Defending Ground or Defending a New Reality
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”.
Fact: The Minister was referring to differing perceptions of LAC & presence of Chinese troops It is being misinterpreted as if Chinese troops entered Indian side of LAC pic.twitter.com/Xews6Ba1bq
— PIB Fact Check (@PIBFactCheck) June 2, 2020
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.