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.