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India-China Tensions Stir Memories of 1962 War

Deadly clashes earlier this year have triggered fears that India is still not equipped to respond militarily to China.

When Indian and Chinese troops locked horns in deadly combat in the Galwan Valley, a disputed territory within the Himalayas, nations near and far were alarmed.

Small skirmishes across the 2,100-mile India-China border go unnoticed, but incidents and brinksmanship earlier this year raised fears of a full-scale war between the nuclear-armed Asian powers.

India and China fought a brief war 58 years ago that began in the same valley, in the Ladakh region. Back then, India did not possess nuclear weapons.

The countries began “disengagement” on July 2 in the wake of the May and June fighting, moving back into their respective territories. However, because “disengagement” did not mean “de-escalation,” or standing down, concerns remain.

 

During fighting on June 15, 20 Indian soldiers were reportedly killed in hand-to-hand combat. Media reports said that 43 Chinese soldiers were also killed in retaliatory actions by the Indians.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War exposed India’s military weaknesses, as did the most recent clashes, analysts said. They questioned whether China’s superior military capabilities had been responsible for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s subdued response to a military build-up along the border in recent months.

He also chose to rely on a “policy of disengagement” with China after the fighting in June, rather than up the ante.

In sharp contrast, when 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed in a bomb blast in Kashmir in February, Modi ordered a retaliatory air strike against Pakistan.

After the deaths of the Indian soldiers in June, Modi came under severe criticism including from the opposition Indian National Congress, which blamed the government for not giving any “satisfactory” response to China – meaning additional military action.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said that Modi had “surrendered” Indian territory to China and questioned the government’s policy of leaving soldiers unarmed along the frontier. The government responded by noting that, as part of a border code of conduct with China, only unarmed soldiers can carry out patrols there.

But leaders of Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party have spoken highly of India’s military preparedness. BJP leader Anil Gupta reiterated that India was prepared militarily.

“We are fully geared up to face any kind of Chinese aggression. We have given them a befitting reply,” he said.

Tashi Phunchok, a retired Indian army captain, relived his memories of the 1962 Sino-Indian War during the June clash. During that conflict, Phunchok, now 84, was pinned down with several other soldiers in a deep gorge in the Galwan Valley, before managing to climb out and take positions among the mountain peaks.

Some of his comrades were killed, and after a little more than a month of fighting, India suffered a humiliating defeat.

“Supplies were being moved on horses and manning the area during the winter would have been a difficult task if the war wouldn’t have ended,” Phunchok said.

Former Indian army personnel who served in the Ladakh region, however, said India’s defense capabilities have improved since the 1962 war.

“Our troops were not prepared and trained in mountain warfare. They even didn’t have the clothes and the equipment,” said Goverdhan Singh Jamwal, who was a general staff officer at the Indian Army Training Directorate in Delhi in 1962. “Now the war scenario is different. Our defense capabilities have greatly improved, and the troops have better training to engage in high-altitude war.”

Several hundred miles of border between India and China in the Himalayas is named the Line of Actual Control, but it is unmarked. The countries differ on where the line is located in several areas.

Border tensions have escalated this year in part because India moved to directly control the semi-autonomous region of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes Ladakh, a year ago. China viewed this as overreach.

India has also been strengthening relations with the United States just as tensions between Beijing and Washington have ratcheted up.

For elderly Indian veterans of the 1962 war such as Phunchok, the most recent skirmishes filled them with a sense of déjà vu from their own experiences: lightly armed soldiers, casualties and no resolution.

“We stood guard on the frontiers and didn’t allow the Chinese troops to win over the territory in Galwan sector in Ladakh, even as our company saw several soldiers killed during the war,” he said. “I was not able to visit my home in Ladakh for over a year …and the only way to send across information to my family was through letters.”

(Edited by Raksha Kumar and Joe Cochrane.)