Approaching Nathu La pass, as level as a table top, two giant Chinese flags, erected close to each other, catch our attention. Between the flags, a dozen People’s Liberation Army soldiers, wearing camouflage uniforms, enjoy the sunshine on giant rocks. They have binoculars with them. They are in the Yadong area of Tibet while we — Indian tourists — are at the pass, 14,140 feet above sea level. The distance between us is approximately 50 metres.
The PLA soldiers are relaxed, waving to us. All that separates us is a row of rusted concertina wire, which can be easily lifted. On either side of the wire are convention halls for meetings; a few flags on the Chinese side, a giant Ashoka Pillar on the Indian side. Perhaps the only hostile element was a small triangular piece of land with a landmine warning. Nobody is carrying guns; it seemed as though the only thing “strictly prohibited” here is photography.
A few months ago, local traders claimed, they had entered China from Nathu La “with valid trading passes”. The pass finds mention often as part of the ancient Silk Route from Lhasa to Kalimpong to “reach the warm water port of Kolkata” notes a brochure on Nathu La issued by the Indian Army.
“But tension is palpable these days along the border,” says Sunil Kumar, a havildar with the Dogra Regiment. The epicentre of the “tension” is in Doklam, about 25 kilometres south of Nathu La, at the tri-junction of south-west Tibet, East Sikkim’s Chumbi Valley and west of Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau. The confusion is about this tri-junction, says a Brigadier-rank officer with the Army. “While we believe that the tri-junction is up to Batang La, a few kilometres north of Gyemo Chen [in Bhutan], the Chinese believe that it [tri-junction] is up to Gyemo Chen, a few kilometres south of Batang La” he says.
British-era Treaty ::
The Chinese side is guided by a treaty between China and Britain, signed in 1890 at Kolkata. The treaty says China and Britain will “respect the boundary” as per Article I of the treaty which indicated that the boundary “line commences at Mount Gipmochi [Gyemo Chen] on the Bhutan frontier” at a height of approximately 14,500 feet. India is also bound by a 2007 treaty with Bhutan which noted that none of the countries “shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” While Batang La and Gyemo Chen are just few kilometres up or down on the eastern border of Sikkim, the claim of China citing the 1890 Treaty is “harmful” to India’s security, the official says.
“From the Gyemo Chen originates the Jamphari Ridge — running north to south — on the western edge of Bhutan. This Ridge has a height advantage to the side that controls it,” the Brigadier said.
India is sensitive about Jamphari as the distance from the Ridge to one of India’s most vulnerable corridors — the Siliguri Corridor or the `Chicken’s Neck’ connecting the North East to West Bengal — is just about 20 km. At its narrowest point, the Chicken Neck is about 23 km wide.
“It may not be difficult to cut it off if the Chinese have the height advantage,” the Brigadier pointed out.
So when Indian soldiers observed a north-south road coming up above Jamphari in early June, they objected and some “jostling” took place.
“But we are absolutely certain that it remains non-violent. There could have been a little jostling but not a punch was exchanged,” the Brigadier clarified.
Chinese officials in Kolkata also told The Hindu that they believe in “a peaceful settlement” as “China is a friend of India” albeit without “hurting the border.”
However, the Indian side, while posting few hundred soldiers in and around the tri-junction, has stationed a “few battalions” in the area. They have been settled in small camps on the slopes of the mountains, peppered with bunkers all around, while placing a sizeable but undefined number at Nathang base, at an altitude of 13,500 feet.
The movement of heavy vehicles, artillery guns and light tanks are visible after midnight. “However, the area is usually well manned,” says an army official from Kerala. He has been asked to move to the standoff point. He is sitting outside a grocery shop at Kupup, the closest point to Doklam. And he wants us to move on, away from Doklam before night falls.
Kupup, a tiny hamlet about 15 km north-west of Dokalam, comprises of a dozen tin-thatched private houses lining the road. The rest of houses, enroute to Doklam, are always out of bound for outsiders, the soldiers claim. Kupup’s residents were tightlipped about changes in their village or lifestyle since the standoff began.
Two roads emerge from Kupup. One above a large water body called Elephant Lake to Doklam and the other below the lake to Siliguri further south, explains one of the two soldiers who were heading home to Uttar Pradesh on leave.
Room Singh and Ravinder Singh of the Jat Regiment board our vehicle at Kupup while thanking us profusely for the lift.
“Nobody wants war,” declares Room Singh, just a few years away from retirement. Their routine has not changed after the standoff, he says, but the number of routine drills increased. His junior, Ravinder, nods in agreement. They both hope the standoff will be over by the time they return.“We have heard that both sides have started discussion. Have you seen anything on television?” Room Singh asks as we drove past the Nathang base. All around us, the night is softly falling.
By: The Hindu
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