NITI: Encountering the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is nothing new for the shepherds of Lapthal and Barahoti along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Sabari Ram has been running into them for a decade whenever he goes up to the grazing lands.
For many shepherds like him in the pasture lands close to the MacMahon Line, being abused and threatened by Chinese boots is a regular affair. The PLA troopers destroy their temporary shelters, throw away their rations and utensils. It’s the PLA’s way of staking claim to this territory.
On July 26 this year, Chinese troops transgressed a kilometre into India and came up against the usual lot of shepherds grazing their flock. This year, they were particularly aggressive.
“I was on my way to Barahoti when I got to know that Chinese soldiers had abused and shoved some shepherds around,” said Sabari Ram. “They threw away their rations (salt and rice) and destroyed their temporary shelters.”
Shepherd Hari Singh, who returned early from Lapthal, said the PLA soldiers not only pulled down the tents as usual, they set fire to them. “They were so aggressive I thought they would kill us.''
Shepherds have to take a permit from the sub-divisional magistrate at Joshimath before proceeding to Barahoti and Lapthal, some 400 km from Dehradun, to graze their sheep. The permits are three to four months. Grazing begins after the snows melt in April-May.
New Indian Express caught up with some shepherds near Gamsali village where they had pitched camp for the night. All of them said they detected a change in the Chinese soldiers’ behaviour this year and thought that a war was likely.
Sitap Singh, who returned from Barahoti, said he decided to remain well inside Indian territory after learning from other shepherds that the Chinese troopers appeared very edgy this time. “I thought a war was imminent,” he said.
Whenever the shepherds go to the higher reaches of Barahoti or Lapthal, they carry enough stocks of rice and salt to sustain themselves for four months. Belonging to the Bhotiya tribe, who are mostly shepherds and goat herders, they eat rice with meat, preferably goat or sheep. A ferocious Bhotiya dog accompanies each shepherd to protect the flock from leopards.
According to ITBP and local police officials, Barahoti is a bowl-shaped area where Indian troops are entrenched in one corner and the Chinese in the other. In between the two sides is pasture land where the shepherds graze their sheep. Each time a group of shepherds move into the pasture land, the PLA troopers come stomping in and scare them away. This has been the case since the 1962 war.
In recent years, the number of Chinese incursions in Uttarakhand has been on the rise. In 2013, the then chief minister Vijay Bahuguna informed New Delhi that there were 37 incursions between 2007 and 2012 in the Barahoti area alone. The fact remains that the Centre downplayed these incursions.
“Chinese incursions happen so regularly that even the Centre hardly takes cognizance of it, often referring it to as minor breaches,” said a police officer in Chamoli district who says hundreds of such transgressions by Chinese have taken place since 1962.
For the shepherds of Niti valley, Malari, Gamsali, Tapovan and Suraithota, access to the pasture land in the disputed zone is a necessity. The grass on the higher reaches is of the best quality and the climate fattnes up their animals and they get a good price in the market. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Army would rather have them graze their animals up there because they come back with first hand information on any Chinese incursion. ''If this area is uninhabited for long, it would give China free rein,'' an official said.
The shepherds are up at Barahoti for six months between April and September, and withdraw when it gets cold. Only the shepherds are allowed to go up, says Yogendra Singh, the sub-divisional magistrate at Joshimath.
Another advantage is that the shepherds understand a bit of Chinese as it is similar to their language of Rongba.
Nomads on the border
The shepherds of Barahoti belong to the nomadic Bhotiya tribe. Once the Bhotiyas used to live all along the border of India and Tibet and used to trade in wool and salt between the two places. Till 1962, a large number of Bhotiya caravans of mules and yaks used to travel into Tibet laden with Indian goods when the snow melted. They would barter these goods for Tibetan merchandise to be sold in India.
The Indo-Tibetan border was closed in 1962 after which the Bhotia tribe moved across into India. Even now, besides grazing sheep in Barahoti, they still visit Parvati Kund, an area close to the LAC where a temple is located and all locals worship it. The Chinese troopers are often seen close to Parvati Kund where many people from Tibet too come to worship on their side.