With the media abuzz with reports that villages around Doka La in the tri-border junction with China and Bhutan — including Gnathang, Kupup and Sherathang — have been evacuated following the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops, Firstpost spoke to locals here, only to find that no such orders have been passed, and people are still living in those villages.
In fact, even a member of the Sikkim legislative Assembly and a highly placed source from the Indian Army denied these reports.
Gyatso Bhutia from Kurup village, who owns a tourist taxi and ferries passengers from Gnathang to Gangtok, said, "I go to Gnathang everyday and I wasn't asked to stop. Apart from the usual roadblocks and patrolling, I haven't noticed people being evacuated," he said.
Bhutia added that only once in the last two weeks was he asked to stop, and that was due to a landslide in the region. "There was a landslide en route to Gnathang. Until the debris was cleared, we were asked to wait. This lasted a few hours," he says.
While soldiers on both sides are standing eyeball to eyeball on a contested tract of land, which has evoked a tense political situation on the ground, it has not affected normal life in the bordering villages.
In fact, when the news broke on 11 August that villagers in Gnathang, a border village about 10-12 kilometres from Doka La, were asked to evacuate their homes and move elsewhere, it took many by surprise. "I don't know where the media is getting such false information. People from Gnathang have neither been evacuated nor has the transportation service been cut," said district collector (East region) Prabhakar Verma.
However, he added that some areas were restricted, and residents had to take permission from the army and the police divisions.
Meanwhile, Rajesh Rai, a social worker who works and stays in Gnathang, also said the contractor and the local police haven't told them to leave. "Soon after news started coming in that villages had been evacuated, some of my friends and acquaintances who stay in Kupup and Sherathang called me and said this isn't true," Rai said.
However, he added, villages located at higher altitudes have been asked to keep the lights switched off at night.
Gnathang resident Sonam Tshering said, "Though we see an increased army presence in the area, nobody has asked us to leave. We were asked to remain alert, but that's a routine order."
According to sources in the Kurup police, routine checks were being conducted at all tourist spots, public gatherings, and lodges.
Firstpost accessed the Daily Situation Report (DSR) sent out by the local police regarding all checks and restrictions in place. The DSR from Kupup sent on 14 August does not mention any evacuation, and in fact only talks about increased security as part of Independence Day.
"Homestays and vehicles were checked. Round the clock patrolling was intensified. No anti-social elements or suspicious persons were found," it said.
Speaking to mediapersons on Friday, state transport minister Dorjee Tshering Lepcha, who is also the MLA from East Sikkim constituency, which is where most of these villages lie, denied the news that civilians were being evacuated. "Local authorities have not ordered any evacuation. There is some restriction of movement to certain areas but this is in place since a long time, and not a recent move," he had said.
A highly placed army officer also categorically denied that villagers were being evacuated from Gnathang. "The only advice we gave to people was to remain alert. We also spoke to village heads to inform the residents to remain safe and keep their eyes and ears open for any unusual movement. This is a routine drill," he said.
During the peak tourist season in the winter, tourists flock to Nathu La pass. However, given the border tensions, and with the Indian embassy also taking a wait and watch approach towards the issue, it has not affected tourism majorly.
Bikas Tamang, a Gangtok-based travel agent, said that the police are continuing to issue passes to tourists to visit Changu Lake and Baba Mandir. "While the lake is 25 kilometres away from Nathu-La, Baba Mandir is only eight kilometres away. If they were evacuating the area, they wouldn't issue daily passes to tourists especially," he said. "But the tourism department is not encouraging people to visit the border area at this juncture."
Seujal Pradhan is a Gangtok-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots journalists
Published Date: Aug 14, 2017 16:22 PM | Updated Date: Aug 14, 2017 16:29 PM