The Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh is even today a frozen mass guarded by men on both sides who keep a close eye over the barren pristine snow. Here, movement is far more easily observed as compared to jungles or built up areas. But, for the men who brave the freezing cold and howling winds, there is possibly some jubilation on both sides of the divide. There is a thaw that could usher in greater stability and allow thousands of troops to return to their bases in more hospitable terrain.
On 11 February, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced a disengagement plan along the LAC that has been agreed upon by both sides in the 9th Military Commanders’ meet. The Defence Minister apprised the members that India had stuck to three principles. These were, (i) both sides should strictly respect and observe the LAC; (ii) neither side should attempt to alter the status quo unilaterally; and (iii) all agreements and understandings between the two sides must be fully abided by in their entirety.
He proceeded to give a more detailed explanation of the agreement reached by recalling the past Chinese aggressive maneuvers. The Minister stated, “Let me briefly recapitulate the main aspects of the situation on the ground. As the House is aware, China illegally occupied approximately 38,000 sq. km in the Union Territory of Ladakh, mainly during the 1962 conflict. In addition, under the so-called Sino-Pakistan ‘Boundary Agreement’ of 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq. km of Indian territory in Pakistan occupied Kashmir to China. China, thus is in illegal occupation of more than 43,000 sq km of Indian territory. It also claims approximately 90,000 sq. km of Indian territory in the Eastern Sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh. India has never accepted this illegal occupation of our territory or the unjustified claims”.
The Defence Minister also apprised that, “We have now been able to reach an agreement on disengagement in the North and South Bank of the Pangong Tso (Lake). It has also been agreed to convene the next meeting of the Senior Commanders within 48 hours after the complete disengagement in the Pangong Tso area so as to address and resolve all other remaining issues”.
As per the terms of the agreement, the northern bank of Pangong Tso will witness major Chinese relocations with the Chinese presence being limited to east of Finger 8. The Chinese incursions had been up to Finger 4. Indians will be restricted to their Dan Singh Thana base on Finger 3.
Viewed militarily, it’s a major concession that we have been able to extract from the Chinese. The area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 was scantily patrolled in the past by Indian troops. The current agreement imposes a no patrolling clause to be observed by both parties. Of course, we have also had to make concessions and these have been made south of Pangong Tso in the general area of Chushul.
Our troops had been able to establish themselves on the ridges of Rechin La and Rezang La. Rezang La had witnessed a memorable battle in 1962 when almost the entire Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon, under Maj Shaitan Singh, PVC (Posthumous) were killed before the Chinese captured it. The ridges had not been occupied by either side since then. The Chinese tried to occupy the ridges in August 2020, but were beaten in a race to the top by the Indians. These posts, apparently, would be vacated by the Indians. However, the Indian side will definitely cater for adequate surveillance, the agreement notwithstanding.
The agreement between the two parties also caters for sector commanders to be meeting within 48 hours to resolve the situation in the other areas.
Rajnath Singh’s statement in the Parliament also drew a few strategic parameters that would define India-China relations. The Chinese have been insisting on our mutual economic, trade and commerce relations continuing, unaffected by the dispute over the LAC. Rajnath’s address puts the need for peace and tranquillity along the borders as central to all other aspects of the relationship. The Minister said that, “I would like to add here that India has consistently maintained that while bilateral relations can develop in parallel with discussions on resolving the boundary question, any serious disturbance in peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the border areas is bound to have adverse implications for the direction of our bilateral ties”.
He categorically pointed out the way Chinese expansionist designs have progressed in the past. The Minister stated, “Let me briefly recapitulate the main aspects of the situation on the ground. As the House is aware, China illegally occupied approximately 38,000 sq km in the Union Territory of Ladakh, mainly during the 1962 conflict. In addition, under the so-called Sino-Pakistan ‘Boundary Agreement’ of 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq. km of Indian territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to China. China, thus is in illegal occupation of more than 43,000 sq. km of Indian territory. It also claims approximately 90,000 sq. km of Indian territory in the Eastern Sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh. India has never accepted this illegal occupation of our territory or the unjustified claims”.
The consensus between the two parties to progress towards peace and tranquillity along the LAC is a welcome step. However, a mere tactical understanding is not enough as a confidence building exercise that the two Asian giants need. The dialogues, at the levels of military commanders, diplomatic channels and the political leadership can be evaluated as fruitful only if we find no aggressive manoeuvres by the Chinese in future. Both sides have to progress with de-induction of their military formations and assets back to their bases for building a more conducive environment. Nor can India waver on building its partnerships to hurt the Chinese in the oceans, in the interim.
Brig SK Chatterji (Retd.)
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