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Chinese defence minister in India, Ladakh locals flag concerns over ‘lost border land’

Amidst tense India-China relations, as their armies are facing off along the disputed border in the Himalayan region, Chinese defence minister Gen. Li Shangfu is on a maiden visit to New Delhi in what may see efforts by the two sides to iron out issues. Li Shangfu is meeting his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Defence Ministers’ Meeting, which is being held on April 27-28.

Since the border stand-off in eastern Ladakh in the summer of 2020, multiple rounds of military and diplomatic negotiations have not yielded much to inspire confidence between the two militaries. Both the Indian Army and China’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army) have amassed troops and machines against each other in the icy Himalayan heights. Complete disengagement and de-induction of forces from the tension zones seem to be a distant reality.

While both sides claim to have resolved five of the seven friction points in eastern Ladakh-the remaining two beingDemchok and Depsang-locals have different worries. They believe that the current military build-up in the region, especially in Chushul, Chang Chenmo and the ‘Finger Belt’ (the three places incidentally are also major winter pasture zones for Indians), is the heaviest since the 1962 India-China war.

Konchok Stanzin, a local politician who represents Chushul in the Ladakh Hill Development Council, in a published journal, has claimed that this winter, the pastures in Phurtsog Karpo, Phurstug Nakpo, Helmet Top, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Rezang La, Richen La and Mukpa Re have been out of reach of grazers.

It is notable that most of these places were under the Indian military during an offensive operation (Operation Snow Leopard) in August 2020, but had to be vacated during the Pangong Tso disengagement process with the PLA. “This has taken a heavy toll on livelihoods as 90 per cent of the local population is dependent on livestock. Their life has become more difficult,” Stanzin said.

Due to the disengagement agreement, the Indian Army and the PLA retreated 2 to 10 km at different points along the LAC, leaving a big chunk as virtually ‘no man’s land’. This has resulted in India’s losing traditional livestock grazing areas.

“Local cattle breeders have lost their traditional pastures in the disengagement process. They are prevented from moving beyond a point. The nomadic population has been stopped over a vast area, especially in the ‘Finger Belt’, which is now a no-patrol zone in accordance with the disengagement accord,” Stanzin said, adding that it was a departure from both India and China’s original perception of the border, particularly about Finger-8 and Finger-4, respectively.

Stanzin pointed out that India had almost lost Ane La, where we used to have a permanent post in 1959, and Tharsang La and Kui La too had become buffer zones.

Drawing comparisons, Stanzin said that while many villages of eastern Ladakh do not have 2G network, China had installed 5G along the border, which posed a security threat due to the possibility of interception of calls. “The movement of Indian nomads and pitching of their tents indicate the extent of traditional control over the region. Pushing them back is a big strategic mistake,” Stanzin told INDIA TODAY over the phone.

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