NEW DELHI: By the second week of September 2014, the Indian army and ITBP—co-located at the southernmost tip of the eastern Ladakh border—started noticing visible increase in PLA patrolling in the area.
Speaking to me, then brigade commander (still a serving officer, so I am not naming him) entrusted with the defence of Chumar recalled: ‘Initially the PLA patrols used to come up to the IB. Then, subsequently they started to trespass up to three km into Indian territory. So our boys (troops) started preventing the transgressions. We formed Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs) and deployed them close to the border to react swiftly’.
Initially, the assessment of the local commanding officer was that the Chinese would try and trespass for a week or so and then go back to the existing status quo, like they usually do along the LAC. But after constant intrusions and face-offs for three to four days, the brigade commander realised that his troops needed to stay as close to the border as possible to respond instantly to any further Chinese attempts to trespass. Therefore, after consultation with the top brass of Northern Command, the brigade commander decided to construct an ORL (OR—Other Ranks—Living shelter), jargon for a temporary shelter. It should be noted here that even in the summer months (May to end-September), night temperatures at Chumar (located at about 16,000 feet), can go down to near-zero, topped by chilly winds that strike like a whiplash. It is, therefore, unadvisable for the troops to stay in the open. Thus, India started building the shelter, located well within Indian territory (approximately 7.5 km from the LAC) and beyond all of the various Chinese claim lines.
On 9 September, while in the process of construction, two PLA helicopters flew three km inside the Indian territory, perhaps to observe more closely what the new construction was all about or just to send a signal. The Indian forces duly noted the violation of air space and protested.
The next day, 10 September—at about 03:30 hours—soldiers deployed near the border (a point called 30 R) noticed some movement on the Chinese side. Alerted by his troops, the CO rushed with a strong QRT (Quick Reaction Team). He spotted about a dozen bulldozers and heavy construction machinery being brought closer to the border.
As the sun rose that morning, the Indian side counted the presence of some 300 PLA soldiers and a sizeable construction team that had also started preliminary work on the track. Indian troops, already present in the area, prevented the Chinese from either moving further or continuing to work on the track. Throughout 10 and 11 September, Indian troops kept a watch on the Chinese, who after the initial road cutting activity, were now camped in the area as if waiting for the Indians to make the next move or for further instructions from their own side. The Indian and the Chinese troops had been face to face for over 24 hours by then.
The standoff had begun.
It soon spread to seven areas, along a 10 km frontage starting from the general area of 30 R and moving along Point 5109 through Point 5212.
On 14 September, the Indian brigade commander also decided to camp at Chumar. Secure Army phone lines buzzed between him and the Northern Command via the 14 Corps HQ in Leh, even as the Brigadier decided to summon another battalion as back-up.
The ITBP too beefed up its presence to prepare for any eventuality.
As Northern Command alerted Army HQ, consultations with MEA and NSA Ajit Doval also began in earnest, since the PLA seemed to be itching for a showdown.
India, upon the directions of the Prime Minister, decided to stay firm on the ground, and if necessary, pump in more troops in the area, even as New Delhi prepared to welcome the Chinese President.
Lt Gen (DS) Hooda, (now retired but then Northern Army Commander) remembers: ‘That summer I had ordered our reserve division-39—to send one brigade to go on an exercise in Ladakh, their area of operation when deployed. The troops were exercising in eastern Ladakh when the standoff began, so we ordered them to stage forward to Chumar’.
Soon, by 14 September, India had a full brigade strength (3000 soldiers) lined up to counter the Chinese intrusion.
President Xi Jinping was about to begin his maiden India visit three days later. Initially, as good hosts, India tried to reason with the Chinese commander and asked him to withdraw. However, he was in no mood to relent, forcing the Indian troops to stick to their positions. The status quo persisted even as President Xi and his wife arrived in Ahmedabad on 17 September.
Almost as if on cue, 1,000 more Chinese PLA troops arrived in Chumar that afternoon. Indian observers also noticed massing of more troops near Chepzi, on the Chinese side.
In Ahmedabad, the public functions to honour the Chinese first couple were going on as planned. In Delhi, the NSA was being regularly briefed by Army Chief Gen Dalbir Singh about the developing situation.
As it became clear that the Chinese were determined to embarrass the hosts, the Prime Minister quietly authorised the NSA to start deployment of more troops upon the advice of the Army HQ and Northern Command. India was about to take a stand that Beijing was not used to.
That evening, additional troops were inducted into Chumar. Overnight, two more brigades (6,000 troops) were airlifted into the area in a massive show of strength from the Indian side. By the time President Xi ended his India visit, PLA’s 1,500-odd troops were faced with the presence of a 9,000-strong Indian Army deployment. This was a clear departure from the past when the first instinct had been to talk rather than act. Here, the order was reversed. Force was met with larger counter-force.
Eventually, the standoff was resolved a week after President Xi left India, but not before India had made its point by standing firm and disallowing Chinese bullying tactics to prevail over India.
From then onward, there have been several instances of Indian troops refusing to accept Chinese aggression. Senior Army officials recall at least two more prominent incidents—one at a location called PP (patrol point) 15 near DBO in 2015, and the other at Yangtse in Arunachal Pradesh—when the Chinese found the Indian response qualitatively different from previous occasions. Adds Lt Gen Hooda, ‘Once in Ladakh, the Chinese started constructing a permanent structure which came to the notice of the patrols a few days later. Without a moment’s hesitation, I told the Corps Commander (of 14 Corps) to send a strong patrol, seize the construction equipment, and demolish whatever had been raised thus far. The QRT moved overnight and carried out the task. The Chinese were angry and perturbed by our action, and had no choice but to comply.’
The essential difference, most commanders in the field agree, is the change in New Delhi’s attitude. ‘The Modi government appears to have decided that the only way to counter aggressive Chinese moves on the border is to stand firm and not give into their tactics of creeping nibbling of territory,’ a China specialist in the Indian military observed. ‘Not for a moment am I saying that we have become as strong as the PLA, or we are spoiling for a fight, but when we stand firm, they also get a message,’ he added.
(Excerpted from Nitin A. Gokhale’s 2017 book ‘Securing India, the Modi way’)