives it a unique operational vantage. Indian troops have now secured the ridgeline in this sub-sector that allows them to dominate the Chushul bowl on the Indian side, and Moldo sector on the Chinese side.

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma , Edited by Explained Desk | Chandigarh | Updated: September 13, 2020 11:30:21 am
chushul sector, india china border dispute, india china border standoff, ladakh chushul sector, indian expressIndian Army soldiers seen atop a vehicle on a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district on September 2, 2020. (Reuters Photo: Danish Ismail)

The Chushul sub-sector has come into focus in the standoff between the Indian and PLA troops following the movement that took place on the intervening night of August 29 and 30. What is the Chushul sub-sector and why is it important?

What is the Chushul sub-sector?

The Chushul sub-sector lies south of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh. It comprises high, broken mountains and heights of Thatung, Black Top, Helmet Top, Gurung Hill, and Magger Hill besides passes such as Rezang La and Rechin La, the Spanggur Gap, and the Chushul valley.

Situated at a height of over 13,000 feet close to the LAC, the Chushul Valley has a vital airstrip that played an important role even during the 1962 War with China.

Thanks to its location, Chushul is one among the five Border Personnel Meeting points between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China. It is here that representatives of the two armies meet for regular interactions. The recent brigade-level meetings between the two sides were also held here.

What is its strategic importance to India?

Chushul enjoys tremendous strategic and tactical importance because of its location and terrain, which make it a centre for logistics deployment.

This sector has plains that are a couple of kilometres wide, where mechanised forces, including tanks, can be deployed. Its airstrip and connectivity by road to Leh add to its operational advantages.

Indian troops have now secured the ridgeline in this sub-sector that allows them to dominate the Chushul bowl on the Indian side, and Moldo sector on the Chinese side.

They also have a clear sight of the almost 2-km-wide Spanggur gap, which the Chinese used in the past to launch attacks on this sector in the 1962 War.

chushul sector, india china border dispute, india china border standoff, ladakh chushul sector, indian express A map of eastern Ladakh. (Express)

Maj Gen (retd) GG Dwivedi, co-author of the book, ‘1962: A View from the Other Side of the Hill’, says: “Securing this ridgeline has given us both military and strategic advantage. Once you secure this ridgeline, you are fully deployed with all your equipment.”

Gen Dwivedi says India’s move has neutralised the advantage that China gained when it secured areas between Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso.

“Our domination of the ridgeline in the Chushul sub-sector gives us a bargaining chip in our negotiations for the disengagement process,” he said.

How is Chushul important to China?

Simply put, Chushul is the gateway to Leh. If China enters Chushul, it can launch its operations for Leh.

Did the Chinese try to capture Chushul in the 1962 War?

After the initial attacks, including on the Galwan valley by the Chinese in October 1962, the PLA troops prepared to attack Chushul airfield and the valley to get direct access to Leh.

However, just before the attacks were launched, the area was reinforced by the 114 Brigade in November 1962, which also had under its command two troops of armour and some artillery.

It’s important to note that the heights secured by Indian soldiers on the intervening night of August 29-30 were held by them in 1962 as well. These included Lukung, Spanggur Gap, Gurung Hill, Rezang La, Magger Hill and Thatung Heights.

chushul sector, india china border dispute, india china border standoff, ladakh chushul sector, indian express

The units which held these areas included the 5 Jat, 1 Jat, 1/8 Gorkha Rifles, and 13 Kumaon. The Indian soldiers gave an outstanding account of themselves in the battles, where famously at Rezang La, the Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon lost 114 soldiers out of its total 120. The Company Commander, Maj Shaitan Singh, was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for gallantry posthumously.

After Gurung Hill and Rezang La fell to the Chinese, the brigade pulled back troops to the heights to give a better response to the enemy. However, the anticipated next attacks never came, as a ceasefire was declared. The brigade achieved its primary task after suffering 140 casualties, while the Chinese lost more than 1,000 soldiers.

What are the future challenges in this area?

An immediate challenge is of a flare-up as troops of the two countries are deployed within a distance of 800 to 1,000 metres of each other at Black Top and Rechin La.

Logistics also pose a major challenge. As Gen Dwivedi says, “You need porters to carry water and food to the top. You don’t want troops to do that, for then you lose fighting strength.”

At this point, villagers of Chushul are being of great help. Chushul village in Durbuk tehsil is home to around 170 families, most of whom are of Tibetan descent. According to social media posts of Konchok Stanzin, executive councillor for education at Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, the villagers have been ferrying water and essential commodities to the Indian troops deployed at Black Top.

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The harsh winter that lasts for eight months of the year poses a big challenge. It is very difficult to dig in, and make shelters on the ridgeline. The mercury plummets to minus 30 degrees Celsius, and there are frequent snowstorms.

“No major operations are possible in winter. The Pangong Tso also freezes, making movement between its north and south banks possible,” Gen Dwivedi said.

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