Locals remain anxious amid India-China border stand-off

India and China have a long history of border disputes
India and China have a long history of border disputes

Tensions have been at an all-time high after deadly clashes between Indian and Chinese troops erupted along the disputed Himalayan border in June. For locals in the region, anxieties and fear over their pasturelands remain constant, report the BBC’s Aamir Peerzada and Rinchen Angmo Chumikchan.

On 16 June, officials said at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a physical altercation with Chinese troops in the Ladakh region.

China has not released any information about its casualties, but the hostile incident follows rising tensions. It is the first deadly clash in the border area in at least 45 years.

In the weeks leading up to the clash, there were reports of scuffles between the two militaries over the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the poorly demarcated border between the two nuclear-armed powers.

Deadly brawl

Reports from May said that the Chinese forces put up tents, dug trenches and moved heavy equipment several kilometres inside what had been regarded by India as its territory. The move came after India built a road several hundred kilometres long connecting to a high-altitude forward air base which it reactivated in 2008.

Ever since, the two sides have held numerous talks to defuse the tension.

But for locals around Galwan Valley, where the deadly brawl was fought, there remains fear over their pasturelands, which they say are increasingly at risk.

These lands are pivotal for feeding livestock as even under normal circumstances, fodder for cattle in the mountainous Ladakh region is scarce, due to arid land and freezing temperatures.

And locals say that the recent tensions have put whatever grazing lands available at more risk, alleging that the Chinese encroach upon it every year.

A map showing the disputed area
A map showing the disputed area

“Many of our grazing areas have been occupied by Chinese and there is a threat that they will occupy other grazing areas also,” says Konchok Stanzin, a local councillor.

“If our grazing lands are lost then the lifeline of the nomads will be gone and then there will be no reason for us to live here.”

Namgyal Durbok, a former councillor from a village near the LAC, says the surrounding areas are also feeling the aftermath.

“We used to free our horses for grazing in one of the pasturelands in Galwan Valley, but we don’t anymore because the Chinese are controlling much of the land,” he says.

“Earlier encroachment used to take place in inches and feet but now they have started encroaching in kilometres. It will become hard for us to stay there,” another local councillor in the valley, Gurmet Dorjey, says.

‘No encroachment’

But sources in India’s defence ministry tell the BBC that there has been no encroachment of land as there is no established boundary between India and China yet.

“There is no denying that traditional grazing areas have shrunk. But that is as much due to growth in population as it is due to India and China actively guarding their border territories,” the source at the ministry said.

Both sides have blamed each other for the recent conflict, but have since held talks to resolve the issue.

But in early May, when the first reports of skirmishes emerged, Indian leaders and military strategists were left stunned. To observers in Delhi, it was clear that this was not a routine incursion.

The two countries share a border more than 3,440km (2,100 miles) long and have overlapping territorial claims. Their border patrols often bump into each other, resulting in occasional scuffles but both sides insist no bullet has been fired in four decades.

Local councillor Konchok Stanzin is worried about his pasturelands
Local councillor Konchok Stanzin is worried about his pasturelands

Their armies – two of the world’s largest – come face to face at many points. The poorly demarcated LAC separates the two sides.

Rivers, lakes and snowcaps mean the line separating soldiers can shift and they often come close to confrontation.

But residents in Galwan Valley say that the most recent episode is worse than previous scuffles.

“I am concerned about the villagers, as some of our villages are only two to three kilometres away from where the face-off took place,” Mr Stanzin says.

Residents also say that their phone lines have been disconnected since the stand-off. To make a phone call, they would have to travel several kilometres to another village.

Local councillors in the region have written a letter to officials, pleading them to restore their phone lines. The letter states that this is even more important as India battles through the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Fear among residents’

Further, those who live along the border are often among the first to report any incursions.

“The problem with the border areas is that if something happens they cut off the communication which is an issue for us,” says Sonam Angchuk, a village chief in the region.

He adds that there have been between 100 to 200 army vehicles passing through the villages everyday – a sight unusual enough to further fuel anxieties.

“There is also fear among residents because there is huge movement of soldiers in the area,” Mr Stanzin says. “We’ve never seen a sight like this since the 1962 war.”

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