by Ajai Shukla and Sonia Trikha Shukla
Business Standard, 4th May 13
This map does not reflect India's claims or actual holding, but accurately represents the area
Even for the most intrepid helicopter pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF), flying a sortie to the desolate outpost of Daulat Beg Oldi on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, has always meant pushing the limits. Wing Commander Abdul Hanfee, who had won a Vir Chakra for his devil-may-care flying in Siachen, would take off from the Siachen Base Camp with his Mi-17 helicopter loaded with rations and fuel and set course for Saser La, the towering 17,753-foot pass on the Karakoram range. With the helicopter rotors shuddering as they clawed through the thin air, Hanfee would look down from his cockpit as he flew over the pass, still littered with the bones of camels, ponies and human wayfarers --- the detritus of a bygone era when arbitrary frontiers had not disrupted centuries-old patterns of trade and connectivity.
This was the Old Silk Route that connected Ladakh and Kashmir with Xinjiang --- now, like Tibet, an “autonomous region” of China. Well into the 20th century, camel caravans laden with silk, jade and hemp would set out from Yarkand and Khotan in East Turkestan, and travel to Leh and Kashmir from where they would bring back Pashmina wool, Kashmiri zafran (saffron), tea and calligraphy. After crossing the Karakoram Pass into India, the traders would leave their camels at what is now Daulat Beg Oldi, and transfer their goods onto pack ponies for the cruel journey over the Saser La into the more hospitable Shyok river valley that led on to Leh, Turtok or Srinagar. For the merchants and pilgrims who carried considerable sums in gold and silver, the treacherous Karakoram was far less hazardous than the robber bands and insecurity on the other route to Central Asia through Punjab and Afghanistan.
This isolation has defeated even the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which has laboured for over a decade, so far unsuccessfully, to build an all-weather road over Saser La that will connect Daulat Beg Oldi (or DBO, in military phraseology) with Leh, Partapur and Kargil. The BRO has failed equally in bringing another road northwards to DBO from the Pangong Tso Lake, along the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Without road links to the rest of Ladakh, DBO remains an isolated enclave across the Karakoram and Ladakh ranges, dependent upon the IAF for food, fuel, ammunition and quick troop replenishments. Going there on foot involves an exhausting five-day march at altitudes that would exhaust an ibex. The military calls this enclave Sub-Sector North (SSN) and regards it as crucial for the defence of Siachen and Leh.
According to Lt Gen Kamleshwar Davar, a former commander of 3 Infantry Division under which this area comes, “SSN has major strategic value for India. If the Chinese were to come up to Saser La, our control over the Siachen Glacier would be seriously compromised since Saser La overlooks that area. SSN provides a protective buffer to the Siachen sector and also provides depth to the northeastern approaches to Leh. Furthermore, SSN is our land access to Central Asia, along the Old Silk Route through the Karakoram Pass.”
Now, India’s control over SSN is being challenged by the increasingly assertive presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). On Apr 15 the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP), which holds and patrols SSN, discovered four Chinese tents pitched on a flat area called the Depsang Plain, with 30-40 uniformed Chinese personnel in the camp well inside the Indian side of the LAC. New Delhi was informed and the MEA contacted the Chinese Foreign Minister to activate a joint consultative mechanism that was set up in 2011 to resolve border incidents like this one. On Apr 18, the Chinese ambassador to India was called to the MEA and conveyed India’s concerns. But to little avail; in three flag meetings held on Apr 18, 23 and 30, the PLA has conveyed a simple message: its patrol has not violated the LAC; but it will withdraw if the Indian Army dismantles bunkers that it has built in two places near Chushul, in southeastern Ladakh.