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Whether Bara Hoti or Doka La, India must resist China's advances on ground, learn from history

Bara Hoti in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is where the first Chinese intrusions into Indian soil took place in 1954 and has continued since, the latest being on 25 July 2017.

A similar incident had taken place even last July when the Chinese came 200 metres into the Indian side after after asking an Indian official team accompanied by unarmed Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel in civil clothes into their side — they went about 200 metres into the Chinese side — of the perceived Line of Actual Control (LOAC), a demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory. Though reported, the incident was played down on the ground that the boundary in the sector has not been demarcated, and it was thus a ‘transgression’ of the perceived boundary line and not an ‘intrusion’.

 Whether Bara Hoti or Doka La, India must resist Chinas advances on ground, learn from history

Representational image. AFP

The dispute at Bara Hoti in fact dates back to the British days when, as per a 1952 Intelligence Bureau (IB) report, Hoti was popular among Indian traders going to Tibet during the summer and the Tibetans had once established a customs post there. In 1890, the British government had to send out a detachment of Gorkhas along with the deputy collector after which the post was removed.

In 1952, the Tibetans again moved a "customs" camp to Bara Hoti about which the IB Report assessed that “it appears the Tibetans have again established a police-cum-customs post at Hoti during the trading season” and emphasised that “if the Tibetans aren’t stopped from establishing their post at Hoti Plain, they might eventually claim it to be their own territory”. To this end, the IB suggested a detachment of Garhwal Rifles and local armed police to hoist the Indian tricolour in Bara Hoti "to stop the Tibetans from establishing their customs post".

In the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement on trade and pilgrimage in Tibet, India forfeited all its rights in Tibet but received few assurances. While its negotiators had outlined the various passes on the customary boundary along the watershed range, the Chinese had refused to include three of these in the sector including Tun Jun La, which is located north of Bara Hoti. In August that very year, the Chinese protested about armed Indian troops having crossed the Niti pass on 29 June 1954, and intruded into Wu-Je (Bara Hoti) which was "not in conformity with the principles of non-aggression and friendly co-existence between China and India".

The then foreign secretary Subimal Dutt's note to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru states: “Our case is that Bara Hoti is an area of about one and a half square miles. We have given the exact position with reference to its latitude and longitude. The Chinese have not defined which area they mean by Wu-Je... an area south of Tun Jun La.... If the Chinese claims are conceded, the international boundary would lie south in what is undoubtedly Indian territory."

Dutt emphasised that "the Chinese government is not prepared to accept our northern border as shown on our maps, as these maps are supposed to have been prepared by British colonialists surreptitiously. They are also not prepared to accept passes mentioned in the 1954 agreement as border passes... thereby indirectly repudiating the principle of watershed as marking the international boundary."

Bara Hoti was a subject of discussion in the Lok Sabha in August and again in November 1959 with the latter having interesting interjections by inter alia Atal Bihari Vajpayee and socialist minister Asoka Mehta. You can read the excerpts below or click here.

There are essential differences in the issues at Bara Hoti and Doklam. Geo-politically, Doklam forms part of an unresolved agenda between Bhutan and China on which several rounds of discussions have taken place between both countries. India’s role is essentially in support of Bhutan with a compelling larger motive to ensure the security of the Siliguri corridor.

With its own long history of 'transgressions', Bara Hoti is a direct issue between China and India that otherwise would have been brushed off as an annual feature. However, coming as it does even as the Sikkim standoff continues, pertinently on 25 July, coinciding with the NSA's Beijing visit, it seems deliberately timed to issue a sharp signal to India that the Chinese are not yet relenting from their harsh position.

The usual pattern of events when such transgressions occur is a resistance without arms and ammunition by troops who form human chains and end up "jostling" (pushing and shoving) on the defending side, followed by border flag meetings at which the Chinese by and large revert to the status quo after making a 'political statement' and 'agreeing to disagree'.

In Doklam however, the Chinese have sought to 'dig in'. Besides not budging on ground, they have shown a steely determination to push their claim with the actions of their soldiers being supported by belligerent and threatening media coverage and analysis with words and phrases like "do not forget 1962", "PLA will teach India a lesson", "option of war is open" and "either Indian troops return to their territory with dignity or will be kicked out of the area by the PLA".

The nature of Chinese conduct during the Bara Hoti incident would need to be examined to understand what to expect from them at other such 'disputed' points in this as well as other sectors.

From the military operations perspective, Sikkim is among the sectors where India has relative advantage. With a sizeable military presence at Ha within Bhutan, it can attack into the Chumbi Valley at a short notice from two sides, potentially cutting off Chinese troops stationed there facing Sikkim. But not so at Barahoti which is relatively easy to access from the Tibetan side.

While it's fruitless attempting to gauge all factors that underlie Chinese intent to up the ante, and to such perilous extents, to putting India 'in its place’ and to establish their hegemony over it — even as India militarily lags behind as a military ‘power’ with its high dependence on foreign military hardware and known shortages in its military wherewithal, are perceivable — China views the growing India-US strategic cooperation as a threat, and the US response on the threat posed to India would test the resilience of that cooperation.

India being the principal instigator of the Tibetan struggle for freedom through the ‘Dalai Lama card’ and anger at India’s decision to go ahead with the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh in spite of its cautions and threats, and more importantly, India’s refusal to participate in the Belt and Road Forum held in May 2017 and to be a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, would be other factors.

What then are the strategic and military options for India?

This is undoubtedly a critical moment for India in its relations with China. To accept the Chinese position in Doklam and ‘blink’ would be an unacceptable 'loss of face' both domestically and internationally. The 'Doklam model' could then come to be applied across other hot spots across the entire boundary at will.

A known Chinese ploy has been to make border transgressions into 'unresolved' areas, build roads and outposts closer and closer to Indian territory and to build up a territorial or infrastructural advantage. This must be resisted at the ground level on every occasion henceforth in a manner that reflects Indian resolve to confront and safeguard its own national interests.

As has been the experience in the 1967 confrontation in Sikkim and in 1986-87 during the Sumdorong Chu incident (a standoff between the Indian Army and Chinese People's Liberation Army, where India-China came close to a war), China understands the language of strength. India must, therefore, hold out till at least a mutual withdrawal to pre-June 2017 positions.

Concerted diplomatic effort to explain India’s positions and concerns, as already initiated, must be robustly taken forward. Internal political dynamics within China may even push them to indulge in border skirmishes with an alarming prospect of spinning out into a limited war — an eventuality Indian planners would no doubt be silently preparing to brace up for the coming months of the 'campaigning season' even as they place their hope and trust in diplomacy to bring tranquillity on the borders.

The author is a former bureaucrat and the writer of “Rooks and Knights: Civil Military Relations in India”. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies.

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Updated Date: Aug 02, 2017 07:39:53 IST