Claude Arpi, Deccan Chronicle | November 16, 2016
The change in Chinese maps began with the objective to protect a new road linking Tibet to Xinjiang in Aksai Chin area in the mid-1950s.
Interesting news has been coming in from the high plateau of Ladakh. For three days, the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army on the Line of Actual Control in the border village of Demchok. While this village of Nyoma block in Leh district is small (with 74 inhabitants, the last census said), its location on the Indus river is strategic. It’s been a part of Ladakh and thus Indian territory for centuries. In fact, no Chinese was ever seen in this rather desolate area before the 1950s. Today, however, Beijing claims Demchok as Chinese. It’s not that China is Alzheimerish; it’s simply convenient to rewrite history for its strategic purpose. Before India’s independence nobody ever contested the fact that Demchok was the last village on the road to western Tibet on the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage. It was agreed to by all.
Take Rai Bahadur Dr Kanshi Ram, the British trade agent in western Tibet. Starting from Simla on May 20, 1937, he reached Srinagar seven days later; and from there was joined by Wazir Wazarat, commissioner of Ladakh, on his onward journey to the Tibetan border. Both officers were to meet the garpon (governor) of western Tibet for a tripartite inquiry into an alleged murder, in Ladakh a few years earlier, of a Tibetan, Champa Skaldan, by Zaildar, a Ladakhi of Rupchu. After a week’s halt in Leh, they reached Demchok on July 17, 1939, where they were to meet the senior and junior garpons; and the inquiry started three days later. Dr Kanshi Ram, in his report to Simla, notes: “On the night of July 21 the stream by the side of which we were camping suddenly rose to higher level and began to flow over our camping ground at midnight. We were abed as alarm was raised and we then got up and took our luggage and other belongings to a place of safety, and had to keep awake throughout the night. The rain, which began to pour down since morning, was still continuing. The next morning we crossed the stream and camped on the Tibetan border at a place of safety … This stream forms a natural boundary between Tibet and Kashmir at Demchok.”
This is interesting because it shows that just before Independence the Indo-Tibet border in Ladakh was well defined and agreed upon by the government of British India (represented by the trade agent), the state of J&K (wazir) and the Tibetan government (garpons). Unfortunately, the Chinese “claims” have resulted in what is prosaically called today “differences of perception” on the Line of Actual Control. Why did China start claiming the area? The change in Chinese maps, particularly in the Demchok sector, began with the objective to protect a new road linking Tibet to Xinjiang in Aksai Chin area in the mid-1950s (the famous Aksai Chin road). Though the issue would only become public through a debate in the Lok Sabha in August 1959, in early 1950s New Delhi was already aware that China was building a road, but South Block was not ready to acknowledge it. Changing the map of the frontier was the best way for China to create a strategic buffer for the new road. But let us come back to the present stalemate.
In April, the residents of Demchok had appealed to the deputy commissioner in Leh for their resettlement elsewhere in the district; the reason was the continuous obstructions to development work in the area by Chinese troops. Quoting Army sources, scoops.news, a Ladakhi website, said last week that on November 2: “Nearly two platoons of the PLA came close to Indian territories in Demchok village and objected to laying of a water pipe for use in irrigation and drinking purpose, a project carried out by the state rural development department in the area.” The same source explained that the PLA personnel “appeared on the scene and raised objections to ongoing civilian construction work and stayed there for whole day and returned in late evening. Surprisingly, they appeared once again next day morning.”
The PLA asked local people to immediately stop their work; the Chinese quoted the agreement between India and China, which says either side needs prior permission before undertaking any construction work. This argument did not fool the Indian Army, who pointed out to the Chinese that the Indo-Sino border agreement specifically says information about the construction needs to be shared only in case the development was for defence purposes, not otherwise, certainly not for civilian work. While both sides continue to deny any incursions or transgressions, the Indian side clarified that issues, if any, would be resolved at a local level with Chinese officials at the border meeting point (Chushul in this case).
Finally, on the third day, local engineers could finish laying a water pipeline for irrigation of the remote Indian village. The pipeline is nearly a kilometre long. The stalemate ended on November 5 in the evening. The scene witnessed the holding of “vritual” banners by the PLA: “It is my territory, go back”; but the Army and ITBP personnel did not allow the PLA guards to erect a hut and the Chinese ultimately had to take the material back to their base camp in Tibet. In the end, the work was done: India didn’t back out while confronting the PLA troops in Demchok. Almost a few thousand kilometres away, also near the LAC, India took another great step to defend its borders. For the first time, the Indian Air Force successfully carried out a test landing and takeoff of the C-17 Globemaster-III at Mechuka’s Advanced Landing Ground.
After the upgradation of Mechuka’s ALG, the giant Boeing C-17 could land. It should eventually ensure the transport of men and material to the remote border village of west Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, which was invaded by the Chinese in 1962. Let us not forget that Dibrugarh, the nearest air/rail head, is located some 500 km away (practically a drive of two days). A few days later, the eighth meeting of the China-India Defence and Security Consultation was held in New Delhi and Xinhua reported all was well at the border between India and China. Around the same time, Meng Jianzhu, China’s security tsar and member of the all-powerful politburo, discreetly visited New Delhi and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and home minister Rajnath Singh); apparently not about any border issues, but for a serious discussion on “global” terrorism. It always pays to take a tough position with China.
The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.