Indian patrol rights in focus amid LAC disengagement
As a part of the disengagement process, agreed upon by both the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a 4km buffer zone is being created at key friction points in eastern Ladakh, according to officials involved in the decision-making process.
For a period of three to four weeks, there will be no patrolling by either of the armies in these buffer zones, said one of the officials.
Experts have said this halt in Indian patrolling — a result of Chinese transgressions and now extended temporarily within the framework of the understanding — in areas where it used to patrol before the Chinese build-up and incursion, is meant to avoid a face-off between soldiers and smoothen the process of both disengagement and de-escalation.
But it has also given rise to concerns about whether India will be able to return to patrolling up to points it used to early April; whether a “new status quo” is getting institutionalised, and whether this will impact India’s territorial claims.
Strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney said that mutual troop withdrawal from areas India normally patrolled, as well as the setting up of buffer zones, creates a “new status quo, even if a temporary one”.
“However, since this new status quo suits China, it could seek to enforce it indefinitely until a settlement is reached, thus depriving India of its patrolling rights. This is a risk,” he said.
Till the current tensions started in early May, the Indian Army patrolled right up to its definition of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — marked either by geographical features or so-called Patrolling Points (in the absence of natural features) scattered across the contested border. Chinese soldiers, too, patrolled up to China’s perception of where its territory lies. This resulted in transgressions by the armies into what both sides consider their area.
But this did not involve areas that have traditionally not been disputed, including Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra as there was a somewhat common perception of the LAC. Former Northern Army commander, Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), said, “There has been no dispute about the alignment of the LAC in the three sectors.”
This got reflected in patrolling patterns. For instance, in Pangong-Tso, before the PLA occupied vantage positions on Finger Four in early May, Indian Army soldiers would patrol right up to Finger Eight, which New Delhi considers to be its territory, said multiple serving and retired army officers who know the region. Fingers Four and Eight are 8km apart.
But what changed between April-May and now is that the new Chinese positions have restricted the scope of Indian patrols in these areas. The Chinese build-up in the Depsang sector, too, has brought Indian patrolling activity under pressure there.
The buffer zones now being created as part of the disengagement process will restrict the scope of the Indian Army patrolling up to PP-14 (Galwan Valley), PP-15 (Hot Springs) and PP-17 (Gogra) temporarily.
The ongoing disengagement effort between rival troops is expected to be replicated in Pangang Tso, where the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the Finger Area -- a set of eight cliffs jutting out of the Sirijap range that overlooks the lake -- is a top concern for the Indian Army.
The PLA has set up permanent bunkers, pillboxes, tented camps and observation posts (confirmed by satellite imagery) between Fingers Four and Eight, and getting it to pull down those structures and move back to its original positions at Finger Eight will be the toughest part of the disengagement process, officials said.
A minor thinning of PLA soldiers was noticed at Finger 4 on Monday but the army doesn’t count it as any form of withdrawal.
Hooda said the focus would shift to the Finger Area after step-wise disengagement in Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, too expressed concerns about the current framework. The new patrolling protocols and the creation of buffer zones is a “new and slippery formulation”, he said.
“Since 1993, India and China were operating within the track of an LAC — with each side having their own version — and a claim line up to which patrolling was carried out periodically. In creating a buffer zone and agreeing to no patrolling, the possibility of new pockets of no-man’s land increases.”