Before Doklam happened, the importance of ‘Chicken’s Neck’ and Sikkim for India was hardly known beyond the defence circles and rarely figured in the public discourse. The 73-day face-off between the Indian and Chinese soldiers in the summer of 2017 changed that. Today, the country understands how crucial the presence of our troops at the icy heights in Sikkim is to counter the Dragon’s threat. But the challenges they face to guard an area where a Chinese dominance could pose a threat to the integrity of India still remain largely unknown to the people.
It is from their posts in Sikkim that the Indian soldiers keep a vigil on the Chumbi Valley in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Doklam plateau in Bhutan.
Since the Doklam standoff, though China’s attempts at infrastructure expansion in the Chumbi Valley have sparked concerns in New Delhi, a similar urgency to boost its infrastructure has not been seen on the Indian side.
China has territorial advantage, as its terrain is a plateau, making movement of troops and equipment easy.
On the Indian side, the steep altitude tests the endurance of our soldiers and taxes the machines. The lacunae in the infrastructure support for troops makes their task that much more difficult. While China has beefed up its border infrastructure with rail lines, strategic airfields and four-lane all-weather roads, Sikkim is largely dependent on road transport but has no all-weather roads. The state got an airport only recently and that also is mainly for civilian purposes.
No doubt, the presence of tanks, infantry combat vehicle and artillery guns have boosted the defence lines, but there are conspicuous gaps on the ground. Mobility remains a concern when it comes to deployments.
The odds, however, don’t deter the troops from remaining ever alert, and responding to, the mind games played by the Chinese. “We knew about the movement of tanks in Khamba Dzong and Thaksin Gompa. We have our independent plans to counter every anticipated move,” said an officer.
Apart from the inhospitable terrain and the insufficient infrastructure, another adversary that the soldiers have to encounter here is the hostile nature. From Siliguri, Lachen, where this reporter was allowed for the first stage of acclimatisation, is about 200 km and rises to a height of 9,000 ft. From Lachen to Bunker, where the army’s infantry unit is stationed, the height rises to 16,000 ft within 50 km.
“A soldier is kept at Chaten for six days for the first stage of acclimatisation. After that, he has to stay for four days at the height of about 12,000 ft for four days and then for four days at 15,000 ft. This is a must for everyone, otherwise it could lead to serious problems,” says Captain (Dr) Amal Elana, the only doctor posted at height of 12,000 ft. “Nature is supreme here. It is the spirit that keeps everyone going.”
Bunker is a flat plateau. Troops have to carry out their operations amid heavy snow, high speed winds and temperatures that plummet to -20 degree.
Lt Colonel Kapil Kashyap, officiating as the Commanding Officer of the Assam Regiment, says, “We keep an everyday watch at the borders. As per need, we send patrolling teams from here and it all starts at about 3:30 hrs.”
As Dr Elana said, it is the spirit of the soldiers that is their biggest defence against nature.
There are three different valleys towards the TAR, but they are not interconnected. From Lachen, one has to come down to Chungthang before going to the other axis called Lachung, where the Sikh Light Infantry is stationed. These are all single axis roads that pass through landslide prone areas. In winters, snow freezes on the roads. While this reporter was being taken to Bump 4 area close to the Chumbi Valley, 40 men were deployed to clear the ice at one stretch.
Colonel B S Chhikara knows how to keep his men motivated. He lends a helping hand and talks to his men to pep them up. “When difficulties come, we can’t leave it to providence. We are always ready to take on any aggressor against the nation,” he says.
The Gypsy this reporter was travelling in was slipping while wading through the ice, but Sepoy Arvind Chauhan was calm. “I am confident that nothing will go wrong,” he says, adding that the confidence has come from driving in these areas for years.
While returning from Bump 4, Arvind plays the song Ek din bik jayega maati ke mol. It’s truly a salute to the human spirit, and that of the Indian soldier, that the country’s integrity is maintained.
Gaps in Infra support to troops
While China has beefed up its border infrastructure with rail lines, strategic airfields and four-lane all-weather roads, land-locked Sikkim, in the absence of a rail link, is largely dependent on road transport but has no all-weather roads. The state got an airport only recently and that also is mainly for civilian purposes. The lacunae in the infrastructure support for troops posted in the area makes their task that much more difficult
The Doklam face-off
On June 16, 2017, a large construction party of the Chinese Army was seen trying to extend a road in southern Doklam area towards Jampheri Ridge, a territory claimed by Bhutan. Indian soldiers at Doka La post, overlooking the area, sought to dissuade the Chinese as India, under the Friendship Treaty with Bhutan, serves as the security guarantee of its tiny neighbour. The Chinese destroyed two India bunkers in Doka La, while Indian troops stopped the construction. The resulting face-off lasted till August 28.
Why did India intervene?
Though Doklam plateau is in Bhutan, it is located close to the narrow Siliguri Corridor — 60 km at its widest point and 17 km at its narrowest point and hence, also called Chicken’s Neck — which connects mainland India with the Northeast. The road construction in Doklam would have brought the Chinese military close to the Indian border and exposed the Chicken’s Neck, to the Dragon’s threat. China’s dominance in the Doklam plateau could cut off the Northeast from the rest of India in the event of a conflict.
What the Dragon wants
Doklam plateau is where boundaries of Bhutan, India and China meet. Bhutan believes the tri-junction is at a place called Doka La, located in the middle of Doklam plateau. China claims it is at Gamochen, a few km south of Doka La. China’s goal is to shift the tri-junction to Gamochen, the starting point of the Jampheri Ridge overlooking the Siliguri Corridor. This will serve a twin purpose for China: threaten Indian defences in Sikkim and deter its possible foray into Chumbi Valley; and exposing Chicken’s Neck to the Dragon’s threat.