Indian government accused of ceding land in Himalayas to China

Indian people living near the country’s disputed Himalayan border with China have accused their government of giving away swathes of land after both sides agreed to withdraw troops from some contested areas and create buffer zones.

Earlier this month, Indian and Chinese troops, who have been locked in a tense border dispute since June 2020, began to draw back from the contested area of Gogra-Hot Springs after an agreement was reached to disengage.

The Indian government said the agreement restored the territory on both sides of the contested border, known as the line of actual control, to the “pre-standoff period”. In the newly created buffer zones, neither side will be allowed to patrol their troops.

Nevertheless, local Indian residents, elected representatives of the region and former Indian military officers who have served along the disputed border in Ladakh are claiming that the new “buffer zones” have been established in areas previously under Indian control.

Meanwhile, they allege Chinese troop positions remain either in contested areas or much inside the Indian territory.

“Our army is vacating areas which were not disputed at all, while Chinese troops are stationed in the areas traditionally patrolled by India,” said Konchok Stanzin, an elected councillor from the region.

Stanzin claimed that India had already given up territory to China during a 2021 agreement to withdraw from contested areas around Ladakh’s Lake Pangong. “We raised similar concerns in earlier disengagement, like in the Pangong Tso area where our army again lost a huge area,” he said.

Many people in the local area spoke of concerns not only for their security but the consequences the loss of land to Chinese troops was having on their livelihoods. “We are losing massive pastures, which we would use as grazing land,” said Stanzin, who belongs, like most of the people in the area, to the tribal Changpa cattle herders community. Their main sources of living have been cashmere wool-producing Changra goats.

“Earlier, our concern was about Chinese incursions only but now the situation is more worrying as our government is giving up our land happily,” he said. “If India’s approach remains the same, we are going to lose more land.”

India’s main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, has accused Narendra Modi’s government of “giving 1,000 sq km [390 sq miles] of territory to China without a fight”.

The recent withdrawal consensus was reached last week, during the 16th round of bilateral talks between leading Indian and Chinese military commanders. The two sides claimed to have agreed to disengage from respective sides in the area of Gogra-Hot Springs in a move “conducive to the peace and tranquillity in the border areas”.

Tashi Chhepal, a retired Indian army captain who served in Gogra-Hot Springs area around 1997, said that the areas now declared “buffer zones”, where neither Indian or Chinese troops will be positioned, had previously been patrolled by Indian troops.

“We would patrol these areas where Chinese posts are now located, leave aside the buffer zones, which are clearly in our territory,” said Chhepal. “Ideally, the Chinese should also have moved behind their patrolling area, but that does not seem to be the case.”

The pullback of troops has been the second disengagement act since August 2021, when troops “ceased forward deployments” and dismantled infrastructure in another area in the region where tensions escalated in June 2020, when at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers died during the deadliest clashes between the two nuclear powers in 50 years.

After the violent altercation, in which soldiers fought with sticks and rocks in hand-to-hand combat, the two countries stationed hundreds of thousands of soldiers backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets along the disputed border, militarising the region like never before.

After the 2020 clash, tensions soared to extraordinary levels, with deployment of 200,000 troops on both sides of the frontier in this inhospitable high-altitude terrain, where the temperature drops as low as -40C (-40F) in winters. There was also unprecedented artillery and infrastructure buildup on both sides of the 2,100-mile border, including when China invaded India in 1962.

As a result, relations between India and China have remained icy. On Friday, Modi and President Xi Jinping of China were present at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, the first time they had met since the clashes, but no handshakes or meetings were held between the two leaders.

India’s military leaders called the disengagement a positive step that decreased the chances of a physical confrontation between the rival troops, who have been positioned almost nose-to-nose at certain points. In the area recently declared a buffer zone, China was reported to have built a temporary army base that has since been taken down.

“The idea of buffer zones is to disengage so that troops are not face to face with each other and problems do not occur,” said Deepender Singh Hooda, the Indian army’s former head of northern command, which also includes the Ladakh region. “For example, in some areas tanks were within 100 metres of each other.”

The negotiations appear to be part of efforts by the Modi government to defuse the tensions along the border in order to portray the idea that India has been successful in dealing with an increasingly hostile China.

Nevertheless, Hooda was among those who said India had still been unable to get China to withdraw from the most strategically important border regions, including the Depsang and Demchok areas of Ladakh “where the Chinese are preventing Indian troops from patrolling a very large number of places”.

The area, home to a huge buildup of Chinese troops, is tactically important to India because of its proximity to India’s Daulat Beg Oldi military airbase and Shiachen glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, where India’s nemesis, Pakistan, has a strategic presence.

“That is the area where the biggest problem is,” said Hooda.

The Guardian

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