Manimaya Vishwakarma, 50, her 31-year-old daughter Reena and her two granddaughters sit huddled across a small table at the centre of which a pressure cooker is kept hot by a firewood-fed stove which also helps to keep the room warm.
The Vishwakarmas’ small tenement doubles up as a provision store and their residence at over 13,000 feet in Kuppup is the last one before a narrow, metalled road branches off left from the village square. The milestone there says: “TRIJUNCTION 5 KMS”.
This is the India-Bhutan-China trijunction, 2 kms south of which has turned into a flashpoint after Indian troops prevented the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from restarting work on a road in Doka La that could end up dangerously close to the trijunction and threaten Indian and Bhutanese security. Doka La is 7 kms from the centre of Kuppup. As of today, Indian and Chinese troops continue to stand their respective grounds, not interested – or instructed – to budge from their positions.
Voices From a Village Near Doka La
A steady rain and a thick mist envelop Kuppup, leaving the interiors of the 200-odd tin-roofed hovels of the village damp and cold. The Nepali-speaking Vishwakarmas – the menfolk are out on work – scoop up spoonsful of a local gruel made of rice and mokpa, a mountainous green saag. The children get a piece of fish each. Breakfast is about to be done when Reema opens up, in Hindi, about the continuing stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops.
“Doka La is only 7 kms from here. The road to the left goes up to the trijunction and the one on the right branches off to the Old Baba Harbhajan Mandir shrine in the Tukla valley,” Reena says, taking pride in declaring that she works for the General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF), a subsidiary recruiting authority for the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) which is involved in laying roads in the Himalayan terrain in Sikkim and other mountainous regions bordering China.
As a labourer who works on a monthly salary of Rs 12,900, Reena and her coworkers from Kuppup are familiar with the near eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Indian troops of the 17th Mountain Division and the PLA. Neither side has relented and backed off from their positions. The Indians have stopped the Chinese from continuing with the road-building operation that began a month ago. The Chinese have refused to vacate the area, in Bhutanese territory, and instead sought the withdrawal of Indian troops from Doka La. The Indians have not complied.
About 40-50 of Kuppup’s menfolk work as porters for the Indian army. They leave for work early in the morning and return home late. The others are engaged with the GREF. “Photography is strictly prohibited in Kuppup,” Sikkim Police constable TR Chhetri tells us as he checks our travel permit, mandatory in the border areas of Sikkim.
As the thick, misty shroud clears and the rainfall turns into a light but nagging drizzle, Kuppup is revealed in all its glory. Milky waterfalls gush down the green-topped mountains. From a point on the road that leads up through the rolling mountains and rocky cliffs to the Old Harbhajan Shrine, the emerald waters of Elephant Lake – named so as the natural feature has the form of a pachyderm’s head and trunk – glistens as the veil of mist lifts. A road along one bank of the lake vanishes into overlapping hills. Beyond these mountains lies Doka La.
‘China Should be Taught a Lesson’
A few feet above the lake, 70-year-old Ambar Bahadur Gurung, his ageing face creased with deep lines, his 66-year-old wife Dorjilamu and 32-year-old son Kesang Thinglay, sit by a glowing fire pit which is used for cooking and heating the room. The house itself is constructed with mountain boulders chiselled to the shape of granite slabs. The ceiling is piled with precious firewood. A treated yak’s hide on one side acts as a warm cushion.
“We live here during the summer and monsoon seasons since this is the time for yak grazing. We prepare butter and cheese from yak milk and sell it locally. The grass on the hills and plateaus is soft and ideal for yaks this time of the year,” Dorjilamu says as she offers us cups of rancid tea poured from an old flask. Dorjilamu has faint recollections of the 1962 India-China war, but what she recalls vividly was her family’s hurried relocation to a village in the lower reaches, farther down Kuppup.
Kesang, who is nattily dressed in grey jeans, a pair of mahogany-coloured brogue boots and a black “Chinese” jacket, says that he has heard other elders of the village saying the unexploded Chinese shells used in the 1962 war still lie in the lake bed and surrounding areas. This could not be confirmed as the armymen standing guard at TRIJUNCTION milestone wouldn’t speak about anything remotely associated with the conflict then or now.
“Will there be war?” Kesang asks quizzically before replying himself: “China must be taught a lesson because it is behaving aggressively.” Kesang though says he is worried that the cross-border trade that he is into would end in the event of even a border skirmish, leave alone war. He trades primarily in rice flour and dalda, for which his Chinese buyers pay him in yen which he exchanges for rupees in Gangtok.
Amid Sino-India Tension, a Harbhajan Shrine
While there is no real threat of hostilities breaking out on the Himalayan heights of Sikkim, the Old Baba Harbhajan shrine is an oasis of peace.
Like the new one near Sherathang, the old shrine in honour of trooper Harbhajan Singh, who has some sort of a cult status among Indian soldiers posted on the Sikkim-China border, attracts the men in battle fatigues.
One infantry soldier who has just come out of the shrine after a darshan cradles an instrument that resembles a field telephone. And indeed, it is one. The soldier, who didn’t wish to be identified, but said he hails from Kanpur, says the telephone – called the 5-Brow magneto – runs on battery and its two thin wires could be hooked to any cable and spoken into.
The skies above Thukla valley, where the shrine is located, is crisscrossed by telephone cables indicating the Indian army’s widespread communications system in the area. Nearby, there is an artillery gun position which is supported by a detachment of infrantrymen. The valley itself is dotted with innumerable active, stone-roofed bunkers and foxholes accessed by a combination of narrow and winding kutcha-pukka roads.
At the shrine, however, the soldiers are in a hurry to report back to their stations. Subdebar Birender Singh is a little edgy. His family has come visiting the Baba Harbhajan Mandir with him. But he coaxes them to quickly finish with the homage formalities. “Wapas lautna hai; jaldi karo,” he tells his wife and kids. Tension writ large on his pudgy face, the subedar mumbles to us: “Abhi bhi tension hai Doka La pe.”