Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen Y K Joshi says in an interview to The Indian Express that getting the Chinese to withdraw behind the Indian claim line at Finger 8 is a “huge success” for India.
Can you explain the specifics of the process of disengagement agreed upon between Indian Army and PLA in Eastern Ladakh. How much of the disengagement has taken place so far at the two agreed upon points – on Northern & Southern Banks of Pangong Tso? How much time will the disengagement take?
The disengagement comprises four steps with detailed timelines. Each step is to be accompanied by continuous monitoring and verification.
Step 1 of disengagement involves Armour and Mechanised units disengaging and moving back beyong the designated lines. Step 2 and 3 includes move of Infantry from North and South Banks and Step 4 has disengagement from Kailash Range. Step 2 is nearing completion.
The progress so far has been satisfactory and PLA has shown sincerity of purpose. Over 200 tanks and Artillery pieces have been moved back by PLA. This activity has been verified through satellite images and Photo Recce Missions of Air Force. It can be seen from the vantage points that PLA has started removing the shelters, dismantling the fortifications and helipads. The jetty at Finger 5 has been moved out and the related infrastructure removed. It has been agreed upon that all the structures that were created post April will be removed and they are seen adhering to this commitment.
After these four steps are completed and confirmed to each other through Flag Meetings, another round of Corps Commander level meeting will take place within 48 hours which will set the tone for the next phase of disengagement. It is here that the resolution of the issues at the balance friction points will be decided.
How far back has PLA withdrawn behind the lines? And how far have we moved away? What will be the residual force level ?
The agreement envisages PLA moving back to the lines along its known permanent camps that existed before April 2020. Say, for instance, in case of North Bank, PLA has to move east behind Finger 8.
So far the PLA has moved back from LAC to the [Chinese] Western highway which is around 100 km in depth. In a graduated manner, PLA formations are expected to move back to their peace time locations which are 400 – 1000 km from LAC. In turn, we too are honouring the disengagement agreement reached between Indian Army and PLA as also the commitments made during the 9th Corps Commanders level talks in terms of corresponding move back of equipment and troops.
As far as our residual force level post disengagement is concerned, this will be based on the review of our defence architecture in the Northern Theatre. Let me assure you that we will have adequate force levels in Eastern Ladakh to guard against any eventuality.
What is the verification mechanism?
The stage wise schedule of activities has been prepared. At the start of the day, a flag meeting is held to coordinate the day’s activities by PLA as well as Indian Army. During the day, disengagement activities are monitored from the vantage points where we have our cameras. We keep UAVs in the air. A dedicated support in terms of satellite images and photo recce missions of Air Force are available for verification of activities in depth areas. At the end of the day, hot line messages are exchanged to confirm that each side has done its part. A review of the implementation of disengagement plan is also carried out during the next day’s flag meeting and contentious issues, if any are raised and discussed. It is only once all the issues are resolved that we move to the next stage. So far the disengagement has been smooth and satisfactory.
For the first time in a faceoff with the PLA at LAC in any sector, the agreement has been put in writing, ratified by higher headquarters and then put into action. Every day twice we are verifying every action of disengagement and confirming during the Flag Meetings. Hence, it is a very deliberate process that is being adopted, leaving no space for doubts or non-adherence.
In the Northern Bank, a buffer zone has been created between Finger 4 and 8. Indian Army cannot patrol this area nor PLA. There are concerns that India has ceded land/patrolling rights from Finger 4 to 8, which is where our claim line lies. How do you explain this creation of buffer zone? What have the Chinese given up on the North Bank for the creation of this buffer zone?
The situation in April 2020 was that Indian Army was occupying Dhan Singh Thapa Post as its last Post at Finger 3 and PLA’s first post on its own side was East of Finger 8. PLA used to patrol till Finger 4. As per our perception, the LAC ran along Finger 8 whereas Chinese perception of LAC was till Finger 4. Post-April 2020, PLA occupied areas till Finger 4, constructed dug outs, Sangarhs, helipads, pitched tents and created other structures.
In the current understanding, both the sides have gone back to April 2020 scenario in which our last post remains at Dhan Singh Thapa Post and PLA goes back east of Finger 8. Both sides have accepted not to patrol the area between Finger 4 and 8, which is the area of differing perception. Some people are trying to create a misperception that by accepting this no patrolling area, we have lost out to PLA. The fact is that it is huge success for us. Firstly, PLA is moving back beyond our claim line that is Finger 8. Secondly, this agreement denies them the advantage of patrolling till Finger 4. In fact PLA will not be carrying out any activity, military or otherwise in the areas claimed by us. Thirdly, they will be restoring the entire land form within our claim line and dismantling all the structures that were created post April 2020. Hence, the realities have to be understood in the correct perspective.
At one point in time PLA was not accepting to vacate this area between Finger 4 and Finger 8, but once the tables were turned on August 29/30, it was forced to negotiate as per our terms.
What is the plan for vacating the heights on the Southern Bank which our troops captured last August? The Defence Minister said in Parliament that withdrawal in the South Bank will be similar in nature to the one in North Bank. Can you tell us the specific arrangement?
The disengagement at the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso will adopt similar mechanics as at the North Bank. First of all the armour, artillery and heavy equipment will move back. This will be followed by infantry. Last of it will be the disengagement from Rechin La and Rezang La complex on the Kailash Range. This part of the disengagement will be implemented in step 4 of the current phase of disengagement. It has been verified that PLA has moved the heavy equipment, armour and Artillery to the areas along Western Highway which is approximately 100 km from the flash points along LAC. Our troops will withdraw to our permanent camp locations in Eastern Ladakh. We are currently at the third step of disengagement of which movements, monitoring and verification is in progress. Once all the four steps are completed, within 48 hours, the 10th round of Corps Commander level talks will take place wherein the modalities for remaining friction points will be discussed. It needs to be understood that disengagement at most of the remaining friction points had taken place earlier and it was at the areas of the present disengagement process that troops were deployed close to each other.
Is vacating the heights, which the Defence Minister said are strategically important points and helped us maintain the edge, a good idea for what we have got in return on the Northern Bank ?
As is known, PLA was occupying areas upto Finger 4 and the heights dominating Finger 4 till 29/30 August. Five rounds of talks had happened and engagements at other levels, PLA was not agreeing to withdraw from North Bank. A quid pro quo action was executed by us on the night of 29/30 August by which we occupied the most dominating features of Rechin La- Rezang La complex on the Kailash Range, thus dominating upto Moldo garrison and areas well in depth. In a simultaneous action, we also occupied the heights dominating PLA positions along Finger 4. We were able to place tanks at Rechin La and Rezang La which was unthinkable before. This turned the tables on the PLA and brought them on the negotiating tables. PLA was still hoping that the Indian Army would relent and they will be able to retain the areas on North Bank. Within next three Corps Commanders level talks, the realisation dawned on them that nothing less than status quo ante April 2020 would be acceptable to us. This explains the advantage achieved by a well planned, rehearsed and executed operation. There was a total surprise. I give the entire credit to the junior leaders who led and conducted this operation creating the leverage for the negotiations and finally PLA accepting to retract from its positions on all friction points and hopefully demobilizing back to permanent peace locations. Hence, the purpose behind occupying heights along Kailash Range will be achieved. Restoration of status quo ante April 2020 in these areas means that PLA as well as Indian troops revert back to the positions as in April 2020.
Should we have held on to the heights on the Southern Bank to bargain a withdrawal from the other friction points ?
The disengagement plan, all along, is to be carried out in a phased manner. Once phase – I of disengagement is complete, a Corps Commander’s level meeting is scheduled within 48 hours to discuss the modalities of disengagement at other friction points. What needs to be understood is that Kailash Range was occupied with the purpose to push the negotiations to disengagement. Having achieved the purpose of making PLA retract from North Bank on our conditions, there was no point in extending this advantage to perpetuity. Disengagement from Kailash Range is part of the whole and not an isolated activity. Sequencing of disengagement was meant to ensure that areas where troops are in close proximity are disengaged first. It is in this light that disengagement from Kailash Range was planned at Step 4 of Phase 1.
How do we know that Chinese will not be back in Finger 4 to 8 areas as easily as they have departed? How are you going to make sure that they do not return in April?
The very premise of disengagement was based on the commitment that PLA will not occupy these locations again. After agreeing to disengage, I do not foresee PLA going back on its commitment. However, should there be a situation contrary to this belief, we will be in a position to respond to it in an adequate and proportionate manner. We have our plans ready, the force levels, Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance set up and above all the will to thwart any such attempt.
Ever since the face off in May 2020, Indian Army developed infrastructure at a very large scale. From roads to billeting and logistics, we have created conditions for speedy mobilization and sustenance of large force level. Today we have approximately 90,000 troops in Eastern Ladakh to counter any misadventures as carried out by PLA in April last year. Hence, we are in a position to counter any contingency that may get created. Depending upon the actions of PLA, that is disengagement followed by de-escalation, we will be taking decisions about what force levels to be maintained. Let me assure you that Indian Army has never let down the nation and we will do everything possible to maintain the sanctity and sovereignty of our motherland.
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