Leh (Ladakh): The violent faceoff with China that left 20 Indian soldiers dead in Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley on 15 June shocked the world and the country in equal measure.
But as India and China lock horns in a dangerous flare-up not seen in decades, several local leaders in Ladakh and villagers along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) said the writing was on the wall.
Speaking to ThePrint, local leaders claimed that the Chinese have been intruding into Indian land for years, and that they had raised red flags with authorities at all levels — from the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), which governs the region, to BJP MP from Ladakh Jamyang Tsering Namgyal and even the central government.
Their concerns and red flags, they added, were ignored time and again, though LAHDC chairperson Gyal P. Wangyal said the council never received any such input from any local leader.
‘Chinese prevent nomads from grazing on Indian land’
Ladakhis living along the border areas claim that they have been losing their grazing land due to increased Chinese presence for the last many years.
Spearheading the cause of the nomads has been the Nyoma Block Development Council Chairperson Urgain Chodon, who in a series of Facebook posts since last year has claimed that the Chinese were increasingly threatening nomads in the Nyoma block.
The Nyoma block abuts the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and is about 60 km from Pangong Lake.
The Facebook posts by Chodon, a BJP leader from a nomadic family, date back to May 2019.
Four days before the Galwan Valley attack, on 11 June, she had shared her earlier post from 11 July 2019, in which she had written that Chinese PLA soldiers had entered 6 km into Indian territory at Dhola village in Nyoma Block, unfurled their national flag and stopped locals from hoisting the Indian, Tibetan, and Buddhist flags to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The post also says that later in December 2019, they claimed the adjoining land as theirs.
In another post on Facebook, she said PLA soldiers had threatened villagers and warned them against grazing in territory that they claimed was Chinese land.
“Not just for the past couple of months, I have been raising these concerns since 2015,” Chodon told ThePrint. “As recently as April, I posted about how we noticed 300-350 Chinese vehicular movement but I deleted the posts later because I was told my posts are creating panic.”
Konchok Stanzin, executive councillor, LAHDC, also of the BJP, too acknowledged that small flashpoints have been occurring for a couple of years now. “There have been small skirmishes over Chinese flags and banners being unfurled in Chumul, Demchok (at Nyoma Block), Chushul (at adjoining Durbuk Block) and even Pangong since 2017. But they have been short-lived and have been resolved locally,” he said.
Not just local BJP leaders, even Congress leaders have claimed that Chinese presence has only increased over the years.
Rigzin Spalbar, former chief executive chairman of the LAHDC, said a canal he inaugurated in Demchok in 2013 was occupied by the Chinese in 2018. “I inaugurated the canal on Gandhi Jayanti in 2013,” he said. “In 2018, the Chinese were sitting over there and had taken away our nomads’ summer pasture land. What more proof do you want?”
Not just leaders, but locals too have raised concerns about increased Chinese presence on Indian grazing lands. A local resident from Changthang region’s Phobrang village, about 15 km from Pangong Lake, told ThePrint that his family has been stopped by Chinese from grazing their herds.
“Earlier my family could go as far as the Green Top area near the LAC to graze our herd. But then the Chinese began stopping us,” said the resident, who didn’t want to be named. “My father used to say that he would earlier see the Chinese below Green Top Hill, now they’re right on top of Green Top Hill so we stopped grazing there.”
Green Top Hill is above the finger area of Pangong Lake.
Top leadership ‘ignored’ concerns
Local Ladakh leaders claimed that they have raised these concerns with the top leadership-even as high as the local MP, the defence minister and even the Prime Minister, but to no avail.
“Every year Chinese have been moving inch by inch towards Finger 4. We have raised these concerns that China is moving in and our nomads are not being allowed to move — not just with the LAHDC chairperson but also with former J&K Governor Satyapal Malik, present Ladakh L-G R.K. Mathur, MP Namgyal and even the PM when he visited in 2019,” said Tashi Namgyal, councillor of Tangtse constituency, to ThePrint. “We have given reports but we don’t know what has happened.”
According to New Delhi’s claims, Finger 4 on the northern bank of the Pangong Lake is part of Indian territory as India’s claim line is at Finger 8.
Local leaders claimed that they have been raising this issue for years. “In August 2015, when then defence minister Manohar Parrikar visited Leh, I informed him about increasing Chinese presence and how they were not allowing our nomads to graze their herds by occupying areas near the border,” said the Congress’ Spalbar. “The Army’s GoC Northern Command was also present when I brought this to the Minister’s notice. But nothing came off it.”
Residents claimed that when MP Namgyal visited Changthang last year, they wanted to take him to show the exact spots where the Chinese had allegedly come in. “When the MP visited earlier this year, we wanted to show him the spot where Chinese had come in and were not allowing us nomads to graze our herds,” said the local resident from Changthang. “But since it was 40 km away, the Army did not allow.”
LAHDC chairperson Gyal P. Wangyal, however, denied receiving any such input from any local leader. “We have not ignored any red flags. I don’t know how they have made such claims. My source reports don’t claim any such instances. PM Modi too has said there has been no territory claimed by the Chinese and we should believe him,” Wangyal said in an interview to ThePrint.
ThePrint tried to reach MP Namgyal over phone and through WhatsApp messages for a comment but he did not respond. This report will be updated if he replies.
‘Allow our nomads to move freely to avoid Chinese occupation’
The way out of “the Chinese inch-by-inch occupation”, local leaders said, was to allow Ladakhi nomads to graze in their traditional pastures in areas close to the LAC.
“The biggest issue is that the Army is stopping our nomads from going to traditional pasturelands citing security,” Spalbar said. “When China sees there are no nomads, they send their nomads from Tibet. Our Army doesn’t object and our nomads aren’t there so then the PLA soldiers come in and pitch tents and set up camps.”
Some leaders also claimed that ITBP and Army personnel often look at villagers with suspicion and stop them from proceeding further. “Instead of looking at villagers with suspicion, the government should ensure nomads aren’t stopped,” Tashi Namgyal said. “Look at China, they always send their nomads first and then PLA soldiers follow. The government must come up with a similar policy.”
The leaders also said the time is ripe to acknowledge the role of nomads in border villages in maintaining national security. “Nomads are the vanguards of our borders. Big words like patriotism and nationalism are used but when it comes to the issue of borders only border people are bothered,” Chodon said. “Nobody comes to our aid. We have been losing our land for years but nobody cares.”
Army sources in the Northern Command, however, told ThePrint that nomads were never stopped from carrying out their grazing activity. “Army has never stopped them and Indian grazers are continuing their activities unhindered in these areas.”