NEW DELHI — Injured Indian soldiers were brought to a field hospital in Darbuk, then helicoptered from Darbuk to the Military Hospital in Leh, the capital of Ladakh and the nearest district town after the Indian Army said a “disengagement exercise” with a Chinese Army unit on June 15 escalated into a violent face-off resulting in the deaths of at least 20 Indian troops.
Darbuk is the base for the area the Indian Army calls “Sub Sector North” in North East Ladakh, and is home to important military establishments that monitor all movement in “SSN”, as sub-sector north is commonly denoted.
These deaths, a first along the Indo-Chinese border in 45 years, have prompted many questions on how a “disengagement” exercise between Indian and Chinese soldiers could turn so fatal so fast.
The answers lie in the terrain, and the contested histories, of the icy northern ranges that both India and China lay claim to.
The Galwan is a narrow river that flows east to west along a deep and narrow gorge cutting through the Karakoram mountain range before its confluence with the Shyok, a fast flowing river that originates in the Aksai Chin — an area claimed by both India and China — and eventually empties into the Indus river near Skardu in Gilgit-Baltistan, a region controlled by Pakistan.
Patrol Point 14 lies 14,000 feet above sea level, on the edge of the Galwan’s gorge not far from its point of confluence with the Shyok. This is where a battalion of the 16 Bihar regiment of the Indian Army and units of the People’s Liberation Army of China were working out the details of their disengagement, in the backdrop of months of rising tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates India and Chinese positions in Ladakh.
PP14 is set on a hillspur on the southern bank of the Galwan, offering the army an elevated point to survey and hence exercise influence over the surrounding region.
“Patrol Points” are geographic markers set by the China Study Group of the Indian government; the task of every unit posted along the contested border is to ensure these PPs, as they are called, are routinely patrolled by troops. Over the past few weeks, sources say, Chinese units had crossed over into Indian territory and had pitched their tents uncomfortably close to at least three Indian patrol points.
PP14 in the Galwan valley was one such point. Sources say the point was encircled by Chinese troops. “The Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC,” the Indian Ministry of External Affairs confirmed in a statement released after the incident. Once occupied by Chinese forces, sources told HuffPost India, this observation post that would bring Darbuk Shyok Daulat Beg Oldi Road under the Chinese field of fire.
This all-weather road, called the DSDBO road, connects Leh to the Indian outpost at Daulat Beg Oldi near the Chinese border.
On the afternoon of Tuesday June 15, Col Santosh Babu, the commanding officer of a battalion of the 16 Bihar Regiment, made his way to PP14 to meet with his Chinese counterpart to negotiate a disengagement.
A list of those killed in action, reviewed by HuffPost India, indicates Col Babu’s troops included soldiers from his infantry Regiment, alongside soldiers from the Punjab Regiment, another infantry regiment. Two subedars of an artillery regiment also perished — indicating they were present as well.
The presence of an artillery man amidst two infantry regiments is interesting, given that his most likely role would be to serve as a scout for heavy guns deployed well-behind infantry lines.
As per the modalities of the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, Indian and Chinese troops are required to disengage by carrying out “banner drills” without pointing guns. They are not even supposed to look eye-to-eye. They are required to turn backs on one another, lock arms with comrades, and return to the point from which they were patrolling.
The basic contours of the agreement had been hammered out in advance, sources in the Indian military say: Col Babu and his men were operating under the assumption that the Chinese would disengage and withdraw from PP14 at sunset on June 15 to a post about four kilometres to the east.
Given the contested nature of sovereignty along the remote frontier, such engagements between the Chinese and Indian military are usually pegged to observable phenomena such as sunrise and sunset, rather than the particular time of day in Delhi or Beijing.
The Indian Army is yet to lay out exactly what happened as the sun set over PP14; but an official statement and information from sources directly aware of the events indicates that a disagreement over the de-escalation resulted in a violent melee between Indian and Chinese troops likely armed with clubs, rods, and batons.
Col Babu and his men were likely encircled and several of them, this correspondent has learnt, fell or were pushed off the rocky precipice down into the rocky gorge of the Galwan. Some may have been hurt by the fall, some may have drowned.
The Indian Army’s official statement suggests that most of the casualties thus far were a consequence of a combination of exposure and injury.
“17 Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty at the stand-off 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,” the statement said.
It is unclear how many fatalities the Chinese have suffered. This morning’s People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, made no mention of the clash. Neither did the People’s Liberation Army Daily.
The last time there were killings on the India-China frontier, officially, was at the Tulung La mountain pass in Arunachal Pradesh in October 1975, when a patrol of the 5 Assam Rifles was tasked with patrolling the pass.
There too, the mountainous terrain played a critical role: A patrol of the 5 Assam Rifles was tasked to patrol the pass. As the fog rolled through the mountains, the patrol was ambushed by the Chinese and five soldiers were killed. The Union Home Ministry and the Assam Rifles lists just one of the soldiers killed as “killed in enemy action”. The rest have been listed as “killed in insurgency” or “met death in landslide”.