India’s Northern Frontier concerns

By K.N. Pandita

Apparently independent India’s northern frontier policy has begun to show signs of stabilizing after six decades of slipshod handling. The first rude shock that bestirred top policy planners came with Kargil war of 1999. The price in terms of man power we paid to recover the strategic Himalayan heights also became catalyst to streamlining of our northern frontier policy. 

Taking into account the extent of the frontier and its forbidding physical features, restructuring of frontier policy is not exclusively a defence ministry related subject though, of course, the ministry has to be in the driver’s seat for all practical purposes.

For too long after independence, our northern frontier policy remained somewhat confined to action-reaction syndrome in our overall policy towards Pakistan. But Kargil war was a turning point. Pakistan realized that without inviting China to become third actor in the great game over the Himalayan heights, it may not be possible to dislodge India from her present position. As a result and after prolonged discussions, Pakistan opened up its Gilgit-Baltistan region to substantial presence of the Chinese. Thousands of PLA personnel moved into Gilgit under the rubric of skilled workmen engaged in building civilian infrastructure for Pakistan, a “friendly neighbour.”  Pakistan killed two birds with one stone; it helped China become a regular party to Kashmir dispute, and it made China endorse legitimization of Pakistan’s status in occupied Kashmir. Thus it dawned upon the policy planners in New Delhi that the more serious and substantial security threat to our northern frontier comes from east.

For some  time in the past reports have been coming in that Chinese soldiers occasionally stray into our territory in border region of Cheshul. We also got reports that Chinese troops were intruding into Indian Territory and obstructing local people in carrying out their developmental work like digging irrigation canal or improving infrastructure. These minor issues could not be considered precursors to any major untoward designs in the area. Field commanders on either side met and resolved the misunderstanding. But the presence of a very large group of Chinese PLA personnel in Gilgit and Baltistan is a matter of great security concern for India. We are aware that the Chinese are planning a railway line along the Karakorum Highway connecting Gawadar with her Eastern province of Xingjian (old Sinkiang/Eastern Turkistan). We are also aware that China has obtained Islamabad’s nod for laying Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline all along the Karakorum Highway to Kashghar, and we are also aware that China is putting pressure on Pakistan to allow her a military base in Waziristan in Pakistan’s NWFP before US-NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan. Chinese engineers are also conducting full scale survey of connectivity with Afghanistan through the Wakhan corridor to operate the $3 billion Mes Aynak copper mines leased to her company by Kabul government in November 2007 for 30-years period making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. It contains the second-largest reserves of copper ore in the world and the deposits are estimated to be worth up to $88 billion.

With our northern frontier assuming unprecedented strategic importance and the region witnessing so much of international activity, New Delhi is within its right to take stock of ground situation and dovetail its policy accordingly. The visits of the Defence Minister, Minister of State for Defence, Army Chief and now the Home Minister to Ladakh within past two months reflects the seriousness of the UPA government in responding to the situation along the line of  control in Ladakh. Much ahead of us, Beijing built vast infrastructure close to the line of control in Ladakh that makes movement of men and material to the border posts easier and quicker. Belatedly, we have awoken to the need of building comparable infrastructure in the region. The Z-morh and Baltal tunnels will take at least 5-7 years to be brought to completion and only then shall this hugely strategic are find safe and desirable connectivity.

Home Minister Shinde’s two day visit to Kargil and Ladakh and also a jaunt to the border line area in Chashul served the twin purpose of reviewing security scenario and assessing the requirements of local population. He returns to New Delhi with upgraded information. Hopefully his input on ground situation will be of significance for concerned ministries and the Union Cabinet in adding more pragmatic features to India’s northern frontier policy. Evidently, Ladakh’s alternate link with Himachal and Punjab also assumes strategic importance. We presume this also is under review at the higher echelons of power in Defence and Home Ministries. It is also important that along with securing the frontier against intrusions that will tell upon normal civilian life and activities, the government has to ensure development of the region and the prosperity of its inhabitants who ultimately are the real instruments of enduring peace.

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