COVER STORY

Valleys of vigil

Doklam standoff has brought an urgency to India’s building plans. Will it suffice?

40-indian-troopers-crossing On their toes: Indian troopers crossing a quickly-made bridge on long-range patrol that lasts 25 to 28 days | R. Prasannan

From atop the hills of Kibithu near Kahoo village in Anjaw district of Arunachal, Pesha Meyer can see the new Chinese camp at Tatu, across the line of actual control (LAC). At 71, his eyesight is not as good as it was in 1962 when he had spotted the Chinese coming through Dichu Pass, guns blazing. He had then fled the village with family.

If it took Indian troops 12 days to march from Teju to Walong (Arunachal) in 1962, there hasn’t been much improvement since.
The rail lines from mainland China have already reached Chumbi Valley, bordering Sikkim, and in Nyingchi across Arunachal.

Kibithu, the easternmost point on the undelineated LAC, 40km short of the tri-junction with Myanmar, was at the heart of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The Chinese struck Kibithu and Walong with several thousand troops for a break-in battle into eastern Arunachal, then called NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency), but a few hundred men from 6 Kumaon, 4 Sikh and 2/8 Gurkhas put up such fierce resistance that the Chinese had to beat back, leaving 800 of their men dead. As a major in the Sikh Light Infantry battalion, who currently guards Meyer’s village of 11 homes and the Kibithu sector, said, “There were stories of guts, too, in 1962.”

Now, 56 years later, the Indian Army still relies largely on its troopers’ guts to defend Kahoo village, the Kibithu sector, the district of Anjaw, the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the republic of India. Kibithu is still connected to the rest of India with nothing more than mule tracks, a footbridge dangling over the cascading Lohit river which a company of troops will take 40 minutes to cross, a country road that gets blocked by landslides for more than 200 days a year and that can barely take a 130mm towed light cannon, and no phone line. Two recent attempts to move the heavier 155mm Bofors guns failed, as the bends on the road are too narrow.

Top guard: Chinese soldiers on patrol in Ngari Prefecture, located in the western part of the Tibet Autonomous Region | Getty Images Top guard: Chinese soldiers on patrol in Ngari Prefecture, located in the western part of the Tibet Autonomous Region | Getty Images

But, at Tatu, across the LAC, Meyer has been noticing the Chinese camp grow into a little township with three-storeyed buildings, a communication tower, telephone poles, and a two-lane metalled road bringing huge trucks from Rau transit point in the rear. The Chinese do very little patrolling, knowing perhaps that India would not launch an attack, or because they keep tabs on the Indian troops in Arunachal through electronic means. The latter seems more probable, because “they have radomes,” said an army officer. Moreover, with no towers for hundreds of miles, Indian phones do not work in Kibithu, but the cellphones catch Chinese signals and switch to China Standard Time.

Indian troops still guard their turf much the same way as they did in 1962. Indeed, LORROS (Long-range Reconnaissance and Observation System) and battlefield surveillance radars have come in recent years (“we can see as deep as 16km,” said the officer), but the infantrymen cannot leave the jungle district to electronic defence. They are constantly on patrol, each of which lasts 20 to 25 days, walking or climbing about 90km in pouring rain that lasts 10 days at a stretch, carrying 22.38kg of arms, ammunition, rations, torch, radio and tentage (see graphics). They get bitten by snakes, brushed by poisonous snails, bled by leeches, or fall off cliffs and burma bridges.

There is no rest even in winter, when the snow blocks most passes. “Dichu is the only pass that remains open through the year,” said inspector D. Karunakar, in charge of an Indo-Tibetan Border Police post near Dichu. But the spirits of the hundreds of Kumaonis, Sikhs and Gurkhas who fell in 1962, and are honoured at the Walong memorial, have inspired the men to put up a large sign at Kibithu, which reads: “They shall not pass.”

Occasionally, they see signs of the Chinese having patrolled. There are two kinds of areas—sensitive and disputed. Sensitive areas are those that are not acknowledged by either side. They are patrolled, but not penned down so on any record. Disputed areas are where both sides acknowledge that a dispute exists.

All in a day’s work: An Indian infantryman climbs a rock during a long-range patrol duty | R. Prasannan All in a day’s work: An Indian infantryman climbs a rock during a long-range patrol duty | R. Prasannan

Patrolmen have instructions, based on advice given by the foreign office, on the limits to which they can go. For example, there are two hills near Kibithu which are no-go, “but if we come to know that the Chinese have come there, we too go there and tell them to get back. That is called transgression, after which we ask for a border point meeting,” said the Sikh Light officer.

Border point meetings take place eight times a year—six ceremonial (Independence Day, Baisakhi, Diwali, etc) and two scheduled. In addition, there is provision for brigade-level flag meetings on each other’s request over hotline. Transgression charges are raised against each other, but neither side would mention the name of the spot where transgression had occurred; instead they identify the spot by giving the distance from the meeting point.

Indian troops have stepped up patrolling since Doklam, and that is leading to more accusations of transgression—426 incidents in 2017 against 273 in 2016. The Chinese, too, have been fortifying the Tatu defences, building ditches, bunkers and communication posts. “The strength of the Tatu camp has gone up by at least 20 persons, after Doklam,” said an officer in the Dinjan-based 2 Mountain Division, India’s easternmost infantry division that is tasked with defending a mountain country against a conventional enemy, and a jungle terrain against insurgents. “Our assessment is that there are chances of face-offs and transgressions in at least half of the 23 disputed and sensitive areas on the 4,057km LAC, stretching from eastern Ladakh to the tri-junction in Arunachal.”

The Dinjan Division, which looks after 54,000sqkm of mountain, jungle and plains country—altitudes varying from 300ft to 16,000ft—has one artillery and two infantry brigades against the Chinese, and an Assam Rifles unit to take care of insurgency in upper Assam. It falls under the Dimapur (Spear) Corps, India’s largest corps that takes care of about 80 per cent of the Arunachal front. Then there are the Tezpur Corps and the Siliguri Corps, which look after the rest of Arunachal, Bhutan and Sikkim. A new strike corps, sanctioned by the United Progressive Alliance regime, is still being raised.

THE EVER-OPEN DICHU is one of the six spots that are considered potential flashpoints in the east, the others being Namkha Chu, Asaphila, Yangtse, Dibang (which has two hotspots called Fish Tail I and II) and Sumdorong Chu, where a standoff had almost led to war in 1987. In the middle sector, looked after by the Siliguri Corps and the Tezpur Corps, the disputed areas are Barahoti, Kaurik and Shipki La. In the western sector in Ladakh, the sensitive points are Trig Heights, Dumchele, Spanggur Gap, Pangong Tso, Demchok and Chumar, where standoffs have taken place in the last five years.

Arm, aim: A combatant of Rajputana Rifles near the LAC | R. Prasannan Arm, aim: A combatant of Rajputana Rifles near the LAC | R. Prasannan

If it took 12 days to march from Teju to Walong in 1962, there has not been much improvement since. Indeed, the recently-opened 9km-long Bhupen Hazarika (Dhola-Sadiya) bridge, India’s longest, has cut strategic movement time by six hours, but tactical military movement closer to the border is still a nightmare. Because of the steep climb of the road, trucks cannot carry their full weight; a 5-tonner carries only 3 to 3.4 tonnes uphill.

The eastern sector is divided into several valleys—Lohit, Dibang, Siang and so on—each taking its name from the river that flows through it north to south. Every valley has a road running almost parallel to the river. Thus, supplies and troops can move from the bases in the southern plains to the posts on the northern reaches whenever weather permits and the hill slopes hold back landslides. The road up to Kibithu in the Lohit valley gets blocked often during the rains. It rains for about eight months in the upper reaches, causing frequent landslides, and rains could last ten days at a stretch, making even clearance of landslides and patrolling impossible. Indeed, the Indian Air Force has recently upgraded seven advance landing grounds (ALGs) in Arunachal—Walong, Mechuka, Vijoynagar, Tuting, Pasighat, Ziro and Aalo. The ALG in Tawang is getting readied to take the C-130J Super Hercules, but with weather being bad most of the days, air supplies are infrequent.

The big worry is that there are still no inter-valley roads, which means if men and material have to move from one valley to another, they have to move south all the way to the plains, and then move up north the other valley. Militaries give much importance to manoeuvre, but since there are no roads linking one valley to another, it is simply impossible to manoeuvre in the valleys or move troops from other valleys to the one that is under threat. In effect, the troops are boxed in their own valleys, and that is not a happy situation for any army. “Even if a patrol has to go from one valley to another, it will take 17 days,” said Lt Gen (retd) S.L. Narasimhan, member of the National Security Advisory Board who had commanded the 3 Corps. There is just one bridge across the Lohit in the valley at Chakwanti, and the other valleys are no better. The worry is: what if the enemy hits one valley with a mighty force?

The terrain on the Chinese side is much the same, but the Chinese are overcoming it with massive engineering efforts, a taste of which the Indian Army recently got at Doklam. Roads and rail lines are being built all across Tibet—the rail lines from the mainland have already reached the Chumbi Valley (where the Indian Army still enjoys immense tactical advantage), bordering Sikkim, and in Nyingchi across Arunachal. The Yanga-Nyingchi railway to the Arunachal border, the Shigatse-Yadong railway to the Chumbi Valley and the Shigatse-Gyirong railway to the Nepal border are expected to be completed in a year. The 430km Lhasa-Nyingchi line, running close to the Arunachal border, is expected to be completed by 2021. These lines will be able to bring in several divisions in short time from mainland China.

Several roads being built over 82,000km, criss-crossing the Tibetan plateau, are in various stages of completion, and the last two towns in Tibet—Gyalasa and Gandeng in Medog county that borders Arunachal—will be connected to the highway network in a year. The highway from Chengdu to Nyingchi, which the Chinese claim to be part of South Tibet that includes Arunachal and is just about 35km from the LAC, is now complete.

At the tactical level across Kibithu, “they are improving the infrastructure on the 20km Tatu-Rima route,” said Narasimhan. “They want to connect all passes. It is easier to build there. We understand that they build up to 300m a day with [earthmovers], which we can’t match.” Their inter-valley roads are also closer to the LAC, than are the roads on the Indian side.

The Chinese also have a topographical advantage. They have a river valley running parallel to the LAC, and they have built a road, S 306, in this river valley. “Which means the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] can move troops from any sector to any other, and apply pressure on the Indian defences,” said Narasimhan.

INDEED, THE DOKLAM standoff has given an urgency to India’s building plans. As minister of state for defence Subhash Bhamre told Parliament recently, “Seventy-three roads are identified as strategic Indo-China Border Roads, out of which 61... have been entrusted to Border Roads Organisation with a length of 3,417.50km.” Several of these will be inter-valley roads, along with bridges for about 780km, which would be completed by 2022. “We are building a permanent bridge across the Lohit and [will] take back the Bailey bridge by April. Then, 17 bridges are planned to be built across the nullahs in the Lohit valley,” said Col Rajeev Dhingra, commander of a BRO task force in the sector. Two inter-valley roads are also being planned from Lohit valley to Dibang valley (165km), and Hylong to Hunti, of which some 30km has already been cut, and will be ready by 2024. “It is not easy. In the first 15km itself, I have to build 11 bridges,” said Col Dhingra. “For now, they will be Bailey bridges,” added Maj Arun Nair, who incidentally has a bridge named after him at Gunji, on the traditional Manasarovar route. One big relief is that the bridge-building decision can now be taken by chief engineers (brigadier level) who have been vested with financial power up to Rs 50 crore.

However, funds are a problem. The budget for 2018-19 has been a big dampener, as was made clear by defence secretary Sanjay Mitra to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, while talking of the construction of Sela tunnel. “There are problems, obviously,” said Mitra. “Particularly in this case, if we get additional support, we will be in a position to make a big impact on the Indo-China border road. If you are aware, finance minister [Arun Jaitley] told us to make Sela Pass [tunnel]. If we have to do this project, we will need additional funds.”

Though the Doklam standoff did not spin out of control as Sumdorong Chu had in 1987, it has prompted the security establishment to look closely at the eastern sector. And, the look has given them a shock. For, till now, it was generally assumed that with the raising of two divisions, and the ongoing raising of a new mountain strike corps during the UPA regime, Arunachal had become a virtual fortress, and that the chinks were in the western sector. The major incidents, such as Chumar and Demchok, had also been happening in the western sector. But post Doklam, there is a realisation that the east, too, needs far superior infrastructure for the new posture of aggressive defence to be effective, especially given the fast pace at which the Chinese are building up the Tibetan frontiers. The concerns have been taken to the highest level. There have been a spate of visits to the borders by senior army officers, as also the defence secretary, the minister of state for defence and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Indeed, road, rail and air assets are being built up, but the pace is slow. Four strategic railway lines are going to be built (see graphics), of which two will be in the east. Sukhois have come to Hasimara (West Bengal), Chabua and Tezpur (Assam), and Brahmos cruise missile to a classified spot. The assumption is that in the event of a conflict, both will launch air strikes first—the IAF targeting the rail line, roads and airfields in Tibet, and the PLA air force aiming at IAF’s airfields. But, with the air squadrons having depleted from 38 to just about 30, the concern is whether the IAF will have enough of them available in the east.

The Chinese have a dozen airfields along the Indian border, including one at Nyingchi, but “they are unlikely to operate from Nyingchi, considering that it is too close and vulnerable to strikes from us,” said an officer at the division headquarters. The IAF has recently upgraded about seven ALGs in Arunachal, but given the fact that it rains most of the year, the ground forces are loathe to rely on helicopter supplies. Tuting has been upgraded recently to take the huge C-17 Globemaster, which can carry tonnes of material and troops. But, few others like the one at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and Daulet Beg Oldi in Ladakh in the west can take fixed-wing aircraft.

Faced with a resource crunch, civilian building efforts, too, are being optimised. The tourism ministry is inviting visitors to Tawang valley, Ziro, Bomdila and other places. Entry rules under the ‘protected area permit regime’ are being eased. “The effort is to open up Arunachal Pradesh to more tourists,” tourism secretary Rashmi Verma told THE WEEK. “Apart from Tawang, we are also looking at Dibang valley in eastern Arunachal.” The tourism and civil aviation ministries are thus spending to build infrastructure that should complement the defence ministry’s. The civil aviation ministry has identified 24 airports and helipads to be upgraded in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, of which nine are in Arunachal. Sikkim thus has got its first airport recently at Pakyong, and Tezu in Arunachal has also been upgraded.

But the concern is: would all this amount to too little too late, considering the speed with which the Chinese are building in Tibet?