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Of a strong man and a beautiful woman
Manohar Parrikar's four-day visit to China will accelerate India-China security dialogue, but it’s unlikely the Defence Minister will discuss about the difficult situation faced by people living in border area of Demchok
As Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar arrived in Beijing on a four-day visit, The Global Times asserted: “India would like to continue to be the most beautiful woman wooed by all men, notably the two strongest in the house, US and China.” The mouthpiece of the Communist Party was particularly referring to the Logistics Support Agreement, signed when the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter came to Delhi a few days earlier.
The usually hard-hitting newspaper explained: “This is not an unfamiliar role to India. We can still recall how its diplomatic manoeuvring had earned itself a special role between the two competing blocs during the Cold War.”
Well, it is doubtful if Beijing will fall in an Indian honey trap during the Defence Minister’s visit and agree to some of the Indian demands. Apart from the usual requests, such as China providing maps of their perception of the Line of Control, the difficult situation of the border populations in Ladakh should be taken up. Let me explain.
While the number of Chinese intrusions across the LAC is slightly less due to the mechanisms put in place between Delhi and Beijing, the Chinese refuse the ‘permission’ to the villagers in the Demchok area to undertake basic work on the Indian side of the border.
On April 13, just four days before Parrikar’s departure, The Daily Excelsior reported: “Frustrated with the Chinese Army’s frequent intervention raising objection on carrying out any kind of developmental activities near the borders areas, the inhabitants of Demchok village, residing on the Indo-China border, have demanded resettlement.”
On April 8, the Scientific Advisory Committee from Nyoma tried to pacify the inhabitants of the 39 households in Demchok who refused to end their dharna; later a delegation approached Prasanna Ramaswamy, the Deputy Commissioner in Leh, demanding to be shifted; the People’s Liberation Army had raised some objection over the villagers laying a pipe line from a hot spring for drinking water. The residents of Demchok listed several instances, when the PLA stopped them to undertake developmental work.
According to The Daily Excelsior: “The residents had put up a tent at bank of Demchok nallah with national flag on its top, insisting the administration to shift them somewhere as the Chinese objected to carry out any kind of developmental activities in their village since 2000.”
On their side of the nallah, which for centuries marked the border, the Chinese do not face any Indian objections. In the last couple of years, Beijing has invested millions of yuans to develop the area along the Indus river from Tashigong, the first Tibetan village, to a place they call ‘Dian-jiao’ (the Chinese pronunciation for Demchok). They have even roped in the Shaanxi Province which provides the necessary funds for development. New buildings (particularly guest houses) can clearly be seen from the Indian side.
Though Demchok has been the first Ladakhi village since immemorial times, during the negotiations for the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954, China refused to acknowledge this. Due to China’s reticence to recognise Demchok, the talks went on for four months (from December 1953 to April 1954), instead of the expected three or four weeks. The main Chinese objection was mentioning Demchok on the route to Western Tibet.
On April 23, 1954, a few days before the final signature of the Agreement, N Raghavan, the Indian Ambassador to China, wrote to RK Nehru, the Foreign Secretary, that Chang Han-fu, the Chinese negotiator ‘vigorously’ objected to the inclusion of Demchok in the Agreement: “(He) conceded that traders customarily using this route might continue such use but said an oral understanding to that effect between two delegations would suffice. We strongly contended inclusion of route in Agreement.”
Very cleverly, another Chinese diplomat ‘privately’ told TN Kaul, his Indian counterpart, that he was objecting because they were not keen to mention the name ‘Kashmir’ as they did not wish to take sides between India and Pakistan. Though Kaul could see through the game, India finally gave in. Kaul later wrote: “However, their real objection was, I believe, to strengthening their claim to Aksai Chin which they needed for linking Sinkiang (Xinjiang) with Western Tibet.”
Finally it was agreed that: “the customary route leading to Tashigong along the valley of the Indus river may continue to be traversed in accordance with custom was worked out and Delhi approved it.”
Demchok was not mentioned. The issue faced by the villagers is the outcome of this formulation. In 1954, instead of using the opportunity to clarify the already contentious border issue, the Chinese were allowed to walk away with a vague statement which opened the door for future contestations.
Already then, the ‘beautiful Indian woman’ was unable to woo the tough Chinese negotiators. It may not be different 62 years later. China has truly a problem with Demchok.
Last year, the Chief Executive Councilor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Rigzin Spalbar wrote to the then Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed to request him to take up with Delhi the re-opening of the Kailash-Manasarovar route via Demchok.
A few months earlier, President Xi Jinping had ‘generously’ offered (as a ‘political gesture’) to open a new route, via Nathu la in Sikkim, for Indian pilgrims wanting to go on the yatra. The Indian Press clapped. It is true that for those who were unaware of the topography of the Himalayas, the Chinese offer to open Nathu-la seemed reasonable.
In his letter to Sayeed, Spalbar, after mentioning the historical background of Demchok, which till 1954, was used by most of the Indian pilgrims wanting to go on pilgrimage to the Kailash, also suggested re-opening the route; the Holy Lake and Sacred Mountain are located at a mere two-day drive from Leh and the route is relatively easy as it does not encounter any major pass. But here too the Chinese are not ready to be wooed.
Will Mr Parrikar’s visit be a success? Perhaps one or two Border Personnel Meeting points may be agreed upon, which is good; Demchok, however, will not be in the list. Perhaps the Joint Tactical Exercise held for the first time last year between the troops of both countries in the Chushul-Moldo area will be repeated on a larger scale. Great!
And in a few months time, a hotline may be established between the two military headquarters as part of an effort to improve border management. This however will not solve more serious issues such as Demchok. It may be left to the National Security Advisor and Special Reprehensive for the border Ajit Doval to raise the issues with his counterpart State Councillor Yang Jiechi. Will Yang be charmed by the NSA and agree to release the tension on Demchok? This will be a meaningful confidence-building measure, but is the ‘strong boy’ interested to please the ‘beautiful woman’?
(The accompanying visual is of a small nallah (stream), marking the border between Ladakh and Tibet)
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