By Anil Bhat
Chumar, in Ladakh’s Daulat Beg Oldi sector/Depsang Valley seem to have become a compulsive preoccupation of Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA)/China Border Police. In mid- April 2013 a platoon plus strength Chinese detachment made a most unusual kind of intrusion 19 kms across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into Indian territory and camped there in tents with Molosser dogs for three weeks and departed after much diplomatic dialogue. On 17 June another detachment of Chinese troops came on horseback, demolished/damaged some bunkers, cut some wires of cameras installed at the border post and took away some other visual equipment, broken remains of which were reportedly returned later. Chumar, located 300 km from Leh, has always been an area of discomfort for the Chinese troops as this is the only area along the LAC, which they do not have easy/close access to . In the area of the April stand-off, Chinese troops came around 2 km close to Indian posts in Burtse on 12 July, which is around 30 km from the perceived Line of Actual Control (LAC).
As per J&K media reports, this incursion was among five such incidents over 11 days. In Chumar Chinese troops had entered the area on 16-17 and 18 July also and before that, on 11 July their helicopters violated Indian air space. On 20 July, a Chinese patrol came inside Chumar in the evening and after spending a few hours vandalizing visual equipment went back to their positions across the LAC. The 21-day face-off since April 15 was reportedly sparked off by the construction of an observation tower in Chumar division which had to be subsequently dismantled by the Army on May 5 before the crisis was defused. After dismantling the observation post and defence bunkers, Army had installed cameras to monitor movement of Chinese troops along the LAC, a step which had again irked the PLA.
Chumar, a remote village on Ladakh-Himachal Pradesh border, is being claimed by China as its own territory. The Chinese side also reportedly resorted to helicopter incursions almost every year. In 2012, PLA troops were air-dropped in this region, where they dismantled the storage tents of the Army and ITBP. This area is not accessible from the Chinese side whereas the Indian side has a road almost to the last point on which the Army can carry loads upto nine tonnes.
Chinese ire, already in plenty about India’s support to Dalai Lama and Tibetans, shot up since 2008, when Prime Dr. Minister Manmohan Singh visited Arunachal Pradesh, soon after Defence Minister AK Antony’s late 2007 visit there, when the latter exclaimed at China’s huge infrastructural development. Dr. Singh referred to Arunachal Pradesh as “the land of India’s rising sun” and promised a substantial long-overdue infrastructural development package to Arunachal Pradesh. This was kick-started by major mobilization and relocation of Border Roads Organisation’s (BRO) resources. That was the spark-off point for the Chinese to focus their attention on Eastern Ladakh, J&K part of the LAC, by launching a series of multi-mode and multi-dimensional incursions involving camping, painting CHINA in Mandarin on rock faces, filching fuel and what not. In this “increasingly assertive“ behaviour by China, the Pangong Tso (tso means lake) saw 100 “transgressions“ by Chinese troops on foot/ motorised /boat patrols by PLA every year. In 1999 during the Kargil conflict, the Pangong Tso area became an even greater flashpoint when, China even constructed a 5 kms long track right up to the lake`s southern bank. Both sides now carry out routine patrols on the track and mark their presence, but avoid physical contact. Yet Chinese patrolling speedboats often swirl aggressively around Indian boats.
Two-thirds of the strategically-located 134-km-long Pangong Tso, stretching from Tibet to India, across the Changla Pass-, the largest brackish water lake in Asia-at 13,900 feet altitude- is controlled by China. PLA troops equipped with over 20 well-armed high speed boats, have been crossing over to the Indian side, often swishing dangerously past Indian Army boats or encircling them. Chinese boats have reportedly also rammed into Indian boats which could not react as they were slower. In the recent past Indian Army has received 11 of the 17 QRT (quick reaction team) boats bought from USA, each of which can carry 16 to 18 soldiers. These high-speed interceptor boats, fitted with radars, infra-red and GPS systems, can be used effectively for reconnaissance and area domination patrols. Indian Army earlier had, apart from some smaller vessels, only a couple of large speed boats mounted with machine guns and capable of carrying 10 soldiers.
The QRT boats in Pangong Tso are part of India`s belated overall efforts to build military assets and infrastructure along the LAC to strategically counter China, which now has five full-fledged airbases, an extensive rail network and over 58,000-km of roads in Tibetan Autonomous Region.
According to media reports, Chinese troops tallied over 550 “transgressions“ into Indian territory since January, 2010, in all the three segments of the LAC — western (Ladakh), middle (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) and eastern (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh).
And all these aggressive monkey-tricks on the ground have continued while visits by premiers/ministers/delegations/working groups for trade and “defence cooperation” / resolving the LAC continued.
What certainly emerges from all these Chinese forays is that they are testing the resolve (or lack of it) of the Indian Government-quite obvious from the statements of both Chinese and Indian leaders and officials- and also the fact that ITBP is manning many parts of the LAC is another factor.
The Chinese have been very active on the LAC and those who camped in Depsang required more than a “police “ force response. Deploying ITBP on the LAC sends the wrong message to the Chinese who interpret it as a tacit acceptance of the Indian Government that the LAC is not active or live and as such does not need to be guarded by Army. Bajwa states: “MHA’s reluctance to place the ITBP under the Army is indicative of the underlying resistance of the IPS lobby to serve under any commander from the Army. IPS as seen from the factual ground realities considers itself as an “administrative cadre” akin to IAS. They loathe the notion of leading from the front as field commanders. The direct entry ITBP young officers endorse the requirement of operating under the Army”.
Chinese very well understood the kind of message sent by the fierce Indian retaliation in Nathu La, Sikkim, in 1967. When PLA upped the ante there with repeated instances of small arms and heavy mortars, killing some Indian officers and soldiers, then prime minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, holding charge of defence ministry also, sanctioned use of artillery requested for by the Nathu La brigade commander. Indian Army’s ensuing action resulted in killing about 400 PLA troops and destroying many bunkers and vehicles. In 1986, a PLA unit marched seven kilometres inside across the LAC at Somdurong Chu, Arunachal Pradesh. Then Army Chief General K Sundarji ordered airlifting troops and surrounding their camp by pitching tents a mere 10 metres away, as artillery guns were positioned on nearby heights. The Chinese withdrew.
The working arrangement for guarding land and sea borders of India has generally been that undisputed international boundaries are guarded by Border Security Force (BSF)/Ladakh Scouts/ Assam Rifles (AR) under command of the Army and Coast Guard under Indian Navy. In fact for Coast Guard, it was decided at the outset itself that it would be under Ministry of Defence, unlike BSF, AR ,which are under Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Of the two disputed borders, the Line of Control(LoC) with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, while both should be directly manned by the Army, with BSF/AR or the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in situ being under Army’s command and control, the LoC is being guarded by Army. However, in the case of the LAC, it is not known as to why any part of it has been allotted for guarding to ITBP and that too under direct control of MHA and not the Army, as in the case of South East Ladakh, where both major Chinese incursions of 2008-9 in the general area of the barren land at Chumar, East of the picturesque Morari Tso (lake), Zulung La (pass) and the 22, 420 feet high Mount Gya and the recent one in Daulat Beg Oldi occurred.
Interacting with this writer, Lt Gen JS Bajwa (R), author of Modernisation Of The PLA:Gauging its Latent Future Potential (Lancer) and Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch(R), Director, Centre for Land War Studies (CLAWS) have both reiterated what they succinctly wrote about the drawbacks and disadvantages of deploying ITBP on the LAC in recent articles written for Indian Defence Review and the CLAWS website respectively. While Bajwa has gone into details about various aspects of ITBP’s lack of suitability for guarding the LAC, Katoch strongly recommends that Army must replace ITBP on the LAC and the latter be deployed against Left Wing Extremists (LWE), instead of requesting for Army’s assistance, which the Defence Minister has correctly declined.