The mood on the Line of Actual Control has changed dramatically ever since the death of 20 Indian soldiers in clashes with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley on the night of June 15. So tense is the situation that there is a possibility it could deteriorate rapidly should there be another faceoff any time soon. Follow India-China border dispute LIVE updates
The Galwan incident – the first deaths on the Sino-Indian border in 45 years, and the most serious breakdown of the 1993 understanding between the two nuclear-armed neighbours who also agreed not to use firearms along their large and often undefined border – has stalled the process of disengagement by the two sides in Ladakh.
More worryingly, the circumstances of the death of the 20 soldiers have increased chances of an escalation into a military conflict on the LAC since adherence to old protocols and SOPs will now be very hard to enforce.
“If de-escalation does not take place fast, the chances of more such clashes taking place will increase. When you have troops eyeball-to-eyeball, there is a lot of tension, anger, and any small incident can flare up,” former Army Chief General VP Malik told The Indian Express.
At the time of the clashes on June 15, the soldiers were armed – and with ammunition, as per Army officers – but did not open fire in accordance with the established practice on the LAC, even as their Commanding Officer and 19 others were bludgeoned to death. The decision to not open fire has come under heavy criticism, especially from military veterans, and is unlikely to be repeated if another clash takes place.
And the chances of another clash are high as troops remain deployed in proximity – eyeball to eyeball – at multiple locations along the LAC. This risk is the highest at Pangong Tso, where latest satellite imagery shows newly constructed Chinese outposts and forward positions, that sit exactly on the ridgeline separating the two forces.
The current round of tensions started from Pangong Tso, where there was a major brawl between the two sides on the night of May 5/6, leaving more than 70 Indian soldiers injured. Brawls between patrols have been common even earlier in that area, because of the disputed nature of the LAC. But in the current environment of high tension and anger, the next brawl is unlikely to remain limited to fisticuffs, pushing and jostling, or fighting with sticks and stones.
The rules of engagement have never prohibited opening of fire if the lives of soldiers are at stake, and that message has gone home to all soldiers and commanders at a very high cost this week.
Once initiated, even inadvertently, military engagements take a life of their own. The 1967 Nathu La conflict between India and China started with pushing and jostling, before a Chinese soldier opened fire and shot dead the Indian Commanding Officer during an eyeball-to-eyeball situation. Soon, it escalated to use of medium artillery and the Chinese even threatened to bring in fighter jets to bomb Indian positions.
In Nathu La, the faceoff was at a single location and both sides had limited weaponry at their disposal. Now, the tensions are high across the border and soldiers are in a standoff situation at many places in Ladakh itself. The availability of modern weaponry and support provided by the air force is likely to make any escalation much worse than Nathu La, where 88 Indian soldiers lost their lives and Chinese casualties totalled 340.
In Ladakh, there have been no talks at the military level since Thursday.
“Military-level talks at various levels are unlikely to yield any perceptible results. An amicable resolution is now possible only through diplomatic and political channels,” former Army Chief General Bikram Singh said.
While commanders on the ground can reinforce adherence to existing protocols, procedures, and SOPs in meetings with their Chinese counterparts, that is unlikely to provide an answer to this challenge after the June 15 incident. The solution lies in early disengagement and de-escalation at the LAC by both armies, which can only be achieved at a political level.
-With Manraj Grewal Sharma
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