3 separate brawls, 'outsider' Chinese troops & more: Most detailed account of the brutal June 15 Galwan battle
Plenty has been written so far about the clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh's Galwan Valley. But India Today brings you the most detailed account of the brutal June 15 Galwan battle.
Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a violent face-off with Chinese troops in Galwan Valley.
Three separate brawls divided by time and space. Chinese troops who aren't normally deployed at Patrol Point 14. And, a young Indian Army team that took a decision to cross the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to square things up with the Chinese Army. The contours of the June 15 bloodletting have become cleared.
Plenty has been written so far about the clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh's Galwan Valley. But contradictory claims, and gaps in the narrative have so far left the story bereft of cohesiveness. Several questions have remained unanswered, with individual aspects lending themselves to speculation and guesswork. Now with a series of conversations with Army personnel in the Galwan Valley, Thangtse and Leh, India Today TV pieces together the most detailed account so far of how things played out.
The context is well known. Ten days prior, Lieutenant
General-level talks had taken place and disengagement between both sides had
begun at Patrol Point 14, since both had mobilised very close to the Line of
A Chinese observation post, which had been set up at the vertex of the bend in the Galwan River was proven, during talks, to be on the Indian side of the LAC, and an agreement had been reached to remove it. A few days after talks the post was dismantled by the Chinese. Commanding Officer of the 16 Bihar infantry battalion controlling the area Colonel B Santosh Babu even held talks with a counterpart Chinese officer on the day after the Chinese dismantled the camp. But on June 14, the camp unexpectedly re-emerged overnight.
At around 5pm on June 15, while the sun was still very much up, Colonel Babu decided to personally lead a team to the camp. Having spoken just a few days prior with the other side, the Commanding Officer is said to have wondered whether there had been a mistake. While young officers and jawans were raring to remove the Chinese post themselves, Colonel Babu, known to be a highly sober, cool-headed officer who had in a previous stint also served as a company commander in the area, decided to personally go.
In normal course, a Company Commander (Major rank) would probably have been sent to check. But Colonel Babu decided not to leave it to 'youngsters' in the unit. It is important to remember here that tempers were not up.
The young officers and jawans were simply motivated by the prospect of a task in a narrow river valley that has seen nearly no tactical disputes of any kind -- and where troops on either side have actually been quite friendly.
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Col Santosh Babu, Commanding Officer of the 16 Bihar infantry battalion. (File photo)
At 7pm, Colonel Babu along with a team of about 35 men, including two Majors, proceeded on foot to the post. The mood in the team was not one of belligerence, but rather of inquiry. When they reached the Chinese camp, the first thing the Indian team noticed was that the Chinese troops didn't seem familiar -- they weren't the PLA troops normally deployed in the area.
The men of 16 Bihar had built familiarity with the Chinese unit, and had expected to run into troops and officers they already knew. The fresh faces was the first surprise. It has been assessed during a debrief that the 'new' Chinese troops at the offending post were from a pool freshly diverted from a PLA exercise in Tibet in the second half of May.
The men of 16 Bihar had received word at the time about the
arrival of the 'new' PLA troops, but it was clear they were restricted to the
'depth' areas deep on their side of the LAC.
These 'new' Chinese troops were immediately belligerent once the Indian team arrived. When Colonel Babu opened the conversation, asking why the post had been re-erected, a Chinese soldier stepped up and pushed the Indian Colonel backwards hard, with expletives in the Chinese language.
In an Army unit, as several voices have since articulated, seeing your Commanding Officer disrespected and assaulted thus is equivalent to seeing your parents physically abused. The reaction was instant. The Indian team pounced on the Chinese. The fight strictly was a proper fist-fight with no melee weapons of any kind. This was the first brawl and ended about 30 minutes later with injuries on both sides, but the Indian team prevailing.
They rounded off the sparring by smashing and then burning the Chinese post to ashes. The pushing of their Commanding Officer had already crossed a very dangerous red line.
Once this was done, Colonel Babu, earlier an instructor at the National Defence Academy, is said to have figured that the presence of these 'new' Chinese troops and the totally unexpected 'first punch' by a young Chinese soldier pointed to something bigger possibly afoot. Therefore, he sent the injured men back to the Indian post and asked them to send back more men. Tempers were understandably high at this time, but Colonel Babu is said to have still calmed his men.
The 'new' Chinese troops who had been overpowered, were forcibly taken by Colonel Babu back across the LAC. The Indian team not only wanted to deposit the encroachers back on their side, but also inspect whether there was more coming.
The events of the previous few hours had set tactical alarm bells ringing and didn't seem like a stray occurrence. It is also possible that they witnessed some movement on the Chinese side. Either way, the crossing of the Indian team into the Chinese side would spark the second phase of the fight a full hour later.
It was in this second brawl that most of the casualties would be inflicted.
"The boys were angry and aggressive. You can imagine how much they wanted to teach a lesson to the aggressors," an Army officer deployed near the Shyok-Galwan confluence a few kilometres from the brawl point told India Today TV.
It was dark by this time, and visibility had plummeted. What Colonel Babu suspected was correct. More Chinese troops, of the 'new' kind, were waiting in positions both on the banks of the Galwan as well as in positions up on a ridge to the right. Almost as soon as they arrived, large stones began to land.
At about 9pm, Colonel Babu was struck on the head by a large
stone, and he fell into the Galwan River. The assessment is that it may not
have been a targeted attack on the Colonel, but in the flurry, he was struck.
This second brawl lasted nearly 45 minutes, and it is during this fearsome exchange that the bodies piled up. A crucial aspect of brawl No. 2 is that the fighting spread into several different pockets across the LAC. While some have imagined it to be one big crowd of men fighting each other like a mob, the brawl actually separated into different groups, with nearly 300 men fighting each other. When the fighting stopped, several bodies of both Indian and Chinese troops were in the river, including the Indian Commanding Officer.
With energy fully spent by nearly an hour of vicious hand-to-hand fighting, including the use of metal spiked clubs by the Chinese and barbed-wire wrapped rods, the two sides disengaged and things fell quiet. Things quietened down for an hour till about 11pm giving troops on both sides time to recover bodies.
Colonel Babu's body and those of some of the other jawans were carried back to the Indian side, while the rest of the Indian team remained on the Chinese side taking stock of the situation. It had been brutally established that their Commanding Officer's suspicions had been proven correct. And with him killed in front of them, things were at an emotional peak.
During the recovery of bodies, and amidst the groan of injured personnel in the darkness, the Indian side heard the unmistakable hum of a quadcopter drone, something infantrymen are very attuned to in today's battlefield. This was an immediate trigger for what would lead to the third brawl. The drone was slowly moving through the valley, possibly using night vision or infrared cameras to map the damage and mount another assault on survivors.
Backup requested arrived in large numbers, including Ghatak
platoons from both the 16 Bihar as well as 3 Punjab Regiment. Every infantry
battalion has Ghatak platoons that lead attacks and function as 'shock troops'.
As suspected, the Chinese side had done the same. While the Indian reinforcements arrived, the Indian team stepped deeper into the Chinese side, wanting to ensure they didn't let large numbers of aggressive Chinese troops get close to the LAC.
The third phase of the brawl began shortly after 11pm and would continue with sporadic intensity till well past midnight fully on the Chinese side. Troop groups would continue fighting along the ridgelines moving up towards the right, with the intensity of the fisticuffs leading to many men on both sides plunging into the narrow Galwan river, some injuring themselves on rocks while falling. Earthworks by the Chinese on the banks of the Galwan and adjoining flanks of earth is said to have played a part in this.
With energy completely spent after five hours of fighting since the incident began, things finally fell silent. Indian and Chinese combat medics arrived to move their dead and injured. The remains of soldiers on both sides were exchanged in the darkness. The physical separation of the fighting groups finally led to 10 Indian men -- 2 Majors, 2 Captains and 6 jawans -- being held back the Chinese side even after the disengagement. And it is here that the sequence begins to blur.
Former Army chief and current minister General VK Singh has come
in record in media interviews to suggest that the Chinese casualties were more
than double the 20 that the Indian Army suffered. India Today TV has learnt
that the tactical debrief on the ground -- a kind of First Information Report
on the incident -- records 16 Chinese Army bodies handed back to the Chinese
side after brawl No.3, including 5 officers. The debrief report does not
specify if the Chinese Commanding Officer of the unit was among these five.
The 16 were Chinese Army men confirmed dead on the battlefield. It is speculated that many more of the injured Chinese -- as with the 17 Indian men who perished the following day -- may have died of their injuries later, though there remains no categorical confirmation of this, nor is there likely to be.
General Singh has also hinted at an exchange of men after the incident. This too has been borne out from ground reports, with top Army sources clarifying to India Today TV that it wasn't a 'prisoner exchange'.
In the chaotic melee that was brawl No.3, the disengagement in the darkness led to several injured men from both sides remaining with the other.
By dawn on June 16, the Indian troops withdrew back across the LAC, after judging that many were still missing. Men on the ground say this wasn't a 'captivity' or 'prisoner' situation, since these were all injured men. When the sun rose, the situation was handed over to Major Generals on both sides, and talks hinged on the modalities of the exchange.
It is testament to the shock of the incident still sinking in that
it would take a further three days for the troops on both sides to be sent back
to their respective sides.
"It was not a captivity situation. We were providing medical treatment to their men. And they were treating our men," a top Army official tells India Today TV.
The tactical debrief report also records the 16 Bihar's assessment that the Chinese troops involved in the brawl were not the regular unit deployed on the frontlines of the LAC and involved in multiple rounds of talks previously. The assessment is that this was by design, possibly a use of more 'aggressive', less situationally acclimatised troops to spearhead an aggressive action at the Galwan Valley, with a possible larger intent to capture Indian crossover points, culverts and bridges on the Galwan on the track leading up to the Shyok River to the west.
16 Bihar has been no stranger to the Chinese. During the 2017 Doklam standoff, the unit was in reserve in depth areas, even conducing reconnaissance operations for forward deployed troops.
In the Galwan Valley, the unit had been fully acclimatised for a couple of years and had developed a well-rounded rapport with men on the Chinese side. The shock of the Chinese aggression and sequence of events therefore went beyond the immediate tactical comprehension of troops on the ground.
The loss of Colonel Babu was a blow to the unit. A unit officer cleared for promotion previously has now taken over as Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar. The situation is markedly calmer now at Patrol Poing 14, with the disengagement process at Galwan hopefully expected to make progress.