The Indian Army is dealing with the flashpoint at Ladakh's Pangong Tso as a 'semi-permanent faceoff' that it expects to stretch out for weeks, if not months. In first details shared with India Today of how the Army leadership is viewing the brewing situation on the shores of the massive lake, top Army officers told India Today that the Indian Army had mobilised troops in the region more than adequately for any eventuality in a sector where the Chinese Army has built up more visibly, and in greater numbers, than any other.
Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane, who spent two days in Ladakh this week, briefed Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on the situation along the 832-kilometre frontier at eastern Ladakh with Chinese forces. While in Ladakh, he met with troops from units deployed in the Pangong area, including men involved in a violent clash with Chinese soldiers on the night of May 5, an incident seen as the starting point of the current standoff that has now run for 51 days and counting.
While the Army is very much seeing Chinese actions in Pangong sector as the most visible attempt to change the status quo in eastern Ladakh, sources say a parallel is being drawn internally with the Doklam standoff, which lasted over 70 days.
The Indian Army expects the Chinese to return but is being realistic about a substantial de-escalation happening anytime soon. India Today can, however, confirm that since the June 22 meeting between Corps Commanders at Chushul-Moldo 20 km south of the Finger 4 faceoff point, there has been a 'small but visible' reduction in the number of Chinese troops from the ridgeline positions. The Army is clear that it will not be treating such thinning out as milestones, but steps in an overarching pledge that has been made in the June 22 meeting.
Satellite imagery and analysis over the last 10 days has established not just Chinese tentage and camps, but also pillboxes -- permanent bunkers for weapons -- and defensive berms along the ridgeline of Finger 4. Army sources say they've also noticed sangars -- breast-high defensive walls -- come in various parts of the ridgeline. In this video interview, India Today spoke to the analyst who first published satellite images capturing the nature of the Chinese deployment at Pangong Tso's Finger 4.
Imagery analysis this week has also uncovered Chinese support positions in areas behind the ridgeline, as well as on the south bank of the lake.
Army sources on the ground have also clarified in response to a perception that the Indian Army hasn't mobilised adequately in response to the Chinese at Pangong Tso, and has therefore lost territorial access in an area it earlier patrolled. The reality, sources say, is that the Army has mobilised adequately to 'meet any eventuality', including near the Finger 4 ridgeline.
This is even though the area doesn't see heavy Indian Army deployments as part of the normal border management posture. The mobilisations have been tailored, Army sources said, to ensure forces can respond adequately no matter which direction China takes on the ladder of escalation.
Not only has the ITBP camp two kilometres west of the ridgeline been beefed up, but since Chinese camps began appearing in this area from May 17-18, the Indian Army has set up a new position, what it calls a 'face-off presence' just west of the ridgeline. Chinese ridgeline positions now look directly down on the Indian positions from a distance of less than half a kilometre.
A reason for concern has also been that things in Pangong Tso are already volatile. Apart from the troop brawl on May 5-6 which resulted in several injuries on both sides, soldiers brawled again on May 14 and then again on May 31. The latter was captured on a video that went viral on social media. Efforts have been on to keep the peace in whats has become a proper eyeball-to-eyeball situation.
The Army's assessment is also clear that its mirror mobilisations and deployments are currently enough to cater to any contingency, including a localised fighting skirmish, which at least two former Army chiefs -- General VP Malik and General Deepak Kapoor -- see as a possibility given China's relentless build-up until the token thinning out from June 22.
A September 2019 video that emerged on social media yesterday was confirmed to be from the shores of Pangong Tso between Finger 4-8. The video, capturing a Chinese patrol being challenged and stopped by an Indian Army party, is said to have happened just weeks after India's abrogation of Article 370 in J&K and the creation of two new union territories, including Ladakh.
While patrolling collisions have been par for the course for years, the video clearly showed Chinese attempts to overwhelm, using larger troop numbers than normal, convoys of utility vehicles, and the most notable part -- patrol boats sailing in formation in an unmistakable intimidatory posture.
While India Today has reported on Chinese mobilisations in Depsang and DBO sectors, in reality, the Army is seeing developments there as separate from the current standoff confined to Pangong-Hot Springs-Galwan. The Depsang-DBO developments, Army sources say, is being seen as an extension of an ongoing years-long effort by China to mobilise in the area, one that has thus far been thwarted by preemptive mobilisations by the Indian Army.
India Today has also learnt that patrol incursions continue by both sides in the area, though no China positions have emerged on the Indian side of the LAC. The area remains sensitive, with the Indian Air Force already establishing an air bridge from Leh to DBO capable of injecting large numbers of troops at short notice if necessary.