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Full of hot air at 15,700 ft?

Army officers and Tawang residents feel border meetings with China have no benefits and only end up acknowledging Beijing’s superiority feels Rahul Karmakar.

india Updated: Oct 08, 2009 16:01 IST
Rahul Karmakar

When Brigadier CP Mohanty went past the ‘Heap of Stones’, which marks the divide between India and China along the Line of Actual Control, to meet Colonel Yang Zi Jing on October 1, some junior officers accompanying him could not conceal their feeling of déjà vu. They knew it would be yet another border personnel meeting (BPM) — tenth for the record — with three hours of exchanging gifts, feasting and sitting through a cultural show: Nothing would come out of it, except for acknowledging China’s superiority.

“How else do you explain a BPM that involves one of our brigadiers and one of their colonels?” said a major of the Indian army posted in the Tawang sector. “The story hasn’t changed since the first one was held on May 30, 1999. This isn’t 1962, is it?”

The mismatch in ranks was, however, of no concern to Tashi Tsering, a 28-year-old contractor based at Tawang, 37 km southwest of Bumla straddling India and China. He was one of the few Monpa locals among 200 Indian officers and civilians the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invited 200 metres inside Chinese territory to celebrate the country’s 60th National Day on October 1. “It’s like been there, seen that,” he said. “BPMs should ideally have people-to-people interactions toward defusing tension along the Sino-Indian border. As of now, everybody seems to be going through the motions.”

Army officers agree. A colonel, declining to be quoted, felt civilian exchanges in towns nearest the border would be more effective than bland BPMs. “Every August 15, Chinese soldiers ritually come to our side of the border and every October 1, we cross over. I’m not sure if a few feel-good hours in makeshift camps on an uninhabited, high-altitude expanse serve any purpose,” he said. “Why not conduct trips of officials and civilians from the border of both countries to the nearest town? This could translate into commerce between the border districts.”

The nearest town in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region from Bumla is Tsonajong, 43 km to the north. Like other towns along the Sino-Indian border, residents of Tawang and Tsonajong had trade links even after the 890 km McMahon Line dividing Outer Tibet and British India was drawn up as per the Simla Accord in 1914. Border trade ended after the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

Chinese soldiers occupied the Tawang sector for nearly three months in 1962 before retreating. Beijing, though, hasn’t given up its claim on some 90,000 sq km of Indian land including the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. The PLA still controls parts of some areas like Thagla Ridge and Sumdorong Chu following incursions in 1986.

Reports of fresh incursions by Chinese troops, particularly in Ladakh, had added an element of uncertainty to the last BPM in Bumla, 15,700 ft above sea level. But this October 1, as if to convey nothing was amiss, the Chinese invited more civilians than ever before.

The celebrations in and around makeshift tents, 200 metres from the border, began after Brigadier Mohanty and Colonel Yang Zi Jing hoisted the flags of their respective countries. The two officers were closeted for 10 minutes for the BPM formalities before the festivities — a cultural show topped with an exotic feast — began.