by Praveen Swami

Five thousand five hundred metres above sea level, the Indian Air Force Mi4 medium-lift helicopter fought its way over the great ice sheets shrouding Ladakh, its single radial engine rendered asthmatic by altitudes its Soviet designers had never designed it to perform. Evading bursts of small-arms fire sent their way by People’s Liberation Army patrols perched along the Galwan river, the pilots slowly made their way to the Indian Army’s eastern-most outpost in Ladakh.

There was, the pilots would report that morning of 21 October, 1962, no sign of life: Galwan Post, India’s most remote outpost in Ladakh, had been obliterated.

Fifty-eight years on, PLA and Indian Army troops have again faced off at exactly that same place, where 68 soldiers of the 5th Battalion of the Jat Regiment—with no artillery or air support; short of ammunition, fuel and food—held off almost an entire PLA Battalion, knowing there was no hope of either reinforcement or escape.

Galwan Post wasn’t just a military tragedy: its loss, India’s official history of the 1962 war records “demolished the assumptions that were the foundation of the Forward Policy”, the government’s strategy on China. Those misjudgements and missteps are now relevant as never before.

Exactly three years, to the date, before the battle of Galwan Post, Deputy Superintendent of Police Karan Singh had headed out into the Chang Chengmo river valley, running parallel to the Galwan to its south, searching for a group of three officers who had gone missing on patrol. His patrol was ambushed by the PLA near the Kongka pass; nine Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel were killed. Beijing’s message was clear: it was drawing what it claimed to be the border with India in blood.

The Kongka clash of 1959 was, in fact, the beginning of the war of 1962. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s suggestions that both sides withdraw their posts and territories behind the boundary-lines they had exchanged in 1956 went nowhere.

Few military cards were held by India. The newly independent country, yet to begin significant industrialisation or even to recover from the desolation of Partition, simply did not have the resources for a full-scale military response. Large parts of the military, moreover, were committed to protecting the border with Pakistan.

Led by Intelligence Bureau chief BN Mullick, India’s security establishment crafted a response: the so-called Forward Policy. The army would set up small outposts to assert India’s claims. Even though the army was in no position to sustain these small deployments, Mullick and the army leadership—in the face of plenty of in-house scepticism—were confident China would not risk war to evict them.

In the summer of 1962, a PLA patrol through the Galwan valley discovered the Indian Army had beaten them to it: some 30 troops of the 1st Battalion of the 8 Gurkha Regiment had already set up a Forward Post. Even as a diplomatic protest note made its way to New Delhi, some 350 PLA troops surrounded the post on 10 June, closing into just 15 metres from its periphery two days later. Galwan was cut off.

Now, a strange contest began. PLA troops set up loudspeakers, calling on the Gurkhas to pull back, proclaiming China’s peaceful intent, and arguing that the troops, being Nepali nationals, ought not to involve themselves in this war.

The army made a last effort to resupply the Galwan outpost late that month, sending out a Yak convoy with rations, fuel and ammunition from Patrol Base. The PLA, though, turned back the convoy just half a kilometre from Galwan Post. Indian troops, with orders not to fire unless fired upon, had no choice but to turn back.

Galwan Post continued to be supplied by Mi4 helicopters, but, as the weather deteriorated supplies soon began running short. PLA positions, linked to their rear by Akai Chin highway across the Tibetan plateau, had no such problems.

The Generals, though, looked at the standoff with satisfaction: to them, India’s official war history records, it appeared that “shown firmness, the Chinese yielded”.

Early on the morning of 20 October, PLA troops attacked across the entire Ladakh sector—the full fury of an entire battalion descending on Galwan Post. The story of what happened was assembled only after the end of the war when Indian prisoners of war were returned. Faced with intense artillery and mortar bombardment which levelled their ramshackle shelters inside minutes, the 68 troops of 5 Jat had fought to the last bullet, losing 36 of their number before the last positions were overrun late that evening.

Further back, too, posts demonstrated bitter resistance against overwhelming force, with Nala Post holding out for three days before receiving orders to retreat. In spite of heroic resistance, though, the Indian Army was only able to fight one proper organised battle—at Chushul—and the PLA was soon at the 1960 lines claimed by Beijing as the border.

The push to set up posts, Sinha and Athale noted, was won by China—just as Western Command had predicted, only to find itself overruled by Army Headquarters. Indian strength ended up being scattered across the entire boundary: “in trying to defend every inch, the Indians ended up losing much more than they need have”.

Facile comparisons between 1962 and 2020 are certain to mislead—but one feature of both situations is of particular significance. The 1962 war, as historian Bertil Lintner has shown, was at its core a political performance, not the outcome of any Geo-Strategic imperative. Indeed, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union’s premier, had, attacked China at a 1959 meeting for failing to resolve the border issue, declassified documents show, predicting would serve only to push India towards the Western bloc.

Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, hoped the nationalist display would divert attention from his dismal performance at home, and consolidate his hold over the PLA and the party. Like Mao Zedong in 1962, President Xi Jinping—his legitimacy increasingly in question as China’s economy slows—likely sees border crisis as a political tool. For the most part, they are low-risk, high-yield opportunities to profit from nationalism: few countries, after all, are likely to see a gain in escalating a crisis with China.

The evidence suggests Prime Minister Narendra Modi—whose government has run the lowest military budgets, as a percentage of GDP, since the 1962 war—understands this. The prime minister has shown India won’t concede territory but has also avoided allowing the periodic crisis on India’s eastern borders to escalate.

But, as prime minister Nehru discovered in the build-up to 1962, nationalism has a life of its own. The ill-conceived Forward Policy, after all, was born of his need to show muscular resolve in the face of intense criticism in, and outside, Parliament.

Every India-China crisis since 2013 has played to much the same script: a small local stand-off; a build-up of forces; a negotiated restoration of the status quo. Each crisis, though, has engendered a growing tide of anti-China nationalist sentiment that constrains the prime minister’s options. President Xi, enfeebled by a slowing economy, might, in turn, find it that much more difficult to be seen as backing down.

The next crisis, then, might have consequences leaders in both Beijing and New Delhi have neither anticipated nor desire. Prime Minister Modi and India’s military leadership ought to be thinking, with the utmost care, about where to go from here: even the slightest misstep, the path to the Galwan Post tragedy shows us, leads straight to the abyss.