The Indian casualties could go up further because several soldiers have been injured in the clashes that lasted several hours till midnight, while a few are still reported to be missing. Some Indian soldiers were apparently also taken captive by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who were present in far greater numbers and armed with nail-studded iron rods and stones during the prolonged brawl, but were later released after high-level military talks.
“Our radio and other intercepts indicate there were 43 casualties in the PLA ranks, which include both the dead and seriously injured. The situation is fluid on the ground, but no firing has taken place yet,” said a source. An Indian army statement said Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged in the Galwan areas where they clashed on the night of June 15-16.
The Indian casualties — the first since four Assam Rifles jawans were killed in an ambush by Chinese soldiers at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh in October 1975 – are a huge setback for bilateral ties after high level discussions between Indian and Chinese military leaders resulted in a de-escalation plan.
The bloody clashes dealt a big blow to ties which were seen to have improved after two “informal” summits between PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in 2018 and 2019. After the 1962 war, the bloodiest clash took place at Nathu La in 1967, where over 80 Indian soldiers laid down their lives, while an estimated 400 Chinese soldiers were killed.
On Tuesday, China blamed India for provoking the clash, a charge India rejected, saying the violence occurred as Chinese troops refused to honour the de-escalation plan.
Sources said the skirmish was triggered by Chinese soldiers, who after initially pulling back a little, came back to erect a “temporary post” near “Patrolling Point 14 (PP-14)” on the Indian side of the Galwan region along the LAC on Monday morning.
The PLA soldiers suddenly attacked the small contingent of Indian troops led by Colonel B Santosh Babu after they were challenged for flouting the phased disengagement agreement thrashed out by the rival commanders on the ground.
In the ensuing “free-for-all” brawl that began in the evening and went on till around midnight, rival soldiers attacked and chased each other, with many falling into the Galwan rivulet in the area located at an altitude of over 14,500-feet with steep ravines and gorges.
Colonel Babu, the commanding of 16 Bihar regiment who had led the disengagement talks with his Chinese counterpart in the area, and two other soldiers, Havildar K Palani and sepoy Kundan Kumar Ohja, died on the spot.
“The other 17 Indian soldiers who were critically injured in the line of duty at the stand-off location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high-altitude terrain later succumbed to their injuries, taking the total that were killed in action to 20,” said the Army, in a late-night official statement on Tuesday.
“The Indian Army is firmly committed to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation,” it added.
Sources said though the face-off on the north bank of Pangong Tso remained deadlocked, the phased disengagement in Galwan and Hot Springs had been agreed to in several rounds of talks including the one held between 14 Corps commander Lt-General Harinder Singh and South Xinjiang Military District chief Major General Liu Lin on June 6.
Col Babu and his team were stationed at PP-14 – one of the three face-off sites in the Galwan Valley and Gogra-Hot Springs area – to monitor the pull-back of PLA troops around 5-km eastwards to their “Post-1” within their own territory.
Additional Indian troops rushed forward after they saw their commanding officer fall to the ground on being attacked, while the PLA also brought in more reinforcements for what proved to be an extended skirmish.
The PLA further upped the ante on Tuesday morning by accusing “aggressive” Indian troops of violating its “border lines” and claiming the “sovereignty” over the entire Galwan Valley region, which India had considered its territory and largely settled for the last several years.
While Indian officials rubbished the “totally false claims”, Leh-based 3 Infantry Division commander Major General Abhijit Bapat on Tuesday morning also held some talks with his PLA counterpart in a bid to cool down the situation between the rival troops.