What really happened on the night of June 15 in the disputed Aksai Chin-Ladakh region in the western Himalayas?
So far, all we know about the worst bloodletting between India and China in 60 years of border tensions is what Indian media reports. They are mostly unverified, nationalistic, one-sided accounts citing anonymous sources, but will have to suffice in the absence of more official details about what went down in one of the most desolate places on the planet.
The showdown at 14,000 feet came after military commanders on the ground had agreed that both sides would pull their troops away to create a buffer zone above the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers.
All hell broke loose when an Indian colonel took a group of soldiers back to the scene to ensure the People’s Liberation Army was complying with its part of the deal. Both sides blamed each other for starting the high-altitude brawl that ensued and escalated into a massive free-for-all involving possibly hundreds of men.
Quoting army officers and the testimony of survivors, Indian media reports paint a picture of astonishing savagery and back-to-basics brutality on a battlefield of jagged, mountainous terrain with knife-edge ridges.
The hand-to-hand fighting lasted for up to eight hours, in pitch darkness, and while no shots were fired under an old treaty banning guns in this zone, the battle was fought with rocks and clubs. PLA soldiers were allegedly armed with rods and batons wrapped in barbed wire or studded with nails.
“Even unarmed men who fled into the hillsides were hunted down and killed,” an unnamed officer was quoted as saying. “The dead include men who jumped into the Galwan River in a desperate attempt to escape.”
When it was all over, at least 20 Indian soldiers were dead and many more severely injured. Those who were captured were handed over later.
And what of Chinese casualties? It would be impossible for PLA soldiers to emerge unscathed from close-quarters combat on such a large scale, and Chinese officials have indicated as much, but without releasing any figures. The general message is that China doesn’t want to inflame sentiment further by going into numbers and engaging in competitive tallying of deaths.
Face-offs and skirmishes are nothing new in the two nuclear-armed neighbours’ decades-long squabbling over the so-called Line of Actual Control, their poorly drawn, ill-defined border stretching for more than 3,440km. But the horrors of the night between June 15 and 16 have taken matters to a whole new level.
Gone are the days of affectionate bond-building, like in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted President Xi Jinping in his home state of Gujarat, the two leaders sitting together on a swing and chatting. According to Indian media reports, Modi did not greet Xi on his birthday – which just happened to fall on that same, fateful day – for the first time in five years.
And yet, both governments have effectively stepped back from the brink while ramping up the rhetoric about defending their territorial integrity at all costs. The two countries cannot afford a war, and they are acutely aware of it, mired as they are in a relationship of enormous geopolitical complexity and economic interdependence.
And it’s just as well, because if the unthinkable were to happen, it may well reduce everyone to fighting the next war after it with sticks and stones, just like they did in Galwan.