That is the name historians gave to the adversary who routed both Napoleon and Hitler in Russia, more than a century apart from each other. As the Indian and Chinese armies deployed at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) eyeball each other, sometimes separated by just hundreds of metres, they are up against the same formidable foe, in a way that ambitious military campaigners of previous centuries might not have imagined. Eastern Ladakh is no Russia. Here, soldiers are deployed at heights over 15,000 feet and above.
“The first problem faced by a soldier in Ladakh is survival, fighting the enemy comes next… The peculiar geography has a major impact on the fighting and its outcome” — these are the opening sentences of the ‘Fighting in Ladakh’ chapter of India’s official History of The Conflict with China, 1962, that was published more than three decades later.
At this time of the year, the maximum temperature in the forward areas of the LAC is as low as 3 degrees Celsius; the minimum temperature can plunge between -10 and -15 degrees Celsius. December and January will see -30 to -40 degrees, and snow. Added to this is the wind chill, as the official 1962 history highlighted: “Wind generally starts around mid-day and continues throughout thereafter”, and the combined effect “can cause cold injuries similar to burn injuries”… “Touching metal with bare hands is hazardous”.
With no breakthrough yet on a disengagement proposal from China at the eighth round of Corps Commanders’ talks, and no word on the next round, around 50,000 Indian troops are now set for the long haul, guarding the heights and mirroring the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army. Effectively, the Army is in winter deployment at the LAC, though that term has not been officially used.
Caught in a stalemate
With no further word from China after the initial reports of a disengagement proposal from them in the eighth round of talks, the situation is back to a stalemate. With neither side willing to budge, around 1 lakh soldiers from both sides are going to spend the winter in eastern Ladakh’s peaks. But will it become an annual feature will depend on the diplomatic ability of both countries to resolve the nearly seven-month-long standoff.
Even now, with the most difficult months still ahead, Army sources say there is daily attrition due to “cold-related” conditions, with many sent back to duty as soon as they get better. While information on altitude-related ailments is confidential, an official source says the non-fatal casualties are “not alarming” and “within the expected ratio”. There have been reported evacuations from the Chinese side too, from the heights of Finger 4 on the northern bank of Pangong Lake.