In the worst flare-up on the Line of Actual Control in more than five decades, twenty Indian Army personnel, including the commanding officer of 16 Bihar, were killed Monday night in violent clashes with Chinese troops in the Galwan valley of Ladakh where disengagement of troops on either side was underway.
The Army said there were casualties on both sides. Beijing was silent on PLA losses.
This unprecedented and dangerous turn to the de-escalation efforts on the LAC set the lines working in the two capitals. On the ground, Division Commanders met to defuse the situation.
In New Delhi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, briefed by the Army and the military brass earlier in the day, went to the Prime Minister’s residence for a late night meeting where they were said to have been joined by Home Minister Amit Shah, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
The Army’s initial statement Tuesday afternoon said an officer and two soldiers were killed, but late at night a second statement confirmed the loss of 20 lives on the Indian side.
“Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged at the Galwan area where they had earlier clashed on the night of 15/16 June 2020. 17 Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty at the standoff location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high-altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries, taking the total that were killed in action to 20. Indian Army is firmly committed to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation,” the Army said in the statement.
Army sources identified the officer killed in the line of duty as Colonel B Santosh Babu, CO of 16 Bihar.
The first confirmation of the incident came in the afternoon when the Army said: “During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides.”
“The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers,” it said, adding that “senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”
Rajnath Singh was briefed by the Army at a meeting also attended by Jaishankar, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, Army chief General MM Naravane, Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh and IAF chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria.
China’s state-run Global Times, quoting the Foreign Ministry, said there had been “serious physical clashes”. In another tweet later, it quoted the Chinese military spokesperson mentioning “severe clashes and casualties”.
This is the first time in the last 45 years that Indian or Chinese troops have been killed on the LAC. In 1975, an Indian patrol was ambushed by the Chinese in Arunachal Pradesh. Prior to that, there was a violent showdown in Nathu La in Sikkim in 1967 in which 88 Indian soldiers and over 300 Chinese soldiers were killed.
The Monday night incident, according to officers, took place in the area between the LAC and junction of Galwan and Shyok rivers to the west. Talks between the two sides on disengagement in the Galwan valley area were held at Patrolling Point (PP) 14 which lies close to where the LAC crosses the Galwan river.
Officers said that, as part of de-escalation, the two sides had agreed to create a ‘buffer zone’ – a no-man’s land – between the LAC and the junction of Galwan and Shyok rivers. The Indian side was supposed to stay to the west of the river junction and the Chinese to the east of the LAC — to prevent faceoffs.
An argument, officers said, started over the position of Chinese soldiers who had started erecting a new post on the southern bank of Galwan river in this ‘buffer zone’.
When the Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar and his troops insisted that the Chinese remove the post, the situation quickly escalated, leading to physical violence. The Chinese side, officers said, used sticks, clubs, bats, bamboos with nails during the fight and the Indian side too retaliated.
In the fight, some soldiers either fell or were pushed into the river, officers said. Some bodies were recovered from the river while others had signs of being brutalised. A few soldiers died of hypothermia.
Some Indian soldiers were initially held captive by the Chinese but were released after the Major General level meeting. Some of them had serious injuries, officers said.
Following the incident, tensions ran high at all other locations on the LAC and troops from both sides were moved forward and deployed along the LAC.
Officers also said that the Chinese were trying to make an ingress in the Depsang plains where they were said to have built a road – an earlier attempt in Depsang in 2013 was resolved after 21 days.
Galwan is the site where the current disengagement process has begun. Last Saturday, General Naravane told reporters that both sides were disengaging in a phased manner, and it had started from the Galwan region.
“We have started from the north, from the area of the Galwan river, where a lot of disengagement has happened… I would not like to use the word retreated in any context. There is no retreat. The correct word would be disengagement, and both sides are disengaging in a phased manner,” he said.