Sikkim & Ladakh Face-Offs: China Ups Ante Along India-Tibet Border

Military sources said a clash in Pangong took place “around the same time” as the one at Muguthang in Sikkim.

Updated
India
6 min read
Military sources said a clash in Pangong took place “around the same time” as the one at Muguthang in Sikkim.
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Another clash, but without use of weapons, has been reported from the Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh, India's northern centrally-administered province bordering China's Tibet autonomous region.

Military sources said the clash in Pangong took place "around the same time" as the one at Muguthang in Sikkim, indicating that the Chinese were trying to set up ante all along the 3,448-kms disputed border.

The last clash at Muguthang took place on Friday-Saturday (8-9 May). Indian army press office confirmed 4 Indian soldiers and 7 Chinese were injured in the stone pelting and fisticuffs.

During the clash, one junior officer of Indian Army punched a Chinese PLA major and flattened him, senior military officers in 33rd corps at Sikna covering Sikkim said.

The top brass back-patted the young officer for his aggression but warned him ‘not to go too far ‘, reportedly promising him a commendation but moved him away to another rear location to avoid further escalation, they said.

Sources in India's eastern army headquarters in Calcutta told The Eastern Link the young officer was from West Bengal and a third-generation military recruit, son of a former colonel who had faced the Chinese in Sumdoring Chu during 'Ops Falcon' in 1986 and grandson of an Indian Air Force officer.

The Chinese are in the habit of specific targeting and make an issue of hierarchy, unable to come to terms with ' a small Indian lieutenant hitting a big Chinese major'.

Indian Army press office said the situation in both Ladakh and Sikkim were under control and have been sorted out through flag meetings, held with due COVID-time distancing guidelines.

But senior officers said the Indian Army has rushed reinforcements to both the troubled spot and other sensitive points where claims and counter-claims often lead to face-offs.

The details of deployment cannot be discussed for reasons of national security, but one officer told The Eastern Link, the deployment was sufficient to meet manpower requirements as such face-offs often necessitate big numbers.

But both India and China have ordered their forward troops to leave behind weapons in bunkers during patrols which turn more into ‘observation marches’ to keep an eye on the other side.

“So it all ends up in a free for all, a kabaddi or a team wrestling match, with our boys shouting and pushing and the Chinese only relenting when they can't handle it anymore,”said a colonel in Sikkim. “That raises fears of COVID-19 because the soldiers on both sides are not only jostling and wrestling in close body contact with each other but also have to patrol the area in strength. Social distancing becomes impossible to maintain in such tense situations.”

Location

At a distance of 19 km from Chopta Valley, 24 km from Thangu, 51 km from Guru Dongmar Lake and 59 km from Lachen, Muguthang Valley is a mountain valley situated to the east of famous Chopta Valley near Lachen. It is one of the popular places of trekking in Sikkim and among the must visit places in Lachen.

A 3D map of the Lhonak valley in Sikkim.
A 3D map of the Lhonak valley in Sikkim.
(Photo: Google maps)
 Lhonak Valley in Sikkim is situated at an elevation of 14,850 feet and can be reached by trekking from the Chopta Valley.
Lhonak Valley in Sikkim is situated at an elevation of 14,850 feet and can be reached by trekking from the Chopta Valley.
(Photo: Google Maps)

Also called as Lhonak Valley, it is situated at an elevation of 14,850 feet and can be reached by trekking from the Chopta Valley. This valley is normally uninhabitable except for some occasional settlements by Tibetan nomads for grazing their Yaks. This high mountain valley is basically under the constant vigil of Indian Army as this is the last outpost of Indian Army in the eastern part of extreme North Sikkim. From here they monitor the Nepal-Tibet border.

Lhonak Valley is a trans-Himalayan grassland in the exposed river valley of Goma Chu in northwest Sikkim, with boggy marshes, glacial lakes, barren scree slopes and glaciers. High alpine valley of Muguthang is only inhabitable for rare high altitude ruminants and their predators. Lakes and marshes here are used as stopover sites for migratory water birds. Muguthang is also popular for the annual Yak race which takes place during the festival of DrukpaTeshi.

Why Now?

Analysts say the Chinese had accepted Sikkim as a part of India when it reopened border trade through the Nathu La pass in 2006 for the first time since the 1962 war.  That was seen as a end to the Chinese objections to Sikkim's merger with India in 1975. This writer, then a BBC correspondent, covered the resumption of border trade in Nathu La.

But the Chinese worked up huge tensions on the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction in May 2017 when PLA units with road construction parties pushed their way into Doklam (Dong Lang in Chinese) from their positions in the Yaden valley.

Indian troops from Sikkim’s Nathan forward zone rushed in to fill the void left in the Bhutanese defences after some of their forward positions were abandoned by their troops due to heavy rains.  A tense 73-day standoff ensued with Indian and Chinese soldiers fighting each other without weapons. 

Again, this writer was the only Indian journalist who could reach the area to witness what a burly Sikh havildar described as a 'tough kabaddi match."

Finally, the Chinese pulled back from Bhutanese territory and the Indians retreated to their bases in Sikkim after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping at Hamburg on the sidelines of a G-20 summit and set in motion a process of normalisation that ended with high level summit visits by both leaders .

But tensions rose again after India reorganised its Jammu & Kashmir province last year , scrapping Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provided special autonomy to the province, where Pakistan has backed an Islamist insurgency for three decades now.

Home Minister Amit Shah and other senior BJP leaders have repeatedly claimed after the scrapping of Art 370 that “we will not rest in peace until we recovered those parts of Kashmir held by Pakistan and Aksai Chin held by China.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi cancelled a visit to India on the eve of President Xi Jinping's summit meet with Modi last year but Indian foreign minister S Jaishanker and foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale , both veteran China hands, rescued the summit which was finally held in Tamil Nadu's Mammallapuram.

But belated muscle flexing by BJP leaders about recovering Pakistan-held Kashmir and Aksai Chin seem to have upset China.

"I would imagine the Chinese activate multiple pressure points in such situations, " said China watcher Binoda Mishra.

Major General Arun Roye , who has served long years on the border with China, told The Eastern Link the Doklam region and adjoining areas of Sikkim are 'strategically very important' for India because the Siliguri corridor that links seven northeastern states to the Indian mainland can be easily threatened if the Chinese manage to break through in that region.

"It is barely 65 kms that the Chinese will have to cover, so the Indian Army is deployed in strength in several layers in that region," he told The Eastern Link without divulging details of deployment.

"I can tell you we are well prepared in the area to deal with the Chinese," said Roye, now with the Calcutta-based think tank CENERS-K.

Probal Dasgupta, a former Indian Army major and author of Watershed, says that it is in Sikkim that the Indian Army narrative first changed the narrative on the border that emerged out of India's humiliating defeat in the 1962 war.

Dasgupta, whose book deals with the 1967 border skirmishes in Sikkim, said:

“It was at Nathu La and Cho La that Indian general Sagat Singh unleashed a fierce artillery assault on Chinese positions to inflict huge casualties in 1967. That was first real victory over the Chinese and helped our army regain the confidence that finally led to the astounding victory in 1971 war.”

That tough riposte in 1967 might have weighed on the Chinese when they did not militarily respond to the 1975 Sikkim merger with India, a smooth operation executed by India's fledging external intelligence R&AW and now detailed in a book "Dawn of Democracy" written by G B S Sidhu who was one of the officers involved with the merger.

(Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist and author, previously with BBC. He is the Editorial Director and founder of The Eastern Link. He can be reached @SubirBhowmik.)

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