The ongoing dispute in Ladakh follows repeated silence by Modi on Chinese incursions

The Narendra Modi administration has maintained a studied silence on several allegations of incursions by China into Indian territory, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, despite it even having been raised in Parliament. FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
01 June, 2020

The ongoing border dispute between India and China, following incursions by the People’s Liberation Army into regions in Ladakh and Sikkim in early May, marked the third major transgression in four years by the Chinese armed forces without facing significant pushback from the Narendra Modi government. While the Indian Army has deployed additional troops in response, one such face-off with the PLA, in the Bhutanese territory of Doklam in 2017, had led to a shift in the status quo in China’s favour. Since then, the Indian government has also ignored several incursions into Arunachal Pradesh, according to a parliamentarian and local politicians. In fact, the Modi administration routinely issued formal responses, but a closer scrutiny raises questions about whether India has adopted a policy of silence about China’s transgressions along the border.

The centre had maintained a studied silence despite previous incursions being raised in Parliament. In November last year, Tapir Gao, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s member of parliament from the Arunachal East constituency, had addressed Parliament on Chinese incursions into his state and sought the central government’s intervention. “Today, China has occupied more than fifty–sixty kilometres of Indian territory,” Gao had said before Parliament in November 2019. But India had formally denied any incursion, attributing it to “differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control.” Speaking in the context of the latest incursion in Ladakh and Sikkim, Gao told me on the phone that China has continuously led construction activity within Indian territory since 2018. “They are going on occupying land,” he said. “Why didn’t we resist till now?”

The latest set of intrusions took place on 5 and 9 May, respectively, in east Ladakh’s Pangong Tso and Sikkim’s Naka Lu areas. Both areas lie on the Indian-side of the Line of Actual Control, the disputed 3,488-kilometre long border between India and China. Neither of the areas, however, had been part of the disputed territories earlier. The intrusions led to displays of aggression with exchanges of stone throwing and physical scuffles between the PLA and the Indian Army.

While the immediate hostility between the troops was settled on the ground in early May itself, the conflict has since escalated with both sides deploying additional troops and machinery along disputed border areas. The Global Times, China’s state-run English daily, reported in mid May that the country had “bolstered border control measures … in response to India’s recent, illegal construction of defense facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley.” The Galwan Valley lies along the Line of Actual Control, in Ladakh, and is claimed by both countries.

The two countries had witnessed this sort of exchange in June 2017, when the Indian Army stepped in to the Doklam plateau, in Bhutan, to stop a large construction party of the PLA that was attempting to build a road in the area. While India had entered the dispute upon Bhutan’s request, China claims that Doklam is officially its territory. After a 73-day stand-off, both the countries officially agreed to disengage from the area.

While the Chinese army stopped its construction at the disputed site, they remained deployed in the Doklam plateau, expanding its presence in the area and marking a clear shift to a new status quo. A presence in the Doklam plateau brought China closer to the Indian border and provided a higher vantage point towards the Siliguri corridor—a narrow track that connects India’s northeastern states to the rest of the country. The Indian government and the mainstream media, however, celebrated the end of the tense stand-off.

The second significant Chinese incursion during the Modi government, and the more curious one given the administration’s response, took place in Arunachal Pradesh two years later. In September 2019, the parliamentarian Gao, who is also BJP’s state president for Arunachal Pradesh, told the media that the Chinese army had entered the Chaglagam area in Arunachal’s Anjaw district and built a wooden bridge over a stream. In support of his statement, he circulated a video of the bridge, which he said were taken by locals. The Indian Army, however, promptly denied Gao’s allegation, noting that differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control routinely led to inadvertent border incursions, and that it had not located the bridge.

In July that year, Gicho Kabak, the Arunachal Pradesh state president of the National People’s Party, had issued a press release stating that China had constructed a two-kilometre long road in Bishing, a village in the state’s Upper Siang district, in 2018. Kabak stated that it was “a matter of serious concern that neither official from the state nor central government had visited Bishing village to assess the incident till date.” He urged Gao to raise the issue in parliament. In September, two days after the Indian Army denied Gao’s claims about the bridge in Chaglagam, The Print reported that satellite images from the region had confirmed Kabak’s claims about the road in Bishing.

Gao raised his concerns about the Chinese incursions in the Lok Sabha in November that year. “If I don’t stand up to raise this issue today, the future generation of Indians won’t forgive me,” Gao began. He stated that the Chinese government had raised objections when Modi, Amit Shah, the home minister, and Rajnath Singh, the defence minister, visited Arunachal Pradesh, but the Indian government and the media have never addressed it as an issue. “If there is going to be a Doklam anywhere else, it will be in Arunachal Pradesh,” Gao added.

He emphasised the lack of attention to China’s actions in Arunachal, compared to those by Pakistan on the other border. “I know the daily market rate in Karachi, in Pakistan, but China occupies Indian territory in Arunachal, and there is no coverage of it in the print media, electronic media and there are no comments on it in this house among the leaders of the different political parties,” Gao said. Noting that over fifty kilometres of Indian territory had been occupied by China, Gao gave the examples of the regions Asaphila and Maja, located along the Line of Actual Control, in the Upper Subansiri district. Finally, closing his speech, he repeated that another Doklam-like incident was likely in Arunachal, and urged the centre to pay more attention to China’s activities in the state.

Gao’s plea did not appear to gather any meaningful response. The next month, he raised the issue of yet another incursion by the Chinese army. He told the media that the PLA had advanced 12 kilometres into Andrella Valley in the state’s Dibang Valley district, and forced Indian Army personnel to dismantle their summer camp, claiming that the area was Chinese territory. In a video that he shared in support of the allegation, Chinese troops can be seen unrolling a banner that read, “This is territory of china, get back to your side right now!”

Gao’s assessment of the differential treatment by the government, top army officers and the mainstream media with respect to border transgressions by Pakistan and China was well founded. In May this year alone, a pigeon that entered from Pakistan received more media attention than the Chinese army’s intrusions into Indian territory, which led to soldiers getting injured. In the weeks that followed, China reportedly deployed over five thousand PLA troops, erected around a hundred tents and brought in heavy equipment at the Galwan Valley.

The lack of media attention is despite the fact that China’s transgressions on the border have been increasingly regular since 2018, according to Gao. He cited instances of Chinese construction activities that continue to take place in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district, including a bridge and power station. In another example, Gao said that in mid March this year, a 21-one-year-old Arunachali man who had gone to collect herbs in Upper Subansri district was taken into custody by the PLA and released only in April. “He was captured from Asaphila, which was an Indian territory, but has been occupied by China now,” Gao said. Asaphila has long been a disputed territory between the two countries.

According to Gao, one of the reasons for China’s incursions was the lack of development in the area, which led to its residents migrating out of the state. “Because of the lack of roads, educational and health facilities, people are migrating to the mainland,” he told me. “Their migration is creating no-man’s land and China is coming and looking into these areas.”

It is not just in Arunachal Pradesh that the Indian government appears to have turned a blind eye to China’s incursions. A year after the Doklam stand-off, in October 2018, I had visited Kupup and Ganathang, two small villages places that are the closest inhabited areas to Dolkam on the Indian side of the border. Both places were almost deserted. “Most of the residents are at the border areas working on road construction,” a resident of Kupup, who requested to remain anonymous, told me.

According to the resident, the locals knew that there was some sort of activity still taking place at the border, though they did not know any details. “They informed us that there is some problem going on at the border,” he said, referring to warnings from the construction workers who were engaged at the border. Two government officials serving in the border districts at the time told me that they had heard reports of Chinese activities in Doklam, near the Indian border.

In fact, within six months of the stand-off ending, by January 2018, news reports have spotted Chinese construction activity in the Doklam plateau on satellite imagery. Yet, the Indian government has remained silent on the issue. Researchers and defence analysts have also recorded the presence of concrete structures, trenches and vehicles on satellite images. A parliamentary committee report on the issue, tabled in September 2018, claimed that the Doklam issue had been peacefully resolved, but also raised concern over the Chinese construction activities that were “uncomfortably close” to the Indian border. The report stated:

The Committee are concerned about the multiple reports which allude to Chinese presence around Doklam plateau and the statements from Chinese authorities about chances of similar happenings in future also, even after the stand-off ended. Though the Government has categorically denied any Chinese activities near the actual face-off site, an ambivalent view has been expressed while confirming such activities for other areas in the Doklam plateau. Reports suggesting that significant road-building towards the Indian border has already occurred are also of concern to the Committee.

If the ongoing dispute is any indication, China appears to have been encouraged the by the Modi administration’s silence on its actions. In a recent interview, Konchok Stanzin, the executive councilor of education in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, said that it was the first time since the Indo-China war of 1962 that the region was witnessing Chinese military activity of this intensity. “We are seeing a lot of military and paramilitary movement in the area,” Stanzin said. “This should be solved through mutual dialogue.”

Rinzin Tangey, a former sarpanch of Demchok, a village in Leh, told me that the residents of the villages near the border areas are worried about the Chinese military presence in the area. Demchok has a military base that has frequently witnessed hostilities between the two countries. “We have been raising this issue for a long time,” Tangey said. “There is increased Chinese army presence along the border now and they are coming inside Indian territory and occupying land … Indian media does not report what is happening here.”

Modi and Xi Jinping, the Chinese premier, have held two meetings after the Doklam dispute was formally resolved, in Wuhan and in Tamil Nadu. Both were officially proclaimed as diplomatic successes, but they do not seem to have had any impact on the Chinese activities at the border—perhaps because the Modi administration had not indicated any resistance to the incursions since Doklam.

Even after the latest incursions, the initial Indian response was to dismiss any concerns. In mid May, Manoj Mukund Naravane, the army chief, told the media, “As far the situation in northern borders is concerned, LAC is not very well defined.” It appeared to draw from a standard response from the administration to China’s transgressions. “There are different perceptions where the LAC runs,” he said. “Accordingly, both sides patrol up to their accepted claimed lines and, therefore, when patrols reach at the same place and at the same time such face-offs do occur.”

But by the end of the month, the official line had shifted. On 30 May, the defence minister, Singh, repeated that there may have been perception differences between the two countries, but added that “this time it is different.” He further said, “Currently, we are holding discussions with China on military and diplomatic levels. I think the issue would be resolved.” But multiple rounds of talks between India and China held so far to de-escalate the situation has not yielded any results yet.

Meanwhile, as noted in a New York Times article about the ongoing dispute, China has expanded its geopolitical influence in the subcontinent. In the midst of the escalating tensions, in late May, China announced that it would help Pakistan build a dam in a disputed part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir that India claims as its territory. Around the same time, China reportedly launched a road-rail freight service from its north-western Shaanxi province to Kathmandu. The announcement is significant, because it would reduce Nepal’s dependency on India, and comes soon after Nepal released a new map that challenges India’s borders. Even to India’s south, China has been reclaiming and developing an island in the Indian Ocean, around six hundred kilometres from the Indian border. The Maldives had leased the island to a Chinese company in December 2016 for a period of 50 years, and satellite images reportedly showed that the area has more than doubled its size by February 2020, after China began the reclamation. Similarly, in 2017, Sri Lanka, too, leased control of its southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese venture after struggling to repay the loans it had taken from China to develop it.

Yet, the Narendra Modi administration and senior army officials have allowed several Chinese transgressions, and even occupation according to Gao, to occur without comment. Aman Anand, the Indian Army’s public-relations officer, told me that “due to the sensitivity of the issue and engagement of authorities at both sides, we are not making any public comment right now.”