KUPUP (EAST SIKKIM): For India, the standoff at Doka La was not just about the plateau at the India--Tibet-Bhutan trijunction. Its unblinking resolve through the 72 days was due in equal measure to the strategic value of Siliguri, which connects India's Northeast with the rest of the country. Every inch given to China compromises India's security in the Northeast, and therefore the road at Doka La had to be resisted.
Military officials in East Sikkim say the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has elaborate artillery arrangements in place along the Line of Actual Control, and Siliguri lies well within a range of their big guns.
"The standoff was not about Doklam. The Chinese target was not Sikkim or Bhutan. They had already recognised Sikkim as a part of India in 2003, and invading an independent country like Bhutan was out of the question at the present time. The Chinese wanted to place their big guns at greater heights on the Doka La plateau so that Siliguri comes closer in their sights and they can use that as a psychological arm-twisting tactic against India," explained a senior military official of the Eastern Command.
With China establishing rail connectivity right up to Lhasa and working to extend it till Zhangmu on the Tibet-Nepal border, they would be able to easily bring in long-range missiles at short notice to the frontline at Doka La, Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim within less than 12 hours. The better road conditions in Tibet compared to Sikkim would enable swifter movement of troops and armoured vehicles.
If the 27-km Chicken's Neck corridor south of Siliguri between Phansidewa on the Indo-Bangladesh border and Galgalia on the Indo-Nepal border gets cut off due to Chinese bombardment of road and railway networks, the seven states of the Northeast, northern parts of West Bengal and Sikkim would become an open field for the PLA.
Unrest in the Northeast always plays to China's advantage. For more than five decades, insurgent groups there have been supported in some form or the other by China. The very first of these Chinese-sponsored insurgencies was the Naga insurgency in the early 1960s. Naga insurgents were known to have been trained by the PLA in Kunming in China's southwestern Yunnan province. The preferred route for the insurgents to PLA training centres was through areas held by the Kachin Independence Army in northern Myanmar.
Political observers saw the beginning of Naga insurgency as a Chinese strategy to wage a proxy tactic against India after the 1962 war. The Chinese smalls arms industry, one of the largest in the world, exports huge quantities of small arms to northern Myanmar, which in turn are smuggled into the Northeast, fuelling agitations and insurgencies.
Cut to 2017, the same Kachin Independence Army-held areas still host an estimated 5,000 insurgents of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) of Assam, NSCN (K) of Nagaland and PREPAK, UNLF and PLA of Manipur. The unification of these insurgent groups of the Northeast under an umbrella group called the United Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNFWSA) was also allegedly facilitated by China. Formed on April 24, 2015, UNFWSA was behind the deadliest attack in Manipur in 30 years, claiming the lives of 18 Indian jawans.
For India therefore, securing the Siliguri area, described by many as the 'umbilical cord', would be of utmost priority.
So while the Doka La standoff has seemingly ended, India's security concerns over Siliguri would continue to exist. One senior military official says it's time to move the BrahMos missiles to Sikkim as a deterrent: "Like we have moved BrahMos missiles into Arunachal Pradesh, we should move BrahMos and other long-range missiles to Sikkim so that they act as a deterrent against Chinese aggression in this sector."