Shonali Khandelwal, Delhi/ Gyamtsho Topden , Leh
UN chief Antonio Guterres has urged ‘maximum restraint’ on both China and India after more than 60 soldiers were killed in violent clashes in Ladakh’s Galwan valley on Monday night and early Tuesday. Eri Kaneko, Associate Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, made the comments at the daily press briefing. “We are concerned about reports of violence and deaths at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China and urge both sides to exercise maximum restraint. We take positive note of reports that the two countries have engaged to deescalate the situation,” Kaneko said.
This was the most violent face-off between the two Indian armies since the Chinese PLA intruded across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at multiple points since April.
Between May 5-9 , nearly twenty Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in clashes at Pangong Tso in Ladakh and Naku La in Sikkim.
But high level military talks and back-channel diplomatic negotiations led to an understanding on a de-escalation process that started late last week.
It was during the unfolding of that process , being supervised by battalion and brigade commanders on ground, that 12 Chinese soldiers armed with Shaolin swords and spears attacked Colonel Santosh Babu and four or five soldiers escorting him on a “verification trek’ that took them to Point 14. The Chinese allege that these troops had burned down one of their tents which the Indians wanted dismantled and that provoked the furkious assault.
Almost simultaneously , PLA assault troops armed with swords, spears, iron roads wrapped in barbed wire and other lethal weapons attacked multiple Indian patrols lightly armed with sticks and iron rods.
Both armies have asked soldiers patrolling the disputed border to leave firearms behind in their bunkers to avoid a firefight that might escalate into war.
Colonel Babu and two of his escorts were killed on the spot but the others ran back to their camps to report the death of the commanding officer in a ‘treachorous attack.’
Soldiers from 16th Bihar regiment that Babu commanded , furious over his death, took out their bayonet mounted rifles and attacked the Chinese in some of their encampments late at night.
But by then ,PLA snatch squads had attacked at least 7 small Indian detachments, all on ‘ verification patrols’ and dragged away dozens of them into Chinese positions, where atleast 12 of them were tortured and brutally killed.
Many unsuspecting Indian soldiers, just armed with sticks jumped into the freezing Galwan river to escape the PLA assault and were swept away.
Furious hand-to-hand fighting raged across the Galwan river valley for over eight hours on Monday night, as PLA troops hunted down and slaughtered troops of the 16 Bihar Regiment, a senior officer told Easternlink after debriefing of survivors at hospitals in Leh.
The savage combat, with few parallels in the history of modern armies, is confirmed to have claimed the lives of at least 23 Indian soldiers, including 16 Bihar’s commanding officer, Colonel Santosh Babu, many because of protracted exposure to sub-zero temperatures , the Indian Army said late on Tuesday.
“Even unarmed men who fled into the hillsides were hunted down and killed,” one officer said. “The dead include men who jumped into the Galwan river in a desperate effort to escape.”
Government sources say at least another two dozen soldiers are battling life-threatening injuries, and over 110 have needed treatment. “The toll will go up,” a senior army officer in the Galwan region told Easternlink.
The fighting at Galwan had began after troops under Colonel Babu’s command dismantled a Chinese tent sent up near a position code-named Patrol Point 14, close to the mouth of the Galwan river. The Chinese allege they set fire to it.
The tent had been dismantled following a meeting between Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, who commands the Leh-based XIV Corps, and Major-General Lin Liu, the head of the Xinjiang military district
Inside two days of the disengagement agreed to at Chushul on June 6 , the PLA set up a fresh tent at Patrol Point 14, inside territory claimed by India. Colonel Babu’s soldiers were ordered to ensure the tent was removed.
For reasons that remain unclear, the PLA refused to vacate Point 14 and when Babu and his soldiers went to ask for dismantling it, they were attacked with murderous intent. Huge rocks were rolled towards low lying Indian positions by the Chinese occupying higher ground , against which the Indians were largely defenceless.
But the Indian soldiers , initially surprised by the ferocity of the Chinese assault , regrouped and attacked the Chinese in strength , with long military knives, bayonets mounted on rifles and other cut weapons . Two Chinese encampments , which PLA says “was well within Chinese territory’ , faced a revenge-seeking Indian bayonet charge and dozens of Chinese troops, not expecting such a swift Indian retaliation , were slaughtered .
The PLA has alleged that Colonel Babu’s troops crossed a buffer zone separating the two sides, violating border-management protocols which mandates the use of white flags and banners to signal to the other side that it must turn back from the territory it is on.
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Large numbers of dead bodies, Indian military officials say, have been handed over by the PLA after the situation calmed down late on Tuesday with both sides apparently asked by higher headquarters to back off following hotline communication between senior commanders.
The Chinese deaths were mostly inside their positions which faced the angry Indian retaliatory assaults past midnight on Monday.
“Our boys took time to regroup because they had not expected the treacherous Chinese assault during a disengagement process . But when they hit back , they went into the attack with their usual determination ,” said a retired military officer from the Ladakh Scouts who lives in Leh and is familiar with serving Indian troops in the area. ‘For an Indian soldier, avenging a senior officer’s death is a matter of high honour and staking his life for it is normal.”
Unconfirmed reports also say a landslide hit a Chinese camp on a lower ground after a ‘cloudburst’ that sounded like a huge explosion in the wee hours of Tuesday and buried many PLA soldiers alive.
The Indian army admits to loosing around 20 soldiers with many still missing while their intelligence intercepts suggest the Chinese have lost atleast 43 soldiers , mostly in the retaliatory past-midnight asaault by revenge hungry Indian troops. Some Chinese casualties were also possib;ly due to the landslide.
EXPERT OPINION : Major General Gaganjit Singh, a former mountain division commander and the retired deputy chief of Defense Intelligence, who has access to information from the troubled zone, told Easternlink that ” the Indians made a huge mistake by trusting the Chinese to honour the agreed process of disengagement and pull back to points agreed by senior commanders.”
“The Chinese are never , I repeat, never to be trusted , even when they are at their hospitable best, serving you great food and drink during border meetings. They simultaneously plan for assault as they talk peace and feign disengagement . Their military code allows a soldier to stab an unsuspecting opponent even when he is being served food and drink at a peaceful engagement aimed at de-escalation. They are cunning and ruthless.
“The Indians don’t understand this because in our long military tradition governed by a noble warrior code , we fight like hell when we have to but when we make peace with those we are fighting, we embrace them and never stab anyone in the back. The ancient Indian military code forbids soldiers to kill unarmed opponents and stabbing anyone in the back when he believes you . Trouble is our commanders can’t apply these noble principles with the Chinese because they are different. You have to be totally ruthless and as cunning as them, like you have to hit them hard and then feign ignorance. I never know who punched you, not my guys kind of a thing even when you know what happened. They respect such people, for them Indian code of military honour is synonymous with foolishness.”
Gaganjit Singh said that the Indians made the first mistake by not resisting violently Chinese patrols slipping across and setting up encampments . “Our boys waited for orders from the top and formal negotiations by when the Chinese had heavily reinforced their forward echelons intruding across the claim line. Now that they are dug in and having to go back , the local Chinese officers are mad with anger and that shows in the ruthless assault they planned on Monday night.”
‘Someone on our side was sleeping for long. Then when they woke up, they got carried away by Chinese promises of disengagement. If you dont understand the Chinese psyche , you cannot fight them. They will murder unarmed Indian soldiers who have been captured but will not murder all because they will have to back their narrative of fairness , for which gestures like handing back some dead bodies and prisoners are essential. The Chinaman is a slime and the sooner our boys realise this , the better.”
Gaganjit Singh also blamed the ‘defensive attitude’ of the Indian higher military command who are “only too keen to oblige politicians and diplomats by playing fair ‘ . ‘An Indian lieutenant teaches an aggressive Chinese major a lesson by giving throwing a punch to defend his senior . Instead of decorating the youngster, his seniors admonish him , blame him for over-reaction, remove him from forward position and actually humiliate him. The Chinese get the message and step up their aggression. Every Indian soldier should be like that young lieutenant and the army chief should give him a decoration if he has to boost troop morale , without which you cannot sustain a high level of vigil. And the moment you slacken your vigil, you bargain for intrusions and Chinese mischief.
“The Chinese are not very brave and they can never fight against insurmountable odds like our boys can. They have no equivalent of an Indian warrior code of fighting to the last man and the last round , nothing like the Japanese samurai code. Even in 1962, Indian officers with 100-200 men fought whole Chinese brigades (3000 men) for several days before their ammunition ran out and they mounted bayonets on rifles and charged , only to be mowed down to the last men . The Indian military tradition lionises glorious deaths and makes heroes of the likes of Major Shaitan Singh, the hero of Rezang La . Our troops revel in fighting 4 or 5 times the Chinese. But in colonial times, the British officers made careful use of this immense pool of bravery and determination . It is the British Indian army that maintained the Empire.”
“But often our inept senior commanders who have risen to the top by political patronage rather than on the basis of military talent and who have messed up in assessing enemy intent , like at Kargil in 1999 or in 1962 against the Chinese try to salvage the situation by tapping into this extremely brave and unusually dedicated junior commanders and johnnies (soldiers). It is time for this senior commanders to stop thyeir personal publicity drive with one press conference a day and focus professionally on the job . My advice to them is don’t waste your valuable human resources just because you can and just because as the ultimate professional, the Indian soldier will never question a senior commander even if that guy is messing up.”
Gaganjit Singh also has a ‘big advice’ for politicians running India now. ” Just for winning elections and getting votes, please don’t resort to the chest-triumphalism that has become your trademark. Dont claim you will recapture Pakistan Kashmir or Aksai Chin because when you do that you hugely provoke the Chinese into taking ruthless counter-measures. While you have forgotten what you promised in parliament– recapturing lost Indian territories — the other day after your election is won, the Chinese are unleashing their shock and awe , needlessly creating for our under-funded and haphazardly modernised army a huge military challenge. If you can’t give our boys a month’s ammunition to fight an intense war, don’t talk of war because you don’t know what it is , because unlike the US or Israel , our leaders have not done any military service , not even perhaps the National Cadet Corps. So stop this photo-ops of feeding sweets to soldiers and challenging our enemies in press conferences or parliament sessions just to score political brownie points.”
“I expect our politicians and diplomat to now deliver in their efforts to defuse the border tensions . But just for that, we can’t afford to scale down out vigil and aggressive defence on the border because the Chinamen will score a goal at the slightest opportunity.”
Military analyst Probal Dasgupta told Easternlink the clashes on Monday with a casualty count are easily the Indian Army’s worst losses since the 1999 Kargil war and mark the most intense fighting between India and China since 1967, when 88 Indian soldiers and perhaps as many as 340 PLA troops were killed in the course of intense skirmishes near the Nathu La and Cho La passes, the gateways to the strategically-vital Chumbi valley. Dasgupta is ‘author’ of “Watershed”, a detailed account of the 1967 Sikkim battles.
Pressed concern over reports of violence and deaths at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China and urged both sides to exercise “maximum restraint,” his spokesperson said on Tuesday. A total of 20 Indian Army personnel were killed during a violent clash with Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley on Monday night, escalating the already volatile border standoff between the two sides, an Army statement said on Tuesday. Eri Kaneko, Associate Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, made the comments at the daily press briefing. “We are concerned about reports of violence and deaths at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China and urge both sides to exercise maximum restraint. We take positive note of reports that the two countries have engaged to deescalate the situation,” Kaneko said.