SK Singh is a sought after man along the Sino-Indian border. And his word carries weight.
The 39-year-old major is among the handful of army officers who can speak and read Mandarin. A border meet or communication with the Chinese over hotline to discuss critical matters is simply not possible without Major Singh, at least in Arunachal Pradesh’s Kemang sector which faced China’s Tsona Dzong district. And as India marches ahead to strengthen its ties with China, the army has narrowed its focus on creating a larger pool of officers who are proficient in Mandarin.
The force is recommending more and more officers to undergo the Chinese interpretation course at the Army Education Corps (AEC) College and Centre at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh. With just about 25 officers who excel in the language, interpreters like Singh are a rare breed.
An army officer said, “The language policy for AEC officers makes it mandatory for them to learn at least one foreign language. Most of them are being detailed for the two-year interpretation course in Chinese. After the signing of border agreements with China, cross-border interactions have increased and so has the need for more interpreters.”
Bum La hosts four border meets annually. Similar talks are held at Chushul in Ladakh sector, where there are disputes over Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley.
An officer who has undergone the interpretation course said, “It is the most difficult language. There are more than 50,000 characters and each has its own distinct meaning.” For instance, in Mandarin, yi, depending on how it is pronounced, could either mean one or 100 million. “Clearly, the scope for error is immense,” he said.
Putting one’s point across in a volatile environment requires exceptional language skills. “Things can go awry without an able interpreter. Sign language is helpful only to a point,” said an officer deployed along the Sino-Indian border. Major Singh, who depends on his Chinese counterpart for Mandarin newspapers, said: “I have to act like a filter, especially when talks deviate from the written text.”