On the defensive on too many occasions
by Sandhya Jain on 21 May 2013 7 Comments

Nomads – yak, sheep, and cattle herders – are conventionally the silent sentinels of the borders. Living close to nature in remote fringes, their sensitivity to movement and change in their isolated terrain and the speed with which they raise the alarm can determine the outcome of a border skirmish. Traditionally, cattle raids were the early warning signs of a kingdom’s intention to attack a neighbour. In 1999, herdsmen warned about Pakistan’s Kargil intrusions six months before the authorities finally acted, a fact frequently glossed over in public discourse.  


The same indifference attended serial warnings by Ladakh villagers before New Delhi finally admitted that around 50 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army had intruded 19 kms inside Indian territory and pitched their tents at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh’s Depsang Valley last month. The fact that New Delhi made unacceptable concessions to have the tents removed so that the visit of the new Chinese premier Li Keqiang could take place (May 19), underlines the seriousness of the border issue.


Daulat Beg Oldi is 150 kms away from the last human habitation in Ladakh, which is the tiny village of Demchok, south of China-occupied Aksai Chin. The Line of Actual Control is a narrow trickle of a stream anyone can jump across, and not a great natural barrier. The area is of strategic importance as it is the entry point for three valleys.


Former Leh MP Thupstan Chhewang and sarpanchs Nawang Tangey (Kuyul, Demchok) and Dorjey Stanzin (Durbuk, Ladakh), who came to Delhi to apprise the authorities about the danger on the frontier before the arrival of the Chinese premier, stressed the urgency of ramping up border defenses. Chhewang questioned the practice of vacating border posts in winter, pointing out that China did not do so; this was a critical factor in loss of territory. The Government of India should reveal how much territory had been lost by piecemeal inroads since 1947.


Demanding that the crucial Chumar bunker be reconstructed immediately, Chhewang said that till two years ago, there was a patrolling base camp at the site of the intrusion, which was used by the Indo Tibetan Border Police and the Army for joint patrols four times a month. The post was abandoned in winter. This year there were heavy snows and when the snow stopped, the villagers returned to the post and found it had been destroyed by the PLA.


With such sustained and calibrated aggression, China has already grabbed the winter pastures of our nomads, who make no demands on the Indian State and are our best human intelligence. The poor villagers are now trying to build new pastures, but are typically starved of funds.


New Delhi is contemptuous of their contributions, with the result that China has occupied the uninhabited land just beyond Demchok and raised a significant habitation with two-storey buildings, a surveillance tower, and even a police station! Boulders on the Indian side of the border are painted to indicate that the area is part of China. The sarpanchs showed slides to prove their assertions.


More provocatively, with New Delhi leaving Ladakh underdeveloped as part of its official policy – roads have not been built on the pretext that they would facilitate movement of Chinese troops in the event of an invasion – China bombards the region with propaganda about its achievements in power generation, roads and other infrastructure. In contrast, the Government of India does not support the highly nationalist sarpanchs when they go to the border to unfurl the Tiranga on January 26 every year, and advices them not to upset Beijing!


Dismissing the UPA government’s attempt to play down the intrusion on grounds that the border is not demarcated, the Ladakhis said this is misleading because until a new accord is worked out, India must uphold the Treaty of Chusul of 1842.


Briefly, this follows the Sino-Sikh War (May 1841 - August 1842) when Jammu ruler Gulab Singh and Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s general, Zorawar Singh, were expanding the Sikh kingdom. While Gulab Singh fought in the North West Frontier Province and Khyber Pakhtunwa region, Zorawar Singh captured Ladakh, Kargil, Suru Valley, Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza and Yagistan principalities between 1835 and 1840; these became part of the unified kingdom of Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1846.


In 1841, Zorawar Singh invaded western Tibet, possibly to gain control over the lucrative pashmina wool trade, though some scholars believe he wanted to build a land bridge between Ladakh and Nepal for a Sikh-Gorkha alliance against the British. Knowing that the Mayum Pass linked western Tibet to the rest of Tibet, he tried to capture it before winter set in.


Initially, things went well and the Dogra forces crossed Mansarovar Lake and reached Gartok. But the Tibetans resorted to guerrilla tactics and were supported by the Manchu Qing Empire which had taken control of Tibet from the early 18th century; it was secretly aided by the Nepal king. In a pitched battle, Zorawar Singh was beheaded and the invaders routed. The Qing forces chased the retreating Dogras to Ladakh, but were defeated at the Battle of Chushul (August 1842) and their general beheaded to avenge the death of Zorawar Singh.


The subsequent Treaty of Chushul called for status quo ante bellum with no transgressions or interference in the other country’s frontiers, as neither side wanted war. By this time the Sikhs were having problems with the British that resulted in the First Anglo-Sikh War, and the Chinese were caught in the First Opium War with the British East India Company. The Treaty was contracted between the Jammu and Kashmir ruler and Tibet, and a representative of the Manchu court was present.


Hence, though China later formally annexed Tibet, this border stands until a new agreement is thrashed out. In 1962 also, it was agreed that the border would be respected. Later, a protocol was signed whereby either side would show a banner if a violation was alleged, and matters would be taken up in flag meetings.


Our political elite, however, has made a virtue of retreat. Now, work must begin on a tunnel to provide round-the-year connectivity from Ladakh’s Parang La range to Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, a project languishing despite a favourable feasibility study. New Delhi’s callous indifference to Ladakh must end. For a start, there must be substantial recruitment of Ladakh youth in the Army and Indo Tibetan Border Police.

The Pioneer, 21 May 2013 

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