The government made sure that China went public first with the announcement about the pullback from the eastern Ladakh sector. The Chinese defence ministry on Wednesday announced that the Chinese and Indian troops on the southern and northern shores of the Pangong Tso would begin ‘synchronised and organized disengagement’ as per the consensus reached at the Corps Commanders’ meeting on January 24.
A day later, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament that sustained talks with China had led to an agreement on the disengagement. A video released by the Indian Army confirmed the pullout. It shows the rival troops shaking hands in the glacial heights of the barren mountains before the tanks from either side withdraw by turns, away from the stand-off points.
Nearly ten months after the Chinese had sought to occupy a small area on the Line of Actual Control which had all along been patrolled by the Indian side, the battle-lines were drawn for a shooting war. India had responded firmly, determined to vacate the surreptitious Chinese occupation of territory under its control. In the resulting build-up, there was a hand-to-hand clash between the rival troops at the Galwan Valley. India lost 20 of its men, while the Chinese fatalities were reported to be much higher.
Such was the tension that the two countries were ready to break into a full-scale war at any moment, with the rival militaries amassing the arsenal of war, including tanks, artillery, fighter jets and other such modern warfare equipment. Both sides had over 50,000 troops each on the disputed border, with further reinforcements mobilised and on the ready in nearby garrisons. Several rounds of talks at the commanders’ level were held but these failed to break the logjam.
In fact, the pullout on Wednesday came as a complete surprise. The media was kept in the dark about the negotiations that resulted in the welcome decision. Sources described the current pullout as a preparatory disengagement, with rival commanders verifying it at every stage. The entire process is expected to last over a week but neither side is taking chances, insisting on a matching pullback in a phased manner.
What clinched the issue and pulled the two nuclear-armed powers back from the brink can only be speculated but there is near-unanimity that China was taken aback by India’s dogged determination to defend its ground at all costs. Whether the advent of Joe Biden in the White House and the increasing cooperation between the democratic world to stand up to China in the Indo-Pacific and in the larger economic and trade matters played a role can only be guessed. But the fact that China is pulling back to the satisfaction of India is a moral victory for the latter.
Notably, the way the Indian troops caught the Chinese completely by surprise last August, occupying strategic heights on the south bank of the Pangong Tso and in the Chushul sub-sector, spotlighted India’s determination to defend its turf. This exposed the Chinese garrison and the Chinese positions on the ridgeline on Fingers 3 and 4.
In the subsequent rounds of commander-level talks, China accused India of perfidy, insisting that before negotiating its own withdrawal from the small area it had occupied early in April, India vacate the heights it occupied in August. But the fact was, these heights were on the Indian side and gave the Indians a ringside view of the Chinese positions and movements, making them vulnerable in any armed confrontation. India was still perched on these heights.
The defence minister’s long statement in the two Houses on Thursday mentioned the Chinese occupation of nearly 38,000 square kilometres of Indian territory in Ladakh, besides the gift of over 5,000 sq km of Indian territory in illegal occupation of Pakistan to China. Singh said that China also laid claim to all of Arunachal Pradesh and did not want to settle the border issue. In the meantime, there have been protocols to maintain peace at the Line of Actual Control.
Listing several such attempts by China to occupy Indian territory in the past, and the protracted negotiations which followed to make them withdraw, Singh acknowledged that last April’s confrontation was the fiercest since the 1962 war. Due to the firmness of the government, the Chinese were taken by surprise, mobilising its men and materials of war to browbeat India but to no avail.
The decision to disengage in a mutually verifiable manner no doubt redounds to the credit of the government. As a result, the Opposition in general, and the Congress Party of Rahul Gandhi in particular, would no longer be able to force the government on the backfoot on the border issue. Yes, they still have the on-going stalemate on the farmers’ protest to hang on to. Such then is the state of the dispersed and depressed Opposition.