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    Galwan River Valley: An important history lesson

    Synopsis

    China probably feels that just like in 1962, India will stand down to its aggressive tactics this time too.

    AFP
    The Chinese claim of sovereign rights over the entire Galwan river valley is essentially Beijing's bid to turn the clock back to 1962, when its army advanced briefly in these barren uplands belonging to India. China probably feels, just like then, India will stand down to its aggressive tactics.

    River Galwan is more like a stream or a nullah, which originates from the Aksai Chin, flowing through a narrow valley to meet River Shyok on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

    The river takes a sharp bend before merging with the Shyok, thus forming a Y-like shape which on the Indian side has come to be known as the Y-nullah or Y-junction. The Chinese side broadly refers to this as the Galwan-Shyok ‘estuary’. The LAC, according to the Indian side, is a couple of kilometres east of this point.

    The valley was never part of China’s claims until 1960. In the 1950s when Beijing first asserted its right over Aksai Chin by building what is today the 2342 km China National Highway 219 connecting its western province of Xinjiang with Tibet, it also pushed its claim with India further south-west. India objected, but China went ahead and presented a claim line in 1956.

    “Till 1956, Chinese claims to territory south of the Kuen-Lun range had been vaguely described as ‘the southern part of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region’. This vagueness could have been a deliberate policy that gave the Chinese room to make extravagant claims unrelated to geographical realities,” observed Maj Gen D K Palit, Director of Military of Operations during the 1962 conflict in his book ‘War in the High Himalayas’.

    map 1
    Chinese claim lines of 1956 and 1960 in western sector. C'tsy: Publications Division

    The 1956 line emanated from the Karakoram, cutting across the Aksai Chin, west of its newly constructed Highway 219 but well east of the Galwan Valley. As tensions rose between both sides, China built posts that gradually established this line on the ground. The last post at the start of the Galwan Valley was Samzungling, which became a key base for the Chinese PLA in 1962 for conducting its Galwan operations.

    The 1956 alignment was the one that the then Chinese premier, Chou-en-Lai, confirmed to former PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959. The map he gave did not contain Galwan, a fact which would become a contentious point in the boundary talks a year later. India, however, rejected the 1956 claim line because, as per Delhi’s position, the whole of Aksai Chin was Indian territory.

    By the time Chou-en-Lai visited Delhi for talks in 1960, positions had hardened on both sides. The Longju and Kongka pass incidents had left the Indian political leadership quite angry. Besides Nehru, the Chinese premier had rough conversations with Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant and Finance Minister Morarji Desai.

    The CIA working paper titled ‘The Sino-Indian border dispute’ on the period leading up to the 1962 conflict records the visit quite vividly, especially how then Vice-President S. Radhakrishnan told off Chou when he drew attention to Chinese legends up to the 12 th Century that refer to Ladakh and Aksai Chin as part of China. “…the vice president reportedly replied that on such a basis India could claim Kandahar, Kabul, and many other areas, including parts of China. Radhakrishnan went on to nettle Chou with the comment that ‘You have hurt us deeply, and it is surprising you don't know it’!”

    The Vice-President’s son, noted historian Dr. S. Gopal, used to then head the History division of the Ministry of External Affairs. He would play a key role in the coming months as a member of the Indian boundary negotiating team. He was the one who first studied the Chinese claim on Galwan and Chip Chap river valleys.

    The Chinese premier stayed in Delhi for six days, hoping to convince India to a border settlement, especially after having just done so with Burma. But the talks failed, and the only outcome was an understanding to have official-level talks to study the documentary evidence of each other’s claims.
    Map 2
    Roads constructed and posts set up illegally by Chinese since Nov1959 in western sector. C'tsy: Publications Division

    THE 1960 TALKS
    The Indian side was led by then head of China division Jagat Singh Mehta, assisted by Dr Gopal, among others. The Chinese side was led by Chang Wen-chin, Director, First Asian Department, and Yang Kung-su, Director, Tibet Bureau of Foreign Affairs. The two sides held three rounds of talks in Beijing (June 15 to July 25; 18 meetings), Delhi (August 19 to October 5; 19 meetings) and Rangoon (November 7 to December 12; 10 meetings).

    But at the first meeting itself, China lobbed a big surprise when Director Yang outlined a whole new claim line which for the first time included the Galwan river valley.

    “The location of the portion between Sinkiang and Ladakh is as follows: From the Karakoram Pass it runs eastward along the mountain ridge to a point east of 78 degrees East Longitude, turns south-eastward along the high ridge of the Karakoram Mountains on the east bank of the Shyok River and northern bank of the Kugrang Tsangpo River down to Kongka Pass. The terrain features of the portion between Tibet and Ladakh are complicated. They include mountain passes, river valleys, lakes
    and watersheds.”

    The Indian side raised many questions on this new assertion, which later came to be known as the 1960 claim line. Galwan was specified in one such Q&A exchange ( courtesy: Claude Arpi who has documented them on www.archive.claudearpi.net)

    Q:
    The Indian side would like to have some heights of peaks and location of passes on this particular ridge.
    A.-From 78° 5' East, the line turned south-west to a point Long. 78° 1' E. and Lat. 35° 21' N., where it crossed the Chip Chap river. After this, it turned southeast along the mountain ridge and passed through two peaks Peak 6845 metres and Peak 6598 metres. The coordinates of Peak 6845 M were Long. 78° 12' E, Lat. 34° 57' N. The coordinates of Peak 6598 M were Long. 68° 13' E., Lat. 34° 54' N. After the alignment passed over the two peaks, it went south along the mountain ridge, where it crossed the Galwan river at Long. 78° 13' E, Lat. 34. 46' N. It then passed over Peak 6556 M and followed the watershed between the Khugrang Tsangpo river and its tributary the Changlung river, crossing the Changlung river at Long. 78° 53' E, Lat. 34° 22' N, and reached the Kongka Pass.

    The India delegation, after studying the new claim, registered its objection and pointed to the change from China’s previous assertion. “The Indian side noted that the Chinese side was unable to explain the discrepancies between the alignment shown in this Sector on the 1956 map and authoritatively confirmed by Premier Chou En-lai in 1959, and that shown in the map provided by the Chinese side at these meetings. The latter map showed an alignment which ran due east from the Karakoram Pass rather than south-east as in the 1956 map, and then, making a sudden turn southward, it cut across the Upper Shyok or Chip Chap river, the Galwan river, and the Changlung river to reach the Kongka Pass.”

    So, when the hostilities broke out in 1962, one of the first areas that China sought to capture was the Galwan River Valley. But the fight for Galwan started months before the actual war and probably right after the boundary report was submitted on December 12, 1960.

    THE BATTLE FOR GALWAN
    The Galwan valley was where Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ clashed with Mao Tse-Tung’s policy of ‘Armed Co-existence’. The situation in this sector was monitored at the highest levels on both sides right from the start, thus conveying its political and military significance.

    Initially, it appears from all accounts that the Chinese probably thought that the Samzungling post was enough to keep a watch on the valley. But subsequently, it did establish another post along the valley called ‘River 5’. On the Indian side, there was actually a difference of view on whether to set up a post as per the Forward Policy in the Galwan Valley. The Intelligence Bureau, then headed by legendary sleuth B N Mullick, pressed for one to be set up.

    The Army, however, was not enthusiastic as it saw no merit in setting up a post just to plant the flag for ‘administrative purposes’, and not be able to logistically support it. Maj Gen Palit records this conflict: “The DIB had long been clamouring for us to set up a post in this (Galwan) Valley….Daulet Singh (Western Army Commander) had objected to this proposal because he felt that the Chinese would interpret it as a deliberate measure to cut off the lines of communication to their post at Samzungling. But he was overruled at the post was ordered to be established.”

    This move finds detailed mention in the Chinese records, which were later captured in a two-year USI study (2013 to 2015) of declassified Chinese documents on the 1962 war, edited by Maj Gen ( Retd) PJS Sandhu. According to this study, the Chinese recorded that on July 5, 1962, some 40 Indian troops set up a post in the Valley that “cut off the rear approach to Chinese post ‘Day 9’ (subsequently changed to River 5)”. The Indian forces had basically gone behind Chinese troops and cut their line of communication with Samzungling. Patrols from both sides came face-to-face on several occasions here.

    A rough timeline:
    July 4/5: A platoon of Gorkha soldiers reached the upper reaches of the Galwan from the south (third attempt at traversing this rugged area) and installed a post.

    July 8: China ordered the Reconnaissance Company of its 4 Infantry Division to reinforce the Chinese post and compel India to withdraw.

    July 10: The Chinese Reconnaissance Company, as per PLA records, occupied two heights to the east, which dominated the Indian position. Palit, who was DMO, has recorded in his official summary of events that the PLA had deployed almost a battalion “surrounding our post in its immediate vicinity…cutting off all possible routes back to the base”.

    July 11: With India unable to break through the Chinese ring to send reinforcements, two helicopters were sent to provide help and supplies to the post. Chinese troops watched the operation but did not open fire.

    The decision to send choppers was taken at the highest level in a meeting attended by Nehru and the then Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon. As recorded by Palit, who briefed the leadership: “I remember addressing an operational meeting on the Galwan situation in Menon’s office one afternoon. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the DIB and, of course Thapar (Army Chief) and Kaul (Chief of General Staff) were present…Menon, usually word-bound in Nehru’s presence, intervened for once to suggest that we should also expand our force by sending in a few more platoons. I looked dubiously at Kaul, who raised objection on the grounds of shortage of air dropping equipment. It was then that a decision was taken to use helicopters to augment air supply.”

    As Nehru, Menon and Thapar were “playing at moving platoons and helicopters on the Galwan chessboard”, Palit has recorded that he hastily scribbled a note for the CGS Kaul: “In it I suggested that this was a good opportunity to wring a decision from the government permitting us to use the air force in an offensive ground support role in case a shooting war started in the Aksai Chin. I saw Kaul glance at my note and pass it to Thapar. I waited in suspense but neither broached the subject. However, Thapar did make a stand on the proposal to reinforce our post.” India’s call not to use the Air Force in 1962 later became a major source of criticism as it came to light that the Chinese side was vulnerable on this score. New Delhi, for some reason, felt it would only escalate matters to its detriment.

    The Galwan stand-off was an issue that went right up the ladder on the Chinese side too. Its premier Chou-en-Lai had instructed that Chinese troops must send a situation report every two hours. The matter was then discussed at the Central Military Commission where Chou and Deputy Chairman of CMC Liu Shaoqi gave two options to Mao – first, try and drive out Indian troops by force; second, to ‘compel Indian forces to withdraw without using force’. Mao, it appears by Chinese accounts, opted for the second alternative.

    July 14: CMC sent officers from the PLA General staff to the Xinjiang Military Command HQ to convey CMC’s guiding principles to deal with India’s forward policy.

    July 16: Xinjiang Frontier Guards passed on orders as instructed by Mao, where for the first time the term ‘armed coexistence’ was added.

    July 20:
    A comprehensive 20-character formulation was sent out to the troops – ‘Never make any concession, try your best to avoid bloodshed; be in inter-locking position like dog’s teeth, be prepared to be in a state of armed coexistence for a long period’

    But it was China that felt the first pinch of the stand-off. It was forced to withdraw from some of its posts in the Galwan river valley as they could not be replenished. Maj Gen Sandhu, however, observes in the USI study that this was “misread” as a success of the forward policy in India. And so, the government asked Indian forces to set up additional posts to cover the gaps.

    Indian and Chinese troops remained in this state of armed stand-off for three months -- from July 4-5 until October 19-20 – in Galwan until the outbreak of hostilities. The Gorkha soldiers were replaced by 5 JAT in September 1962 to occupy the main Galwan post identified as ‘Stronghold 14’ by the Chinese side (approx. Long 78.38 E & Lat 34.40 N). This, sources said, was east of Patrolling Point 14, which is now under focus.

    From the Chinese side, it was the 3rd Battalion of the 10 Infantry Regiment which was in ‘armed coexistence’ at Stronghold 14. China drew up a clear battle plan for this post, which entailed complete encirclement, leaving no route even to retreat.

    Two companies of the 3rd battalion formed the main attack force from East to West while another company attacked from the south and a platoon of the fourth company moved from the north. A section of Chinese troops were sent to “occupy a small spur on the western bank of the Galwan River to intercept withdrawing Indian troops”.

    Each company of the 3 rd battalion was reinforced by two 75 mm recoilless guns, one heavy machine gun and at least six flamethrowers. A company each of 120mm and 82mm mortars provided artillery support, which was better than what the Indian post could ever get.

    The Chinese troops took their assigned position on the night of October 19-20 and carried out their assault at about 8.30 a.m. Indian troops fought without any artillery or mortar support. They fought the well-supported Chinese forces with small arms from open trenches. Of the 68 JAT regiment troops manning the post, 36 died fighting while 32 were taken prisoners of war as per the USI study, which records from Chinese accounts that 10 PLA soldiers lost their lives in the battle.

    Having felled ‘Stronghold 14’, the Chinese forces were divided into two assault groups – one went along the northern route, the other to the south, vacating additional Indian posts that had been set up hurriedly.

    “By the evening of October 23, the (Chinese) battalion had successfully removed six Indian strongholds located on the North and South Bank of River Galwan…the Chinese had, thus, reached the 1960 claim line in this sector,” records the USI study.
    Map 3
    Chinese advances before and after Sep 8, 1962 in western sector. And area which they prepared to demilitarise. C'tsy: Publications Division

    In this sector, the Line of Actual Control – the point to which Chinese forces reached in 1962 – more or less corresponds with China’s 1960 claim line. India, which rejected even the 1956 claim line, saw this as territorial aggrandizement but one that was now marked through conquest.

    1962 & BEYOND
    In the so-called unilateral ceasefire announced by China in November 1962, Beijing proposed that either side withdraw 20 km from their respective positions. With winter setting in, the Chinese PLA were in no position to maintain posts in the Galwan Valley. Neither side would venture into those areas for a while, except for sending the odd patrol to mark their territory.

    Subsequently, when both sides gathered in the 1990s to discuss the Line of Actual Control, there were 12 areas in Ladakh where a difference in perception existed between India and China. Pangong Tso and the Depsang plains were prominent among them.

    Galwan, however, was not on that list. Both sides had no dispute over where the LAC ran in this place. That’s how Patrol Points 14, 15 and 17 came to be established. The 1960 claim line extended to coordinates Longitude 78° 13' E, Latitude 34. 46' N, which stops short of the Y-nullah where the Indian and Chinese forces are now amassed.

    So, Chinese forces have clearly pushed beyond where they had reached in 1962, trying to move ahead of the bend and inch closer to River Shyok. The safety of the DSDBO road will be compromised if that were to happen. In other words, China wants to now assert physical control over areas it had advanced - and subsequently withdrawn - in 1962. And add a few kilometres for tactical comfort. India, of course, will resist any such arm-twisting, as is playing out at the mouth of the Galwan.

    What’s instructive, however, is after all that’s changed in both countries during the past 58 years, China still prefers to maintain a 1962 approach to India – and in all likelihood, views it as an effective way to enforce a negative power differential on India.
    (Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

    14 Comments on this Story

    Gopal Das14 days ago
    Standing in 2020 we are yet to question ourselves, whether 1962 India and 2020 India is one and the same. Same stereotyped slogan like words nasal voice. Today China occupied strategic areas like y junction, Galwan valley, PP 14, now our Jawans cannot petrol from PP 10 to 13. We lost all the opportune moments of first hand attack, gave enemy time to prepare for allround attack. Now Pakistan has become the ground for Chinese war preparation. And we are chewing the cad of peace.
    Chandrahash Rushi15 days ago
    A detailed narrative of history, past mistakes of Nehruvian era & wisdom not to use airforce against China & how cunning & willy China stuck & even extended their territorial claims!! India as always in the name of self-proclaimed peace-loving county never learnt the historical lessons during years & in the meantime China went on crating world class infrastructures on the sides of entire borders, creating more post following the policy of smell intrusions & withdrawing when challenge but created many several more disputed area. India as usual went on expanding commercial interests ignoring the national defence & security claims. here too Indian lost as the balance of trade always has been in favour of China & our press & commercial venture till date claps for open trade policy to fatten up the profits leaving the defence of the country to brave JAwas who never enjoys any TAx-free perks like politicians & rich harvesting of profits like industrialists & Businessmen. so as Indians we always welcome our guests in India, offer our cousins, our PM goes on visiting reciprocally but end result endless non-result oriented open discussions, boundary disputes go on lingering for years since independence. This much is for our foreign & Defence policies. All our defence procurement are only announced with procurement with long gestation period & weapons NA as & when required by our armed forces, bur middlemen getting their shameless TPC promptly.
    Sharad Joshi15 days ago
    This Amey K...is a Conggee stooge or a CHIENESE.
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