New Delhi: Early this week, the family of 17-year-old Miram Taron claimed that he had been kidnapped by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) while out on a hunting trip in the mountains near Bishing, close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal East MP Tapir Gao and CM Pema Khandu both raised the issue with the central government, and have demanded Taron’s safe return.
The case has generated a snowballing controversy. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, notably, has used the case to argue Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is failing to push back against China’s aggression.
The story of the missing teenager, though, helps illustrate the complexities of the dispute over the LAC in Arunachal, and casts light on a strange, century-old story of colonial maps, clashing empires and war.
How did Taron end up missing?
Few hard facts on Taron’s disappearance have become clear; civilian and military authorities are still trying to put together the pieces. The story, as we know it, draws mainly on the testimony of Taron’s friend, Johnny Yaiying, who said he and Taron had been surrounded by PLA soldiers on the Indian side of the LAC late on the evening of 18 January. Yaiying, however, claims he managed to escape in the darkness.
After they were asked to help locate the missing youth, PLA commanders are reported to have told their Indian counterparts that Taron is not in their custody. The Chinese government has announced it has ordered troops in the region to search for him.
There is, so far, no clarity about which side of the LAC the alleged abduction took place on. Gelling, an Indo-Tibetan Border Police outpost near Bishing, marks the point at which the Brahmaputra crosses the border into Arunachal Pradesh (see map), and was the scene of fighting in the 1962 India-China War.
Although incidents like these are rare, they’re not unknown. In 2020, five Arunachal residents — Tanu Bakar, Prasad Ringling, Ngaru Diri, Dongtu Ebiya and Toch Singkam — were held by the PLA, again while on a hunting trip. The LAC, unlike the Line of Control or the India-Pakistan border, isn’t marked by fencing. It’s easy for locals, therefore, to stray across.
This isn’t the first time BJP leader Gao has caused some embarrassment to his own party by highlighting Chinese intrusions the government failed to prevent. In 2019, he said that the PLA had intruded several kilometres into the Indian side of the LAC, and built a bridge over the Kiomru stream in Chaglagam.
How often has the PLA crossed the LAC?
From 2016 to 2019, India reported 1,025 transgressions of the LAC, followed by another 110 in 2020 — but the question isn’t as easy to answer as it might appear. For one, there is no agreed Line of Actual Control. Indeed, neither country has published a map. In general, India asserts that the LAC ought to run along mountain ridgelines. China says that it ought to follow rivers.
To make matters more complex, China has never recognised the so-called McMahon Line, which India asserts is the border. As such, it claims all of Arunachal Pradesh to be its territory (see map).
Indeed, both countries still engage in cartographic innovation. China recently renamed several parts of Arunachal, and has steadily expanded its claimed borders. India has done the same, on a more modest scale. For example, newer Indian maps have expanded India’s territorial claims in the so-called Fishtails region of eastern Arunachal Pradesh.
In comparison with Ladakh or even Sikkim, though, the China-India LAC in Arunachal Pradesh has been relatively settled, with friction restricted to small stretches of territory near Longju, Asaphila and the Fishtails.
The Indian Army and PLA have, in these contested areas, often evolved protocols, allowing troops to patrol across each others’ lines on designated days, thus avoiding face-offs.
The last significant friction in Arunachal Pradesh took place in 2018, when the Army briefly seized earthmovers being used by the PLA to construct roadworks on the Indian-claimed side of the LAC. The incident, which came just four months after the Doklam crisis, was peacefully resolved.
Why is the LAC in Arunachal so important?
The reason is simple: China insists that Arunachal Pradesh is all its territory. The first shots of the 1962 India-China War were in fact fired in 1959, near Longju — not far from where Taron disappeared — when the PLA overran a post held by the 9 Assam Rifles. The position was never reoccupied; the Indian Army set up a fresh position about 10 km to the south.
The genesis of the problem lies in India’s colonial past. For most of imperial Britain’s rule, it made little effort to extend its control over the independent Adivasi communities to the north of the Brahmaputra valley.
From the late 19th century, though, Britain became concerned about possible Russian influence in Tibet — and China, in turn, worried about British expansionism, began tightening its hold over the region.
In 1913, Britain decided to extend its rule over Adivasi tribes in the region. At a conference in Shimla, then-foreign secretary Henry McMahon famously drew a line in thick red ink across a small-scale map, asserting it to mark imperial Britain’s frontier with Tibet.
China never accepted the McMahon line; although Tibet’s representative at the conference accepted, it soon resiled. Indeed, even the Dalai Lama accepted Arunachal Pradesh’s status as part of India only in 2008. Areas like Tawang, home to a famous monastery, were under Tibetan control until 1951.
The 1962 war saw China make significant territorial gains in several parts of Arunachal, like Se La, Bomdila, Lonju and Walong. Following the war, though, China withdrew from these areas (see map) and India slowly reasserted control.
Last year, in the wake of media reports that China had built a new model village called Migyitun, near Longju, military officials and experts responded by noting that the territory had in fact been held by the PLA for at least six decades.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)