Srinagar: There’s a good chance you have seen pictures or videos of Pangong Tso, with its crystal-blue water framed by imposing, barren peaks. It’s the first image most people think of when they hear ‘Ladakh’, especially since 2009, when the climax of the popular Bollywood film 3 Idiots was shot there.
Over the last 11 years, the world’s highest saltwater lake (tso means lake in the Tibetan language) has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ladakh, with tens of thousands of people thronging its shores and taking pictures and selfies.
But the pristine beauty of Pangong Tso has a problem underneath the surface, speaking figuratively — a deep territorial discord between India and China that has come to the fore with the incursions by Chinese soldiers in May.
ThePrint examines the history of this international dispute, and its impact on the Pangong Lake.
Conflict amid the serenity
The de facto border between India and China in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and now in the union territory of Ladakh is the Line of Actual Control. This was actually the informal cease-fire line after the 1962 war, and in 1993, was accepted as the LAC in a bilateral agreement. But the claim lines for both countries are still different, leading to numerous flare-ups from time to time.
The LAC doesn’t just run through land, but also through the Pangong Tso — a 135 kilometre-long, narrow, deep and landlocked lake, which covers a total area above 700 square kilometres. The 45 km-long western portion is in Indian control.
The slopes of the barren mountains jut forward into the lake at eight different points, which are officially referred to as “fingers”. India claims that its territory goes until the easternmost finger, that is number 8, whereas Chinese soldiers are now believed to have made incursions till Finger 4.
Prior to the current standoff, videos have appeared showing Indian and Chinese soldiers engaging in fisticuffs and fighting with sticks and stones on the banks of Pangong Tso.
Importance to Ladakh’s ethos
A senior J&K government official, who was part of the Ladakh administration before it was carved out as a separate union territory, said the lake is considered a very important part of the Ladakhi ethos, which is why local people also retaliate against the Chinese army’s intrusions.
“The security forces posted in the region always show restraint, but people of Ladakh always confront the Chinese whenever there is an intrusion attempt,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
“In areas like Demchok and Chushul, a lot of grazing land has been intruded upon by the Chinese. Farmers often approach the local administration to intervene. There are areas which are not inhabited, but locals use them for grazing, and they often confront the Chinese,” said the officer.
While there is very little scholarly work done on the Pangong lake’s history, it has also been important to the people of Ladakh because it produces rock salt that was consumed locally and even exported, according to former Indian diplomat and strategic affairs expert Phunchok Stobdan.
“Besides having a huge strategic importance, the lake has been a source of salt. It’s not only Pangong, but also lakes beyond it that are inland lakes with no origin or end. They do not outflow, but they produce salt,” said Stobdan, India’s former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan.
“There is hardly any documentation of export or import of Ladakh salt, but it was definitely consumed locally. It may have had some mineral value, which was not really studied. Traditionally, rock salt would be used to produce medicines, but it lacked iodine. As a result, people in the region switched over salt available commercially,” he added.
The scarcity of scholarly work is also due to the India-China border dispute and the resulting militarisation of the area.
“With the lake divided between India and China, we have not completely explored the ecology .We don’t know what it is like on the Chinese side. There might be a very alive marshland ecology which we are not aware of. The area might be significant to China for many reasons,” said renowned biologist Dr Raghunandan Chundawat.
The militarisation has also impacted the ecology of Pangong Tso. “If you go on any of the slopes that surround the lake, it is all heavily fortified. All the slopes have army bunkers, structures which damage the environment. The lake might be saline but it has got its own flora and fauna,” Chundawat said.
Military history and strategy
ThePrint asked former Northern Army commander Lt Gen H.S. Panag to explain the start of the military discord between India and China over the Pangong lake.
“According to the original international boundary which we inherited in 1947, we had a larger share of the lake than we have today. What happened is that the Chinese had a claim line that they informed India about in November 1959, and some people call it the 1960 claim line,” Panag said.
“That claim line is close to what the LAC is today, but even before 1962, China had already seized the Khurnak fort area and were only at the Sirijap area where Dhan Singh Thappa fought the famous 1962 battle. This is at ‘Finger 8’, which is in news these days. So now, the LAC runs through Finger 8, while the Chinese claim line is till ‘Finger 4’,” he said.
“China took the lake, from the general area of Khurnak fort, where the international border runs, up to Sirijap in 1962. Basically up to Finger 8. Now, they have taken the area from Finger 8 to Finger 4, and they are not allowing us to patrol up to the LAC,” Panag added.
He further said while the lake, per se, is not an issue and the Chinese could use the water body to attack, they could do the same from the Chushul area too.
“Defences in high altitudes are in the heights, not on canal banks. The main defences will be in the mountains. The north and south bank of the lake will be totally defended in the situation of a hot war,” Panag said.