February 22, 2020
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Sentinels Of A Frozen Frontier

In an unsung Battle, Indian soldiers safegaurd a desolate border at lethal altitudes

Sentinels Of A Frozen Frontier
Because of the vagaries of nature, the army posts stock up supplies which can last up to six months in each of the forward posts. A driver posted in the area for the last three years explains: "In the winters, the Sela Pass gets blocked for days because of heavy snow. Often, we are stranded on either side of the pass for several days." Besides, there are several landslide points along the Tezpur-Tawang road. On July 6, after heavy rains, half a hillock came crashing down on a bridge between Bhatukpong and Sessa, blocking all road communication for three days.

This abrupt breakdown of communication and accessibility is a major blow for the stranded troops. Says P Pandian, an NCO (non-commissioned officer): "I had a reservation to go home in Tamil Nadu. Because I am stuck here, not only has the reservation become irrelevant, I am also losing three days of precious leave. And on top of that, I will have to travel unreserved for three days in the train."

A vital part of the Indian defence along the Chinese border is formed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Without the BRO, it would be impossible to maintain the only road that connects Tawang to Tezpur, the Corps headquarters. A far cry from the 1962 situation when the troops did not have proper winter clothing, leave alone adequate logistical support.

Thirty-five years ago, the Indian army was in no shape to fight any scientific battle (see box), since the military and political leadership did not provide the necessary infrastructure needed to fight a war in the high ranges. The scene today, however, while still stark, has seen a tremendous change. Both road and telecommunication backup is very good considering the conditions. Three decades after the Chinese swept through the hills of Arunachal Pradesh to reach within striking distance of Tezpur in the plains of Assam, the Indian army has strengthened its defences along its northern borders. The new preparedness is evident throughout the 400 km drive through rough, hilly terrain from Tezpur to Bumla. As Lt Gen R K Sawhney, commander of the 4 Corps which has the overall responsibility of guarding the Chinese frontiers, says: "Our defences are impeccable now. I think even the other side knows this."

But no one is taking any chances. All officers posted in the Tawang-Kameng sector maintain that despite the entente between India and China, it cannot be trusted. As a senior officer commented: "One should not forget the Sumdorung Choo incident in 1986 (when the Chinese troops intruded into that area, almost sending the two countries to war again). It took them 24 years after 1962 to indulge in mischief. What is the guarantee that they will not do it again? After all, Beijing still maintains that Arunachal Pradesh is its territory." It is in this deceptive calm that the Indian troops do their job - a safety valve for frost-bitten relationship.

Yet both India and China have de-escalated their troop strength on the border after a series of confidence building measure (CBMS) in 1987 - instead of an almost two division strength (10,000 soldiers), India now has only a brigade (3500 soldiers) in this sector and China has correspondingly reduced its strength. A system of regular meetings between the two sides to discuss minor details was also installed.

Except on the actual patrolling along the international border, the Army jawans do not carry any weapons. Ironically, they have to be provided with heavily armed escorts for travelling within terrorist-ridden Assam. Army vehicles are not allowed to travel alone in the day while night journeys are totally banned. This is because both the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Bodo Security Force (BDSF) have increasingly begun targeting army vehicles for IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attacks. Over the last fortnight in Assam, the Army has lost about a dozen men in such attacks. Says a senior officer: "We do not believe in losing our men unnecessarily. Hence, these precautions." For these protectors of India's northern-most frontier, containing the grey forces beyond the stark and desolate border is only one more of the hurdles they face in their thankless task.

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