“Why Indian forces are withdrawing from Indian territory?”

By Ashwin Tombat
12 July 2020 11:00 IST


"China withdraws its forces but I wonder why Indian forces are withdrawing from Indian territory? Why did we retreat?" That is the biting tweet posted by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi on 13 May 2013.

At that time, Chinese troops had entered nearly 10km into Indian territory in the Depsang valley in Ladakh on 15 April 2013. After talks, both sides had agreed to pull back their troops from the disputed areas to the positions they held before the stand-off.

Last month, hand-to-hand fighting in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan River Valley on 15 June 2020 resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers. After talks, Indian and Chinese troops began a mutual pullback this week. This followed an agreement over a video call on Sunday 5 July between India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Congress leaders Shashi Tharoor and Randeep Singh Surjewala then dug out Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2013 tweet [above], and said that the PM needs to answer his own question now: Why is the Indian Army withdrawing from our own territory in Ladakh?

Mr Tharoor and Mr Surjewala are not wrong now, just as Mr Modi was not wrong then. It’s just that the shoe is now on the other foot…

Since 5 May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops have engaged in face-offs, fights and skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at the Pangong Tso Lake, the Galwan River valley, the Hot Springs area, Gogra and the Depsang Plains, all in eastern Ladakh, and at the Naku La pass on the border between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region.   

The agreement between Mr Doval and Mr Wang provides for “disengagement” between Indian and Chinese armies at “friction points”; the places where the face-offs or fighting took place. Pullbacks at three of them were reported to be underway this week:

The Indian Army has also moved back by almost an equal distance in these areas. The retreat from both sides has created a buffer zone – a four kilometre stretch of no-man’s land.

Defence analyst Rahul Bedi says that the problem is that the “friction point” narrative in the disengagement protocol enables the Chinese to quietly realign boundaries at strategic points along the disputed LAC in eastern Ladakh to their tactical advantage. For example, in the Galwan River valley, it effectively puts the boundary at the Y-nullah junction, where the Galwan River takes a sharp U-turn before it merges with the Shyok River. This lies 1km inside the Indian side of the LAC.

This Y-junction area adjoining PP14 – the site of the 15 June clash – has, owing to the disengagement agreement, inexplicably been made into a ‘buffer zone’, instead of being on Indian side of the LAC. The Indian Army has been patrolling this area for decades with Chinese concurrence and acceptance.

Defence analyst Ajai Shukla writes that both armies will now be allowed to set up only one tented post each, manned by no more than 30 soldiers, around 1.8km from the Y-junction. A similar second post can be erected 1km behind the first, with 50 army personnel – a total distance of some 3km from the Y-junction. It is only well behind this that both armies can move unrestrictedly.

The Indian Army, which earlier sent patrols up to PP14 at the Galwan River will, under the revised alignments, now have to maintain an effective distance of some 3km from it. This means that 3km of territory that for years was under Indian control, has now become ‘no man’s land’.

Though India still claims this area and has aggressively challenged Chinese claims over the entire Galwan Valley, agreeing to the new arrangement weakens its own position, as the Y-junction and not the original LAC will be the area from where distances will be calculated. This can alter future patrolling patterns to China’s advantage.

There is also no agreement yet on any pullback in the Pangong Tso lake area. Here, PLA troops have intruded some 8km into Indian territory on the north bank, from mountain spurs Finger 8 to Finger 4. India believes that the LAC runs along Finger 8. China believes it runs along Finger 2. Earlier, India had posts at Finger 3 and patrolled up to Finger 8, while China had posts at Finger 8, and patrolled up to Finger 4. On 5 May, the first border incident – fist fights and stone throwing – took place between Indian and Chinese soldiers between Finger 4 and Finger 5.  Now, any mutual retreat from the “friction point” at Finger 5 will mean that kilometres of disputed territory remain with the Chinese, while India withdraws further into Indian territory.

As Lt Gen H S Panag says, “we have… pulled back in our own territory”. The newly negotiated “disengagement” gives China a huge tactical advantage. It can more easily intrude into Indian territory in future, even as it gives the impression of reasonableness and accommodation by pulling back for the moment.

“What is the alternative (except war)?” It is a very legitimate question. And there are no easy answers now, just as there were no easy answers in 2013, when Mr Modi put out his now famous tweet.

He demanded answers then. He has to provide them now.

Uneasy is the head that wears the crown…

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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