Twenty Indian Army personnel including a colonel were killed in a fierce clash with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on Monday night, the biggest military confrontation in over five decades that has significantly escalated the already volatile border standoff in the region.
The Army initially said on Tuesday that an officer and two soldiers were killed. But in a late evening statement it revised the figure to 20 saying 17 others who “were critically injured in the line of duty and exposed to sub-zero temperatures at the standoff location succumbed to their injuries.”
It is the biggest confrontation between the two militaries after their 1967 clashes in Nathu La when India lost around 80 soldiers while over 300 Chinese army personnel were killed in the confrontation. The casualties take both sides into uncharted territory at a time when the government’s attention is focused on fighting the COVID-19 crisis that appears to be ballooning by the day.
“Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged at the Galwan area where they had earlier clashed on the night of 15/16 June 2020, the Army statement said.
The officer killed in the clash was identified as Colonel Santosh Babu, Commanding Officer of the 16 Bihar regiment, and a native of Telangana.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a high level meeting with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Home Minister Amit Shah in the evening where he carried out a comprehensive review of the situation in eastern Ladakh where the two armies have been in a standoff for over five weeks.
It is understood that India decided to continue with a firm approach in dealing with China’s aggressive behaviour along the nearly 3,500 km de facto border.
Military sources said major activities by Chinese air force were observed along the areas in eastern Ladakh, adding that the two armies held Major General-level talks at the site of the clash.
In a statement, the External Affairs Ministry said the violent face-off was the result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo in the region and that both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided if the agreement arrived earlier was scrupulously followed by the Chinese side.
“Given its responsible approach to border management, India is very clear that all its activities are always within the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. We expect the same of the Chinese side,” MEA Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.
China’s official media on Tuesday quoted the Chinese military as claiming that it “always” owned sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region and alleged that “provocative attacks’ launched by the Indian troops resulted in “severe clashes and casualties.”
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were silent on the casualties suffered by the PLA troops, but Hu Xijin, the editor of the ruling Communist Party-run Global Times tabloid, tweeted to say that there are casualties on Chinese side too.
“Chinese and Indian military personnel broke out in a severe physical conflict in the Galwan Valley. The Indian side stated that three people died in the Indian Army. According to my urgent knowledge of people familiar with the situation, there are also casualties on our side?, she said.
However, the Global Times later tweeted that the “official Global Times accounts have NEVER reported the exact casualties on the Chinese side. The Global Times CANNOT confirm the number at the moment.
In its reaction, China alleged that the Indian troops twice crossed the de-facto border on June 15 for “illegal activities and provoked and attacked Chinese personnel” which led to serious physical conflict.
A large number of Indian and Chinese troops have been engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation in Galwan Valley and certain other areas of eastern Ladakh for the last five weeks, including. in Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie in eastern Ladakh.
A sizeable number of Chinese Army personnel even transgressed into the Indian side of the de-facto border in several areas including Pangong Tso.
The Indian Army has been fiercely objecting to the transgressions, and demanded their immediate withdrawal for restoration of peace and tranquillity in the area. Both sides held a series of talks in the last few days to resolve the row.
In their first serious efforts to end the row, Lt General Harinder Singh, the general officer commanding of the Leh-based 14 Corps, and Commander of the Tibet Military District Maj Gen Liu Lin held a nearly seven-hour meeting on June 6.
The meeting was followed by two rounds of Major General-level talks.
The Indian side has been pitching for restoration of status quo ante and immediate withdrawal of thousands of Chinese troops from the areas which India considers on its side of the LAC.
Monday’s clashes came two days after the Indian Army Chief Gen. M M Naravane said both sides have begun disengaging from Galwan Valley in a phased manner.
“We have started from the north, from the area of the Galwan river where a lot of disengagement has taken place. It has been a very fruitful dialogue that we have had,” he had said on Saturday.
Following the standoff in eastern Ladakh, the two sides have deployed additional troops along the LAC, the de-facto Sino-India border, in North Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh in the last few days, the sources said.
After the standoff began early last month, the Indian military leadership decided that Indian troops will adopt a firm approach in dealing with the aggressive posturing by the Chinese troops in all disputed areas of Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie.
The Chinese Army has been gradually ramping up its strategic reserves in its rear bases near the LAC by rushing in artillery guns, infantry combat vehicles and heavy military equipment.
The trigger for the face-off was China’s stiff opposition to India laying a key road in the Finger area around the Pangong Tso Lake besides construction of another road connecting the Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldie road in Galwan Valley.
The road in the Finger area in Pangong Tso is considered crucial for India to carry out patrols. India has already decided not to stall any border infrastructure projects in eastern Ladakh in view of Chinese protests.
The situation in the area deteriorated after around 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers were engaged in a violent face-off on May 5 and 6. The incident in Pangong Tso was followed by a similar incident in north Sikkim on May 9.
The India-China border dispute covers the 3,488-km-long LAC. China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of southern Tibet, while India contests it.
Both sides have been asserting that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, it is necessary to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas.