From 1958 To 2022, The Story Of China's Occupation Of Khurnak And Its Bridge Over Pangong
China, the official history of the 1962 war says, used its base at Khurnak Fort, which it occupied in June 1958, to establish its camp at Spanggur, not very far from the peaks of the Kailash Range taken by India in August 2020, in the middle of a tense standoff along the Line of Actual Control.
Over 60 years later, the two areas are being linked with a bridge.
China is building a second bridge over Pangong Lake, next to the one it started constructing sometime around November last year and completed in April this year. The under-construction bridge appears considerably wider than the first one in the satellite imagery that is currently available.
The bridges are coming up near the Khurnak Fort (or the alluvial fan of a stream known as Changlung Lungpa; also called Ote Plain), at one of the narrowest points of the 134-km-long Pangong Lake.
China occupied the area around Khurnak Fort in June 1958, India's official history of the war of 1962 records. In 1962, China expanded its control to the Sirijap Complex, further west of the Khurnak Fort. During the war, India had posts at Sirijap while the Chinese had a base at Khurnak. The 'Fingers' area, occupied by Chinese forces in May 2020, leading to the standoff that continues at some places in eastern Ladakh, is further west of the Sirijap Complex.
Large bases of the People's Liberation Army have existed at Khurnak and Sirijap since the 1960s. The map below shows the approximate location of Khurnak Fort, Sirijap Complex and the Fingers area.
China is building the bridge very close to what New Delhi considers to be the border between India and Tibet. However, the place is around 25 kilometres from where India perceives the Line of Actual Control to be.
2020 Stand-Off At Pangong
Spurs that jut out from the Chang Chenmo range north of Pangong Lake are called 'fingers' by the Indian Army (labelled 1 to 8 on the map above).
India controls the area up to the western side of Finger 4, which is also called Foxhole Point or Foxhole Ridge, and claims that the LAC runs east of Finger 8. China claims that the LAC is close to Finger 2.
India has a camp — the Dhan Singh Thapa post — between Finger 2 and 3. China has a base near the Sirijap Complex, the area just east of Finger 8, where Major Dhan Singh Thapa of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles fiercely fought the Chinese, was taken prisoner of war and miraculously returned home seven months later. The Indian post is named in his honour.
In May 2020, the Chinese occupied the area between Finger 8 and the eastern side of Finger 4, blocking India's access.
The limited agreement on disengagement reached in February 2021 led to China dismantling its camps between Finger 8 and Finger 4.
While the Chinese moved back to their base east of Finger 8, Indian troops, who had taken up new positions in response to China's occupation, were redeployed to the Dhan Singh Thapa Post, just west of Finger 3. A no-patrol zone now exists between Finger 3 and Finger 8.
China's Occupation Of Khurnak Fort
India had started receiving reports of Chinese presence around the Khurnak Fort area as early as October 1957.
In a statement in Lok Sabha on 28 August 1959, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said the government had received reports of a Chinese detachment visiting Khurnak Fort, which was "within Indian territory", between "October 1957 and February 1958".
The record of communication between India and China on the question of the boundary shows that India registered its first protest against Chinese presence at Khurnak Fort in July 1958.
In a note verbale handed to the Chinese counsellor in India on 2 July 1958, the Ministry of External Affairs had noted that "troops of the Government of the People's Republic of China crossed into Indian territory and visited the Khurnak Fort (Longitude 79°- 00 E and latitude 33°-47'N) which lies within the Indian frontiers of the Ladakh region... and occupied it."
"It will be recalled that a conference of the representatives of the Kashmir State of India and the Tibet Region of China was held in 1924 regarding the boundary in this area...even during these discussions, the jurisdiction of India over the Khurnak Fort was never disputed. Discussions took place in regard to the international boundary which was further north of the Fort. No claim has ever been affirmed that the Fort formed part of the Tibet," India said.
The note also mentioned that the Indian government "propose to send a reconnaissance party to the area with clear instructions that the party will remain within the Indian side of frontier."
Over a year later, on 30 July 1959, the government of India told China that it had learned about the presence of "a Chinese armed detachment in Indian territory in the region of Western Pangong Lake".
The note was handed over to the Counsellor of China in India just two days after an Indian police party heading towards the Khurnak Fort area for reconnaissance was apprehended by a Chinese armed detachment.
"On the 28th July at about 10-45A.M. (IST) an Indian Police Party engaged on reconnaissance within Indian territory came across a Chinese armed detachment of nearly 25 persons... The Indian Patrol party of six persons had still not reported to its headquarters by the evening of 29th July, 1959, and there is reason to believe that the Indian party has been taken into custody by the Chinese detachment," the note read.
In its response on 6 August 1959, China accused the Indian police party of intruding into its territory and noted that the Indian armed personnel had to be "detained and disarmed" because they did not heed to the warnings of the "Chinese frontier guard patrolling on Chinese soil west on Digra and south of Pangong Tso in the western part of the Tibet region of China."
However, the patrol party had been apprehended by the Chinese about 10 miles within Indian territory. As Nehru said in his statement in Lok Sabha later that month, it was released weeks later, on 18 August.
In the annexure to a 26 September 1959 letter from Nehru to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who had visited India in November 1956 and January 1957, the government again "protested against the Chinese occupation of Khurnak", noting that the area was "about 1.5 miles within the Indian frontier".
"This fort has from time immemorial been within Ladakh, and has never been the subject of dispute. Even at a conference on certain pasture grounds in this area, attended by the representatives of Tibet and Kashmir and a British Commissioner in 1924, the jurisdiction of India over this fort was not disputed. However, there has been no reply as yet to the note of the Government of India," the Indian note reiterated.
In the same note, India also brought up the issue of China's occupation of Spanggur Lake, located just south of Pangong Tso. China had established its a camp at Spanggur sometime before July 1959.
"Though the Government of India would have been justified in dislodging this Chinese camp, they have refrained from doing so in the hope that the Chinese would themselves withdraw," India had told China.
India did not dislodge the Chinese camp near Spanggur Lake in 1959. But it was here that it responded to the People's Liberation Army's provocations at Pangong and Galwan in 2020. During the intervening night of 29 and 30 August 2020, just weeks after the clashes in the Galwan Valley, the Indian Army, aided by troops from the Special Frontier Force, took control of the heights of the Kailash Range overlooking Chinese camps at Spanggur.
This action, which caught China off guard in the middle of a tense military standoff, may have triggered the need for a bridge over Pangong Lake.
China, the official history of the 1962 war says, used its base at Khurnak Fort to establish its camp at Spanggur and other areas on the south bank of Pangong Tso. Over 60 years later, the two areas are being linked with a bridge.
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