My column, Broadsword: Chinese chequers on the China border - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 6 October 2022

My column, Broadsword: Chinese chequers on the China border

China is re-settling Tibetan graziers in villages along the border to claim ownership. India cannot afford to leave its border residents (Photo: Nomads near Tawang) to their fate


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 7th Oct 2022


It is said that one can fool some of the people all the time; and all the people some of the time; but not all the people all the time. This adage has been proven correct on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto boundary between India and China – where New Delhi has refused to acknowledge China’s military land-grab in April 2020 in at least seven spots in Eastern Ladakh. Notwithstanding the government’s insistence that all is well on the LAC, a highly credible section of local Ladakhis – the nomadic yak graziers who live along the borders – have publicly lamented that Chinese troops and border guards are denying them access to their traditional borderland pastures. Even worse, they are without support from the Indian government: The army and the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP), which polices the border, are doing nothing to safeguard Ladakhi graziers while they take their animals to their traditional pasturelands. 


In the circumstances, a local elected official from Ladakh has publicly refuted New Delhi’s fiction that Chinese and Indian military commanders have negotiated a mutual and equal troop disengagement and have created buffer zones on either side of the LAC to separate the two armies. Konchok Stanzin, who appeared on a well-respected TV news channel, is a two-term councillor who represents the area between Hot Springs and Chushul on the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC). Speaking on TV, Stanzin highlighted the plight of the unarmed Ladakhi graziers who faced the ire of aggressive Chinese border guards.

Mr Stanzin did not appear out of the blue last week; he is a widely respected legislator. He recounts writing in 2019 to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) complaining about aggressive Chinese behaviour that made the Ladakhi nomads fearful of the consequences of taking their herds to their grazing grounds. He pointed out that this was not just the graziers’ problem, but India’s. That is because territorial claims along the LAC rest on village records of grazing grounds, which must be reasserted each year by the physical presence of nomads with their herds.


To Mr Stanzin’s surprise the PMO, after three years of silence, replied to his letter some weeks ago. The letter, which was classified “Secret”, was signed by Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan (Retired), and it requested for a meeting with Mr Stanzin in Leh. Mr Stanzin claims that when General Chauhan (who was last week appointed Chief of Defence Staff, or CDS) came to Leh last month, he told him unequivocally that areas such as Chabzi village, from which the Chinese were blocking the visit of Ladakhi graziers, was Chinese territory, not ours. Mr Stanzin says he pointed out that areas that are now buffer zones (neutral zones that separate the two militaries), were visited each summer by Ladakhi graziers and their herds. That was also true for areas south of Pangong Tso, where pasturelands around Black Top, Gurung Hill and Helmet Top – which Indian Special Forces had occupied in August 2001 – were now out of bounds. 


Also being denied to the Ladakhi graziers were large areas north of Pangong Tso; and the north side of the Kugrang Valley, Dhan Singh Post and the Marsamik and Hot Spring areas. The bitterest pill that the Ladakhi graziers had to swallow was that it was not Chinese soldiers or border guards that were turning them back. Instead it was Indian Army soldiers and ITBP troopers who were turning back their own graziers, on the grounds that this was Chinese territory.


The Ladakhi grazier community also laments the waythat territories claimed by both New Delhi and Beijing are being shorn of their local identities. Before the PLA incursions of 2020, the local people used Ladakhi place names. But now, with the heavy deployment of PLA and Indian troops along the boundary, traditional names were being arbitrarily replaced by military terminology – such as “PP-1, PP-2” et passim, “Adm Base”, “Dhyan Singh Post” and the various “fingers” along the shores of Pangong Lake. The replacement of traditional names by military nomenclature, say respected Ladakhi scholars such as Siddiq Wahid, is having the unintended consequence of “invisible-izing” the local people and diluting their longstanding claims on the territory.


New Delhi’s cavalier treatment of border territories and people stands in alarming contrast to the strategic treatment that Beijing is according to areas along the Sino-Indian border. In 2017, a new border village policy, which involved setting up Tibetan villages in disputed border areas, was announced with fanfare at the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress. In a major investigative article in May 2021 in Foreign Policy magazine, Tibetologist Robert Barnett recounted how this works.


Professor Barnett’s article details the case of four Tibetan nomads from the remote Beyul Khenpajong region, disputed between Bhutan and China. Until 1995, like other yak graziers, the four grazed their herds in the Beyul, returning to their village in Tibet when the winter snows closed in. But in 1995, the local China Communist Party (CCP) officials told them that the Beyul was Chinese territory and that it was their duty to guard it through physically remaining there through winter. For the next 20 years, the four graziers wintered in alone in the Beyul, in the most primitive conditions and with no contact with the outside world.


Each summer, the CCP officials would organise the herders to carry out small tasks to reassert China’s claims. Professor Barnett writes: “These included driving yak herds over land grazed by Bhutanese herders in the Beyul, demanding tax payments from the Bhutanese herders, planting Chinese flags on peaks and painting the word ‘China’ on rocks throughout the area.” In the face of this sustained pressure and without any support from their own army or government, the Bhutanese herders moved away, abandoning their traditional grazing grounds.


In April 2020, the Communist Party secretary of Tibet, Wu Yingjie, trekked all the way to visit the new village and to hail the graziers as heroes of China. In July 2021, China’s President Xi Jinping visited Tibet for three days, with his focus on the Tibetan town of Nyingtri (Nyingchi or Linzhi in Chinese). Nyingtri is of strategic interest to India, since Beijing regards Arunachal Pradesh as a southward extension of Nyingtri Prefecture.


Over the years an estimated 250,000 Tibetans have been resettled thus in vulnerable pockets along the border. China is applying similar pressure across multiple disputed sections of the border, says Professor Barnett. He says CCP officials in Tibet are “transforming complicated local Tibetan histories of cross-border grazing, monastic claims, and family tradition into state-level claims by China.”


Similar initiatives, intended to consolidate China’s hold over border areas, are being pursued at the top-most level. 


Playing Chinese Chequers on the LAC is not for the faint-hearted. The Indian Army has shown it is a match for the PLA, but is too often held back by a timid political leadership. We must ensure that the custodians of our frontiers, whether soldiers or civilians, never have to face the Chinese from a position of disadvantage.

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