The Political Fix | Friday Links: What you need to know about the first fatal conflict on the India-China border in 4 decades

All the links you need on Indian politics and policy.

Welcome to this Friday Links edition of The Political Fix by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, a newsletter on Indian politics and policy. To get it in your inbox, sign up here.

If you missed Monday’s newsletter, where we looked at the return of Home Minister Amit Shah to the headlines, you can read it here. And you can send feedback on The Political Fix by emailing rohan@scroll.in or filling in this form.


Before we move on to the big story of the week, a small update.

Uttar Pradesh: Police have filed an FIR against Scroll.in’s Supriya Sharma for report on impact of lockdown in PM’s constituency.

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Scroll.in interviewed Mala in Domari village, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on June 5, 2020. Her statements have accurately been reported in the article titled, ‘In Varanasi village adopted by Prime Minister Modi, people went hungry during the lockdown.’

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Supriya Sharma is an award-winning journalist whose series of reports from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh offered an unvarnished view of the impact of India’s Covid-19 lockdown on ordinary people. You can read all of her work here.

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Borderline case

Despite India crossing the 10,000 Covid-19 deaths mark as well as Rajya Sabha elections, there is only one story to focus on this week:

“In the worst flare-up on the Line of Actual Control in more than five decades, 20 Indian Army personnel, including the commanding officer of 16 Bihar, were killed Monday night in violent clashes with Chinese troops in the Galwan valley of Ladakh where disengagement of troops on either side was underway.

The Army said there were casualties on both sides. Beijing was silent on PLA losses.”

During an exercise to de-escalate after skirmishes and a stand-off (covered earlier on this newsletter) at different points along the disputed border between India and China, known as the Line of Actual Control, troops from both sides ended up physically fighting each other in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Read our initial explainer on the violence.

As always, because of the inaccessibility of this terrain, nearly all reporting we get will undoubtedly have come from military sources. With that disclaimer in mind, read the Indian Express’ Sushant Singh’s report on what happened:

“After the meeting at the level of Corps Commanders on June 6, negotiations had been conducted between local military commanders of both the armies for a mutually agreed disengagement process.

As part of that process, a buffer zone had been agreed to be created between the LAC and the junction of the Shyok and Galwan rivers to avoid any faceoff between the two armies. The two armies were to move back by a kilometre each in that area as a first step.

When Colonel B Santosh Babu, who was monitoring this process, noticed that a Chinese camp was still existing in the area, he went to get it removed. This soon led to fisticuffs and blows being exchanged, resulting in deaths and injuries.”

Accounts of the fighting suggest it was particularly brutal, in part because no fire-arms were used, a convention that follows from several agreements between India and China to limit the chances of escalation for localised skirmishes on the LAC.

Here was a report from FirstPost’s Praveen Swami:

“For reasons that remain unclear, the PLA refused to vacate Point 14 — reneging on the 6 June agreement — leading to a melee in which the Chinese tent was burned down…

The PLA, government sources have said, alleges Babu’s troops crossed a buffer zone separating the two sides, violating border-management protocols which mandates the use of white flags and banners to signal to the other side that it must turn back from the territory it is on.

The burning of the tent, the sources said, was followed by stone-pelting on Sunday, and then a massive Monday night attack on the 16 Bihar’s unprepared troops. Large rocks were also thrown towards the Indian positions by Chinese troops stationed on the high ridge above Point 14, one source said. Though some fought back using the improvised weapons carried by the PLA, most had no means of defence.”

And Economic TimesManu Pubby:

“Sources said the attack seems to have been planned well in advance, possibly with the help of surveillance drones that picked out the movement of the Indian patrol party.

Besides sticks laced with barbed wire, Chinese soldiers ambushed the Indian patrol party from dominating heights and pushed down bounders and stones on the troops. While the Colonel was struck down at the beginning of the fight in hand to hand combat, additional troops were moved in by both sides as the situation escalated.

According to one version, over 150 Indian troops were involved in the pitched battle that lasted for several hours into the night against an 800 strong force of Chinese soldiers.”

And the Hindu’s Vijaita Singh:

“The Chinese blocked small rivulets in heightened areas, releasing water at high speed when Indian Army personnel appeared at the disputed site in Galwan area on June 15. “The strong gush of water made the men lose balance. The Chinese charged, pushed the Army personnel and many fell into the Galwan river,” the official said…

The Chinese were wearing body protecters, helmets and carried spiked batons, the official noted.”

Nearly all of this information has been gleaned from reporters, with the Indian government offering very little in the way of details. We will have more on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government’s handling of this matter on Monday’s newsletter – which will take into account an all-party meeting scheduled taking place today.

Even so, it is important to point out that this is about as much as the Indian government has officially said:

“At the meeting of senior Military Commanders held on 6th June, an agreement was reached on de-escalation and disengagement along the Line of Actual Control. Ground commanders were meeting regularly to implement this consensus throughout the last week.

While there was some progress, the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC. 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.” 

Even this statement only came from the Ministry of External Affairs after a phone call between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers, and after Beijing had published a read-out of that call in which it claimed to have blamed the Indian side for crossing the LAC and called on New Delhi to punish those responsible.

It later emerged that these statements were made, even as China still held custody of 10 Indian soldiers:

“After a three day ordeal during which the Indian side carried out hectic negotiations at the Major General level, ten Indian Army soldiers taken captive by Chinese forces during the skirmish at Galwan on Monday evening have been released.

The soldiers, which include four officers, walked back on Thursday evening after the third round of talks led to a breakthrough. Sources said that over the past days, details of the missing soldiers were shared by the Chinese side and India was assured that they would not be harmed.”

It is worthwhile noting here that Indian media has reported on intelligence intercepts noting that there were casualties on both sides, with several Chinese observers – including Global Times' Hu Xijin – confirming this:

Of course, as is customary, the Chinese government and media have not officially acknowledged any deaths or injuries.

Business Standard’s Ajai Shukla took a big picture view of where things stand on the LAC after a month and a half of tensions and the first deaths in more than 40 years (emphasis added):

“On May 5, thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers crossed the LAC into the Galwan River valley scuffling violently with Indian troops as they forced their way five kilometres (km) along the valley to the Galwan’s junction with the Shyok River. From here, the PLA dominated the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road, a newly built 255-km road artery to northern Ladakh. Simultaneously, PLA troopers also crossed the LAC at two other points, including a 3-5 km ingress at Gogra, near Hot Springs. 

A second PLA ingress occurred on May 9, some 2,000 km away, at Naku La pass in Sikkim. Here, PLA troops crossed a formal international border – Sikkim is the only settled boundary between India and China. With the Indian army having blocked the PLA about two km inside India, hundreds of soldiers from both sides remain in a tense face-off.

A third PLA intrusion happened on May 17/18 at Pangong Tso lake, where Chinese troops and heavy vehicles crossed the LAC and seized traditionally unoccupied territory along the lake’s northern bank. Indian border patrols, which traditionally went up to a mountain spur called Finger 8, were now blocked by the PLA at Finger 4, eight km inside the Indian-claimed LAC. Simultaneously, the Chinese occupied the Finger Heights – a mountaintop that dominates the lake all the way up to Finger 4. This area has been connected backwards with a metal road to the LAC.

At all six ingress points – three in the Galwan valley, one at Pangong Tso and one further south at Chushul, the Chinese have fortified their positions with clear intentions to stay.”

As I said earlier, we’ll be returning to this matter to look at it from the viewpoint of the Indian government, which has struggled to handle Indian attitudes towards China (an issue we covered back in April) and to tell you about the many questions that emerge from this major crisis.

For now, here are a few more links to read:

That’s it for this Friday links edition of the Political Fix. We’ll have more on this story on Monday. Please send any links I’ve missed or other feedback to rohan@scroll.in