The Galwan River in east Ladakh continues to be important, providing direct and convenient access to Shyok and areas beyond
Though just about 80 kilometres in length, the Galwan River in east Ladakh is of immense strategic importance for India. It was at the turn of the 19th century and during the early years of the last one that Ghulam Rasool Galwan, a young man, an adventurer and an explorer who was a frequent traveller to Tibet, along with a few traders, came in contact with Capt (later Col) Reginald 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 Russia’s rapid expansion towards Tibet rather than any other threat from China.
Capt Younghusband was specially chosen by the Viceroy to explore Tibet, gather intelligence and assess the possibility of any Russian expansion that could pose a threat to British interests in India. Ghulam Rasool remained attached with the British expeditions as a guide. In the later years, he started guiding other expeditions from France and Italy into Tibet, too. It is understood that in order to cross the Kongka La Pass from Shyok, he frequently used a river valley route. Though this is quite unusual, this small torrent of a river was later named after Ghulam Rasool Galwan as the Gallowan River
In order to better appreciate the current scenario, it would be useful to know a bit of contemporary history about this river. Events moved rapidly after the Chinese occupation of Tibet during 1950-51. That the quiet cold of the high Himalayas would get “noisier” and “hotter” was realised for the first time in 1957 with the discovery of the Aksai Chin road, built in record time by China on Indian territory. The presence of this road was not discovered by any of our patrols for there were none. However, the then Indian Ambassador in China had conveyed about this when he read Press reports about the building of this high altitude road in record time to be an “extraordinary feat.” This was just the beginning of the rapid deterioration in India’s relations with China. Subsequent events are all too well known to be recounted here.
The situation took a turn for the worst when a patrolling party of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was fired upon near Kongka La on October 21, 1959. Ever since then, in order to commemorate the sacrifice of the 11 men who were killed during this skirmish, this day is observed as the Police Commemoration Day. As this incident made the aggressive designs of the Chinese clearer, all checkposts in the area were taken over by the Army. In the meantime, frequent Chinese intrusions into our territory as also the building of roads started receiving attention. Post this, it was decided to station posts in the forward areas that had hitherto remained unpatrolled.
It was in response to this policy that on September 26, 1961, the then Deputy Director of Intelligence Bureau (IB), Shri Dave, sent a detailed note to the Ministry of Defence. It was recommended that “...We should reconnoitre the Galwan River valley and open posts as far as eastwards because this valley was connected with the Shyok valley through which River Shyok provided access to Indus and onwards to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It was further recommended that if the Chinese command the Galwan valley, it would give them easy access towards Skardu and India’s 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, usual differences of opinion erupted among the higher echelons of the administration. This delayed matters.
Finally, a platoon of 4/8 Gurkhas was moved from Hotsprings. After trekking for a month, it came to a point overlooking the Galwan River on July 5, 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. The Galwan River, being strategically important for the Chinese, their reaction was almost instantaneous. Their protest note of July 8, 1962, was followed up by a company strength of troops, which surrounded our Galwan post on July 10. Subsequently, more troops joined 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.
Among other things, the loudspeakers were exhorting the Gurkhas to side with Tibet and the 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.
But over the decades, the situation has undergone a vast change. Today, we are not only numerically stronger in the area but also have weaponry that would be more than a match for the Chinese. Accessibility to our border posts used to be a serious handicap. We also 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 a road from Dabruk to Shyok and then to the northernmost point of DBO. This road runs almost parallel to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and is of a very high strategic value. It also virtually acts as the lifeline for our border posts.
This road completely cuts off 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 the Galwan valley but today we have a road. At that time, the Chinese had reacted to the location of the 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 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 convenient access to Shyok and areas beyond. It is expected that as earlier and even now, the events around the 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 Senior Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)