Tuesday, September 15, 2009

ITBP jawans injured in China border shootout in North Sikkim

Gangtok,Guwahati & Kolkatta: Simmering tensions along the mountainous frontier with China appear to have become serious with a revelation that two jawans of
the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the sentinel force along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), were injured in bullets fired from the Chinese side.

The firing in an area identified as Kerang in northern Sikkim took place a fortnight ago but has been kept under wraps. It was confirmed on Monday by a highly-placed intelligence source, who is not authorised to give information to the media. ITBP officials at its headquarters in New Delhi declined to confirm the incident.

It was the first incidents where bullets have been fired since the landmark 1996 Sino-India agreement in which both sides pledged not to open fire, no matter what the provocation, as a part of confidence-building measures.

Sources cite this as yet another instance of China's maintaining pressure on the 2.1 sq km area of `Finger Tip' in northern Sikkim. Last year, China had sent a vehicle-mounted patrol into this area, penetrating 1 km into Indian territory. The Kerang shootout prompted an unscheduled border personnel meeting on August 30.

Also last week, the entire situation along the LAC was reviewed in a war game by the Eastern Command top brass in Kolkata's Fort William, Eastern Command HQs, in the presence of Army chief General Deepak Kapoor.

Violations aren't new but have rarely involved casualties. What is alarming is the report of shooting along the LAC which has remained peaceful for decades since the Chinese invasion of 1962.

At Asaphila in Upper Subansiri Division of Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, a contingent of 22 Chinese troops had intercepted an armed Indian patrol of two policemen, three porters and five Special Service Bureau personnel in June 2003, disarmed them and returned them to the Indian Army.

In contrast, the Kerang incident could be a significant and dangerous deviation from the practice of talks before bullets.

Despite ceremonial border personnel meetings (BPMs) at Nathu La in Sikkim and Bum La and Kibithu in Arunachal, Chinese troops continue to violate the LAC with brazen regularity.

According to Army sources, People's Liberation Army patrols have been sighted crossing over the LAC six times since January this year -- four times in Upper Subansiri district in June and July, and twice in Lohit district in January. A Chinese post continues to occupy Sumdorong Chu valley since 1986.

The situation has been worsened by the fact that the border is unguarded at some places in Arunachal Pradesh, mainly due to inhospitable terrain marked by high mountains and hostile weather throughout the year. At some locations there are no field units on either side. There is no deployment of Indian forces in at least one district, the backward Kurung Kumey (Tawang's neighbour).

Such forays by Chinese troops have left the population near the LAC insecure. "Chinese patrols encroached into my district in June and July,'' said Upper Subansiri deputy commissioner H G Shalla.

Western Arunachal Pradesh MP Takam Sanjay -- whose constituency has many areas where Chinese incursions have happened -- said the local people felt unsafe. "People of Arunachal do not want to face 1962 all over again,'' he said. He has taken up with the Centre the issue of securing the border. "It seems, somewhere we have lost involvement.''

Indian troops on the LAC have even sighted Chinese grazers and fishermen crossing over and pushed them back, say sources. Bhutan, too, faces the same problem. People from Tibet cross over in search of medicinal herbs.

According to Army sources, there is no PLA build-up across the border, but what worries the Indian top brass is the definite edge the Chinese have in terms of infrastructure, particularly road communication. Because of this, they can move reinforcements to the LAC at a short notice, which is difficult for India. In Asaphila, the last road on the Indian side ends 50 km away from the LAC.

Political leaders from Arunachal, like former MP Kiren Rijiju, have been vocal against the Indian policy of not developing infrastructure on the border for fear the Chinese would use them in case of a war. He has described this as a "defensive policy''. Sanjay, however, said that with prime minister Manmohan Singh granting Rs 24,000 crore to Arunachal for infrastructure development, the situation is set to change.

One of the most important projects is the construction of the trans-Arunachal highway, connecting Tawang with Changlang district. It is learnt that the Cabinet committee on infrastructure has given approval for bidding for two sections of this highway.

(With inputs from Amalendu Kundu in Gangtok)