The situation in eastern Ladakh could be worse than we had thought earlier. According to a research paper tabled at the annual Director Generals of Police Conference organised by the Intelligence Bureau, we may have lost access to 26 out of the 65 Patrolling Points (PPs) that mark the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.
The paper was not discussed at the conference, which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, but its contents were revealed by the media. The paper actually confirms a report by The Hindu in December 2022 that there were at least 30 PPs in eastern Ladakh not being patrolled by Indian troops.
According to the paper, India has lost its presence in PPs 5-17, 24-32, 37, 51-52 and 62. Some of the PPs not being patrolled, such as PPs 5-9, are in the Samar Lungpa area north-east of Daulat Beg Oldi and in the Depsang Plains, Fingers 3-8 in Pangong north bank, PP 37 in Demchok, PP 51-52 in the Charding Nala area and PP 62 to the south of that.
Why Has India Not Been Patrolling Certain Points in Ladakh?
There are several reasons for this. One is that as a part of agreements to get the Chinese to lift the blockades they had established in 2020, India has agreed to the creation of no-patrol zones in several areas. PP14 was the site of the incident on the Galwan river where 20 Indian soldiers and 4 Chinese died in a clash on June 15, 2020. Subsequently, both sides agreed to a mutual withdrawal and PP14 became out of the reach of Indian patrols.
In the Kugrang river valley leading to Gogra and Hot Springs, Chinese deployments prevented Indian patrolling in PP 15, 16, 17 and 17A. A mutual withdrawal arrangement has made these posts out of the reach of Indian patrols now. Likewise, an agreement has also been reached on not patrolling the zone between Fingers 3-8 on the north bank of the Pangong Tso.
On the other hand, some of the PPs that India has lost access to are on account of continuing PLA blockades. The most prominent example of this is the blockade at Y Junction on the Raki Nala near Burtse that prevents India from patrolling PP10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13 in the Depsang Bulge, an area of over 900 sq kms. The other areas denied to Indian security forces are the points in Samar Lungpa, Demchok and Charding Nala.
Why Is India Not Insisting On Its Claimed Line of Actual Control?
Reports also suggest that a degree of pusillanimity is behind the decision not to insist on India’s claimed LAC. The Hindu reported last year that there were at least three large grazing grounds near the villages in Chushul had been turned into “no-go zones” for locals. There are grazing areas in the Kugrang river valley and Demchok, too, that are off-limits as well. Some of these restrictions pre-date the 2020 confrontation and the subsequent creation of buffer zones.
The paper at the DGP’s conference also noted that civil officials and the security forces routinely patrolled till the Karakoram Pass (PP1) till September 2021, but now there are restrictions on any movement towards Karakoram Pass. What locals indicate is that in its zeal to prevent any confrontation, the Army seems to have unilaterally enlarged the buffer zones onto areas that the locals require for grazing their flocks.
In 1976, the China Study Group decided that India needed to police the Line of Actual Control once more. Between the disastrous 1962 war and the mid-1970s, India had withdrawn its forces from the LAC.
In the east, there was no problem in laying out the areas that needed to be patrolled as the LAC was essentially the McMahon Line defined on a 1914 map agreed to between Tibet and British India. But in Ladakh which had seen steady Chinese encroachment accentuated by the 1962 war, there was a need to clearly set the patrolling limits and so they detailed the patrolling points beginning with PP1 in Karakoram Pass to PP 65 in Chumar in the south. Some of the easily identifiable points on the LAC are not marked as PPs but, nevertheless specified.
Why Did Indian Govt Ignore Foreign Secretary’s Observation in 2013?
The PPs are mainly bang on the LAC, except in the Depsang Bulge (PP 10-13) where they are located a little short of it. In 2013, a controversy arose about this region after former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had visited Ladakh in August to give the government an overview of the progress in infrastructure construction. Saran had been tasked with this job on various occasions since the mid-2000s.
Now, a report surfaced claiming that Saran had told the government that because of the laxity of the security forces, who had not forcefully patrolled the area upto its actual limits, the line of patrol linking PPs 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13 had become the de facto LAC and India had “lost” some 640 sq km of territory.
The general election season was just beginning with the selection of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate in September 2013. So the Opposition made a huge furore over the charge.
However, on the floor of Parliament, Defence Minister A K Antony categorically denied that Saran had made such an observation. Subsequently, it became clear that what Saran had done was to warn the security forces that they needed to police the area right up to the LAC and not just the patrolling points. If this was not done, there was a risk that the patrolling points path would become the de facto LAC.
How Can India Manage China Border Areas?
What this most recent series of reports reveal is that the old way of managing the LAC is dead. India now needs to, perhaps, convert the PPs into permanent posts otherwise it risks more territorial attrition to the ever-active Chinese. As it is, the PLA has carried out a massive build-up in the areas opposite the LAC in Ladakh, especially in the Depsang Plains and Chip Chap river in Aksai Chin. India, too, has strengthened its positions and its rules of engagement now permit the patrols to use guns to protect themselves. This has enhanced the risk of skirmishes since the old confidence-building measures are defunct, at least in Ladakh.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)