New Delhi: A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “no one has intruded into our territory” – an assertion which contradicted government statements about the circumstances in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in combat with the Chinese army this week – the PMO sought to clarify that the reason he said there was “no Chinese presence on our side of the LAC” is because Indian soldiers had foiled an “attempted transgression” at Galwan.
Modi made his controversial statement at the all-party meeting called by the government on Friday to discuss the violence on the India-China border that has taken the relationship between the two countries to their lowest level in over five decades.
“Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai aur nahi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamari koi post kisi dusre ke kabze mein hain (No one has intruded and nor is anyone intruding, nor has any post been captured by someone)”, he said in closing remarks that were carried on television.
पूर्वी लद्दाख में जो हुआ, इसको लेकर आपने रक्षा मंत्री जी और विदेश मंत्री जी को सुना भी और Presentation को भी देखा । न वहां कोई हमारी सीमा में घुस आया है और न ही कोई घुसा हुआ है, न ही हमारी कोई पोस्ट किसी दूसरे के कब्जे में है: PM @narendramodi
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) June 19, 2020
Modi’s original statement that there is and has been no intrusion by the Chinese – which the government sought to play down by redacting the words “Na koi hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai (No one has intruded)” from its official summary – contradicted the government’s press note issued after external affairs minister S. Jaishankar spoke to his Chinese counterpart, state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi:
“[The] Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC [line of actual control],” the press release dated June 17 said. “While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”
It is clear that if the Chinese sought to “erect a structure” on “our side of the LAC”, it would need to cross the de-facto border.
On Saturday, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement seeking to clarify what Modi had said and rejecting what it termed the “mischievous interpretation” given to his remarks “in some quarters”:
“Prime Minister was clear that India would respond firmly to any attempts to transgress the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In fact, he specifically emphasized that in contrast to the past neglect of such challenges, Indian forces now decisively counter any violations of LAC (“unhe rokte hain, unhe tokte hain”).
“The APM was also informed that this time, Chinese forces have come in much larger strength to the LAC and that the Indian response is commensurate. As regards transgression of LAC, it was clearly stated that the violence in Galwan on 15 June arose because Chinese side was seeking to erect structures just across the LAC and refused to desist from such actions.
“The focus of the PM’s remarks in the APM discussions were the events of 15 June at Galwan that led to the loss of lives of 20 Indian military personnel. Prime Minister paid glowing tributes to the valour and patriotism of our armed forces who repulsed the designs of the Chinese there. The Prime Minister’s observations that there was no Chinese presence on our side of the LAC pertained to the situation as a consequence of the bravery of our armed forces. The sacrifices of the soldiers of the 16 Bihar Regiment foiled the attempt of the Chinese side to erect structures and also cleared the attempted transgression at this point of the LAC on that day.”
However, the PMO clarification is likely to add to the confusion that Modi and the government have spread by their use of vague and imprecise phrases.
The PMO uses the words “just across the LAC” to describe the location of the spot where the Chinese side was trying to erect structures and later refers to the Chinese efforts as as “attempted transgression”, which implies all of this action happened on the Chinese side. Elsewhere, the PMO statement quoted Modi as saying, “Those who tried to transgress our land were taught a befitting lesson by our brave sons of soil” – which is a loose and inaccurate translation of his exact words in Hindi, “Ladakh mein hamare 20 jaanbaz shaheed hue, lekin jinhone Bhart Mata ki taraf aankh uthakar dekha tha, unhein vo sabak sikhakar gaye (In Ladakh, 20 of our braves were martyred but after they taught a lesson to those who dared look at (covet) Mother India)”.
While Modi and the PMO’s new formulation is vague about the location of the clash, the MEA had said on June 17 that the structures Indian soldiers objected to were “on our side of the LAC”.
Indeed, the first statement issued by the MEA on June 16 right after the Galwan incident said the “violent face-off” had “happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there.” (emphasis added).
The MEA’s reference to unilateral attempts to change the status quo at Galwan makes it obvious the territory in question either falls on the Indian side of the LAC or is in an area where Indian and Chinese claim lines overlap.
There are around 23 such ‘areas of differing perception’, or ADPs, along the entire length of the India-China boundary from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east but Galwan has not been one of them. Until now, when China has begun making sovereignty claims over the entire valley. Which is why Modi’s claim that Chinese soldiers had not intruded is being seen by the strategic community as not just wrong but also damaging.
Speaking to The Wire, former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon expressed his puzzlement over the prime minister’s choice of words, calling it “an ill-considered and inaccurate statement that concedes territory and the gains of aggression.” “If this is so”, he added, “why and where were our soldiers killed?”
Pravin Sawhney, editor of FORCE magazine said India would have to pay “a heavy price for the appeasement of China, and soon…. The Chinese see appeasement as a sign of weakness which they will exploit to the fullest.” Like Menon, he too saw the prime minister’s assertion casting a shadow over the clash at Galwan. “How did 20 unarmed Indian soldiers die?” he asked. “Why were 10 soldiers taken captive by PLA? If no one has intruded into our territory, did India transgress into Chinese territory?”
“I can’t figure out why [Modi] should have done this, contradicting his own army top brass and external affairs minister,” a former Indian diplomat with extensive experience dealing with China told The Wire on condition of anonymity. “There will be a domestic political price to pay no matter how they try and spin it. So there must have been a bigger price to be paid to justify this utterly pathetic climb down. What is that? I can’t believe this was inadvertent.”
While the MEA has always rejected as “inaccurate” any suggestion that Indian troops had undertaken activity across the LAC – this was reiterated recently, on May 21 – the Chinese side has been repeatedly claiming that the violent clash took place when “Indian forces crossed the Line of Actual Control again, made deliberate provocations and even violently attacked the Chinese soldiers who went for negotiations”. This was reiterated by the foreign minister Wang Yi in his conversation with Jaishankar, as per the Chinese foreign ministry readout.
On June 16, the Chinese PLA western theatre command’s spokesperson, while claiming that Indian soldiers had crossed the LAC and “launched provocative attacks”, had also asserted Chinese sovereignty over the Galwan valley area.
The region is, of course, named after the Galwan river, which is named after a Ladakhi explorer, Ghulam Rasool Galwan who discovered a route through the region. His descendants still live in Ladakh. There is no Chinese name for the valley, with Chinese statements also using this nomenclature. The Chinese army claim is also controverted by China’s own maps which draw the boundary/LAC hundreds of metres short of the Galwan river’s confluence with the Shyok river, thus rendering a part of the Galwan valley on the Indian side of the LAC.
After the Chinese foreign ministry also reiterated the claim over the entire Galwan valley, the MEA spokesperson described this as “exaggerated and untenable”.
The LAC, the de-facto border, between India and China has never been demarcated or delineated. When India attempted to exchange maps for the western sector in 2012, China brought the process to a halt.
However, the Indian and Chinese sides have had a perception of each other’s claim line based on observing decades of patrolling patterns and border meetings. In the areas of different perception (ADP) on the LAC, where the claim lines of the two sides overlap, Chinese and Indian soldiers regularly come face-to-face, before withdrawing back as per an elaborate system of drills.
In Indian official language, when Chinese soldiers come into these ADPs, this is not considered an “intrusion” but a “transgression” of the LAC. The PM’s statement, however, does not use that term for Chinese actions either.
In any case, Galwan had not been part of this list of ADPs, as India had considered the LAC to be settled as per the withdrawal line of the Chinese after the 1962 war.
Incidentally, the Chinese side of the LAC here is also, officially, Indian territory. The LAC determines only effective control and therefore, India has still not withdrawn its claim to Aksai Chin, which has been emphasised repeatedly through parliamentary resolutions, government statements and more recently, the Indian home minister.
China now wants India to keep off Galwan estuary
On Friday, the Chinese foreign ministry published a document that makes it clear Beijing’s claim over Galwan has extended beyond their withdrawal points as depicted in Chinese maps from 1962.
A few hours after the all party meeting where Indian PM made the statement no one had intruded into Indian territory, the Chinese embassy’s spokesperson tweeted a link of a publication that gave China’s “Step-by-Step Account of the Galwan Valley Incident”.
It began by stating that “Galwan Valley is located on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control in the west section of the China-India boundary”
Galwan’s strategic important is that its heights have a dominating position over the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road built by India.
China claims that the since April, India has been building infrastructure in Galwan, which led to “representations and protests on multiple occasions”.
On May 6, Indian troops crossed the LAC by night, China alleged, and impeded patrol movements by “building fortifications and barricades”, which led to the first confrontation. The Chinese foreign ministry’s account states that India agreed to withdraw and demolish its “facilities”.
A month later, the senior commander level meeting on June 6 reached a “consensus”, the Chinese foreign ministry claims, that Indian patrols “would not cross the estuary of the Galwan river”.
This means that the Chinese have extended their claim upto the confluence of the Galwan and the Shyok rivers, near which India’s road to Daulat Beg Oldie passes.
While India has also repeatedly stressed that the understanding reached at June 6 should be implemented, Indian statements don’t provide further details and stated that the agreement was for a process of de-escalation.
Chinese deployments at Pangong lake
Among the three areas of contention in the ongoing tensions, Pangong Tso lake has always been the most volatile and is also in the list of ADPs.
The Indian claim line crosses ‘Finger 8’, one of the mountainous spurs jutting into the lake, while the Chinese states that the LAC lies at Finger 2. Previously, India has patrolled till Finger 6.
This time, the Chinese came down to ‘Finger 4’, where they scuffled with Indian troops on night of May 10-11. As per satellite images, China has changed the status quo at the Fingers and built “substantial’ structures.
According to Nathan Ruser of Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the Chinese have constructed 500 structures, fortified trenches and a new boatshed over 20 kilometres between Fingers 4 and 5.
At Hot Springs, Ruser analyses that satellite imagery from late May shows that there are two dirt tracks that go into “Indian-controlled territory”. “There are no PLA positions on the Indian side of the LAC; however, these tracks suggest that PLA forces are regularly making incursions into Indian territory, at a remote part of the LAC that is 10 kilometres from the nearest Indian positions,” he claims.
Note: This story was edited to include details from the PMO’s press release issued at 1:40 pm on June 20.