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The Strategic River

Dr K K Paul | This article was first published in The Statesman on Friday, 12 June 2020.

Though just about eighty kilometers in length, Galwan river in the eastern part of Ladakh has been of immense strategic importance for India. It was at the turn of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the last one that a certain Ghulam Rasool Galwan, a young man, an adventurer and an explorer who was a frequent traveller to Tibet along with the traders had come in contact with Capt. (later Col.) Younghusband.

Those were the days when the great game was at its peak. At that time the British Viceroy in India was far more worried about the rapid Russian expansion towards Tibet, rather than any threat from China. Capt. Younghusband had been especially chosen by the Viceroy to explore Tibet, gather intelligence and assess the possibility of any Russian expansion which could pose a threat to British interests in India.

Ghulam Rasool had remained attached with the British expeditions as a guide. In the later years he also guided other expeditions from France and Italy into Tibet. It is understood that in order to cross Kongka La Pass from Shyok, he frequently used a river valley route. Though it is quite unusual, but this small torrent of a river was later named after Ghulam RasoolGalwan as the River Galwan.

In order to have a better appreciation of the current scenario, it would be useful to go into a bit of contemporary history focused on the Galwan River. Events had moved rapidly after the Chinese occupation of Tibet during 1950-51. That the quiet cold of the high Himalayas would be getting noisier and hotter was realized for the first time in 1957. It was the discovery of the Aksai Chin road, built in a record time by China on our territory.

The presence of this road was not discovered by any of our patrols, for there were none, but was conveyed by our Ambassador in China, who had seen the press reports claiming building of this high altitude road in a record time to be an extraordinary feat. This was the beginning of rapid deterioration in our relations with China. Subsequent events are too well known to be recounted here.

The situation took a turn for the worst when our patrolling party of the CRPF was fired upon near Kongka La on 21 October 1959. Ever since then in order to commemorate the sacrifice of these eleven men, this day has been observed as the Police Commemoration Day. As this incident made the aggressive designs of the Chinese very clear, post this incident all the check posts in the area were taken over by the Army. In the meantime frequent Chinese intrusions into our territory, besides road building had been coming to notice.

It was then decided to station posts in the forward areas which had hitherto remaining unpatrolled. It was in response to this policy that on 26 September 1961, the then Deputy Director of IB, Mr Dave, sent a detailed note to the Ministry of Defence. It was recommended that “ We should reconnoiter the Galwan river valley and open posts as far eastwards as possible, because this valley was connected with Shyok valley through which River Shyok provided access to Indus and onwards to Pak-occupied Kashmir.

The Strategic River

It was further recommended that if the Chinese commanded the Galwan valley, it would give them easy access towards Skardu and our routes to Murgo, Daulat Beg Oldi and Panamic would be cut. Further the unoccupied area between Pangong and Spanggur lakes was recommended to be covered by new posts.” At the time of implementation of these recommendations, there were the usual differences of opinion amongst the higher echelons of administration, which delayed matters.

Finally a platoon of 4/8 Gurkhas was moved from Hotsprings, who after trekking for a month came to a point overlooking the Galwan river on 5 July 1962. Our post was established by this platoon close to the Chinese post of Samzungling in such a manner that it cut off their supply route. Not only that, it also briefly detained a small Chinese patrol. Galwan river also being strategically important for the Chinese, their reaction was almost instantaneous.

Their protest note of 8 July 1962 was followed up by a company strength of troops which surrounded our Galwan post on 10 July. This was followed by more troops and ultimately we had a situation where our Galwan post of one platoon was completely surrounded by a battalion of Chinese, with loudspeakers blaring all the time. Amongst other things the loudspeakers were exhorting the Gurkhas to side with Tibet and Chinese.

Then came the question of servicing our Galwan post because all land links had got severed. Ultimately this had to be done by air. Later an attempt was made to strengthen this post with 5 Jat. When the hostilities broke out in October 1962, this Galwan post was the first one to be attacked in the western sector and was overwhelmed. Over the decades, the situation has undergone a vast change.

Today we are not only numerically stronger in the area, but also have weaponry which would be more than a match for the Chinese. Accessibility to our border posts used to be a serious handicap. Today we have airfields at DBO and Chushul, which are capable of handling the heaviest of loads. Besides minor airfields have come up at Nyoma and Fukche. The most important point is the construction of the road from Dabruk to Shyok and then to the northernmost point of DBO.

This road runs almost parallel to the LAC and is of a very high strategic value besides virtually acting as the lifeline for our border posts. This road cuts off completely the future plans, if any, from the Chinese side to intrude westwards through the Galwan river valley. This situation had been foreseen way back in 1961, when a forward post was located in Galwan valley but today we have a road.

The Chinese had at that time reacted to the location of Galwan post, it is understood that now they are reacting to this road which more or less blocks their westward passage through the River Galwan valley. The geography of the area has not changed since 1962 but the high Himalayas are no longer impregnable.

The Galwan river, which is located very centrally, connects to Shyok on the road under construction. Lying in between the Chushul airport and DBO, it continues to be of great strategic importance providing direct and a convenient access to Shyok and areas beyond. It is expected that as earlier and even now, the events around Galwan River are going to be the main focus of the ongoing talks between India and China.

(The writer is a former Governor and a Sr. Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)

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