Doka La ground report Part III: A first-person account of the tense border area
I bought a cup of tea and sipped. Soon, a dozen soldiers came and started talking, about Doka La
Editor's note: This is the last in a series of three ground reports from Doka La that look at the state of the region in light of the fluctuating animosity between India and China.
Curiosity got my goat, nearly. After all I’m a journalist and the India-China spat on Bhutan’s turf is all over WhatsApp, so I too got sucked in. So, just for the heck, I wrote to Army Headquarters for permission, which reached me via WhatsApp. The next thing I know, I’m on a flight to Bagdogra Air Force Airport. Confident I’ll be in Doklam in no time, I hired a cab from the airport. I was through Chicken’s Neck in a jiffy, heading like an arrow to Gangtok Base.
Being the friendly sort, I struck up a conversation with the cabbie. I asked him about Nathu La and how I could get there. He called up a fellow driver friend to take me to Nathu La Pass from the base. I was beginning to feel things weren’t as bad as portrayed in the media. At 8 pm, I was booking another cab at Gangtok Base. This cabbie told me to get a valid Army pass. I told him I had permission from the headquarters in Delhi. The next day, I woke up at 6 and headed for the local Army unit. The guard at the gate stopped me. I showed him the AHQ letter. He said he couldn't help, his seniors were all out, patrolling. The guy was like ice on Everest, wouldn’t melt.
Dash to Nathu La
I had wasted four precious hours. I explained it to the cab driver Norbu Hakshi, a wily chap. He wanted a report on Buddhists on fast over issues that concerned them published in Delhi and I said OK to that. He called in a ‘border cab’ to take me to Nathu La. Border cabs can move freely. They have local passes. This cabbie’s name was Shangnu Dorje. We haggled over fare for a minute. I was desperate, so we settled on a figure and got started. Crossing the next Army barrier was easy. The ‘local pass’ did the trick. The cab took the road to Nathu La Pass. It was a pathetic excuse for a road. After about 30 km we were in a village and I told the cabbie to stop. I stepped out, started clicking pictures and talking to the villagers. But the cab driver shouted at me to come and sit in the cab. He said I was a galat-type person. I showed him my documents. He said he was taking me back to Gangtok Base.
Silver lining after a hard day
Two days into my trip to Doka La and nothing to show for it. Back in Gangtok, I spotted a chaiwallah and told the cabbie to halt. I bought a cup of tea and sipped. Soon, a dozen soldiers came and started talking, about Doka La no less. I kept my face in the cup and my ears pricked. I learnt that 70% of the forces at Gangtok Base had moved to the Line of Actual Control. A soldier said Chinese bunkers were made of steel. Then they compared Chinese and Indian supply lines. One of them said the PLA had better supply chains. I told him to validate his point. He pulled up some photographs on his mobile. I looked up and realised they perhaps suspected me to be an enemy mole. The sewadar (orderly) running the place told me to get the eff out of the place.
Read Part 1 of the series
Read Part 2 of the series
The other route
Beaten, I went back to Norbu. I was cold and the jacket I had brought from home was poor foil. Norbu, knowing I had had no success, agreed to help me if I wrote about Buddhist Relay Fast. I let him blackmail me. He told me he’d get me a police pass up to Kupuk village for a price. I went to bed at 11 pm and was up at 4 am. It was 22 July. We left with Norbu promising he’d send the police pass on my WhatsApp. After 60 kilometres we were on the Old Silk Road. The cabbie told me this was the road China wanted. I found the road in terrible condition. Then, Norbu called to tell that his police officer was on leave, so no police pass. The cab driver said he’d get me past the army barrier. We went past barrier and Kupuk without being hollered at. The cab stopped at a deserted spot. It was about 1 pm. I saw army bunkers, red flags and warning signboards. I clicked pictures and shot videos. About 5 km ahead we stopped again. But the eerie silence and ‘bad’ vibes of the place made me take a U-turn.
Night at tea kiosk in Kupuk
When we reached Kupuk village it was late. My cabbie got me lodgings in a house of tin– a tea-kiosk in front, and three-partitioned off rooms behind. I positioned myself at the front. And sure enough, a group of soldiers gathered. Some had just returned from border duty. Others were to join duty. They talked. I listened. One of them told another that the Jat Regiment was manning the front row with only cameras. I gathered from the talk that war was inevitable. One young soldier explained to the others how the Chinese road construction machine was waylaid with an Indian earth-moving machine. “We got orders to stop them at any cost,” he said. The soldiers remained at the kiosk till midnight.
During my failed foray into Nathu La, I saw only one human settlement. No-man's land starts from where army bunkers begin. There is an army post after every kilometre. Hooters are installed at intervals to sound the alarm. There is snow and frost and fog and it drizzles intermittently. Visibility is challenged but soldiers have all-weather equipment to see through fog and suspicious characters. People survive on rice and potato. Rice, beef and yak meat. Soldiers I saw were all young and chirpy. Most of them had just flown in from Srinagar, Valley-hardened. Many were Special Forces. Tall guys with a swagger, sure-footed.
And the secret is spilled out
Next morning on 23 July, I went up a hill to take some pictures. My bad luck. I was ‘spotted’. I was questioned. I showed them my AHQ credentials. Nevertheless, I was told to scoot. I came down the hill in double step. I was tired, sleep-starved and hungry. I dozed off in the car, only to be jolted awake. The cab was circled by a ring of soldiers. In hid my camera mobile phone in the car. I was asked to step out. My other mobile and laptop were confiscated. The soldiers frisked me, checked my luggage; scanned the contents of my laptop and my other mobile. Not finding anything I might pass on to the PLA, they comforted me with a cup of tea. Then, I was told to scram. I took my leave with a light heart. The flight out from Bagdogra was late by two hours. I was assured that I was back home, safe.
Manoj Kumar is a Chandigarh-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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