Defending Ground or Defending a New Reality

 In China, India, P5

The Chushul Valley. The skeleton of an animal, probably a Kiang, wild ass, in the foreground. The LAC is along the range on the left | Image: Sujan Dutta

As China men­aces India’s access to the Karakoram Pass, Sujan Dutta explains that Delhi needs to figure out ways to defend its ground or end up with prox­ies paper­ing over the changed real­i­ty.

Chinese sol­diers crossed an inter­na­tion­al fron­tier in the Himalayas and on May 05 – 06, beat up Indian sol­diers with clubs stud­ded with nails, accord­ing to blow-by-blow intel­li­gence fed to jour­nal­ists.

Just about a month later, the Indian gov­ern­ment is run­ning the risk of treat­ing the brawl like an oily broker push­ing a pokey little flat in New Delhi’s Noida Extension suburb: “Sirjee,” he says, “this is the super built-up area and this is the carpet area; the carpet area is always small­er than the super built-up area”.

Late on the inter­ven­ing night of June 02 – 03, the government’s offi­cial media agency, the Press Information Bureau issued what it called a “fact-check”.

This came after the defence min­is­ter gave inter­views to tele­vi­sion chan­nels in which he explained that there was a grey area between the respec­tive Indian and Chinese per­cep­tions of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) in Eastern Ladakh. It was because of these dif­fer­ing per­cep­tions that rival patrols encoun­tered each other and there were fisticuffs on the north­ern bank of the Pangong Tso, the boomerang-shaped turquoise lake.

China claims two-thirds of the 135-km long lake and India, a third.

To be sure, as one gen­er­al remarked to me, beat­ings with clubs are pre­ferred to shoot­ing from rifles. It min­i­mizes casu­al­ties. To be sure, again, since 2012, and increas­ing­ly, since 2014, India has ramped-up the con­struc­tion of border roads and reor­gan­ised its order of battle in the zone for faster deploy­ment of troops to pro­tect it’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the LAC, over China’s.

Within India, the Modi gov­ern­ment has been hoist with its own petard because of its hyper-nation­al­ist rhetoric. Speeches and tweets alleg­ing that Chinese troops could cross the LAC and “picnic on the Indian side at will” during the Congress gov­ern­ment of Manmohan Singh, are still float­ing around the Internet.

The real­i­ty that ter­ri­to­r­i­al bound­aries can be recast through many ways – wars being the most vio­lent of them – is a public posi­tion that few politi­cians take in modern times. Yet, India itself has agreed to alter­ing ter­ri­to­r­i­al limits, even under this gov­ern­ment.

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement on a visit to Dhaka. The agree­ment made way for India to trans­fer 162 ‘enclaves’ to Bangladesh. It evened out the border hith­er­to based on the hasty mark­ers drawn up by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe in 1947 who draft­ed the par­ti­tion of the Indian sub-con­ti­nent.

All of India’s bound­ary dis­putes are a legacy of British colo­nial­ism that wreaked havoc with its map-making across Irish, African and Arab lands too.

In Ladakh, it is also a stark legacy of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Under him, India pur­sued a “for­ward policy”, set­ting up bound­ary posts in the late 1950s that could scarce­ly be sus­tained.

The Modi gov­ern­ment has not only inher­it­ed the dis­putes on the Himalayan fron­tier, it has also com­pound­ed them. The maps issued after the August 05, 2019 re-struc­tur­ing of Jammu and Kashmir into two sep­a­rate union ter­ri­to­ries – one claim­ing all of PoK and anoth­er claim­ing all of Aksai Chin, re-stated by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Parliament – riled up China. New Delhi dis­patched Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to assuage the Chinese, to little effect.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that on June 06, Saturday, senior Indian and Chinese mil­i­tary com­man­ders are sched­uled to meet in the fron­tier to sort out dif­fer­ences to end the cur­rent stand-off.

Despite ini­tial reluc­tance in pub­licly admit­ting the stand-offs, sub­se­quent moves by New Delhi implic­it­ly acknowl­edged the grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion. The latest being Prime Minister Modi’s tele­phone chat with US President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

It’s a Mountain, Not a Molehill

Yet, in the same area of Ladakh, there are so many phys­i­cal mark­ers of how the cur­rent fracas may be dealt with. In India’s view of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, the bound­ary is about 886 kilo­me­tres from the north in Karakoram Pass to the tip in Demchok in the south.

[For a detailed descrip­tion of the area, read: Escalation in Ladakh: India and China beef up troop strength at high altitude | National Herald]

On a rare visit to mil­i­tary estab­lish­ments along the fron­tier in July 2016, army offi­cers explained to a group of five jour­nal­ists where the LAC lies, during a visit facil­i­tat­ed by the army. They were shown maps and the phys­i­cal mark­ers in out­posts and camps. For obvi­ous rea­sons, pho­tograph­ing the maps in the mil­i­tary estab­lish­ments was pro­hib­it­ed. The army was show­cas­ing the ramped-up infra­struc­ture in the Area of Responsibility of 14 Corps, the for­ma­tion raised after the 1999 Kargil war that over­sees both the fronts in Ladakh with China and Pakistan (includ­ing the Siachen Glacier). Your cor­re­spon­dent was part of the visit.

The Pangong Tso. Picture taken from the south bank looking at the ‘Fingers’ in the north bank | Image: Sujan Dutta

Broadly, east­ern Ladakh has three areas that bear detailed descrip­tion since maps in India’s school text-books do not con­form to what exists on the ground, there.

  1. Sub-Sector North (SSN) in the Upper Shyok Valley
    The Shyok River flows north to south, taking a U turn near Darbuk after which, it flows south to north in its lower valley. The 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) fol­lows the align­ment of the river up to DBO, 18 kms short of the Karakoram Pass (KKP).

    The KKP itself is not dis­put­ed. It is also not phys­i­cal­ly held.

    It is the agreed bound­ary between Ladakh and China’s Xinjian Province (NOT Tibet/Aksai Chin). To its north-west is the Shaksgam Valley, a 5180 sq km tract that was ille­gal­ly ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963.

  2. Pangong Tso-Chushul area
    The second area of the Pangong Tso-Chushul Valley bound­ed by the Chang Chenmo range in the east. To the south of the water body is the Spanggur Gap, a flat rift in a ridge­line in which the Indians and the Chinese have their border per­son­nel meet­ing huts. Another lake, the Spanggur Tso, is on the Chinese side and can be seen from the Indian heights.

    Nearly all of this area in the valley and the Pangong Tso is “observed”. Meaning, each side can see move­ment on the other side. From pill­box­es and posts on hill­tops, each can see far­ther and deeper into either’s ter­ri­to­ry. The higher the post, the far­ther the vision.

    This is “Oropolitics”, coined by Himalayan his­to­ri­an Joydip Sircar and applied specif­i­cal­ly to the Siachen Glacier case (Oros means moun­tain in Greek). Indian troops took the heights of the Saltoro Range, also in the Karakorams, through Operation Meghdoot in 1984. The result is that Siachen remains in India despite Pakistan’s efforts at “car­to­graph­ic aggres­sion”. Mountain war­fare is nec­es­sar­i­ly about taking the heights.

  3. Indus River sec­tion
    The third area of the zone is rough­ly from the Dungti Gap in the Indus River region in the Ladakh (NOT Karakoram) range and Nyoma, where India has an advanced land­ing ground, to the region of the Tso Moriri (lake), Demchok and Chumur, bor­der­ing Himachal Pradesh in the south and China’s (Tibetan) Nyari pre­fec­ture in the south east.

    Across the hills and the high alti­tude plains of about 14,000 feet, memo­ri­als from the 1962 war remind vis­i­tors and the army itself of the blood that was spilled. From atop one hill­top in the Chushul Valley, the “Sirijap Complex” and the Dhan Singh Thapa post is vis­i­ble.

    The Sirijap Complex on a flat plain with two hills on the north bank of the Pangong Tso has been in Chinese hands since it was over­run in 1962.

It is also a reminder of one way a border dis­pute may be resolved – after the fash­ion: “Operation suc­cess­ful, but the patient is dead”.

In early September 1962, Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troops sur­round­ed the Sirijap Complex, prac­ti­cal­ly cut­ting off all com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the Indian for­ward line and the rear. The Chinese troops were based in the Khurnak Fort, a stone’s throw to the east of Sirijap. They dug com­mu­ni­ca­tion trench­es to keep their sol­diers sup­plied while deny­ing sup­plies to the Indians.

On October 21, more than a month after the Indians were besieged, the Chinese troops opened up with artillery fire on Sirijap I at 6 am. The defend­ing Indians not only did not have enough firearms, they also ran out of bul­lets. It was a mas­sacre.

A des­per­ate Indian patrol under Naik Rabi Lal Thapa reached within a 1,000 yards of the Indian post, but failed to make it. They returned and report­ed that the entire com­pa­ny includ­ing the com­man­der had been wiped out.

The Chinese then attacked Sirijap II and over­ran it. They took India’s Gorkha sol­diers pris­on­er of war and their leader, Major Dhan Singh Thapa was given up for dead. The few Indian Gorkha sol­diers who escaped, report­ed that the Chinese had killed many at point blank range. Major Dhan Singh Thapa, who was given up for dead, was returned after the war. He was award­ed the Param Vir Chakra for gal­lantry.

The Sirijap II is still referred to by the Indians as the Dhan Singh Thapa Post.

An Indian Army patrol being briefed in Chushul valley | Image: Sujan Dutta

The Sirijap battle is one way of resolv­ing a border dis­pute – by allow­ing the enemy to over­run a post that cannot be sup­port­ed from the rear. It is a daily, con­stant, reminder to troops. It was an Indian post; it is now a Chinese post. The Indians cannot take it back. Resolved.

The Sirijap Complex is imme­di­ate­ly east, almost adja­cent to Finger 8, the moun­tain spur that comes down from the Chang Chenmo Range to the Pangong Tso. On Indian maps, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) passes from Yula, on the south­ern bank of the lake, cuts across the lake in a straight line to Finger 8. There is no ambi­gu­i­ty in these maps on where the LAC lies.

It is paint­ed not only on the walls of Indian bunkers and posts but also embossed in the minds of the troops as they get induct­ed into the zone.

Yet, within India, it is now being said, “but the Chinese per­cep­tion passes through Finger 4”.

The moun­tain spurs that come down from the Chang Chenmo Range to the north bank of the Pangong Tso are num­bered from one to eight ‘fin­gers’ because they resem­ble the digits of the palm-down human hand.

Accepting the Chinese ver­sion of the LAC — even acknowl­edg­ing it — is an alter­ation of the bound­ary.

Especially because India claims all of Aksai Chin. In that belief, the Chinese PLA is in occu­pa­tion of Indian ter­ri­to­ry since 1962 — fin­gers, feet, head and tail.

The first response of a former 14 Corps com­man­der your cor­re­spon­dent spoke to on May 10 was: “We have to figure out a way of get­ting to Finger 8 or else they will change the facts on the ground.”
Acknowledging such a change of status is the begin­ning of a change of brief for the troops deployed in the zone. It may be passed off as a new normal. In real­i­ty, it is some­thing new that is being forcibly nor­mal­ized.
Like a face mask in a pan­dem­ic.

Lessons From the Arena: It’s About the Heights, Stupid

If the Sirijap deba­cle 58 years ago is one way of resolv­ing the cur­rent LAC dis­pute, the other way is more recent in anoth­er extrem­i­ty of the 14 Corp’s area of respon­si­bil­i­ty, Kargil.

In the first week of July 1999, I was report­ing on the 18 Grenadiers — the bat­tal­ion of the Indian Army that even­tu­al­ly took Tiger Hill, an act that cli­maxed the Kargil War in the media and public per­cep­tion. In real­i­ty, bat­tles con­tin­ued even after the taking of Tiger Hill, north west of Drass, till then U.S. President Bill Clinton’s inter­ven­tion forced the Pakistanis to retrace their steps after a series of fire­fights by Indian troops bat­tling uphill. An esti­mat­ed 550-odd sol­diers were killed.

Point 5353, so called because of its height in metres, was prob­a­bly the high­est fea­ture occu­pied by the Pakistanis and gave — still gives, a wide field of view of National Highway 1A from Srinagar to Leh. It was then the main axis for sup­plies to the Siachen Brigade.

Two evenings before the 18 Grenadiers under com­mand­ing offi­cer, Colonel Khushal Thakur, set out from an action sta­tion in Mushkoh Valley, there was a barakhana, a feast for the sol­diers.

The action sta­tion was a stone-blocked pri­ma­ry school in a vil­lage named Holiyal. I could not name the vil­lage at the time in 1999 because we were in the thick of the mil­i­tary oper­a­tions.

The bat­tal­ion had just received a new second-in-com­mand, Lt Colonel Paugham. He had replaced Lt Colonel Vishwanathan who had fallen in an ear­li­er battle in the Tololing Heights.

Another offi­cer explained the lay of the land to me, with a rough sketch on my note­book. He explained that after Tiger Top, the summit of the hill, there was the fas­ci­nat­ing­ly named Pariyon ki Jheel (Lake of Fairies) till the Line of Control (LoC) to the north-west. Just over the shoul­der to the north-east was Point 5353.

He drew the align­ment of the LoC in the area to the north of Point 5353. Looking from where we were stand­ing, the LoC was ahead, obscured by the loom­ing height.

When the Kargil hos­til­i­ties ended with mop­ping-up oper­a­tions after the cap­ture of Tiger Hill by the 18 Grenadiers, amid the most resound­ing Bofors 155mm artillery bar­rage from Drass by mid-July, Point 5353 was still in Pakistani hands.

Two years later, I inquired about its status. Army Headquarters confirmed that at that time in 2001, a Baloch bat­tal­ion of the Pakistan Army was man­ning it.

Before the Kargil War, the Indian Army was sure that Point 5353 was in Indian ter­ri­to­ry.

“Unless we take it, the NH 1A will con­tin­ue to be vul­ner­a­ble. They will always be able to direct fire to the road,” the offi­cer had told me in that school.

After the war how­ev­er, the Indian Army was less than sure. It had made at least two abort­ed attempts to re-take the height and had lost sol­diers.

Then, in 2002, then defence min­is­ter George Fernandes issued a state­ment that “Point 5353 is right on the LoC”, mean­ing, to all effect, India had accept­ed a change in the align­ment of the bound­ary. A new was nor­mal­ized.

It is still in Pakistani hands. It never really became a public issue. It con­tin­ues to remain a mon­u­ment to strate­gic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty.

Accepting the Chinese intru­sions now, would mean such an alter­ation when the Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road is within the PLA’s field of fire.

An Indian Army patrol leaves for its task. In the foreground, a chorten (heap of stones), with Yak horns for good luck | Image: Sujan Dutta

From shoul­ders above the Galwan nullah in Eastern Ladakh’s sub-sector north (SSN), the PLA can com­mand a wide field of view of India’s only access to the Karakoram Pass. The PLA does not have to be in the con­flu­ence in the Galwan Valley where the Indian Army and the Border Roads Organisation have camps. The Galwan rivulet flows from the Chinese side to the east into the Shyok on the west through a gorge. The PLA com­mands a field of fire that can inter­dict the road.

That com­pli­cates mat­ters a little more than super and carpet areas bro­kered in Noida.

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