Firearms are prohibited in the disputed Galwan River valley to prevent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops. But that didn’t stop the two sides from fighting a brutal engagement on Monday as the combat devolved to hand-to-hand as soldiers used clubs and threw rocks on an extremely narrow ridge
The Indian army says they lost 20 men. China has not even confirmed an engagement occurred but intelligence sources say Beijing lost at least 35 soldiers. It was the deadliest clash between the two countries in the contested eastern Ladakh region since 1967.
New details have emerged on what went down on Monday, June 15, when a small Indian patrol party moved to remove a Chinese tent in the Galwan river valley at 15,000 feet. China had agreed to remove the tent after talks between Lieutenant General-ranked officers of both sides on June 6.
The troops had agreed to withdraw to create an area that would separate the forces and ensure peace.
Sources said a physical fight broke out after the Chinese soldiers targeted the Indian Colonel, BL Santosh Babu. Both sides were armed with batons and rods with nails.
Reinforcements were called in by both sides on several occasions, say army sources. There are multiple injuries on both sides.
The Financial Times paints a savage picture of combat.
Indian media reported that the battle was fought in darkness on a narrow ridge overlooking the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas — more than 14,000 feet above sea level — after Indian troops tried to verify that Chinese soldiers had honoured a pledge to withdraw from a strategic position.
Scuffles broke out and in the violent melee some Indian soldiers plunged from the ridge into the ravine below, according to Indian media. The clash involved hand-to-hand combat and improvised weapons because firearms are prohibited in the disputed zones under a protocol intended to prevent an inadvertent escalation of violence.
India and China have been unable to agree on a border in the region since India received its independence. They fought a war in 1962 (in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis) that resolved little. The resulting truce set up a “Line of Actual Control” that the two sides have been unable to agree on. So, on a regular basis over the past 50 years, there have been skirmishes and incidents that keep the conflict simmering.
Actually, there is little in the disputed region worth fighting for — except national pride. That appears to be the primary motivation. And in this latest dust-up, China appears to have had an extra incentive: they wanted to distract the world from their coronavirus failures. In April, China sent thousands of troops to the region and built several structures. That proved too much for India, which increased its own military presence. A clash may have been inevitable.
Neither side wants a full-scale war, which won’t mean much if the bullets start to fly. The situation now is tense and unpredictable. Indian Prime Minister Modi has received some criticism for downplaying the clash, but he doesn’t want to raise the temperature in India any more than it has been. That doesn’t sit well with a lot of Indian nationalists who see the Chinese incursions as an insult to India.
The situation is already dying down. But significantly, neither side is pulling back. Violence could erupt again at any time.