The Indian Army said on Monday that twenty of its soldiers were killed in a clash with Chinese troops along the disputed border on Monday, making them the first fatalities on what is known as the Line of Actual Control between the nuclear-armed neighbours in more than 40 years. The Indian Army also claimed that there had been casualties on both sides, and that these took place just as both countries were attempt to de-escalate tensions that had built up over the last month and a half.
Here is what we know:
What is the background to the incident?
Over the last month and a half, there have been a number of Chinese incursions into India along the Line of Actual Control – the disputed border between the two countries, which is neither defined nor demarcated.
These incidents have taken place on both the Eastern and Western sections of the LAC. But the focus has mostly been on incidents in Eastern Ladakh, where troops from both countries clashed. China is said to be holding 60 square kilometres of territory where until recently Indian soldiers patrolled.
India has not acknowledged this capture of territory, though Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has admitted that Chinese troops presented themselves in “large numbers”.
Read our explainer on these incidents, from a month ago, here.
A meeting was held between military leaders of both armies on June 6, one of several rounds of talks, during which both sides agreed to carry out “limited military disengagement”.
What happened, according to India?
The initial statement from Indian authorities came from the army on June 16, with the civilian leadership yet to say anything on the matter.
“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Military officials of both sides meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”
“Yesterday night” here refers to the night of Monday, June 15.
It later amended this statement to say that casualties took place on “both sides”, but without giving any details about deaths or injuries on the Chinese side.
Unidentified Indian Army officials have told the media that there was no firing of shots on the Line of Actual Control, where unarmed scuffles between the two sides are not uncommon, though there have been no deaths in more than 40 years.
What happened according to China?
The Chinese Foreign Ministry put out a statement blaming India for the incident, though it did not mention any casualties.
“Our border troops had a high-level meeting and reached important consensus on easing the border situation but astonishingly on June 15 the Indian troops seriously violated our consensus and twice crossed the border line for illegal activities and provoked and attacked Chinese personnel, which led to serious physical conflict between the two sides and China has lodged strong protest and representation with the Indian side.”
When asked about the casualties, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “I am not aware of the information you provided. Recently to ease the situation on the India, China border, the two countries have been in close communication through military and diplomatic channels on June 6.”
Zhao added, “China demands the Indian side restrict front line soldiers and avoid unilateral moves that will complicate the border situation.”
Later in the day, a Chinese military spokesperson also put out a statement, as reported by government publication Global Times, saying that the Indian side had “broken promises” and “purposely launched provocative attacks, leading to severe clashes and casualties”.
“China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region, and the Indian border defense troops are inconsistent with their words and seriously violated the agreements both countries have reached, the consensus made during the army commander-level talks and harmed the relations of the two militaries and the feelings of the two countries’ peoples, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theater Command spokesperson colonel Zhang Shuili on Tuesday.
India should stop all provocative actions, meet the Chinese side halfway and come back to the right path of solving disputes through talks, Zhang said.”
It did not include any details of these casualties.
What else do we know about the incident?
Because of the remoteness of the terrain and the militarised nature of the incident, any reports about what happened is inevitably sourced from authorities – military or civilian – from either side. This makes it hard to independently gauge exactly what took place.
With that in mind, a few Indian reporters have cited military officials to provide information about what took place on Monday.
Nitin Gokhale, an analyst who runs StratNewsGlobal, described the situation based on his sources where Indian troops were escorting Chinese soldiers back to the previously understood marker of the Line of Actual Control, when the latter suddenly turned around and attacked the Indians.
This led to a pitched battle, with metal rods and clubs and no shots being fired. In the melee, which continued for a considerable amount of time, several were hurt and went missing.
The Wire’s Devirupa Mitra offered a slightly different version of the incident, based on sources.
“Indian military sources told The Wire that while there is no clarity, the Indian side may have crossed over as part of the disengagement talks. During the talks, there must have been a quarrel and it escalated, and there was ‘pushing and shoving’. ‘The area where they met is very treacherous and mountainous. In the pushing and shoving, the three seem to have slipped. We don’t know if it was deliberate or it happened during the pushing and shoving,’ sources said. The sources added that while there were casualties on the Chinese side as well, details were not clear.”
Several defence analysts and reporters have tweeted out saying that the casualty count for the Indian side is likely to go up.
A reporter for the London-based Telegraph, meanwhile, reported that a source told him a large number of Indian soldiers were still missing after the incident.
On the Chinese side, a senior journalist who works for Global Times and an analyst have said that there have been casualties to Chinese troops as well, although neither put forward a specific number.
What has happened since?
The Indian political leadership has yet to issue any statement on either the incident or the casualties, though Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami tweeted out condolences to the family of a jawan from his state who died in the incident.
The media reported that there were two review meetings involving Defence Minister Rajanth Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and Army Chief General MM Navarane in the day, with reporters expecting a statement from the authorities to be made at some point.
8:20 pm: Late on Tuesday evening, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs also put out a statement on the incident.
“India and China have been discussing through military and diplomatic channels the de-escalation of the situation in the border area in Eastern Ladakh. Senior Commanders had a productive meeting on 6th June 2020 and agreed on a process for such de-escalation. Subsequently, ground commanders had a series of meetings to implement the consensus reached at a higher level.
While it was our expectation that this would unfold smoothly, the Chinese side departed from the consensus to respect the Line of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley.
On the late-evening and night of 15th June, 2020 a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there. Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the higher level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side.
Given its responsible approach to border management, India is very clear that all its activities are always within the Indian side of the LAC. We expect the same of the Chinese side.
We remain firmly convinced of the need for the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue. At the same time, we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
An official statement from the Indian Army said that as many as 20 soldiers had been killed as a result of the recent incidents along the disputed border, although it claimed that 17 of them succumbed to the weather rather than being killed at the hands of the Chinese Army.
“Indian and Chinese troops have disengaged at the Galwan area where they had earlier clashed on the night of 15/16 June 2020.
17 Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty at the stand off location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries, taking the total that were killed in action to 20.
Indian Army is firmly committed to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation.”
Meanwhile, news service ANI tweeted out, based on unnamed sources, that the Chinese side “suffered 43 casualties including dead and seriously injured”, though no official Indian or Chinese statement has confirmed this claim.