At first glance, the town of Leh seems peaceful, almost placid, till you begin hearing the roar of fighter jets racing through the clear blue skies. By the second day that we are there, their roar over the horizon has only gotten louder, breaking the silence every 15 minutes. The Apache helicopter, which can fire Hellfire missiles and destroy enemy tanks, is also in service. But other than that, what one can witness under an open sky is that the movement of the media has been severely restricted. Even the cantonment areas that make up the headquarters of the Army’s XIV Corps are off limits for cameras.
While there are varying versions of exactly what happened in Galwan valley and what is still happening between Finger 4 and Finger 8 (the spurs around Pangong Tso Lake), there is one thing that almost everyone on the ground we speak to agrees on. The Chinese clearly try and play with the edges of the Line of Actual Control every year. This year, however, there has been a clear attempt to definitively alter its contours. In Galwan valley, multiple sources confirm that the Chinese had entered one kilometre below Patrolling Point 14 (PP 14) at what is called the ‘Y junction’. On the night of June 15, when Colonel B. Santosh Babu went with 19 of his men to oversee what he thought was going to be a withdrawal by the men of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), he was taken aback to find that the Chinese flatly refused to do so. The first time, the Indian side, which was roughly equal in number to the Chinese soldiers present, pinned six of them down and began dismantling the two tents the Chinese had erected. It is when the Chinese side returned with reinforcements and crude weapons two and half hours later that the crisis blew up. Nearly 300 PLA troops came down PP 14, wearing riot gear and armed with batons, rocks and wooden spurs with sharp nails. By now, we know that Colonel Babu was hit on the head with a blunt object and fell to his death 20 feet below. In the mayhem that followed, Indian soldiers fought with passion, despite being grossly outnumbered.
In Galwan valley, the Chinese may have retreated, arriving only one more time inside Indian territory the next morning to retrieve their fatalities—12 Chinese soldiers were killed in the brawl according to highly placed sources.
But the larger question remains wide open. Military commanders have had several rounds of negotiations. And clearly the hope is that dialogue could still do the trick. Any military retaliation would need the “wherewithal of war,” says Colonel Sonam Wangchuk, the “Lion of Ladakh”. He should know. In 1999, during the Kargil war, Wangchuk cleared a nest of Pakistanis from a mountain post 18,000 feet above sea level—it would later be called the Battle of Chorbat La.
Wangchuk explains that, because reports suggest that the Chinese have the advantage on the heights, “[removing China militarily from any area inside our territory] is no longer possible to do with small firearms. You would need artillery; in fact, you would need to use artillery as a direct firing instrument.”
His namesake—often confused with him, but actually the engineer-turned-educationist who inspired the movie 3 Idiots—says this ingress by the Chinese is only the latest reason to galvanise Indian public opinion. Wangchuk, whose role Aamir Khan essayed in the movie, says, “While the soldiers respond with a bullet, let citizens respond with their wallets. China is a rogue nation, ethically, politically and morally. The boycott should start now.”
This, however, is easier said than done. At Leh’s Tibetan refugee bazaar, second-generation Tibetans, most of them born in India, say that when they first asked for an economic boycott of Chinese goods, their battle cry was considered a joke. No one supported them. They still soldiered on, but found that even when they made the effort to procure ‘Made in India’ goods, there were hardly any to be found. Literally every product had a Chinese link. This is how entrenched China’s infiltration into India’s markets is.
Not many believe that there are any immediate solutions in sight. If anything, the very real fear is that Pakistan, as a vassal state of Beijing, may trigger tensions on the Line of Control and heighten the conflagration there. If this happens, then for the first time in decades, both the LoC and the LAC will be hot; a deliberate ploy designed to stretch the attention of the Indian troops.
Notwithstanding the practical complications, there is enormous pressure on the ground on the Modi government to act. P. Kunzang, the president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association, says, “Prime Minister Modi must act with China as he did with Pakistan after Pulwama. If action is not taken, do not be surprised if one day the Chinese are sitting right here in Leh.”
That may sound like an exaggeration or an off-the-cuff remark. But across political affiliations in Ladakh (Kunzang is a Modi supporter), the demand is the same. Namgyal Durbuk, a villager from the border areas of Durbuk-Shyok, used to be a councillor with the Congress. But he insists that he is talking purely as a Ladakhi Indian when he says, “We are with you Mr Prime Minister, please act. Where our horses once went to pasture, we see the Chinese.”
Given the absence of easy and viable options on the one hand and rising sentiments on the other, perhaps the government may choose to heed the former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, who says, “Perhaps this is precisely the time to push for a permanent border solution.”