“Over 100 PLA soldiers crossed the border at Barahoti in Uttarakhand last month, damaged some infrastructure, including a bridge, before retreating.” — The Economic Times of 28 September 2021
The above piece of news is startling. It seems the incident took place on 30 August 2021. It indicates that China was looking for opportunities to puncture India's growing military clout. It might be looking for a soft underbelly of Indian defence to deliver a 1962 styled humiliation to checkmate India.
Xi Jinping thinks India would be a major hindrance in its (China’s) global ambitions. In order to checkmate India, China had tried to snub India in Eastern Ladakh in 2020, but it failed.
However, it has not backed out yet from its intended mission of Checkmating India. Barahoti incursion of 100 Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) troops on 30 August 2021, could as well be a probing mission.
India has a 4057 Km long Line of Actual control border with China, running through Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
It can be divided into three sectors I.e. Western Sector opposite J&K; Eastern Sector opposite Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh and Middle-cum-Central Sector opposite Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
In all three sectors, India has unresolved border disputes with China. Most Indian citizens know about border disputes in East and West but a very few know about the Central Sector.
Border dispute in the East is of non -recognition of the McMohan line border by China. She claims the entire Arunachal Pradesh or some 65,000 square kilometres South of McMohan Line, which it considers as part of South Tibet.
It might be recollected that McMohan line was demarcated by the British Indian Government through a treaty with the Tibetan Government in 1914. This treaty is not acceptable to China as she asserts that Tibet was not a sovereign to sign such a treaty.
Boundary dispute in the West is about Aksai Chin and Demochek regions of Ladakh in J&K state of India. China had occupied some 35241 square kilometers in Aksai Chin and 350 Sq Kms in Demochek region during the 1962 war.
China also claims some 150 sq kms area of Demochek region under Indian Control. Besides, Pakistan ceded to China some 5180 sqn kms of Shaksgam valley of J&K, which it had annexed in 1947.
In the Middle Sector, opposite Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, there is a great chunk of territory claimed by China, which is hardly known to a common man in India. These areas are Chumar, Kaurik, Shipki La, Nelang and Laptha. It is a 507 km long belt but thinly held by India.
Therefore, this region presents itself as an easy and a soft objective for China to capture in a limited border conflict, which would have a larger impact in the current world geo-politics.
These target areas are Kaurik and Shipki La in Himachal Pradesh; Nelang Valley with areas Leptha, Pulam Sumda and Sang etc in Uttarakhand. These are claimed by China as a part of the Ngari Prefecture of the Zanda County of Tibet.
However, in the Middle Sector, there is another very significant region, called Barahoti Grassland, in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, whose grazing fields extend over some 80 kms. This is also claimed by China. Recently, in the last week of September 2021, PLA troops came on horses and destroyed a bridge in this bowl.
China has been intruding into this region at will. It's an achilles heel in India’s defence. In the first week of June 2017, two Chinese attack helicopters intruded into this area. They were probably on a reconnaissance mission.
Barahoti is some 397 kms from Dehradun. Nearest Roadhead is at Rimkhim, which is three km short of Barihoti Ridgeline. Thereafter, it is 700 meters of descent to reach the Barahoti Bowl, which has a Parvati Kund and two temples of Lord Shiva and goddess Kali. Chinese troops frequently intrude into the bowl and destroy the temples but they are always rebuilt by the locals.
The McMahon line runs North of Barahoti Bowl but China claims this grassland. The Indian Government, in a 1958 agreement with China, had declared this area as a No-Man's land, which was forbidden to be patrolled and occupied by two armies.
This was a strange concession by the Nehruvian Government. It is generally not known to the general public. However, since the year 2,000, the Indian Government has allowed deployment of Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) men in civilian clothes without weapons.
In 2013, Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna told in an internal security meeting in Delhi that China made 37 incursion attempts between 2007-2012 in Barahoti. In 2015 and 2016 too, Chinese troops invaded Barahoti. Records show that between March 2017 and first week of June 2017, there had been four intrusions.
The intrusion in June 2017, by two helicopters, was worrisome as it was by Zheva class attack helicopters. The question arises whether China was contemplating annexing this 80 kms of grassland without major effort with great international mileage.
It must be noted that while Arunachal Pradesh and J&K parts of borders were well defended, it is the Middle Sector of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, inclusive of Barihoti Grassland, which was the Achilles heel in the Indian defence of her borders with China.
In view of recent warnings by China, we need to take a serious view of what might happen in this sector. The face off in Eastern Ladakh since April 2020, exposes China’s evil designs. Therefore it might indulge in a military misadventure to grab this Barahoti Bowl.
China, without involving in a major conflict, but to teach India a lesson and cast aspersions on her international image of rising regional power, may strike in this region in a swift punitive action because of low priority accorded to this sector by India.
China knows that militarily, India was more focussed on the Eastern and Western sectors. India’s joining Quad with the United States, Japan and Australia, is another reason for China to strike at India’s soft underbelly of defence.
Limited offensive in the Middle Sector, therefore, contains a surprise factor with minimum input but maximum output. Any territorial annexation by China in this region would pose a shortest and direct threat to the Indian heartland.
India might be complacent because of rough and tough terrain for a meaningful military offensive by China but military genius lay in doing the unexpected and impossible. China can do this.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent address at United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 25 September 2021, where he obliquely warned China on its expansionist designs might nudge Xi Jinping to launch a military operation to grab some territory to teach a lesson to India, like what Mao Tse Tung did in 1962.
The Sino-Indo Conflict In Eastern Ladakh is in contrast to what Indian Prime Minister Modi had said in Russia in May 2017, asserting that not a bullet has been fired over the last 40 years on Sino-Indo borders.
Within three years of his boast, the illusion of border peace with China got blasted in the Galwan incident of June 2020. Talks and negotiations are no guarantee that limited border conflict/skirmishes can not take place in future.
Repeated Chinese intrusions in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Barahoti areas might spark a bigger event one day. In the 1960-62 period of Nehru-Chou En Lai bonhomie, India sang songs of Hindi-Chinese brotherhood (Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai) but still a major military conflict took place in 1962. All this happened despite the fact that India accepted Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.
What was more appealing was that India declined the US offer of permanent membership of the UN Security Council and recommended China first. The result was the military debacle of 1962.
No bullet fired over the last 40 years was no certificate for a future serenity and tranquility over the borders. But the Galwan incident of 2020 destroyed this hypothesis. This must be seen in light of clashing and competing interests and a series of Chinese threats and warnings in the recent months.
By launching such a military disgrace on India, China can silence Indian opposition to the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), more particularly, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The best part is that it would not require any major military effort. Worst thing is that India had herself accepted this as a disputed area in the 1958 agreement.
Therefore China would not be accused of border violation or aggression across international borders by the international community. India has to guard itself against any such surprise offensive by China in this region.
It must have equal weightage. In fact, it gives India an opportunity to outflank Aksai Chin from the East. It won't be wrong to preposition some fire power elements of the newly raised Mountain Strike Corps in this sector.
In conclusion, one would say that time has come to take these intrusions seriously lest the nation is found wanting. Anticipation and preparation is the best safeguard against military humiliation and disgrace. The nation is getting enough signals of malafide intentions of our neighbours, particularly northern adversaries.
It would be suicidal to turn a blind eye to China 's ongoing activities. China knows that it can not be friends with India. This fact has to be acknowledged by India. Soon it will be better for India. Our focus must be on China rather than Pakistan.
Former defence Minister, George Fernandes of the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government, in 1996-2004 had rightly identified China as India’s main enemy. It will always be ready to humiliate India. If need be scrap 1958 agreement and go for full defence of these vulnerable areas of the middle sector.
About the Author
Col. Rajinder Kushwaha is an ex-NDA, commissioned into 3 Bihar. He is a battle-hardened veteran who served in the 1971 War & has operated extensively in various insurgency environs across the country. He is a renowned author, and a highly respected defence & national security expert writing for several reputed publications such as ‘Defence and Security Alert’ (DSA), the ‘Indian Defence Review’ (IDR) among others. You can reach him on Twitter: @RajeeKushwaha, Email ID: [email protected]
(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')