Thursday, 2 February, 2023
HomeOpinionThe roots of the Depsang conflict lie in the 1962 war

The roots of the Depsang conflict lie in the 1962 war

While Indian authorities saw the problem in Galwan, Gogra hot springs, Pangong Tso, and Charding Nullah, Army called Depsang a 'legacy' problem.

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On the night of 19 October 1962, Chinese troops belonging to the 3rd Battalion of the 11th Regiment, 4 Division, began to move towards an Indian position at Point 5270 near Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh. The troops were in position by 5 am, but they waited till 8:25 am to begin their artillery bombardment and coordinate it with one that was launched miles away against the Indian forces in Namka Chu, north of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

By 10:45 am, the battle was over at Point 5270 — 42 Indian jawans of the J&K Militia had been killed and 20 taken prisoner. The Chinese overwhelmed the penny-packet Indian posts, some just thinly strung out along the Chip Chap River and north of the Depsang Plains.

By 21 October, the Chinese had eliminated all the Indian posts that they claimed were on their side of the border. That night, the Indian commanders ordered the withdrawal of remaining posts, and by 24 October, all forward posts in the Chip Chap and Nau chu (Jeong Nala) River valleys — essentially the Depsang area — had been withdrawn. DBO had been abandoned, and the Chinese had established effective control on their 1960 claim line.

That is the Chinese version of events as pieced together by Maj Gen P.J.S. Sandhu in his study of the war. The Indian version in the official history of the war differs in detail but not the substance of the events. According to this version, the Indian forces in this area were spread out across 14 posts stretching in an arc from the northeast of DBO to Jeong Nala (then described as an uncharted river) opposite the Chinese positions.

These were posts created under the so-called Forward Policy that aimed to show the flag rather than to fight the Chinese. Barring post 1, none of them had anything more substantial than a light machine gun. They were supported from DBO and separated by distances of 2-3 km, except for post 14, which was a day’s march (10-12 km) away from its nearest neighbour. By the time the war broke out, all the posts had already been more or less surrounded by the Chinese.

Also read: It’s a myth IAF wasn’t used in 1962 War. Helicopter and transport fleets were deeply involved

The Indian version

According to the Indian version of the history, the attack began on posts 5 and 9, a little south of the Chip Chap River on 19 October at 11 pm. The posts were soon overwhelmed. A few hours later, at 2:30 am, posts 2 and 3, north of Chip Chap, also came under attack, and soldiers were asked to pull back to post 4. Post 1 was now isolated and attacked and, it, too, fell.

By evening on 20 October, it had become clear that resistance was futile and the remaining posts were asked to retreat to DBO, while post 10 was asked to withdraw to Burtse, south of Depsang La. By night, all except post 14 had withdrawn, and by the next afternoon, this post too was abandoned. The Indian troops withdrew to Gapshan and Saser Brangsa on the western route to Leh from DBO and Murgo and Sultan Chusku on the southern route. Up to which points the Chinese had come to and from where they went back is something that only they know.

According to Chinese maps, deemed official by Zhou Enlai in 1956, the Chinese border left the basins of the rivers that flow into the Shyok—Chip Chap, Jeong Nala and Galwan—on the Indian side. But by 1960, the Chinese shifted their claims westwards, claiming even more Indian territory by dissecting the Chip Chap and Jeong Nala basins and claiming most of the Galwan river basin.

According to former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, during the war, the Chinese occupied 3,000 sq. km beyond the 1960 claim line, mostly in the  DBO-Depsang-Galwan region. The Chinese claimed that in the war, they only occupied the region till the claim line, and therefore, left DBO, Track Junction, and Murgo alone. Actually, after the ceasefire and despite their claimed withdrawal 20 km behind the ceasefire line, the Chinese have held on to a swathe of territory in this region that brought them close to the Indian positions in the DBO and Track Junction areas.

Also read: Zhou’s offer, Nehru’s defiance — insights from 3-week ‘lull period’ during 1962 India-China war

1962 to now

In the years after the war, Chinese intrusions across the LAC in the Depsang La, Track Junction and DBO area continued, along with Indian protests.

In 1976, the precise Line of Actual Control (LAC) from the Indian viewpoint was marked in large topographic sheets by the Indian government’s China Study Group, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. Indian forces were ordered to resume patrolling. Patrolling points (PPs) were established from Karakoram Pass, and going southwards, they were numbered 1, 2, 3 and so on. PP 10, 11, 11A, 12, and 13 were roughly aligned to the Indian posts in the Depsang region, which had been overwhelmed in 1962.

Using Burtse as the base, Indian patrols would go 7 km northwest to Y-Junction and north to PP 10-12 or south to PP-13 located on the Jeong Nala. This was clearly outside China’s own claim line. They were aware of this and began a strategy of slow encroachment and harassment. In 2013, they established a blockade at Y-Junction and prevented Indian patrolling in either direction. After a month, the standoff was vacated and patrolling resumed.

The Chinese action was probably on account of the steadily improving military dispositions of the Indian side. In 2008, the DBO airfield was activated and a motor road made functional in the local area. And by 2020, India finally built the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road along the Shyok River valley. The Chinese viewed this as a potential threat to their Xinjiang region as well as the Aksai Chin (G219) Highway.

In April-March 2020, as part of their larger move in eastern Ladakh, the Chinese once again established a blockade at Y-Junction. While Indian authorities acknowledged the problem in the Galwan, Gogra hot springs, Pangong Tso, and Charding Nullah areas, they were silent on Depsang. Army officials claimed that this was a “legacy” problem, presumably a holdover of 2013, but a retired general wrote in the Vivekananda International Foundation’s journal that the area had been regularly patrolled till 2019 and even early 2020. This is by far the most consequential of the blockades that China established in 2020, but it has been largely ignored by the Indian authorities. It involves an area of 900 sq. km or more.

Having agreed to partial withdrawals in the other areas of the 2020 blockade—PP-14 (Galwan), PP 15-17A in Kugrang River valley (Gogra hotsprings) and Pangong Tso—it remains to be seen what happens in the Depsang area in the future negotiations. Going by the negotiations in the past two years, the Chinese will probably seek to create a no-patrol zone there, which means India will effectively lose control of the region.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation and author of Understanding the India- China Border: The enduring threat of war in high Himalaya. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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