In Lok Sabha, Rajnath Paints Unclear Picture of Ladakh; Key Questions on China Stand-Off Remain

The defence minister's major omissions include the September 7 incident at the LAC that saw firing, as well as the challenge at Depsang.

New Delhi: For the first time since the start of the military stand-off with China, defence minister Rajnath Singh offered a statement on the historical background and ongoing ground situation in eastern Ladakh. However, the minister’s words in the Lok Sabha have left many questions unanswered.

In a speech interspersed with applause, Singh stressed on the valour and bravery of Indian soldiers at the commanding heights of the Himalayas and urged the parliament to back them, as it had done in the past.

Providing the background to the current stand-off, Singh noted that with the boundary question yet to be resolved, China does not accept the customary and traditional alignment of the border.

“We believe that this alignment is based on well-established geographical principles confirmed by treaties and agreements, as well as historical usage and practice, well-known for centuries to both sides. The Chinese position, however, is that the boundary between the two countries has not been formally delimited, that there exists a traditional customary line formed by the extent of jurisdiction that they claim was exercised historically by each side, and that the two sides have different interpretations of the position of the traditional customary line,” he said.

The defence minister claimed out that it was China which stopped the LAC clarification process in 2003.

Also read: How China Turned the Tables on India and Converted 1993 Agreement into a Land Grab

With no common delineation or view of the LAC, the slew of agreements and protocols agreed by both countries have been crucial to maintaining peace and tranquility at the border, he asserted.

“In these areas, as also with other sections of the border areas, various agreements govern the manner in which troops of both sides should operate and deal with situations of face-offs to maintain peace and tranquillity”.

It was on that basis, said Singh, that relations have improved dramatically since 1988.

Reiterating the Indian view about the space given to the boundary question, he said, “India’s position is that while bilateral relations can continue to develop in parallel with discussions on resolving the boundary question, any serious disturbance in peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the border areas is bound to have implications for the positive direction of our ties”.

This position has been articulated repeatedly by India during the current stand-off – and is different from the Chinese position, which emphasises the overall health of bilateral ties.

Also read: We Need to Look at What Was Missing in the India-China Joint Statement

The defence minister also underlined that armed forces, central police forces and difference intelligence agencies had an “elaborate and time tested mechanism” for coordination.

He also noted that there was an ongoing situation which involved “sensitive operational issues” – and therefore, stated that he will not be able to give more details.

The Indian minister also made it clear that the current situation was qualitatively different from previous stand-offs with China, which had been resolved peacefully. “…in the past too we have had situations of prolonged stand-offs in our border areas with China which have been resolved peacefully,” he stated.

The latest stand-off at eastern Ladakh, he said, was “very different both in terms of scale of troops involved and the number of friction points”.

An IAF transport aircraft C17 brings in essentials supplies at a base in Ladakh, Tuesday, Sept, 15, 2020, as the security forces gear up for winter amid tensions at the LAC. Photo: PTI

He said that while India remains committed to peaceful resolution, “At the same time, the House can be assured that we remain prepared to deal with all contingencies”.

On the start of the current stand-off, Singh said that India had noticed build-up of troops and armaments in China’s border areas adjacent to eastern Ladakh “since April”.

“In early May, the Chinese side had taken action to hinder the normal, traditional patrolling pattern of our troops in the Galwan Valley area, which resulted in a face-off,” said Rajnath.

Also read: A Few Questions on China That Narendra Modi Cannot Evade

While the ground commanders were talking to each other as per protocol, China made “made several attempts to transgress the LAC in other parts of the Western Sector” in mid-May. He stated those attempted transgressions “included Kongka La, Gogra and North Bank of Pangong Lake”. “These were “detected early” and “responded to appropriately” by Indian troops, said the minister.

Close up satellite image of the Chinese claim line of 1960 at Pangong Tso. Image: The Wire/Google Earth

On June 6, the senior commanders of both sides met at Chushul and agreed on a process of disengagement “that involved reciprocal actions”.

Both sides also agreed to respect and abide by the LAC and not undertake any activity to alter the status quo. However in violation of this the Chinese side created a violent face off on June 15th at Galwan. Our brave soldiers laid down their lives and also inflicted costs including casualties on the Chinese side,” said Singh.

The defence minister said that the Indian armed forces showed restraint in face of provocative action, but also valour when they were required to protect India’s territorial integrity.

Despite the violent face-off, India kept military and diplomatic channels open, but based the talks on three principles. According to Singh, these were:

  1. both sides should strictly respect and observe the LAC;
  2. neither side should attempt to alter the status quo unilaterally; and
  3. all agreements and understandings between the two sides much be fully abided by in their entirety.

The minister, however, did not give details of the contours of the disengagement process. For example, in Galwan valley, both Chinese and Indian troops pulled back to create a ‘buffer zone’. But, since the Chinese and Indian troops pulled back by similar distance, a large part of this buffer zone was in Indian territory, which had led to concerns. There was, however, no explanation given on this.

While the Chinese side also took the position that bilateral agreements and protocol should rule interactions, the defence minister noted that despite ongoing discussions, Chinese troops “again engaged in provocative military manoeuvres on the night of August 29 and 30, in an attempt to change the status quo in the South Bank area of Pangong Lake”. These were also thwarted by the Indian side, he claimed.

As mentioned by earlier Indian statements, the minister also reiterated that China had been amassing troops since the 1993 and 1996 agreements. “Their actions have led to face-offs and frictions from time to time along the LAC. As I mentioned earlier, the agreements have detailed procedures and norms to deal with the situation of face-offs. However, in the recent incidents this year, the violent conduct of Chinese forces has been in complete violation of all mutually agreed norms”.

A photograph released by PTI shows Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers reportedly near the Indian post near Mukhpari peak at about 6 pm on Monday, September 7, 2020.

Currently, Singh told Lok Sabha, the Chinese side has “mobilised a large number of troops and armaments along the LAC as well as in the depth areas”. He also added that there were “several friction areas in Eastern Ladakh including Gogra, Kongka La and North and South Banks of the Pangong Lake”.

“In response to China’s actions, our armed forces have also made appropriate counter deployments in these areas to ensure that India’s security interests are fully protected,” he” stated Singh.

While he gave a timeline of the stand-off at the border since May, the minister’s statement had one glaring omission. His speech made no mention of the September 7 firing incident, when shots were fired for the first time at the LAC since 1975.

While the minister had talked about the need to mention “sensitive” operational details, the Indian Army had itself issued a statement on September 8 denying Chinese allegation and accusing PLA troops of firing a “few rounds in the air”. It was a substantive escalation in tension as both India and China had till now boasted that no shots had been fired at the LAC over the last decades, despite the boundary remaining ‘hot’.

Further, the defence minister did not mention the Depsang plains.

According to the Times of India, during the August 8 ground commander talks, India had stressed the importance of reducing tensions to prevent any inadvertent clash at the Depsang plains. The Hindustan Times had reported that PLA’s forward deployment in Depsang has hindered India’s patrolling on the route. Both armies have increased their deployments with manpower, tanks and artillery in the area.

Depsang Plains in Ladakh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Both TOI and Indian Express have reported that the issue of Chinese intrusion into Depsang plains was “more strategically important” than other friction points, including Pangong Lake.

The Depsang Plains lie to the south of Daulat Beg Oldie, India’s northern most outpost where India operates an advanced landing ground to support its forward military deployments, noted Express.

Singh also repeated that the Chinese had attempted to transgress and change the status quo, but were thwarted by Indian troops. This, again, provides no clarity on where the Chinese are sitting on the Line of Actual Control at present.

The defence minister’s formulation that China had only “attempted” to transgress would mean that the PLA has gone back to its area of the LAC. His words echoed that of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks to an all-party meeting, when the latter said that China had never intruded into Indian territory. In August, Ministry of Defence had published a routine document that stated China had “transgressed” into eastern Ladakh, but the file was removed from the website.

Citing government sources, The Hindu had reported that China had occupied about 1,000 square kilometres of area in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) after the transgressions in May.

If China had hindered India’s traditional patrolling pattern over the months, it would mean that their presence within India’s perception of LAC is more substantive than Singh mentioned. For example, there have been multiple reports that Chinese troops have come up to ‘Finger 4’, one of the mountainous peaks on Pangong Lake and have made constructions on the site.

While there have also been reports of counter-deployments, all of them mention Indian troops occupying heights that are marked within Indian territory. There have not been any reports of eviction of Chinese troops from their current positions, which are understood to have gone much beyond India’s perception of where the LAC lies at the border.

Singh claimed that rapid deployment at the border was due to the NDA government stepping up “budget for border infrastructure development to about double the previous levels”.

“This has not only provided much needed connectivity to the local population, but has also provided better logistical support for our armed forces, enabling them to be more alert in the border areas and respond more effectively where required. In the coming years too, the Government remains committed to this objective,” he said.

The defence minister concluded his speech by stating that morale was high and troops were being provisioned with suitable clothing and equipment. “The reassuring visit by our PM has ensured that our commanders and soldiers understand that the entire nation stands behind them in support of the just cause of defending our territorial integrity”.

Urging the house to pass a resolution, Singh said that it was time for MPs to come together to express confidence in the armed forces.

After the defence minister sat down, the opposition benches got up to state their views, but were not allowed to speak by Lok Sabha speaker, Om Birla.