Details emerging from the debriefing of Indian soldiers involved in the brutal Galwan Valley skirmish shine fresh light on the heroism of outnumbered Indian soldiers who fought off numerically superior rivals, string together the tactics of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and provide a clearer picture of how the clash unfolded on June 15, people familiar with developments said on Sunday.
The seven-hour deadly conflict — involving three staggered clashes — along the undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh saw the Indian soldiers put up a fierce fight against Chinese troops who had been pulled out of another sector and freshly deployed on the disputed border to carry out the premeditated attack at a time when a de-escalation plan was being implemented, said one of the persons cited above, asking not to be identified.
There was no official word from the army on the new details of the clash.
The Galwan Valley skirmish resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers, including a commanding officer, and the Chinese army possibly suffered more than twice the casualties, as stated by Union minister General VK Singh (retd) in a TV interview on Saturday.
It was the first deadly conflict between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the LAC in 45 years.
The first wave of fighting erupted at around 6pm after Colonel B Santosh Babu, the commanding officer of the 16 Bihar, led a squad of around 30 soldiers to a location near Patrol Point 14 (PP14) to verify if the Chinese soldiers had removed some of the installations they had erected in the area, after an understanding was reached at a meeting between senior military commanders on June 6, said the first person cited above.
The squad, however, found that the tents and an observation post were still intact and the Chinese soldiers had not retreated. The number of Chinese troops at this location was around 20, including their commanding officer, he said.
The Indian squad confronted the Chinese troops but the latter refused to remove their installations and vacate the area, leading to a scuffle in which Colonel Babu was pushed around, the person said. The manhandling of the colonel enraged the Indian troops who thrashed the Chinese soldiers and forced them to retreat towards PP14, a second person said.
Babu and his men burnt down the Chinese tents and dismantled the observation post that was within the Indian side of the LAC.
“The Indian squad found something was amiss as the Chinese colonel and the troops they had confronted minutes ago were totally unfamiliar. Rival soldiers patrolling the same areas can recognise each other. These were new faces. The Chinese PLA had sent in soldiers from some other area to carry out a pre-planned assault that would soon unfold,” he said.
Soldiers familiar with each other are less likely to engage in a brutal conflict like the one that would play out in the dark a couple of hours later, he said. “The wily tactics of the Chinese were at play and Babu sensed it right away,” he added.
The Indian squad called in for reinforcements and decided to patrol up to PP14 to check what the Chinese troops were up to and if they had pulled back to their side of the LAC. Now in command of around 80 soldiers, including a few officers, Babu led the squad right up to PP14 where the Chinese soldiers had gathered in large numbers, taken vantage positions and armed themselves with stones, iron rods and nail-studded clubs, the first person said.
The Indian squad would soon face off with around 250 rival soldiers who were fully prepared for a dirty fight that night.
“The second round of fighting began here. Babu and two others were fatally hit by Chinese soldiers and they fell into the river. The Chinese may not have known that they had struck the Indian commanding officer,” he said.
However, the moment the Indian soldiers realised that Babu had fallen, they fought against the Chinese soldiers with all their might and killed 16 of them and inflicted life-threatening injuries on scores of others in a fearsome counter attack, the person said. Commanding officers in the army are regarded “father figures” who command immense respect and loyalty. India suffered all of its 20 casualties in the second of fighting.
A lull in fighting allowed both sides to call for reinforcements before the soldiers engaged in the final wave of fighting that involved around 600 soldiers on both sides, with the Chinese PLA deploying more than 400 troops in that skirmish, the person said.
The bodies of the troops who perished in the skirmish were exchanged the next day. The Indian soldiers were carrying weapons and ammunition but did not open fire as they were following border agreements between the two countries, the government said last week, following a political controversy over whether the Indian soldiers were carrying weapons that could have been used to defend themselves.
Apart from 16 Bihar, the Indian soldiers involved in the clash were from 3 Punjab, 3 Medium Regiment and 81 Field Regiment.