Galwan: Four Years Later


This article is to commemorate the indomitable spirit, bravery, and supreme sacrifice of the Indian Army soldiers in the icy heights of Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, that fateful night of 15 June 2020. Four years have passed in a flash, however, the spirited War Cry of the Indian Army soldiers heard on that horrific night will continue to haunt the memory of the Chinese soldiers, who will think a million times before taking on the Indian Army again.

15 June 2024 marks the fourth anniversary of Indian bravery and Chinese treachery and brutality, when the Chinese carried out an unprovoked attack on Indian soldiers with iron rods and studded clubs, resulting in deaths on both sides. India lost 20 soldiers, including the Commanding Officer of 16 BIHAR, Colonel B Santosh Babu.

The Chinese aggression had become increasingly visible in early 2020. In April 2020, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began amassing thousands of soldiers with war waging equipment along the LAC in Ladakh. This amassing of troops in violation of multiple agreements was done when India was under COVID lockdown. China attempted to unilaterally alter the status quo along the LAC. On the night of 05/06 May 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed at Pangong Tso in Ladakh. Another skirmish followed four days later at Naku La in Sikkim. Galwan was now becoming another flash point between the two nations. In early June 2020, amid rising tensions, Military Commanders of the two sides agreed to pull back to create a buffer zone at Galwan Valley.

On 14 June, Indian troops went to check if the PLA had indeed withdrawn. However, they found that the Chinese were very much present, with no signs of pulling back. The Indians were outnumbered and realizing their superior strength, the Chinese soldiers attacked. Notwithstanding their smaller numbers, the Indians were unrelenting and met the Chinese head on. The violence unleashed that night cast a long and dark shadow on bilateral relations, marking a significant deterioration in ties and affecting the strategic calculus of both nations. The Galwan clash marked the culmination of growing skirmishes between Indian and Chinese soldiers at the LAC in the preceding months.


To begin with, the territorial issue was underplayed by India. In Ladakh, what was rightfully ours was just ignored, as Aksai Chin, was considered as an uninhabitable high-altitude wasteland, of little value. The other disputed area was South of the McMahon Line, in Arunachal Pradesh. The McMahon Line was part of the 1914 Shimla Convention signed between British India and Tibet. China however, never recognized this agreement.

India was complacent and did not feel the need to assert its claims. On the outside, China maintained a friendly posture, thereby succeeding in hiding its dubious intentions. China annexed Tibet, but New Delhi failed to comprehend the implications. During the 1950s, China began to construct a 1,200 km road connecting Xinjiang and Western Tibet, of which 179 km ran through Aksai Chin. India did not know about its existence until 1957. China had made its move and India had been caught napping.

The 1962 War put an end to any chance of resolving the border in line with accepted international norms. To complicate matters, in 1963 Pakistan handed over the Shaksgam Valley to China, which was part of Gilgit Baltistan in PoK.

The longstanding unresolved border issue continues to simmer. Sometimes, it boils (Nathu la, Tulung La, Sumdrong Chu, Depsang, Doklam, Galwan) and then back to simmer. China is adamant and does not accept the alignment of the boundary between India and China which is based on well-established geographical principles, confirmed by treaties and agreements, as well as historical usage and practice, well-known for centuries to both sides.

Border Agreements

Both India and China have formally agreed that the boundary question is a complex issue and have committed to seeking a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution through dialogue and peaceful negotiations.

The 3488 km long Line of Actual Control LAC is neither delineated on the map nor demarcated on the ground and lies in one of the most inhospitable high-altitude terrains and icy cold climatic conditions. Therefore, to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas, the two countries have concluded several agreements and protocols.

Under these agreements, both sides agreed to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC without any effect to their respective positions on the alignment of the LAC. It was due to this that overall relations also saw considerable progress since 1988. Two important agreements were concluded in 1993 and 1996 which included a key element, that the two sides will keep their military forces in the areas along the LAC to a minimum level. These agreements also mandate that pending an ultimate solution to the boundary question, the two sides will strictly respect and observe the LAC. Furthermore, India and China also committed to clarification and confirmation of the LAC to reach a common understanding of the alignment.

Thus, in late 1990s and upto 2003, the two sides engaged in an exercise to clarify and confirm the LAC. However, thereafter, the Chinese side did not show willingness to pursue the exercise. As a result, there are some areas where the Chinese and Indian perceptions of LAC overlap. In these areas, as also with other sections of the border areas, the various agreements govern the manner in which troops of both sides should operate and deal with situations of face-offs to maintain peace and tranquility.

It is precisely this difference of perception that China has been continuously exploiting and carrying out salami slicing of Indian territory. The last one decade has been a decade of military confrontations between India and China, including Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, and Doklam in 2017. The confrontations were largely resolved at the ground level, till the incident at the Galwan happened in 2020. The unresolved LAC underscores the challenge in achieving lasting peace and stability.

Obviously, the LAC does not hold any sanctity for the Chinese. There have been so many treatise/agreements between India and China. Have these agreements helped or did they serve only to push the problem under the carpet temporarily? Is China buying time through these agreements, while India is abiding by them?

All violations to the agreements have been initiated by China. India has not once crossed the line or attacked. India has never had any extra territorial designs.

As per Jaydev Ranade, President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy (CCAS) the action was caused by “China’s interest in asserting its dominance as it felt challenged by India’s rapid rise.”

While Professor Srikanth Kondapalli, Dean of School of International Studies, and a Professor of China Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has stated that “the Chinese are punishing India for closer ties to the West but added that India too has failed to garner appropriate support from Western and other nations to counter China.”

China has settled all boundary disputes with Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Laos, Vietnam, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Only India and Bhutan border disputes remain to be resolved. Is this a mere coincidence? Or is there a message? Doesn’t China do everything in accordance with an agenda, a long-term plan?

The Galwan Incident

Since April 2020, India noticed buildup of troops and armaments by the Chinese in the border areas in Eastern Ladakh. In early May, the Chinese had taken action to hinder the normal, traditional patrolling pattern of Indian troops in the Galwan Valley area, which resulted in a face-off. Even as this situation was being addressed by the Commanders as per the provisions of bilateral agreements and protocols, in mid-May the Chinese side made several attempts to transgress the LAC in Kongka La, Gogra and North Bank of Pangong Lake. These attempts were detected early and consequently responded appropriately.

India made it clear to the Chinese side both through diplomatic and military channels that China was, by such actions, attempting to unilaterally alter the status quo. It was categorically conveyed that this was unacceptable.

Given the growing friction along the LAC, the Senior Commanders of the two sides in a meeting on 06 June 2020 agreed on a process of disengagement that involved reciprocal actions. Both sides also agreed to respect and abide by the LAC and not undertake any activity to alter the status quo.

However, in violation of this the Chinese side created a violent face off on June 15 June 2020 at Galwan. An Indian Army detachment of about 50 soldiers, led by Colonel Santosh Babu, Commanding Officer of 16 BIHAR, reached near Patrolling Point (PP) 14. The soldiers were unarmed, as part of the existing protocol. Their purpose was to confirm if the Chinese had indeed withdrawn from the location as per the de-escalation plan agreed upon between senior Indian Army and Chinese officers, on 06 June. However, the Indian detachment discovered that the Chinese were very much there. When the Chinese were confronted, they were adamant and refused to vacate their positions. It appeared that the Chinese were waiting for a chance to start a physical brawl and as it turned out were totally prepared for it.

What ensued was one of the most horrific and gruesome military encounters in modern times, fought with medieval age weapons. The hand to hand fighting between Indian and Chinese troops, broke out at around 1900 hours on 15 June 2020, in the Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh. Pushing and shoving led to hand-to-hand fighting that continued for several hours right in pitch dark conditions. With reinforcements arriving the clashes spread out from the PP 14 area to a narrow ridge overlooking the river. The Chinese attacked Indian soldiers with iron rods and nail-studded clubs. The ferocity of the Indians surprised the Chinese who seemingly lost their numerical superiority and were on the back foot.  Some soldiers, from both sides, fell into the river down below. Colonel Santosh Babu and 19 Indian soldiers lost their lives that night. There were possibly 40-45 casualties on the Chinese side, as reported by the international media.

Writing on the Wall

The path to the Sino-Indian War of 1962 was littered with skirmishes and patrol clashes. The construction of a highway through Aksai Chin showed Chinese intent. The recent incidents follow a distinctive pattern too. There has been infrastructural enhancement in Tibet and Aksai Chin. Earlier the Chinese only set up camps. Now they are building field fortifications, logistic installations, helipads etc. All this needs to be noted.

Instead of thinning troop deployment to reduce tensions, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has strengthened itself across the LAC, including the Eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim) and the Middle sector (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh).

Galwan was much more than just a border clash. It told the adversary that India will not accept nonsense. Galwan was a display of Indian resolve. The ramifications of Galwan were felt at the strategic level and exposed the Chinese threat amongst all like-minded countries.

Forewarned is forearmed. Be alert, be satark. The writing on the wall is quite clear, it says, all is not well.


Four years after the night of savagery, relations remain strained, and troops remain deployed in a tense standoff as the main issue regarding Chinese intrusions into territory under Indian control is yet to be resolved but also because the fallout of mutual suspicion is creating new cycles of tension.

Military and diplomatic talks at the Corps Commanders level have been going on over the past four years. The talks have led to disengaging of troops from some “friction points,” but mutual suspicions continue to run deep. These negotiations have yielded some results, such as disengagement at five friction points: the Pangong Tso’s North and South banks, PP 15 and 17A at the Gogra-Hot Springs area, and Galwan. However, the stand-offs in critical areas, including the Depsang Plains and Demchok in Eastern Ladakh, remain unresolved. China is unwilling to discuss these two areas, claiming that these are “legacy issues” as they predate April 2020 and therefore do not come under the ambit of the current talks.

On 16 June 2024, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui wrote in The Telegraph, that Intelligence inputs suggest the Chinese army is building its military infrastructure at a rapid pace in the Depsang Plains.

Further, the two armies have not reduced their troop presence at the LAC – which has been built up, even during the freezing winter months the deployment of heavy weaponry and equipment has also seen significant inductions in the region. In addition, land and air connectivity infrastructure is being improved along the entire LAC.

To quote Lieutenant General Rakesh Sharma (Retd), a former Corps Commander in Eastern Ladakh; “the Chinese now know that post Galwan they have to fight for each and every inch of land unlike the past when they would salami slice our territory.” He goes on to say “the border has changed from benign to active where both nations have deployed a considerable amount of manpower and equipment.”  The External Affairs Minister Mr S Jaishankar recently said “India responded by counter deployment of forces” and for four years now, forces have been deployed ahead of the normal base positions at Galwan. “This is a very abnormal deployment along the LAC. Given the tension between the two countries… As Indian citizens, none of us should disregard the security of the country…it is today a challenge”.

There is a huge trust deficit regarding China, due to the major standoffs on the LAC. Over the last two decades, with economic and military differential continuing to increase between India and China, it may become more aggressive and expansionist on both continental and maritime domains.

For India the lesson is clear that, till a resolution on the territorial dispute is reached we need to build on our hard power which is reflected not only in troop strength but also technology, capability and operational readiness backed by doctrines and resolve, we cannot afford to lower our vigil.


Maj Gen VK Singh, VSM was commissioned into The Scinde Horse in Dec 1983. The officer has commanded an Independent Recce Sqn in the desert sector, and has the distinction of being the first Armoured Corps Officer to command an Assam Rifles Battalion in Counter Insurgency Operations in Manipur and Nagaland, as well as the first General Cadre Officer to command a Strategic Forces Brigade. He then commanded 12 Infantry Division (RAPID) in Western Sector. The General is a fourth generation army officer.

Major General Jagatbir Singh was commissioned into 18 Cavalry in December 1981. During his 38 years of service in the Army he has held various command, staff and instructional appointments and served in varied terrains in the country. He has served in a United Nations Peace Keeping Mission as a Military Observer in Iraq and Kuwait.  He has been an instructor to Indian Military Academy and the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. He is  a prolific writer in defence & national security and adept at public speaking.

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