Soldiers fell to their deaths as India and China's troops fought with rocks

India shocked by Himalayan border clash in which unarmed troops fought in the dark

The hand-to-hand combat lasted hours, on steep, jagged terrain, with iron bars, rocks and fists. Neither side carried guns. Most of the soldiers killed in the worst fighting between India and China in 60 years lost their footing or were knocked from the narrow Himalayan ridge, plunging to their deaths.

India has reacted with shock and caution to the loss of at least 20 soldiers on its disputed border with China, with images of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, burned in Indian cities.

In his first public comments on the dispute, prime minister Narendra Modi led a two-minute silence for the killed soldiers and said India would “defend every stone, every inch of its territory.”

“I would like to assure the nation that the sacrifice of our jawans [troops] will not be in vain,” said Modi, speaking at a televised meeting of India’s chief ministers. “For us, the unity and sovereignty of the country is the most important.”

A day after reports of the “violent face-off” in the western Himalayas emerged, Indian news outlets began naming some of the dead and a clearer picture started to build of what transpired on Monday night on the high, steep ridge lines above the fast-flowing Galwan River.

A satellite image taken on 16 June showing Chinese military personnel in the Galwan Valley.
A satellite image taken on 16 June showing Chinese military personnel in the Galwan Valley. Photograph: 2020 Planet Labs/AFP/Getty Images

The killings were sparked when a patrol of Indian soldiers encountered Chinese troops in a steep section of the mountainous region they believed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had retreated from, in line with a 6 June disengagement agreement, sources in Delhi said. The Indian government have alleged that what followed was a “premeditated” ambush on their troops by PLA forces.

The two armies jostled and hand-to-hand fighting broke out – neither side armed in line with decades of tradition supposed to ward off the possibility of escalation between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Then an Indian commanding officer was pushed from the narrow ridge and fell to his death in the gorge below.

Reinforcements from the Indian side were summoned from a post about 2 miles away and eventually about 600 men were fighting with stones, iron rods and other makeshift weapons in near-total darkness for up to six hours, Indian government sources said, with most deaths on both sides occurring from soldiers falling or being knocked from mountain terrain.

At least four more Indian soldiers were said to be in critical condition. Indian media outlets cited intelligence sources claiming up to 50 Chinese soldiers may have been killed in the melee but did not present the evidence. Chinese CCTV’s widely watched evening news broadcast made no mention of the border confrontation on Tuesday.

Following a phonecall on Wednesday night between India’s minister for external affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, the two sides issued statements agreeing to de-escalation and resolving the conflict “in a responsible manner”.

However, there were also significant discrepancies between the Indian and Chinese version of events. India accused the Chinese troops of violating the disengagement agreement and carrying out a “pre-meditated and planned action” against Indian troops that was “directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties.”

Wang Yi claimed India was solely responsible for the conflict, saying its forces had on three occasions illegally crossed over into the Chinese side of the LAC and demanded Indian punish their forces responsible.

As photos and details of some of the Indian soldiers who died were circulated on Tuesday there were small demonstrations including in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state and in the Gujarati city Ahmedabad, where protesters burned pictures of Xi Jinping.

China India map

Former Indian army officers argued in fiery television debates that China had unilaterally changed both the status quo on the border and the rules of engagement. “Somebody has to answer for 20 lives,” said retired air vice-marshal Manmohan Bahadur.

But whereas violence in recent years linked to Pakistan has led to aggressive rhetoric and promises of swift retaliation from Indian leaders, Monday’s violence has so far drawn a much more muted response including from Modi.

Analysts said the caution reflected both shock at the scale of the killing and the complexity of the relationship between the two Asian giants. “There is the larger picture of the asymmetries of power,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “China’s GDP is $14tn, India’s is less than $3tn. China spends nearly $220bn on the military but India spends $52bn.”

He said Delhi would be considering whether to ask commanders on the ground to sort out the conflict with their Chinese counterparts, but would also be under pressure to escalate.

The United Nations, EU and US government have expressed concern over the violence and urged restraint.

Beijing has refused to confirm any deaths on its side. However, the editor-in-chief of the state-run the Global Times said he understood there had been Chinese casualties, but the PLA wanted to avoid “stoking public mood” by comparing numbers.

Both parties have been working towards de-escalation in recent weeks but the loss of life makes the situation even more complicated and precarious.

Chinese state media have reported the PLA is conducting joint military exercises “aimed at the destruction of key hostile hubs in a high-elevation mountainous region”. The PLA Tibet Military Command conducted live fire drills with heavy artillery on Tuesday, with reports linking the PLA’s preparedness for high-elevation combat to the clashes with India.


Michael Safi , Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
India accuses China of preparing attack on border troops
Delhi says Chinese dammed a river and lay in wait for clash in which 20 Indians died

Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Lily Kuo in Beijing

19, Jun, 2020 @4:55 PM

Article image
India says 20 soldiers killed on disputed Himalayan border with China
First loss of life in area in at least 45 years comes amid renewed dispute

Michael Safi and Hannah Ellis-Petersen

16, Jun, 2020 @11:20 PM

Article image
'Our identity has been robbed': life in Kashmir after a year of crisis
On 5 August 2019, India revoked the Muslim-majority territory’s special semi-autonomous status and began a devastating crackdown

Hannah Ellis-Petersen and a reporter in Srinagar

05, Aug, 2020 @12:00 AM

Article image
Chinese and Indian troops face off in Bhutan border dispute
Regional rivalry escalates as forces mobilise near borderland that China claims but India says is in Bhutan

Michael Safi in Delhi

06, Jul, 2017 @2:12 AM

Article image
Severe heatwave engulfs Asia causing deaths and forcing schools to close
Extreme temperatures described as ‘worst April heatwave in Asian history’ as records threatened in India, China, Thailand and Laos

Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok and Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi

19, Apr, 2023 @7:42 AM

Article image
Explainer: what is the deadly India-China border dispute about?
At least 20 soldiers have died in fighting along the disputed Himalayan border, the first fatal clash between the nations since 1975

Helen Davidson and Ben Doherty

17, Jun, 2020 @2:55 AM

Article image
Villagers help Indian troops face Chinese forces in Himalayas
Both sides prepare for winter with little hope of diplomatic outcome to border dispute

Hannah Ellis-Petersen and Aakash Hassan

20, Sep, 2020 @2:46 PM

Article image
Global report: India and Indonesia announce record daily infection figures
China sets no growth target for first time in decades; Madrid and Barcelona lockdowns to ease

Jon Henley

22, May, 2020 @6:10 PM

Article image
Why India overtaking China as most populous country is more than symbolic
Moment hints at possible limits to unrelenting rise of China and raises questions about ability of India to reap demographic dividend

Julian Borger in Washington

14, Nov, 2022 @6:30 AM

Article image
China and Saudi Arabia boycott G20 meeting held by India in Kashmir
Indian presidency of group becomes mired in controversy as tourism session hosted in disputed territory

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

22, May, 2023 @11:53 AM