Seeing is perceiving: a postcard from the McMahon Line - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 3 October 2013

Seeing is perceiving: a postcard from the McMahon Line

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Oct 13

As you read this article, I will be at the McMahon Line, on the Sino-Indian border, near a village called Mago in Tawang district, Arunachal Pradesh. Mago has been eyewitness to key events in the border confrontation between India and China. In Nov 1962, a column of troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) thrust deep into India via Mago, outflanking the main Indian defences at Sela by advancing undetected along the trail that I have just walked. On learning that the Chinese were behind them, panicked Indian commanders ordered their troops to withdraw from the dominating Sela defences, where they could have realistically beaten back the Chinese. The retreating soldiers walked straight into multiple Chinese ambushes along their routes of withdrawal.

Thirteen years later, at Tulung La, near Mago, four Assam Rifles jawans were ambushed and killed by the Chinese on Oct 20, 1975. These were the last lives lost, by either side, in hostilities on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as the Sino-Indian border is called.

But life here remains tough. For soldiers watching over the jagged Himalayan watershed at altitudes of 15,000 to 16,000 feet, every breath is a prize snatched from the oxygen-starved atmosphere. But the army is in its element here, holding fast and patrolling according to a fixed programme, even as screechy TV anchors and self-serving politicians make out as if the Chinese are walking all over them.

Every young officer and jawan that I met during my 12-day trek, whether from the army or the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP), could legitimately ask: “Why are people in New Delhi and Mumbai so disrespectful of what I do? Why do they believe that I am supinely surrendering Indian territory to the Chinese?”

In fact, the army gives the Chinese no quarter, patrolling the LAC as robustly as it ever has. In the 14 areas where Beijing and New Delhi disagree on where the LAC runs, the Indian Army patrols up to what they believe is the border, just as vigorously as the Chinese patrol up to their perceived border. In sectors like Daulat Beg Oldi, where geography favours China, their border guards patrol more frequently. Indian patrols dominate where the geography favours us.

Obviously, a mutually delineated LAC would end the Chinese “incursions” that so incense the patriot brigade in New Delhi and Mumbai, since there would be an agreed line up to which both armies could patrol. The 1993 and the 1996 border agreements between Beijing and New Delhi both recognised the need to agree on where the LAC runs.

The 1993 Agreement On The Maintenance Of Peace Along The Line Of Actual Control on The India-China Border says, “When necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the line of actual control where they have different views as to its alignment.”

And the 1996 agreement on Confidence-Building Measures Along The Line Of Actual Control In The India-China Border Areas recognises the need for a “common understanding of the alignment of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas”. It says the two sides “agree to exchange maps indicating their respective perceptions of the entire alignment of the line of actual control as soon as possible.”

But these noble intentions run into practical problems. If both sides presented their perception of the LAC as a prelude to arriving at a common understanding, there are fears that they would present such maximalist claims (to establish favourable bargaining positions) that more disputes would arise --- far more than the current 14. And having claimed certain areas, both sides would then be obliged to patrol those. That is why maps have been exchanged only of the non-controversial central sector. In Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, the LAC remains disputed.

To manage the dispute, and to prevent patrol clashes, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were created in 2005, which both sides follow when patrols come face-to-face. The SOP requires them to remain apart; both unfurl banners in two languages that tell the other patrol that it has crossed the border. If the other patrol does not withdraw even after displaying the banner twice, the SOP mandates that both patrols must disengage and withdraw to their permanent locations. This choreographed display of banners between Asia’s two most potent armies is what constitutes an LAC “face-off”.

Only twice since the SOPs were created has the situation escalated beyond this. In 2008, the PLA aggressively pressed its claim to the “Finger” area on the North Sikkim plateau, to which India responded by building up troops. The second incident was in April this year, when a Chinese patrol pitched up tents near Daulat Beg Oldi. Both incidents were resolved without a shot being fired.

Besides military patrolling, both sides assert territorial claims through usage by border people. Come summer, graziers from both sides drive their livestock into traditional grazing grounds along the border, thus renewing claims over those borderlands. A loyal local populace under Indian administration is a more emphatic territorial claim than strident statements by parliament and the media. That is why Indian administrators must connect border regions with roads and provide amenities like healthcare, education and essential supplies. Without these, border areas are getting steadily depopulated as locals migrate to easier lives in hinterland towns.

With New Delhi and Beijing scrambling to finalise a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) for the prime minister’s visit to Beijing next month, let us ready for another round of cynical political accusations and asinine TV debate. Sadly, the clarity with which the national interest is perceptible here on the McMahon Line starts clouding as one moves towards Delhi. It might really be useful if more of our opinion-makers take up trekking. 


  1. Like always, very well written sir.

    Happy journey and post more photos please :-)

    - Tanuj, Noida

  2. You are trying to underplay the Chinese actions the postcard seems motivated

  3. Leave it out anonymous, rather than throwing tomatoes from the cheap seats.. why dont you set up a blog, do some trekking at HIGH ALTITUDE! and provide some information.

  4. Nice photo. Why there is lot of smoke there ?

  5. Well done Ajai, the problem is not on the LAC but in the drawing rooms of Delhi and Mumbai

  6. Whatever the reason for increasing intrusion across our boundary is the fearlessness of enemies to do any thing against Indians.

    Pakistan still pushing Militants across our porous borders in Kashmir. Indian nationals goes from various states wishing to joining fight against their own country go to to the other side for terror training using the same path. The army even though having numerous vehicles and equipments and men run up and down in Kashmir to stop this. This is like a drama staged every year.

    They refuse to use brute force even if it is necessary and get killed and shot by the terrorists.

    For the leaders of our defence forces as well as political leaders should note that every soldier is not cannon fodder as they think and thrown in the harms way as in Kargil and various wars.
    Many of precious lives had been lost due to wrong decisions of commanders. The peacetime in between the wars should have been used to effective boarder management and methods should be put in place to stop it occurring in future.

    How can you prevent your house against burglary when the doors are kept opened always.

  7. The fact is that our infrastructure is way way behind what is required for a more befitting response "without shots being fired" .... perhaps we are simply buying time till we are in a better position,"infrastrusturally".

  8. What do the Buddist rope and flag mean in your photo?

  9. Truer words have not been spoken regarding our claim on border areas. First, these areas must be populated. Currently, there is a huge and continuous depopulation on our side of the McMohan line. To reverse this trend, we have to start developing these areas, just as we have developed community based tourism in the Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso. Next, we should encourage domestic tourist traffic to all our claim areas, so that the public and the world community acknowledge these areas as places under Indian administration. This could also lead to a build up of civilian infrastructure, the best way to claim territory.

  10. all this peace and quite reporting.

    are you really unaware of what happened in tulungla couple of months back ?

  11. @ fighterclass

    Do share with us your insights on "what happened in Tulung La couple of months back".

    Neither the folks at Tulung La, nor I, have a clue about this. Do enlighten us please.

  12. please ask your friends in 10th sikh. can't say more.

  13. Very well written and credible since you have personally visited the McMahon Line last fortnight.
    I am sure that if the government/army spokepersons were give such logical and truthful answers our queries there would be less dependence on what you call patriotic debates on TV. Hope you write more such factual pieces with evidence in the future

  14. Hi Ajai, looks like the INC mithai keeps long will you carry mithai for the UPA Govt? You are fast losing credibility, by becoming a mouthpiece..


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