The eighth round of Corps Commander-level talks between India and China were held on 6 November at Chushul. After the talks, both sides gave perfunctory diplomatic statements of having had candid discussions on disengagement and to carry the process forward as per the consensus reached between the leaders of the two countries. Prior to this development, it was presumed that status quo would continue indefinitely.
Since India secured the dominating heights on the Kailash Range on the night of 29/30 August, during the sixth and seventh round of military talks, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been persistent that disengagement must begin with our withdrawal from the Kailash Range because India has ‘altered the status quo’. Beijing remained ambiguous with respect to disengagement in the Depsang Plains and north of Pangong Tso, claiming that it has merely secured its own territory up to the 1959 Claim Line.
But India rightly said that it has never recognised the 1959 Claim Line and that it is China that has unilaterally altered the status of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and violated the 1993 agreement. On the Kailash Range, India has only moved up to the LAC to preempt the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) planning to alter the status quo. India further insisted on an all-encompassing status quo ante agreement.
In new ‘agreement’, China eyeing Kailash Range
In a surprise development on 11 November, the media was agog with speculative reports citing “reliable sources”— read government/military unofficial briefings — that an ‘agreement’ had been reached for disengagement along the Kailash range and north of Pangong Tso during the eighth round of talks.
It seems that it is a quid pro quo agreement for the PLA to withdraw east of Finger 8 (north of Pangong Tso) and us withdrawing from the Kailash Range. North of Pangong Tso, we would withdraw to Dhan Singh Thapa post, west of Finger 3. Between Finger 3 and Finger 8, there would be a buffer zone where no deployment or patrolling would take place. Along the Kailash Range, the PLA would vacate Black Top and other positions on the Kailash range with us doing the same. It is presumed that the entire Kailash Range would be a buffer zone. The disengagement would be carried out in three phases and could begin as early as Diwali.
However, there is no mention of any disengagement in the Depsang Plains. The sources hinted that it was a pre-Modi era problem. While this is not the case, in my view, we seem to have agreed to a huge buffer zone on our side of the LAC where we will not deploy (we never did) or patrol.
It is pertinent to mention that all buffer zones which are likely to be created are on our side of the LAC, denying us the right to patrol, deploy or develop infrastructure, which we had up to April 2020. Given the yawning differential between the military capabilities in China’s favour, this kind of an agreement was inevitable. In fact, I have been advocating the same up to end August. Once we seized the Kailash Range, the situation had changed and we should have insisted on status quo ante April 2020.
Kailash Range and 1959 Claim Line
Kailash Range is one area where the alignment of the 1959 Claim Line offers a major strategic advantage to India, and for the first time since 1962, we are holding it in strength. This, negates the strategic advantage the PLA had gained due to its preemptive operations in the Depsang Plains, Hot Springs-Gogra and north of Pangong Tso.
Even in 1962, both sides fought for the control of the Kailash Range. By 27 October, China had reached its 1959 Claim Line in all sectors. However, it did not want to give us the advantage of holding on to the Kailash Range. The 1959 Claim Line passes over the crest of the Kailash Range, except in the area of Black Top that is to its east. China could still claim that it had not violated its Claim Line. On 24 October 1962, Radio Peking announced that in eastern Ladakh, Chushul was the next objective.
In 1962, the Army psychologically collapsed and abandoned the Kailash Range and Chushul Sector when, militarily, there was no need to do so. I analyse the circumstances of our withdrawal from the Kailash Range and Chushul in 1962 and why we must not withdraw from it now.
Indian Army shows resolve
Until 24 October 1962, 114 Infantry Brigade was responsible for the defence of Ladakh. Beginning 20 October 1962, in 48 hours, DBO, Galwan, Hot Springs and Sirijap Sectors had collapsed and troops had been withdrawn. Chushul Sector was held by the 1/8 Gorkha Rifles; 5 Jat was holding Lukung and Phobrang at the northern end of Pangong Tso. By 28 October, 7 J&K Militia in the Indus River Sector had also withdrawn to Dungti. There was a lull in the battle from 28 October to 17 November.
The Indian Army showed great resolve in rushing troops by air and road to Ladakh. HQ 3 Infantry Division was raised on 26 October at Leh.
114 Infantry Brigade with two additional battalions — 13 Kumaon and 1 Jat —was ordered to defend Chushul and Lukung-Phobrang Sector. 70 Infantry Brigade was deployed for the defence of Indus Valley Sector and 163 Infantry Brigade for Leh itself. An ad hoc formation was across the Khardung La to defend the Saser La approach.
However, there was a strategic flaw in planning. The focus was on defence of Leh, 280 km behind the frontline (by existing road), resulting in paucity of resources for defence of Chushul. Until now, our appreciation was that in Eastern Ladakh, the PLA will not cross the 1959 Claim Line, which, in hindsight, was correct. However, when Radio Peking, on 24 October, 1962, gave the next objective as Chushul, it was assumed that the 1959 Claim Line would be crossed and Leh would be the logical strategic objective. The actual objective of the Chinese was the Kailash Range and that is where they halted.
The PLA did not have the resources or logistics to conduct any further operations. It had committed only one division in Ladakh which was stretched from Karakoram to Demchok. In fact, the PLA had to regroup to attack the Demchok area on 27 October 1962. For Phase 2, it had to regroup again to barely muster one regiment for operations in the Chushul Sector. Hence, the PLA was capable of only limited operations along the frontline. Moreover, the winter was setting in and after November, operations were severely restricted. No attempt was made for detailed air or ground reconnaissance to ascertain the strength of the PLA.
The flawed planning of HQ Western Command/15 Corps/3 Infantry Division was to a great extent responsible for the subsequent events. The focus became to defend Leh and led to a 200 km withdrawal to the rear without the Chinese firing a shot after 20 November.
Defence of Chushul
The reinforced 114 Brigade with four battalions was deployed for defence of Chushul and Lukung as follows:
- 13 Kumaon was holding Maggar Hill and Paw Hill with a company each, and one company with an additional section was at Rezang La. Battalion HQ and one company was located in the area of Track Junction, South of the airfield. One company minus one platoon of 5 Jat was holding Tsaka La, the pass between Chushul Valley and Indus Valley.
- 1/8 Gorkha Rifles had one reinforced company at Gurung Hill, one company to the north of Point 5167, one company was defending the Spanggur Gap and the Battalion HQ with one company was located on the airfield.
- 1 Jat had one company minus one platoon in area Jetty to cater to an amphibious attack, two companies with one additional platoon at Thakung Heights and Battalion HQ with one company at Gompa Hill near Chushul village.
- 5 Jat was deployed at Lukung with one company less a platoon at Tsaka La under 13 Kumaon.
- One battery of 13 Field Regiment within 25 Pounder guns was supporting the brigade. The battery had to be split due to limited range and one troop each was deployed south of Gurung Hill and Maggar Hill.
- Two troops of AMX-13 tanks had been flown in on 26 October and were located at the base of Gurung Hill to deny the Spanggur Gap approach to enemy tanks and support Gurung Hill.
- The brigade was supported by one company of engineers and approaches from Spanggur Gap had been mined.Annotated Google Earth image showing approximate location of landmarks
The PLA attacked the Kailash Range in the early hours of 18 November. Gurung Hill and Rezang La were attacked simultaneously with a reinforced battalion each. Rezang La fell by 2200 hours on 18 November. Fighting at Gurung Hill continued up to 19 November afternoon and only the higher heights were captured by the Chinese. The lower heights close to Spanggur Gap were still in our hands.
Inexplicably, after the loss of Rezang La and partial loss of Gurung Hill, held by only two companies, withdrawal was ordered. All other posts on the Kailash Range and in the valley held by 10 infantry companies were withdrawn to the heights west of Chushul Bowl on the night of 19-20 November, even before they were contacted by the enemy. If that was not enough, the entire brigade withdrew from Chushul on 21 November.
Analysis of the debacle
114 Infantry Brigade had sufficient troops for the defence of Chushul. However, its tactical deployment was flawed. The brigade made no attempt to capture Black Top, which was the most dominating feature on the Kailash Range, north of Spanggur Gap. In the initial stages, it was not held in strength by the PLA and could have easily been captured. As a result, the Chinese were able to dominate Gurung Hill and attacked it from higher ground. Similarly, south of the Spanggur Gap, Mukhpari, the most dominating feature located between Rezang La and Muggar Hill, was not held. There was a 10-km gap between the two posts. Rezang La was, thus, completely isolated. The PLA was able to outflank it from the north and south to attack from the rear. To compound the problem, it was out of the radio communication range and telephone lines were cut at the onset of the battle.
There was limited fire support — only one artillery battery was available. Due to limited range, Rezang La had no artillery support. Higher commanders are to blame for this situation. Our aircraft were landing at Chushul till 15 November. On 26 October, six tanks had been landed. If there was will, a minimum of two artillery regiments could have been made available by road or air.
The brigade did not have any idea about the strength of the PLA. No patrols were sent beyond Kailash Range and no air photo reconnaissance was carried out. Had this been done, the commanders would have known that the PLA had only two battalions available for the attack. After the attack on Gurung Hill and Mugger Hill, the PLA had run out of steam. With winter setting in, it was not capable of progressing the attack further.
The brigade was passive in defence and did not launch any spoiling attacks or counter-attacks. There were sufficient troops available. Three companies deployed in the valley were available as reserves. 1 Jat had not even come under artillery fire, and leaving one company behind at Thakung Heights, could have been used for counter-attack.
The Brigade Commander is squarely to be blamed for withdrawal from the Kailash Range. The Army Commander, Corps Commander and the Divisional Commander are responsible for abandoning Chushul. The PLA did not even have the capacity for progressing operations at Chushul let alone advancing 200 km to Leh.
We must not withdraw from Kailash Range
The Kailash Range gives us the same strategic advantage in Spanggur Tso-Rudok area as the PLA has in the DBO Sector. We must develop the required infrastructure to man it permanently. In event of an escalation, we must capture Black Top and the lower heights of the Kailash Range to the east. In case we have not already done so, we must also secure it in the Indus Valley.
We shamefully abandoned the Kailash Range in 1962. Today we must not pull back from it merely to declare a political victory. More so, when we gain very little in return. What more can the Chinese want? All likely buffer zones will be on our side of the LAC where we cannot patrol, deploy or develop infrastructure. China will achieve its political aim – to secure the 1959 Claim Line and prevent development of border infrastructure. And, above all, it would make us vacate the strategic Kailash Range. Mark my words, the PLA knew of the importance of the Kailash Range in 1962 and it does so now. We must not repeat the folly to give up the Kailash Range because the PLA will make sure that we never get it back.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.