Four months after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China moved two divisions with troops and tanks to spark off the biggest stand-off between India and China since the 1962 war, the Indian army made its move. And it chose the enormously significant Chushul sub-sector over 100 kilometres southeast of Leh. When the ‘H-hour’ signal was given late on August 29 evening, hundreds of alpine units of the army’s special forces and ethnic Tibetans from the secretive Special Frontier Force (SFF)
began their slow climb up the rolling hills south of Pangong lake. Chosen for their mountaineering skills, their backpacks stuffed with water and dry rations, carrying assault rifles and ammunition, radio sets, night vision devices and hand-held thermal imagers, they were up for the long haul. The climb took them between two and three hours, their objective being to occupy a series of rolling hills along a 40-kilometre-long massif south of the lake. The features, Thakung, Helmet Top, Black Top, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Rechin La, are all at altitudes of 17,000 and 18,000 feet above sea level and within India’s perception of the LAC. Two of the features, Gurung and Magar, named after Gurkha clans, were a reminder of the last soldiers to have held these heights during the 1962 war. Groups of commandos also climbed the heights north of Pangong lake. The only casualty in their stealthy nocturnal ascent was an SFF company leader, Nyima Tenzin, killed in an anti-personnel mine blast south of Pangong lake. Indian troops had laid the mine in 1962 to deter the Chinese. The special units bivouacked at the top, just as their comrades had done nearly half a century ago, by fashioning improvised rock shelters or sangars out of loose rocks.
As the special units flashed their coded mission accomplished signals back to base on August 30, a wave of relief spread through the 14 Corps headquarters in Leh headed by Lt Gen. Harinder Singh. The corps guards the entire 840-km LAC in Ladakh. For over four months since the PLA moved two divisions of troops and tanks along the LAC and carried out intrusions, the army had no cards to play. It had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the PLA to honour the June 6 de-escalation agreement in over a dozen rounds of talks at the military level. The PLA refused to budge from Gogra Post and Finger 4 on Pangong Lake. Now, virtually overnight, the tables had turned. The operation using a brigade of special forces, over 3,000 commandos, was the largest deployment of special forces by the Indian Army.
This is the biggest pushback against the PLA since 1986, when Gen. K. Sundarji heli-lifted a brigade to confront intruding Chinese soldiers at Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh, giving the government some heft on the negotiating table. An army statement on August 31 said it had ‘thwarted Chinese intentions to alter the ground situation by occupying strategic heights within the LAC in the Chushul sub-sector’. The stealth move attracted a flurry of statements from the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, the Chengdu-based Western Theatre Command and the foreign ministry in Beijing. A Chinese spokesperson in Beijing called it a ‘flagrant provocation’, and accused India of ‘severely undermining China’s territorial sovereignty, breaching bilateral agreements and important consensus and damaging peace and tranquility at the border areas’. In short, exactly what the text of India’s statements had been in the past four months.
To describe the situation in southern Ladakh as tense would be an understatement. The situation is on a knife edge, far more than it was after the June 15 incident at Galwan Valley where a deadly clash between the two forces left 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of PLA men dead. A senior army official explains why the situation is precarious. Many units are deployed in isolated places where the army does not exercise centralised command and control. The Rules of Engagement (which decided how both sides respond to each other) changed after the Galwan Valley clash on June 15. “Earlier, we rarely carried weapons on patrols and it was a peaceful situation, but now both sides are heavily armed. If a threatening situation is created, our soldiers on the ground will use their wisdom”, he says.
What the army left unsaid was its official term for this operation, a ‘quid pro quo’ or simply a ‘QPQ’ move, a riposte aimed at getting the other side to withdraw by capturing territory. In Chushul, this move could be used to get China to withdraw behind Finger 4 in Pangong Tso where it has intruded nearly eight kilometres, and from Gogra Post near the Galwan Valley where it has moved forward by two kilometres.
Yet, India’s gambit teeters on the edge of armed conflict because both sides have deployed close to 50,000 armed soldiers, backed by artillery and tanks, within shooting distance of each other. Photographs released by the Indian Army showing PLA troops armed with medieval Chinese polearms called guandaos, a staff with a machete-like blade attached, suggests what they are up against.
On September 7, the first bullets were fired along the LAC between India and China in 45 years. The Indian Army accused the PLA of firing in the air to intimidate its soldiers at Mukhpari. The last time shots were fired was on October 20, 1975, when the PLA ambushed an Assam Rifles patrol in Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh, killing four soldiers. Both sides have since observed the military confidence building measures (CBMs) they signed in November 1996 which include several articles governing the conduct of troops and forbidding the discharge of firearms.
Military analysts feel China could exercise a range of retaliatory options to hit back, from launching a military offensive to retake the heights to expanding the conflict by applying pressure in other areas along the 4,400-km-long LAC, including in Arunachal Pradesh (see box). All these options have the potential of sparking off a military skirmish. Lt Gen. H.S. Panag, former Northern Army Commander, though, believes the focus of the Chinese offensive is likely to be Chushul. “The Chinese are most likely to counter-attack at Black Top , Rechin La and Mukhpari. Our defences are still coming up at these places and they would want to get in at the earliest.”
Lt Gen. D.B. Shekatkar (retired), former Director General Military Operations, disagrees. “I don’t think the Chinese are in a position to launch even a local offensive in Ladakh. Except in Daulat Beg Oldie (the army’s northernmost post in Ladakh) and Galwan, we are on the heights. In mountain warfare, if you are in a dominating position, you have won the first round.”
The next two months will be critical for the Indian side. October and November are seen as the ‘campaign season’ in the Himalayas, the best months to launch offensives before the onset of winter blocks the mountain passes. This is the reason the PLA chose to launch their 1962 border offensive in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh during these months.
A fresh round of talks is now expected at the military and diplomatic levels to resolve the deadlock. Foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10 was one such summit. A joint statement issued by the MEA noted that “the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side” and that “border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. The corps commanders from both sides are set to meet shortly.
G. Parthasarathy, the former high commissioner to Pakistan, cautions against expecting any breakthroughs in the talks. “China has taken us for a ride since 1962; they said they will respect the LAC but have never defined or drawn it, using it each time to their advantage, as a pressure point. We wouldn’t play the same game with them, so they gained a bit at each stage.”
HOLDING THE HEIGHTS
One of the key tenets of mountain warfare is the control of strategic heights and passes. The US Army’s manual of mountain warfare defines heights as ‘key terrain’, terrain that is higher than that held by the enemy. Seizing the heights often depends on long and difficult envelopments or turning movements. No one knows this better than the Indian Army which fought the last century’s only high-altitude war in Kargil in 1999, sending up waves of infantry to dislodge the Pakistan Army from mountain tops.
From what it calls ‘LP/ OP posts’ (listening posts, observation posts) now manned by small groups of soldiers in sangars, the army can not only keep the enemy under constant watch but, in times of war, can accurately guide artillery shells on enemy positions. “The Chinese might have been preparing for a level 3 or 4 game, but we have taken the game to level 9,” says one senior army official. “We have handed them a fait accompli. If they stay, they are below us. If they launch an offensive, they are still below us.”
The view from the heights, as Brigadier N.C. Joshi (retired), who served two tenures in the Chushul, says, is ‘breathtaking’. “You see nothing but plains all the way into Tibet.” From their perch atop the heights, Indian soldiers can see the G219 Xinjiang-Tibet road and even the PLA’s Moldo garrison in the Spanggur gap, a two-kilometer-wide valley in the mountains. An army official says the occupation of the passes bottlenecks the Chinese: “We have increased the cost for them to take back the area.”
The plans to dominate these heights, according to two sources, always existed with the army, just that the political will to implement them was never there. The army began looking for a military option over the past month when it was clear that talks with the Chinese were not making any headway and they had refused to restore the status quo ante as it existed along the border on April 2020.
The choice of Chushul was not accidental. History, geography and geopolitics intersect at Chushul, a military gateway between Ladakh and Tibet. Exactly to whose advantage is decided by the side that can apply the quantum of military force needed to move through its mountain passes. In 1841, it was Zorawar Singh, a general of the Dogra ruler of Jammu, Gulab Singh, and conqueror of Ladakh and Baltistan, who chose the Chushul doorway to ascend the Tibetan plateau where he died in battle with the Chinese and Tibetan armies. In 1842, the Dogras and the Tibetans signed the treaty of Chushul, demarcating the border between Ladakh and Tibet.
In October 1962, the PLA burst through the Spanggur Gap overwhelming a lightly-held Indian garrison. The PLA advance saw the Indian Army airlifting six AMX-13 light tanks, the world’s highest tank deployment, to defend the access to Leh. A company of 120 entrenched Indian soldiers fought a ferocious rearguard action falling to the last man to protect an airfield against the advancing PLA. The saddle where they made their last stand against the advancing Chinese, Rezang La, is synonymous with near-suicidal courage. The Chinese declared a ceasefire just two days later and withdrew. The Indian Army too pulled back from the area, never to return except for occasional patrols. “Both us and the Chinese claimed it but never occupied it, it was for all practical purposes a no man’s land,” says Brigadier Joshi (retired).
While the danger of the Chinese returning to reclaim the heights and plunging the region into a military conflict remains, the Indian Army is focused on reinforcing its positions, guarded with barbed wire, and protecting its soldiers from the elements with high-altitude clothing and temporary shelters. A logistics line, all of it relying on porters and soldiers transporting material on foot, will ensure the posts are stocked with food, water, fuel oil for cooking and heating and batteries to power their electronics.
At these super-high altitudes, the enemy could not just be a sneak attack from Chinese soldiers but frostbite, sunburn, high altitude sickness and pulmonary oedema. Winter brings with it snow blizzards, where fine powder-like snow can kill humans by rapidly filling up nostrils and freezing winds can plunge the mercury to as low as 40 below zero. The army, fortunately, has the valuable experience from Siachen and manning the winter posts in the Kargil sector to fall back on. “Wars are fought on capabilities and not wishlists, and these capabilities are what the army has invested in for decades at the cost of lives and comfort,” says Lt Gen. P. Ravi Shankar, former Director General Artillery. In Chushul lies the key to the escalation of a four-month-long military stand-off or its eventual resolution.