NEW DELHI: “At night you can see the glow of Siliguri’s lights from up there.”
With these words, a military officer described the strategic significance of a Himalayan ridge just about nine kilometers in length from east to west. The Jampheri (or Zompelri) ridge is in Bhutan. To its north is an escarpment, a long and steep slope, that falls into the Torsa Nullah and to the 89 sq km Doklam Plateau also in Bhutan-claimed territory.
Militarily, an occupation of the Jampheri Ridge may allow an adversarial force to post observers on it to direct artillery fire at the Siliguri Corridor.
Chinese and Indian troops were face-to-face for 72 days close to the western flank of the ridge between June and August 2017. Now, the Chinese are rebuilding their camp in North Doklam, across the nullah, and are moving equipment southwards towards the eastern flank of the ridge. Till last reports, the Chinese troops were two kilometers north of the Torsa Nullah.
Crossing the Torsa Nullah would mean that they are heading towards the Jampheri that overlooks the 22 km wide ‘Chicken Neck’ that connects the Indian mainland with its North East.
But Indian officials in New Delhi are worried that the Bhutanese have not loudly protested against the Chinese build-up through the winter. The territory is claimed by Bhutan. This is in sharp contrast to what they did in June last year.
In June, patrols of the Royal Bhutan Army spotted the Chinese building a road towards their post atop the ridge and called the Indian troops for help. Indian troops from their post at Doka La marched in and physically obstructed the Chinese, much to Beijing’s chagrin. Indian and Bhutanese troops have conducted “link-up patrols” on the ridgeline every fortnight or every month (depending on weather and exigencies) for years. The entire area is between 10000 and 12000 feet.
This time, however, there has so far been no move by the Bhutanese alerting and seeking help from India. But sources in the Indian Army, that is able to observe the Chinese movements, assert that China has not yet crossed the “red line”, which in this case is the Torsa Nullah that flows through North and South Doklam before it meets the Amo Chu.
But the army has also pointed out to the government the threat the Chinese build-up through the winter poses. On the southern slopes of the Jampheri, in North Bengal, is the Jaldhaka barrage.
Also, the main national highway, the railway line to Guwahati and beyond, oil and gas pipelines and electrical lines pass through the Siliguri Corridor in a one-kilometre band.
The Chinese moves prompted Congress President Rahul Gandhi to question New Delhi’s response on Wednesday. Tagging a media report on the developments, he tweeted:
“How will Modi Ji react this time?
- Blame RM
- Cry in public
- All of the above”.
(RM is short for Raksha Mantri, the defence minister).