Features | Society | South Asia

Voices From the Himalayas Amid Tensions Along the China-India Border 

Beneath the geopolitical clash between India and China, the people of Ladakh live with the weight of an economic collapse and worries about war.

Bhat Burhan
Voices From the Himalayas Amid Tensions Along the China-India Border 

Indian army trucks move along a highway near Leh, the capital of Ladakh on September 17, 2020.

Credit: Bhat Burhan for The Diplomat

On June 16, Amir Ahmad Hajjam, 31, was at his vegetable shop when he heard about the faceoff between Chinese and Indian troops at Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Galwan Valley. Hajjam hails from Indian-administered Kashmir and runs a shop at the main market of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, now a Union Territory after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked in August 2019. 

Soon after Hajjam heard the news that around 20 Indian troops had been killed after a brawl between China and India, he started packing for home.

He sensed the situation could worsen between the nuclear-armed rivals and feared that the area soon might witness violence. He headed toward the largest city of Indian-administered Kashmir — Srinagar, a journey of around 420 kilometers from Leh.

Hajjam has been doing business in the Leh area for the last decade, and for him and thousands of others summer is the season to earn. With some degree of a pause in tensions among the troops of both sides after several meetings between Chinese and Indian officials, Hajjam came back to resume his business.

Sadly, the fragile peace did not last long. 

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In the first week of September, there was a violation of the ceasefire. In the south bank area of Pangong Tso, a large lake that stretches from eastern Ladakh into Tibet, firing along the LAC was witnessed for the first time since 1975.

After that, there have been meetings of ground commanders every day in all the disputed sectors to discuss confidence building measures.

For Hajjam and other residents of Leh, the situation has made them anxious and worried for their fates.

False Information and Lost Territory

Shankoo Satar, 74, who has a Pashmina business in Leh, says the area that Chinese troops have occupied in the past few months was patrolled by Indian troops. He told The Diplomat that he, along with other fellows, used to go to the area for business. “We used to go 70 kilometers beyond where Chinese troops are right now,” said Satar.

He added that the negligence of Indian troops is to blame for the loss. He said they backed off and cleared a route for Chinese troops to approach and grab the area.

Recalling a time before 1962, when Indian and China fought a full-fledged war over the territory, he expressed that “India could not save our land back then. We used to go to Rudukh, around 350 kilometers away from here, for business. However, the region is under China after the war,” he said in a sad tone.

Aside from the hard feelings for Indian troops, Satar also had hits to deliver for Indian television reporters for narrating fabricated stories to the people of mainland India.

“They [television reporters] used to stay here [in Leh] and were showing people that we are inside the Galwan Valley. They fooled the people of Ladakh and others as well. Since then, I have stopped watching any news,” he said in a disappointed tone.

Satar’s argument stands true, as some of the TV channel reporters confessed the truth. A camera person with a New Delhi-based TV channel said that all the news scripts come from the main news rooms and they have their own policies. “We are just their puppets,” said a reporter. 

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Another reporter feels distressed with his job. For the last 17 days, he has not been able to move outside Leh due to restrictions imposed by the authorities. “Every day, I have to lie to people by saying the situation is under control without knowing the reality in the disturbed areas. I feel ashamed but to save my job, I am bound to do it,” he said in a pessimistic tone.

Uncertainty and Chaos

Recently, Tenzin Nyima, 51, a Tibetan member of an Indian Special Forces Unit was killed in a mine blast close to the site where Chinese troops are facing off with Indian troops.

Nyima’s parents fled from Tibet in the 1950s and settled in Choglamsar — a Tibetan exile settlement for those who escaped after life under Chinese occupation became insufferable. 

The people in the region have significant fears about the situation around the border as they have no place else to go. The continuous movements of Indian troops are giving them sleepless nights. Indian authorities have increased the deployment with thousands of additional troops near the LAC.

Sirikit Yangzen, 82, a Tibetan, is worried for her family and is constantly praying for their safety. She, along with her 13 family members, are living in a refugee camp after Chinese troops in 1950 occupied their home. They fled from Tibet to save their lives.

“I was a teenager and we were living a happy life but it all changed suddenly when we were forced to leave our homeland and took an exile here. Now, I am worried again, I don’t want to leave this place and settle somewhere else. Nor do I want my grandchildren to face what we faced decades ago,” Yangzen expressed in a state of helplessness.

For families like Yangzen’s, Ladakh territory has allowed them to live a dignified life. “It is like my second home,” she said.

Many inside the camp wished a tremendous win for Indian troops in the battle as they feel that this will be a degree of revenge from their end.

“This could be an opportunity for us to regain our rights in the land. We pray for India’s win as they [China] occupied our land and snatched our rights,” says Pema Kusung who has been in the area for 25 years but wishes to be at home — in Tibet. 

Economic and Health Crisis

The current Indian economy is in shambles, with a jolt for many business sectors from the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Around 89,000 people in mainland India have died from COVID-19. Now, the sudden specter of war has invited major challenges.

Dozens of locals that The Diplomat spoke to said that the ongoing tensions have hit their economy badly. Every year, the area usually hosts thousands of tourists from across the globe. For many in Ladakh, tourism was a key to earning a livelihood. The tensions and the pandemic have halted tourism, leaving those whose work is in the tourism sector without jobs. 

“Last year’s lockdown followed by this pandemic has affected our economy a lot. And if there are any crisis around the border, where will we go?” asked Mohammad Yaqoob. 

He added that New Delhi has no idea about the miseries of people living near the borders. “They are only concerned about the area, not the people,” he said angrily. “War or no war — how does it matter now? We already are battling for livelihood here,” he added. 

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What Is Ahead?

Even though senior diplomats from China and India are negotiating quietly to de-escalate the tensions, conflict experts believe more friction is to be expected on the road ahead. They further state that both sides are not in a mood to withdraw, or even made trade offs. 

“The U.S.-China rivalry is rapidly intensifying, even as the U.S.-India partnership is rapidly growing — in large part because of shared concern about China’s rise. This gives Beijing a strong incentive to send both countries a tough message — and perhaps a warning — by making a lot of noise along the LAC,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The road ahead is twisted. Following the developments and various opinions of experts, it’s uncertain which way the present situation will turn next. To address the core outstanding issues in Sino-Indian relations, New Delhi has to move carefully ahead. Keeping the core issues under the carpet could yield severe negative impacts for the people of the Ladakh region, as well as impact India’s relationships with neighboring states.

Bhat Burhan is an independent multimedia journalist and can be followed on Twitter at @bhattburhan02.