NITI: While the Army was moving its artillery and men to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at the height of the Doklam standoff faraway in Sikkim, villagers here were honing their axes. The men and women of Niti, the last Indian village 26 km from the China border, geared up to fight should the anticipated ‘limited hostilities’ break out here instead.
“When the Doklam tension began, we knew there would be an impact on this border as well. But there was no question of abandoning our village. We fear nothing,'' said Ashish Rana, the pradhan or head of Niti.
Located at the rarefied height of 3,600 m above sea level, Niti is an example of the out-migration endemic to border villages in Uttarakhand. The only people left in this scenic village are the elderly, the younger lot having gone to the plains to find livelihoods. Till a few years ago, there used to be 450 families, or 1200 people, living here. Now they are down to a handful, 70 or so, most aged over 60.
The prospect of war seemed to have roused Niti from its slumber. Some residents who had moved down to Dehradun and Rishikesh even came back to take their axes.
Sixty-six-year-old Asha Devi smiles as she talks about her axe. “Most of us have axes. I made mine razor sharp. We asked the district administration to train us in the use of weapons.”
While axes might add only sentimental value to the artillery, Asha Devi says the people of Niti could do more. For these are expert trackers with extraordinary outdoor skills of survival in the wild for months not days. “Had there been a war, we would have been of great use to the forces. We know only to move forward with our kulhadis (axes),” says Asha Devi.
These villagers belong to the Bhotiya tribe. They used to trade with Tibet before the border was closed after the 1962 war with China. The Bhotiyas are known to be humble people but strong mentally and physically.
At the height of the Dokalam standoff, when diversionary incursions by China were possible here, the district administration suggested to the villagers that they might have to move. They were strongly rebuffed. “We were asked to be prepared to vacate the village in case war breaks out. We told them no without a second thought,'' one villager said.
One woman, aged 61, said says it’s common for people in the Barahuti region to come face to face with Chinese soldiers. “Even they know that we Bhotiya people simply don't give up,'' she said.
Niti is populated for only six months of the year. When the snow starts falling in October-November and it gets impossible to live here, its people move to the plains to Joshimath, Hardwar, Rishikesh or Dehradun where their children live. They come back up after the snow melts in May.
This time, when the Doklam standoff seemed to be turning serious, the elders living here were importuned to return to safety in the plains. “Our children wanted us out of here, but we refused. We will live and die here come what may. This is our village and we will defend it at any cost,'' said Aashish, whose family resides in Dehradun.
In the final analysis, nothing came out of Doklam but Niti did get something out of the whole experience. Ashish said, “We needed hour-to-hour information about the developments between both countries. So we pooled in money and bought a television set and dish antenna. This is the first TV set in our village.”