The killings mark the Indian Army’s worst losses since the 1999 Kargil war, and mark the most intense fighting between India and China since 1967.
Furious hand-to-hand fighting raged across the Galwan river valley for over eight hours on Monday night, as People’s Liberation Army assault teams armed with iron rods as well as batons wrapped in barbed wire hunted down and slaughtered troops of the 16 Bihar Regiment, a senior government official familiar with the debriefing of survivors at hospitals in Leh has told News18.
The savage combat, with few parallels in the history of modern armies, is confirmed to have claimed the lives of at least 23 Indian soldiers, including 16 Bihar’s commanding officer, Colonel Santosh Babu, many because of protracted exposure to sub-zero temperatures the Indian Army said late on Tuesday.
“Even unarmed men who fled into the hillsides were hunted down and killed,” one officer said. “The dead include men who jumped into the Galwan river in a desperate effort to escape.”
Government sources say at least another two dozen soldiers are battling life-threatening injuries, and over 110 have needed treatment. “The toll will likely go up,” a military officer with knowledge of the issue said.
The fighting at Galwan, News18 had first reported on Tuesday, began after troops under Colonel Babu’s command dismantled a Chinese tent sent up near a position code-named Patrol Point 14, close to the mouth of the Galwan river. The tent had been dismantled following a meeting between Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, who commands the Leh-based XIV Corps, and Major-General Lin Liu, the head of the Xinjiang military district
Inside two days of the disengagement agreed to at the two Generals’ meeting in Chushul, though, the PLA set up a fresh tent at Patrol Point 14, inside territory claimed by India. Colonel Babu’s unit, government sources said, was ordered to ensure the tent was removed.
For reasons that remain unclear, the PLA refused to vacate Point 14 — reneging on the June 6 agreement — leading to a melee in which the Chinese tent was burned down, the sources said. In ongoing dialogue with division-level military commanders of the two armies in Galwan, a bid to bring about de-escalation, the PLA has alleged troops of the 16 Bihar were responsible for the incident.
The PLA, government sources have said, alleges Colonel Babu’s troops crossed a buffer zone separating the two sides, violating border-management protocols which mandates the use of white flags and banners to signal to the other side that it must turn back from the territory it is on.
The burning of the tent, the sources said, was followed by stone-pelting on Sunday, and then a massive Monday night attack on the 16 Bihar’s unprepared troops. Large rocks were also thrown towards the Indian positions by Chinese troops stationed on the high ridge above Point 14, one source said. Though some fought back using the improvised weapons carried by the PLA, most had no means of defence.
Large numbers of dead bodies, Indian military officials say, were handed over by the PLA on Monday morning — possibly men dragged away in the course of hand-to-hand fighting, and then killed.
The killings mark the Indian Army’s worst losses since the 1999 Kargil war, and mark the most intense fighting between India and China since 1967, when 88 Indian soldiers and perhaps as many as 340 PLA troops were killed in the course of intense skirmishes near the Nathu La and Cho La passes, the gateways to the strategically-vital Chumbi valley.
Beijing has issued no official statement on the numbers of casualties the PLA suffered in in the fighting, but the Indian Army claims it has intercepted military communication suggesting over 40 PLA soldiers may also have been killed or injured.
Earlier, on May 5, Indian and Chinese troops, as well as border guards, had engaged in similar, brutal fighting near the Pangong Lake, south of the Galwan valley. The commanding officer of the 11 Mahar Regiment, Colonel Vijay Rana, is still being treated for life-threatening wounds sustaining during the fighting, army sources say.
“There are obviously questions the public will want answers to,” a senior government official told News18, “including why the troops under attack at Galwan could not be supported, and why casualties could not be evacuated. The government will conduct a full investigation of these issues.”
No explanation has been offered for why the PLA pitched a tent at Point 14 after agreeing to a withdrawal. In addition to a drawdown at Point 14, the June 6 agreement had mandated an end to a standoff unfolding at another location code-named Point 15, and a withdrawal of troops and armoured personnel carriers stationed at the third location, Point 17.
Experts believe the crisis unfolding along the LAC is driven by China’s concerns that India’s development of logistical infrastructure could lead it to occupy contested territories it has until now only been able to patrol.
In maps published in 1962, after the end of the China-India war that year, the PLA asserted it had established control of the entire Galwan valley. Lightly-armed Indian troops of the 5 Jat Regiment, whose supply lines had been choked for months, held out against an entire PLA battalion at one key post in Galwan, losing 32 of the 68 troops stationed there before running out of ammunition.
Following the war, though, the PLA pulled back from its 1962 line, allowing Indian troops to resume patrolling ground dozens of kilometres to the east of the 1962 line, reaching the positions that India claims to be the LAC.
In the 1980s, China launched major border-works programmes which led several areas claimed by India to lie on its side of the LAC — like the Finger 8 ridge in Pangong — to be physically held by the PLA.