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Why PLA loss at Galwan needs to be told and made public

Source : Tribune

The K9-Vajra self-propelled howitzers which have been deployed in the forward areas in Ladakh after the LAC standoff.

After an Australian newspaper claimed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China lost some 38 men in the Galwan clash with the Indian Army, it would be appropriate and opportune for New Delhi to make a formal statement on the clash, detailing what had happened.

A statement, or even an authoritative research paper by one of the many think-tanks, on the events in the run-up to Galwan clash and after it, would set the record straight once and for all. Silence on the matter would amount to a throwback to the 1960s’ mindset.

Foreign writers drove the narrative on the reasons and outcome of the 1962 war with China, while the significant setback to the PLA when it lost 400 men in a clash at Nathu La in Sikkim, in 1967, is kind of forgotten in public memory.

On the night intervening June 15-16, 2020, the Indian Army and the PLA clashed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)in Galwan valley, eastern Ladakh. The next day, India announced it had lost 20 soldiers and honoured some with gallantry medals. The PLA accepted only four deaths and that too in February 2021. Barring these two announcements, everything else appearing in the media in India and abroad is based on unnamed sources and interpretations of the sketchy details.

The Australian newspaper, The Klaxon, in its report, has cited un-named ‘social media researchers’ and monitoring of Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, as its sources. The newspaper report makes two vital points.

Eight months after the Galwan clash in 2020, the PLA announced the death of four soldiers. A new report claims the figure was nine times higher.

First: “PLA soldiers panicked into retreat” after seeing the initial injuries inflicted by Indian troops to Colonel Qi Fabao, who was “hit in the head by an Indian Army solider”.

Second: As the “panicked PLA retreated”, Junior Sergeant Wang Zhuoran led a group across the Galwan. “At least 38 PLA troops along with Wang were washed away and drowned that night… of which only Wang was declared among the four officially dead soldiers”.

If the PLA panicked and retreated, it’s a significant victory for the Indian Army. It needs to be told to the world and also Quad partners Japan, Australia and the US.

On ground, the topography is such that the Galwan river flows westwards towards India to join the Shyok. If any PLA trooper got washed away in the Galwan, the body would most likely end up on the Indian side.

If Indian troops took pictures of that event, can those be released to pull the PLA’s bluff? Media reports have indicated that Chinese troops were captured, so can the numbers be shared now? These are some of the immediate questions as the narrative shifts.

Former Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia (retd), speaks about the success of the military operation: “The fact that there has been no escalation whatsoever post Galwan itself is indicative that the PLA suffered unacceptable casualties.”

Keeping quiet will not help

At the strategic level, silence on the matter is a throwback to the 1960s and not good for a vibrant democracy. After the 1962 war with China, Australia-based author Neville Maxwell, in his book ‘India’s China War’ (published in 1970), blamed India for the ‘forward policy’ — November 1961. He identified it as a trigger point for ‘justifying’ China’s attack along the disputed frontier.

The Henderson Brooks-PS Bhagat Commission appointed by the government after the 1962 war gave its report, but it remains a secret.

For years, Maxwell’s opinion discredited the very-justified Indian military action along the undefined LAC. China had been making false claims on the LAC alignment, including a proposal of a new alignment of the LAC in 1960 by its premier, Zhou Enlai.

‘The History of the Conflict with China, 1962’, released for ‘restricted’ circulation by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in March 1993, justified the ‘forward policy’, saying it was to restrict the Chinese to their claim-line of 1956 and stop claims over the new territory made in 1960. “It was to prevent further infiltration into the unoccupied areas of Ladakh,” it said.

Since the history book is not ‘unclassified’, citizens cannot read it or buy it. The records lay buried in the MoD’s history division while Maxwell’s opinion drives popular perception.

Two other events of the 1960s have no official description. In the 1962 war, the Indian troops held on in Ladakh, most notably at Rezang La in eastern Ladakh, just 5 km south-east of the hamlet of Chusul. “The Indian soldier was defeated but not disgraced in Ladakh,” the MoD’s unclassified history book says, dispelling the notion of ‘disgrace’. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in November last year opened a re-furbished memorial at Rezang La.

On September 11, 1967, the Chinese troops suddenly opened machine gunfire near Nathu La in Sikkim. The Chinese positions got blasted with 5.5 medium guns. Five days later, the PLA agreed to a ceasefire. “They had lost 400 men killed or wounded as compared to the Indian loss of 65 killed and 145 wounded”, is mentioned in the MoD’s history book. This hour of glory is officially not de-classified.

A couple of years ago, Probal Dasgupta produced ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China’ and brought out some important points.

Holding back PLA

If the PLA ‘retreated’, it is justification for what Indian military commanders have been mentioning in off-record discussions with mediapersons. The words ‘panic’ and ‘unease’ are often mentioned by commanders to describe reactions of the PLA at the border. This is largely due to the Indian thrust in making infrastructure along the 3,488-km LAC and gradual addition of troops since 2003-2004.

In the past almost two decades, India has focused on the northern frontier. Tanks and mechanised forces had been added even before the ongoing military standoff. Post-May 2020, there has been a rejig of relocating of strike Corps formations from the plains to the Himalayas.

A ‘militarily tailored’ LAC seems to have borne fruit at Galwan and also south of Pangong Tso.

Every possible route of ingress — like the Galwan valley — is continuously “war-gamed” by the Army.

In Ladakh, there are 13 identified possible routes of military ingress from the Chinese side. These are natural gaps in the mountains along the 832-km LAC in Ladakh. Starting from east of the Karakoram Pass, the northern-most point, and ending at Demchok, the southern-most edge of Ladakh, these gaps permit major land-based war-waging equipment and troops to pass through. Some eight of these 13 routes are open even during the winter as these areas get little snowfall.

Military plans on holding back PLA are of course top-secret, but surely are being constantly fine-tuned further.

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