By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Sept 14
Current reports from the border about Chinese incursions into Indian territory at Chumar and Demchok have renewed speculation that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) steps up border tensions on the eve of important visits, such as the on-going state visit of China’s president, Xi Jinping.
In fact, the PLA has simply shifted strategy; say multiple army and civilian sources that closely monitor border dynamics along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. Chinese authorities now routinely use inhabitants of the border region to establish fresh claims, even as the PLA and border guards patrol up to their traditional claim lines.
China’s shock troops in this strategy are the Changpas --- the local name for residents of Changthang, the high Tibetan plateau. Chinese authorities exhort these nomadic graziers to move with their herds of yaks and ponies and encroach upon grazing grounds on the Indian side of the LAC.
According to ancient tradition, each grazier village enjoys territorial rights over certain grazing grounds, which are asserted each year by moving their herd to that pasture. By encroaching and using Indian grazing grounds, graziers from across the LAC create a plausible claim to that pasture. Gradually, China would claim that pasture; citing usage to claim that it belongs to a village on the Tibetan side. Over time, the PLA can be expected to extend patrolling to those areas.
According to numerous local accounts, Chinese troops are providing money, provisions, moral support and even troop escorts to help graziers and settled villagers to encroach on the Indian side of the undemarcated LAC.
Meanwhile Indian authorities have largely left their border people to their fate, reluctant to get involved even when local graziers report being beaten up by Chinese border guards.
“In disputed areas like around Demchok, Chinese soldiers have threatened our locals, ordered them to leave the area and have even inflicted violence short of opening fire,” says Siddiq Wahid, a Ladakhi himself, and a former Harvard University professor who is now an activist in J&K.
Wahid rightly points out that both sides have long used border villagers and nomads to buttress their claims, but says the Chinese have now implemented this as policy in Ladakh, as well as vulnerable areas of Arunachal Pradesh. With Indian’s border inhabitants increasingly opting to shift away from the LAC, China is systematically weakening India’s territorial claims.
The chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Nabam Tuki, has described the gradual depopulation of border areas as a “strategic problem”. Last year he warned that border populations must be supported “to establish our territorial sovereignty”.
China’s aggressive strategy is having a two-fold effect: besides weakening India’s territorial claim, it is insidiously alienating Ladakhi and Arunachali locals, who are wondering ever more loudly whether the government has the appetite to support them, or has it left them at China’s mercy.
Tellingly, there are no Sino-Indian agreements that cover border populations. In contrast, military issues like patrolling and border violations are governed by a raft of agreements --- starting from a 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquillity on the LAC; through further agreements in 1996, 2005, 2012; to the most recent Border Defence and Cooperation Agreement of 2013 --- which have succeeded in maintaining relative peace on the LAC.
“New Delhi seems to have little appetite for confronting Beijing on these matters. We have even diluted the terminology for Chinese incursions; we now refer to them as transgressions”, points out Wahid.
Asked whether New Delhi would raise border issues like the ongoing LAC confrontation during talks on Thursday with President Xi, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin responded, “Our brave sentinels on the border will address any issue that happens on the border.”