India said on Thursday that soldiers involved in the June 15 Galwan Valley clash with Chinese troops were carrying weapons and ammunition but did not open fire as they were following border agreements between the two countries -- a remark that came in response to a question from Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on whether the Indian soldiers were sent in “unarmed”.
Agreements between India and China bar using firearms during face-offs, two senior army officers said, as a political controversy erupted over whether the Indian soldiers were carrying weapons that could have been used to defend themselves.
“Let us get the facts straight. All troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving post. Those at Galwan on 15 June did so. Long-standing practice (as per 1996 & 2005 agreements) not to use firearms during faceoffs,” external affairs minister S Jaishankar tweeted, responding to a post by Gandhi.
“How dare China kill our UNARMED soldiers? Why were our soldiers sent UNARMED to martyrdom?” Gandhi tweeted earlier in the day.
Jaishankar and Gandhi were both reacting to an HT interview with Lt Gen (retired) HS Panag, who said “soldiers do not shoot arms to avoid escalation of the situation”. Panag also said: “The Chinese, by design, came with clubs, with knuckle dusters.”
Border agreements from 1996 and 2005 between India and China disallow the use of firearms during face-offs. Article 6 of the agreement on confidence-building measures in the military field along the Line of Actual Control, signed by India and China in November 1996, states that both sides will not open fire or “conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometers from the Line of Actual Control”.
HT reported on Wednesday and Thursday that forward troops patrolling the disputed border either do not carry guns, or, if they do, keep them slung on their backs with the magazines in pouches and not clipped on. “Things can spiral out of control even if one bullet is fired,” one of the officers quoted above said on condition of anonymity.
Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in their first deadly conflict in at least 45 years at Patrol Point 14 in Galwan Valley, resulting in 20 deaths on the Indian side, including that of a commanding officer, and possibly 43 casualties including injuries on the Chinese side during the seven-hour brutal brawl that also involved hand-to-hand fighting.
Rival soldiers exchanged blows, threw stones at each other and Chinese troops even attacked the Indians with rods and nail-studded clubs during the brawl that went on for over seven hours.
But some experts were sceptical. The inherent purpose of carrying a weapon is to put it to use in case of an attack like the one in Galwan Valley, said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General BS Jaswal (retd). “Why do soldiers carry weapons? There are restrictions on using firearms during a face-off that involves banner drills or soldiers pushing each other around. Galwan was different. It was attack on our soldiers,” he said.
A former military chief, who also served as the chairman, chiefs of staff committee, suggested it was unlikely for armed soldiers not to fire their rifles on opposing troops while their commanding officer and comrades were being beaten to death. “No soldier will exercise that kind of restraint. The rules of engagement and agreements usually go to hell in such a scenario,” he said.
Gandhi, in a brief 18-second video, said that “China committed a grave crime by killing unarmed India soldiers”. He added, “I want to ask, who sent these brave soldiers unarmed in the face of danger? Who is responsible?”
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Sambit Patra hit back at the former Congress president, asking him to “read, understand and then ask questions”.
“In November 1996, under the (HD) Deve Gowda-led government India signed an agreement with China that neither side shall open fire, cause biodegradation or cause explosions within 2km of LAC. It was stipulated that weapons shall not be used by either side,” Patra said.
The Indian Army is the “most professional” force that sticks to agreements, Patra added.