Starting tomorrow, India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, will be undertaking a four-day visit to Uttarakhand. He will also visit three advance border posts in the Barahoti region of Chamoli district. The area has witnessed escalating Chinese incursions; from land, from air, and with increasing depth and frequency. Other than the occasional waxing and waning of the so-called innocent trespassing, these incidents have moved to well-calibrated ingressions involving dropping Chinese cigarettes or chocolate wrappers to painting graffiti on rocks. In June, China’s Z-9 advanced utility and surveillance helicopters had crossed into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in Barahoti.
Singh’s visit also comes close on the heels of the recent standoff at Doklam in the East and a similar incident between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the banks of the high-altitude Pangong Lake in the Ladakh sector in the West.
The Sino-Indian border is divided into three sectors: Western sector, Middle sector, and Eastern sector based. Singh’s visit is important because the middle sector—which is not just most populated but also least contested—has normally figured at the bottom of our list of national priorities.
Otherwise, border visits remain integral to Singh’s engagements, particularly during times of tensions. This time, the minister will visit outposts at Rimkhim (altitude 12,500 feet), Mana (10,500 feet) and Auli (10,200 feet) and interact with soldiers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) who guard border outposts located as high as 14,311 feet. These outposts are not fundamentally different when compared to Bana, the world’s highest outpost at 22,000 feet in Siachen in Kashmir, which remains at the centre of both controversies and celebrations.
Given the historic significance of Kashmir, George Fernandes, the defence minister of the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, paid 32 visits to Siachen, trying to meet every fresh contingent going there every quarter. In the East as well, incursions across the McMahon Line have received far greater attention and regular high-level visits, including visits by successive prime ministers to the strategically significant Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
In the same vein, Rajnath Singh visited the India-Bangladesh border in Tripura in February 2015 followed by a visit to border outposts of West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district and the Tin Bigha corridor in March 2015. In September 2015 he visited ITBP border posts in Samba district in Jammu and also border posts at Thakung, Chushul and Chumar in Ladakh which had been the theatre of China-India military standoff in 2013 and 2014.
Just weeks before the Doklam standoff, Rajnath Singh asked all Himalayan states bordering China to stay vigilant in the face of transgressions resulting from what he called “perceptional differences”. He also visited the Lachung outpost in Nathu La as well as Geyzing and Yuksam, and laid the foundation stone for the Headquarters of Sashastra Seema Bal’s 36th Battalion. He has visited Kashmir several times; including three trips over the last three months.
To address the perennial challenges arising out of lack of infrastructure in border areas, successive governments have been trying to construct about 73 roads of operational significance. According to the last plan of the UPA government, these were to be completed by 2012-2013. By now, only 30 of these roads are believed to be completed and a new deadline has been fixed for December 2022.
Such inordinate delays are mainly blamed on administrative encumbrances in environmental clearances, natural calamities like frequent landslides, high altitudes, rugged terrain and limited working seasons. Emotionally as well, given India’s experience of the 1962 war, successive leaders for long did not encourage investments in border infrastructure lest they facilitate rapid advances of the invading Chinese forces. It was China’s rapid fortification of the Tibet region from the mid-1970s that gradually ignited the consciousness of India’s power elites about the need to build border infrastructure to ease the guarding of these difficult borderlands.
Yet, even today, roads to several border outposts even in this well populated and least complicated Barahoti end several kilometres before the Line of Actual Control, and human porters and animals are required to carry all supplies. No doubt, in spite of greater attention being bestowed on them, this remains equally true of several other outposts in both Western and Eastern sectors of the Sino-Indian border.
The Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the main agency for maintaining vigilance on the borders, was raised following India’s 1962 war. Today, it maintains a total of 173 border outposts, 71 of which lie in this middle sector while 35 and 67 are in the Western and Eastern sectors respectively.
Of the 73 roads, 27 are being constructed by home ministry involving costs of nearly Rs 2,000 crore. This may explain why the home minister, instead of the defence minister, is engaging with India’s borders. But this may have also occurred due to the fact that the Narendra Modi government had only part-time or transient defence ministers.
Now with India’s first full-time woman defence minister in place and her first visit to Arunachal already planned for the next month, the home and defence ministries and ministers should add greater fervency to redeeming their pledge to improve conditions of remote border regions, where brave soldiers have kept their promise of defending their motherland—defying all infrastructural and systemic limitations.
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU