The Indian government has been accused of ceding land in Himalayas to China. There have even been locals who report that ‘buffer zones’ have been constructed in formerly Indian-controlled areas.
After both sides decided to remove soldiers from some of the contentious areas and establish buffer zones, Indian residents who live close to their country’s disputed Himalayan border with China have accused their government of handing over large tracts of land.
Indian and Chinese troops, who have been engaged in a heated border dispute since June 2020, started to withdraw from the disputed area of Gogra-Hot Springs earlier this month after a disengagement deal was struck.
According to the Indian government, the deal returned both sides of the contentious border, known as the line of actual control, to the “pre-standoff period.” Neither side will be able to patrol their forces in the newly established buffer zones.
Nonetheless, local Indian citizens, elected regional politicians, and former Indian military soldiers who operated along the disputed boundary in Ladakh believe that the new “buffer zones” have been constructed in regions formerly under Indian authority.
Furthermore, they assert that Chinese army positions are still there, either inside Indian territory or in contested areas.
“Our army is vacating areas which were not disputed at all, while Chinese troops are stationed in the areas traditionally patrolled by India,” said Konchok Stanzin, an elected councillor from the region.
Stanzin asserted that during a 2021 deal to withdraw from disputed territories near Lake Pangong in Ladakh, India had already ceded territory to China. “We raised similar concerns in earlier disengagement, like in the Pangong Tso area where our army again lost a huge area,” he said.
Many locals expressed worries about their security as well as the effects that losing land to Chinese forces was bearing on their way of life. “We are losing massive pastures, which we would use as grazing land,” said Stanzin, who, just like majority of the residents of the area, is a member of the ethnic Changpa cattle herders community. Their primary means of subsistence have been cashmere wool-producing Changra goats.
“Earlier, our concern was about Chinese incursions only but now the situation is more worrying as our government is giving up our land happily,” he said. “If India’s approach remains the same, we are going to lose more land.”
Rahul Gandhi, the head of India’s main opposition, charged that the Narendra Modi administration of “giving 1,000 sq km [390 sq miles] of territory to China without a fight.”
The most recent disengagement agreement was struck last week at the 16th round of bilateral discussions between the top military commanders of China and India. The two sides asserted that they had reached an agreement to leave their respective sides in the vicinity of Gogra-Hot Springs in order to “conducive to the peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”
Tashi Chhepal, a retired Indian army captain who served in the Gogra-Hot Springs region around 1997, claimed that Indian troops have previously patrolled the regions presently designated as “buffer zones,” where neither Chinese nor Indian troops will be stationed.
“We would patrol these areas where Chinese posts are now located, leave aside the buffer zones, which are clearly in our territory,” said Chhepal. “Ideally, the Chinese should also have moved behind their patrolling area, but that does not seem to be the case.”
The troop withdrawal is the second act of disengagement since August 2021, when troops “ceased forward deployments” and demolished infrastructure in another area of the region where tensions erupted in June 2020, when at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were killed in the deadliest clashes between the two nuclear powers in 50 years.
Following the deadly clash, wherein troops fought with sticks and rocks in hand-to-hand combat, the two countries stationed hundreds of thousands of soldiers around the disputed border, backed up by artillery, tanks, and fighter jets, militarizing the territory like never before.
Following the 2020 incident, tensions reached unprecedented heights, with 200,000 troops deployed on both sides of the border in this harsh high-altitude environment, where temperatures can plummet to -40C (-40F) in winter. On both sides of the 2,100-mile boundary, there was also unparalleled artillery and infrastructure construction, including when China attacked India in 1962.
India and China’s relationship has thus remained tense. For the first time since the skirmishes, Modi and President Xi Jinping of China met on Friday at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference. However, there were no handshakes or meetings between the two leaders.
India’s military authorities hailed the disengagement as a successful move that diminished the likelihood of a violent altercation between the opposing forces, who had been placed close to one another at several points. China was said to have established a temporary army base in the region that was recently designated a buffer zone; the base has since been demolished.
“The idea of buffer zones is to disengage so that troops are not face to face with each other and problems do not occur,” said Deepender Singh Hooda, the Indian army’s former head of northern command, which also includes the Ladakh region. “For example, in some areas tanks were within 100 metres of each other.”
The Modi administration appears to be trying to ease border tensions as part of its efforts to depict India as having succeeded in dealing with a China that is becoming more hostile.
Nonetheless, Hooda was among those who said that India was still unable to persuade China to withdraw from the most strategically significant border regions, such as Ladakh’s Depsang and Demchok sectors, “where the Chinese are preventing Indian troops from patrolling a very large number of places.”
The area, which is home to a large Chinese force buildup, is strategically vital to India due to its proximity to India’s Daulat Beg Oldi military airbase and Shiachen glacier, the world’s highest battleground, where India’s adversary, Pakistan, maintains a strategic presence.
“That is the area where the biggest problem is,” said Hooda.