The continuing shroud of secrecy over Ladakh faceoffs

The belligerence by the PLA also exposes the futility of continuing Corps Commander-level military-to-military talks when China has repeatedly indicated there will be no more PLA pullback.

Galwan clash between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in June 2020 (Photo: Twitter)

Speaking at the investiture ceremony of the Western Command on January 13, 2024, Army Commander, Lt Gen Manoj Kumar Katiyarsaid, "It is necessary to stick to apolitical and secular principles and recognize the fact that any compromise or lack of adherence on these fronts will be harmful for the army." In an atmosphere where scholars have been warning of the high-voltage politicization of the Indian Armed Forces, these words were perhaps a rarity.

Awardees at the ceremony included recipients displaying bravery in Ladakh “after” the Galwan clash between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in June 2020. Recently, Indian media reported two clashes between the armies: one, the PLA attacked an Indian post at Shankar Tekri on January 7, 2022, in which four PLA soldiers were seriously wounded; two, 50 PLA soldiers attempted to capture Atari Post of Indian Army on November 27, 2022.

These clashes plus covert operations by the Indian Army spanned 15 months – from September 2021 to November 2022. A Para (Special Forces) Major crossed over to the Chinese side and provided 120 hours of live feed of PLA movement in tough weather conditions. Similarly, an Intelligence Corps officer went into enemy territory and completed the allotted task.

Videos pulled down

Videos of the investiture ceremony on YouTube were ordered to be pulled down by Army Headquarters, according to the media. In all probability, this was ordered by the defence secretary (in charge of defence policy) or the defence minister who has been harping “not even an inch of territory is lost” in Ladakh.  

Facts that our troops cannot access 26 out of 65 Patrolling Points (PPs) in Ladakh, all buffer zones are in Indian territory and control over thousands of sq km of territory is lost, including traditional grazing grounds, are already in public domain. These PPs, established years back, were also "short of the LAC". In addition, we vacated the Kailash Range in our own territory.

China employed four motorized divisions in 2020 to invade  Ladakh and has never hesitated to show its aggressive intent. China’s G-695 expressway under construction through Aksai Chin will reportedly run close to Galwan and Hot Springs in Indian territory. 

The "buffer zones" (termed "no-patrol zones" in the media) are demilitarized zones for China – as between North and South Korea. Movement in the demilitarized zone is prohibited by both sides but the PLA apparently does not respect that also.     

Clashes and covert operations are typical when troops of two armies are deployed in almost eye-to-eye contact; efforts to dominate no man's land, prevent ingress, and obtain tactical/strategic information are natural and part of the course. Individual valour and competence must be recognized and honored.

Denial and ambiguity

There was no need to pull down the videos from YouTube. But the political hierarchy perhaps felt their spin doctoring that the situation in Ladakh is “stable” stood exposed. The belligerence by the PLA also exposes the futility of continuing Corps Commander-level military-to-military talks when China has repeatedly indicated there will be no more PLA pullback.

One video on X shows an Indian Army officer warning a PLA officer against further intrusions. Notably, the PLA personnel came in vehicles while our troops were on foot – indicating the need to provision all-terrain vehicles to own troops.

Former Indian Army Chief, General MM Naravane has mentioned the Galwan clash in his unpublished autobiography, excerpts of which have been released in the media by the publisher. But the government is mum about how many PLA personnel were captured by us in the Galwan, if at all.  

During the massive intrusions in Kargil (1999), the public was never kept in the dark about where the enemy had intruded and how operations were progressing to evict them. In the current situation in Ladakh, the diffident attitude of our politicians has led to denial and ambiguity of monumental proportions.

Questions left hanging

Ashok Kantha, former Indian ambassador to China, says:

  1. Buffer zones (details not public) straddle India's perception of LAC impacting areas previously patrolled by Indian troops – he doesn’t mention PLA crossed China’s 1959 claim line, which India never recognized. 
  3. Potential reduction in deployment can only occur after restoring the status quo as in April 2020.
  5. The ‘new normal' is a situation crafted by the Chinese following incursions (read intrusions) at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh altering the status quo.
  7. Lack of structured and more structured dialogue between our External Affairs Minister, National Security Adviser, and their Chinese counterparts.
  9. Absence of a Chinese ambassador in India for the past 15 months signals a need for careful consideration.

One view is that Beijing is being financially benefited through bilateral trade - more than before April 2020 - to buy peace. There is speculation that orders may be issued for own troops not to cross into the enemy side under any circumstances and violators to be punished. Hopefully, our personnel in the videos will not be admonished and the military hierarchy instructed not to sermonize about the need to remain apolitical!   

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)

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