New Delhi: The violent clash along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley on Monday night that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead has revived memories of a conflict between Chinese and Soviet forces over 50 years ago that led to the brutal killing of 31 Soviet border guards.
For old China watchers, there were several similarities between the two incidents – Chinese troops engaging in aggressive patrolling and intrusions along a disputed border, a large number of Chinese soldiers launching a brutal attack on an outnumbered adversary, and suggestions that Beijing wanted to cut a nuclear-armed opponent down to size.
The build-up of Indian and Chinese troops along the LAC led to what Indian officials described as “violent face-off” on Monday night, when Chinese troops sought to alter the status quo in Galwan Valley along the LAC.
At least 20 Indian soldiers, including the commanding officer of 16th battalion of Bihar Regiment Colonel Bikkumalla Santosh Babu (37), were killed, some brutally beaten to death by Chinese troops armed with rods and clubs wrapped in barbed wire.
On the morning of March 2, 1969, Soviet border guards saw a Chinese patrol marching across the frozen Ussuri river, which formed the boundary between China and the erstwhile Soviet Union, toward a disputed riverine island called Zhenbao by the Chinese and Damansky by the Russians.
A 2010 study of the incident by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), the US-government-funded research centre for the US Navy, said: “From the Soviet border outpost located on the bank of the Ussuri, a group of border guards, led by outpost commander Senior Lieutenant Ivan Strelnikov, was dispatched to the island to meet the advancing Chinese contingent.
“At the time, such episodes were common: Soviet or Chinese border guards would patrol one of the many disputed islands, and guards from the other country would meet them on the island, claim that they were trespassing on their sovereign territory, and demand they leave. Up to this point, these confrontations had typically involved little more than shouting, fistfights, and the occasional use of clubs, sticks, and fire hoses.
“On this morning, however, when Soviet border guards were within range, the Chinese opened fire with automatic weapons, killing Senior Lieutenant Strelnikov and six others at the outset.”
After almost two hours of fighting, 32 Soviet border guards were dead, including one killed in Chinese captivity. The fighting continued sporadically till March 22, 1969, and a total of 58 Soviet troops – 49 border guards and nine soldiers –- were killed and 94 more were injured.
Scholar Dmitri Ryabushkin of Tavrida National University, Ukraine, who compiled an account of the incident after studying Soviet documents, wrote that what military medical experts found after examining the bodies was shocking – “nineteen of the 31 men [killed on March 2, 1969] had only been wounded during the engagement, but were then summarily dispatched by the Chinese by rifle-butt blows to the head, by a point-blank shot into the brain, or most commonly, by stabbing/bayoneting in the head, chest, and neck area”.
“The fact that only one prisoner…was taken and no first aid offered suggests that the Chinese soldiers were following direct orders to kill without mercy all Russians who fell into their hands,” Ryabushkin wrote.
A diplomat from a country that was part of the Soviet Union, who declined to be named, said: “There were reports that most of the Soviet troops were repeatedly stabbed and killed.”
As with the violent clash in Ladakh on Monday night, the Chinese side never offered any clarity on its own casualties.
The CAN study of 2010 concluded there were “a still-unknown number of Chinese casualties”. Ryabushkin wrote: “As to Chinese losses, information about them is very discrepant. Chinese officials hide the true figures…”
Though the Ussuri river was designated a boundary line between China and the Soviet Union by the Treaty of Peking of 1860, ownership of small, uninhabited, and strategically irrelevant riverine islands became a point of contention as tensions between the two sides grew in the 1960s.
Some analysts have concluded that China was possibly trying to cut India down to size for rapidly building up infrastructure along the LAC and for playing a greater role in efforts to reshape the world order, the CNA study concluded China’s decision to attack the Soviet border forces was influenced Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s efforts to teach the Soviet Union a “bitter lesson”.
“For China, the attack on Zhenbao was designed to deter future Soviet provocations. The sharp downturn in Sino-Soviet relations, a significant Soviet military build-up in the border region…all convinced Mao of the need to forcibly demonstrate China’s courage, resolve, and strength in the face of what was perceived to be a looming Soviet threat. By initiating a limited attack, flexing some muscle, and killing a few Soviets, China sought to forcibly demonstrate that it could not be bullied…,” the study concluded.
Indian experts believe the government should have done more to avert clashes such as the one on Monday night as the Chinese build-up had begun months ago and there was enough time to prepare a long-term strategy.
Former Indian Navy chief Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash said: “This was going on for almost two months and there were already photographs of Indian troops tied up. There has to be a red line somewhere, as Indian soldiers were beaten to death.”
He added, “The troops should have been given permission to use their weapons to defend themselves. There has to be a graded response to what’s happened. There was enough time for people at the top to create a long-term strategy after assessing what could be China’s likely course of action and the options available to India.”