Nearly six years ago, the last major standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies in Ladakh was resolved peacefully through military and diplomatic talks. As is happening now, the talks at the military level were held in Ladakh while the diplomatic discussion took place in Beijing.
The crisis erupted in the most dramatic fashion in September 2014 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Ahmedabad with the then newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. As the two leaders sat on a swing at the Sabarmati riverfront, more than a thousand Chinese soldiers began pushing their way into Indian territory in Chumar, the southern-most portion of Ladakh’s boundary with Tibet.
Like most other places on the LAC in Ladakh, Chumar is marked by rugged mountains at an altitude of around 16,000 to 18,000 feet, with low temperatures and harsh icy winds. It is one of those areas where India has a road right up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), then there is a sharp cut across a big nala (rivulet) marked on the map as 30R — a sudden relative height of 30 metres.
On the other side of the nala is the Chinese road, but the sharp cutting does not allow their soldiers to come in vehicles up to their “perception” of the LAC, which lies further to the north of the Indian LAC.
The Chinese soldiers come up to 30R in vehicles, then dismount and patrol on either horses or on foot, providing Indian soldiers enough warning time to stop their patrols and force them to return after the banner drill. This had led to an increase in Chinese transgressions in the area in 2013 and 2014.
Lt General D S Hooda (retd), who was then the Northern Army Commander, told The Indian Express: “When I took over as the Army Commander, on my first visit to Ladakh, I found maps being carried where our LAC was marked clearly but even the Chinese ‘perception’ of the LAC was marked in dotted line. I passed orders that maps should only have one LAC, our LAC, and the Chinese line can be kept marked for the record in a map at the headquarters.”
As tensions mounted, the Chinese brought in some dozers and construction equipment in the second week of September, digging the area of 30R to make a road.
The local Indian company commander reacted promptly, physically stopping the Chinese and it escalated the crisis. The Chinese came in large numbers to an area to the west of Chumar, and by the time President Xi landed in India, the faceoff had spread along a 10-km frontage of the LAC. “That was the year we had decided to bring one brigade from the reserve division to Ladakh for an exercise during summers, and this allowed us to stage those troops forward to Chumar quickly,” Lt General Hooda said.
Experts Explain: What triggered China’s recent LAC moves?
At its peak, there were more than 2,500 Indian soldiers deployed against 1,500 Chinese troops, with around 800 of them from each side locked in a faceoff.
The Chinese realised that the road could no longer be built, and negotiations started at the level of battalion and brigade commanders. Chinese demands included India stopping the construction of a living shelter for soldiers in Chumar, and a water channel being made in Demchok.
Lt Gen Hooda said these were “excuses given by them, as they were keen on removing the tactical disadvantage of their patrols not being able to come deeper by vehicles”. Within a few days of negotiations between local military commanders, the Army decided this had to be resolved at the diplomatic level.
Also Read | Chinese media largely quiet on standoff
“Only minor issues can be resolved by local military commanders, like behaviour of patrols and conduct of banner drills. When it develops into a major issue, resolution can only happen at the diplomatic level. We saw that at Demchok in 2013 and at Doklam in 2017,” Lt General Hooda said.
Diplomatic talks in Beijing were led by Indian ambassador Ashok Kantha with the Indian side insisting on restoration of status quo ante in the area. The Chinese agreed to stop the construction of their road across 30R, and the local military commanders agreed to a moratorium on patrolling by both sides in the disputed area for a few weeks.
The two armies withdrew over the next two weeks. The living shelter for Indian soldiers stayed in Chumar, and the unofficial moratorium on patrolling by both armies in Chumar continued for a couple of years.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines