Over the last few weeks, it has become a common sight in Leh. Every day, hundreds of army vehicles and cars hired by the army pass through the town, making their way towards eastern Ladakh.
“It looks scary,” said a resident of Leh who did not want to be named. “Every day 100-150 vehicles move towards the China border. People in Leh are aware that China is not Pakistan. That’s why they are worried.”
The troop movement comes at a time when India and China are locked in a stand-off at Pangong Tso and the Galwan river valley along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. On the night of May 5-6, the troops of two countries came to blows near Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh, some 170 kilometres from the town of Leh. Since then, tensions have escalated.
Last week, a statement from China claimed that the Indian Army had “entered Chinese soil on the Baijing and Lujin duan section of the Sino-Indian border, obstructing the normal patrol of Chinese border troops, and was attempting to unilaterally change the status quo of border territory.”
The ministry of external affairs denied this: “it is the Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns.”
On May 30, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said talks to resolve the tensions were being held through military and diplomatic channels. Meanwhile, three are reports of China having “towed artillery and mechanised elements on their side of the LAC opposite the Galwan valley”.
Residents of Leh district say incursions by China are not new to them. “This has been happening for years but it didn’t get much attention,” said Rigzin Spalbar, who was Congress candidate for Ladakh in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “This time, the Chinese are showing more aggression.”
Another resident of Leh, who only wanted to be identified by his second name, Namgyal, backed Spalbar’s claims: “It happens every year but this year it has become highlighted. This year, the incursion has brought more attention to the situation at the border.”
But the stand-off has taken a toll on communities living close to the Line of Actual Control.
While the Galwan valley in uninhabited, nomadic communities depend on the pastures around Pangong Lake to feed their livestock. “The villages near Pangong are populated by nomads, who are solely dependent on livestock,” said Rigzin Spalbar. “With their yaks, sheep, goats and tents, these nomads are always on the move. And it’s these nomads who have been bearing the brunt of Chinese intrusion since so many years,”.
This year’s skirmish is no different. “The grazing cycle has been disturbed by three months due to this intrusion and the mortality of livestock is going to increase if nomads aren’t allowed towards pastures,” said Gurmet Dorjay, a member of Ladakh’s autonomous council, representing Korzok constituency in eastern Ladakh. “This is a very difficult situation and the [Indian] army is not allowing nomads to move towards pastures.”
The deployment of Indian troops has also disrupted grazing cycles, Dorjay claimed. “The army officers in these areas usually are deployed for small amounts of time,” he said. “They don’t have the local knowledge about grazing cycles and local traditions. This makes it more complicated for nomads.”
In some cases, Dorjey said, local residents were also cut off from cultivable lands. “If this situation continues then our nomads will have to look for other pastures which would be very difficult,” he said. He estimated 1,200-1,500 nomadic families were directly affected by the current stand-off.
Spalbar, who also served as a chairman of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in the past, feared the tensions might trigger a mass migration. “These people don’t know anything beyond rearing cattle,” he said. “I fear there will be an exodus of these nomads to Leh to find odd jobs in the city. That will be a disaster.”
According to Dorjay, the stand-off could also affect the production of pashmina wool. Goats reared in this region are reared for their sought-after wool. “We’ll not be only losing livelihoods but also something for which we are known throughout the world,” Dorjay warned.
Tourists stay away
Scenic Pangong lake is also a major tourist attraction in Ladakh. Hotel and camping site owners had already been hit hard by the lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19. With restrictions being lifted and the number of cases remaining low in Ladakh, they had hoped business would pick up. But the border tensions have ended these hopes.
“We are taking bookings now but we advise customers to check with us after some time as the situation is not predictable,” said a camp-site owner who did not want to be named. “First we have Covid-19 restrictions and then the tension on the border. People are anxious and we know tourists will also take a lot of precautions before planning to go to Pangong in such a situation.”
While the troop movement has brought back the memories of the border war in Kargil in 1999, residents of Leh are not panicking yet. The lockdown had prompted people to stay indoors, which prevented the spread of mass panic, explained Namgyal, who runs a shop in Leh. “But locals do talk about it among themselves,” he said. “Since there’s not much connectivity in the area, locals mostly come to know about the situation through the [electronic] media.”
But the regularity of incursions worries local residents. Some foresee more incursions if India fails to assert itself. “It’s high time we stop buckling under the bullying of China,” said Spalbar. “Our precious land is being taken and there’s not a single factual statement from the government. Our people need to know what is happening. We as people will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the army. During the Kargil war, our locals supplied rations and other supplies to soldiers in high altitudes because they are acclimatised to the conditions.”
Councillor Dorjay criticised the relative quiet in government and national media. “Had it been Pakistan, dozens of news channels and reporters would have based themselves along the border but since it’s China, nobody is saying anything,” he said. “Nobody is asking the government: what are your plans to save the land?”
While debates over borders continue, Dorjay suggests, the interests of the communities who live there should be central to any solution. “Chinese nomads also come to the border for pasture,” he said. “They leave the area once they are done. Nobody harasses them. Why can’t Indian nomads be treated the same way?”