During the annual Army Commanders’ Conference held at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun, one of the topics addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the three Service Chiefs was the infrastructure development along the borders with China and Pakistan.
The commanders apparently pleaded for a far better infrastructure to facilitate the movement of troops in case of crisis. This raises two important issues: one, the neglect of the Himalayan frontier with China for the past 60 years and two, there is no ‘minor’ issues when the Indian borders are concerned. Take Barahoti, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, which witnessed the first Chinese intrusions on Indian soil in 1954. It is a telling case.
Every summer, the Indian media cries foul: “The Chinese have come again”. “The Chinese Dragon struck again”, say reports originating from the ‘inaccessible’ part of Uttarakhand. In July 2016, The Times of India explained: “It all began on July 22, when an Indian team of 19 civilians led by a Sub Divisional Magistrate first entered into the area in Barahoti, an area perceived by Chinese as their territory. …Six Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel, in civil clothes and unarmed, accompanied the Indian civilians 200 metres inside the ‘alleged disputed’ territory.”
The Chinese troops PLA prevented the Indians paramilitary forces from going further and asked them to return: “No soon did the Indian team return, the Chinese PLA came in exactly 200 metres inside. Seeing the aggressive stance, Indian side led by ITBP asked the Chinese team to return to their original position.”
The story is not finished: on July 25 for the first time, China sent a helicopter to the area. Whether it crossed the LAC (as perceived by India) is not clear. But it was evidently to intimidate the ITBP. The fact remains that the ITBP personnel were not carrying firearms (not allowed as per an agreed protocol signed in 2005 and reiterated in 2013), while Chinese were carrying arms and wearing uniforms.
How did the story start? In July 1952, in a secret note, the Intelligence Bureau described the topography of the Himalaya in this area: “The Garhwal-Tibet border can only be crossed through the Mana and Niti Valleys where there are open places and habitation, while the rest of the border area consists of snow-covered mountains studded with glaciers. …There are four Passes between Niti Valley and Tibet”. One of them was Tunjun-la, we shall come back to it.
A couple of years earlier, some Tibetans officials had entered the tiny plain of Barahoti. The IB explained the background of the so-called dispute: “About the end of last century the Tibetans had established a Customs Post at Hoti Plain. To stop this practice, the British Government had to send out a detachment of Gurkhas along with the Deputy Collector in 1890. This had a salutary effect and the Tibetans removed their post. It appears that for some time past the Tibetans have again been establishing a Police-cum-Customs post at Hoti during the trading season.”
As in most areas in the Himalaya, the access is far easier from the Tibetan side than from the Indian. Over the years, this greatly facilitated the Chinese intrusions. The IB note continued: “It is quite possible that if the Tibetans are not stopped from establishing their post at Hoti Plain, they might eventually claim it to be their own territory.”
The IB recommended: “It is, therefore, essential that the Govt. of India should make it clear to the Govt. of Tibet and its Dzongpon that the Hoti Plain is Indian territory and the Tibetans have no right to establish any Customs post there.”
At that time, the Uttar Pradesh Government asserted that no case of “encroachment has so far been reported though at one or two places tax collectors from Tibet did come in but were persuaded to go back.”
The above was enough for China to claim the area as ‘hers’. It happened as soon as the negotiations for the Panchsheel Agreement, (which only deals with trade and pilgrimage between Tibet and India) were completed. But the Indian diplomats had goofed up, they had forgotten to discuss the Indo-Tibet border.
Though Delhi had sent a complete list of the Himalayan passes to the ‘smart’ Indian negotiators in Beijing, the latter believed that by naming six passes, they had delineated a border.
As a result of India not insisting on all the passes, China started claiming several areas south of the watershed, in particular the area south of the Tunjun-la pass, where the plain of Barahoti is located.
In a note written after the signature of the Panchsheel Agreement, N.R. Pillai, the Foreign Secretary remarked: “It would also be desirable for us to establish check-posts at all disputed points as soon as possible so that there may be no opportunity for Chinese to take possession of such areas and face us with a fait accompli. “
But alas nothing was done. Will it be done now?
It is much later that South Block understood the meaning of Premier Chou En-lai’s opening remarks, at the time of signature: “there are bound to be some problems between two great countries like India and China with a long common border… but we are prepared to settle all such problems as are ripe for settlement now”.
It took only two months for India to discover that all problems had not been solved. The first Chinese incursion in the Barahoti area in then Uttar Pradesh occurred in June 1954. This was the first of a series of incursions numbering in the hundreds which culminated in the attack of October 1962. Correspondence went on for four years and in 1958 a conference was held to sort out the issue. China refused to admit that the watershed marked the frontier and that Tunjun-la pass had been for centuries the traditional border.
After the failure of the talks, Subimal Dutt wrote: “Each side has put forward its arguments in favour of its case. The Chinese are contesting our arguments and we are, of course, contesting theirs. The only positive suggestion made by the Chinese is that there should be a joint local enquiry.” But India refused when it discovered that was just a pretext for China to find out the exact location of the place. They thought that Barahoti (they call it Wuje) was north of Tunjun-la. The Chinese intrusions still continue today.
During a debate in the Parliament in August 1959, when Nehru was asked why Indian soldiers can’t keep a watch during the winter months too, he replied: “I see no special reason to make our people suffer miserably for this, to make them sit there in winter, in the cold.”
In November, Barahoti was again discussed in the Lok Sabha. Nehru’s final submission was that one should not attach too much importance “to these matters and becoming touchy about them rather distorts the picture in our minds. …in the old days, two persons would fight if a moustache was a little longer or shorter or a little higher or lower.”
More than 60 years after it started, the case of Barahoti shows that for the Chinese, there is no big or small moustache, every inch is a victory, and the second lesson is that there is no short cut to building a strong infrastructure even it costs the nation some sacrifice.
Let us hope that the recommendation of the Army Commanders’ Conference will soon be implemented. Prime Minister Modi’s proactive approach to border infrastructure generates hope for such an implementation.
(The author is a veteran columnist, Sinologist and has lived in India for over four decades. The views and interpretations are his own)