THE rugged region where the two South Asian nuke-armoured neighbours played the 1999 explosive summer war — forcing natives to take cover in trenches for weeks amid raining shells — is currently reliving the bitter war memories, as the ongoing Sino-India standoff dominates the discourse.
Even as the guards have been reportedly lowered at Line of Actual Control (LAC), apprehensions in the Muslim-majority Kargil region remain that the complexity of the situation might prolong the military faceoff.
One man, however, is seeing the ‘great game’ in Beijing’s fieriest storm-trooping of Ladakh’s pasturelands. He makes no bones about India’s defense dearth at the strategic points under the jackboots of Dragon.
As an influential leader from Kargil, Asgar Ali Karbalai, a former lawmaker of the erstwhile state of J&K, has closely witnessed the shifting sands of the cold desert over the years.
In an exclusive chat with Kashmir Observer’s Special Correspondent, Karbalai talks about the genesis of the fresh faceoff, stressing why New Delhi stands on a sticky wicket in Ladakh today.
What’re the apprehensions of the people of Ladakh amid ongoing Sino-India standoff?
There’re obviously some serious concerns in Ladakh today. We’ve witnessed the 1999 Kargil War and we know the consequences of an armed conflict.
And therefore, people don’t want any escalation at LAC.
But what according to you was Beijing’s method behind the latest Ladakh intrusion?
We’ve to understand that China has invested billions of dollars in Pakistan for the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, bordering with the entire Ladakh region of Indian territory.
So through Gilgit-Baltistan, China, in order to connect the economic corridor with Arabian Sea, made an International highway known as Karakoram Highway (KKH).
Not only that, they’ve a lot of mega projects in Gilgit-Baltistan, and many of them have been already completed. Besides, China has borders from Zojila to Bandipora’s Gurez area.
Gurez in-turn has borders with Drass in Indian side, and with Astore in Gilgit-Baltistan.
So, China exists in all the areas of Gilgit-Baltistan that has borders with India.
In the backdrop of the ongoing LAC faceoff, China is only strengthening their existence and influence in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh.
But has China already occupied strategic points in Ladakh?
Yes, the occupied Galwan Nalla is strategically important, for its proximity with KKH and CPEC.
Since these areas have strategic and economic importance for China, they’ll surely try to protect their interests and expand their existence.
But while they’ve been doing it [incursion] since years now, what’s India doing?
KKH is a 60 year old project. And all these years, New Delhi couldn’t even build an all-weather road for Ladakh.
As a result, this region remains cut-off from the rest of the world for six months.
Since the LAC standoff started, even the national media says that government has sent heavy deployments, but for that you need connectivity and infrastructure.
The question is, what’ll you do if war breaks out? How’ll you provide heavy arms and ammunition to the troops? How’ll you compete with them, when the dragon is already on your top?
They’re on top of Zojila, Astore, Pangong and Galwan Valley, where they’ve built a top-class infrastructure.
Does that mean Ladakh will easily fall, if China attacks?
See, we’ve only one Airport in Ladakh. You’ve a runway in Kargil but the airport is not functional. If you see in the Himachal side, the area also remains cut-off for over six months. The main lifeline for Ladakh is Zojila, which is under construction for years now. These are some practical issues that the Government of India needs to address sincerely.
Unfortunately, India is yet to understand the strategic and economic importance of Ladakh.
So, yes, I believe that if China attacks, it’ll be difficult for India to defend Ladakh.
We’ve 14 Corps of Indian Army in Ladakh, but what’ll they do [in wake of war], when even they don’t get military supplies on time.
But you’ve to fight for your land, and you can’t stand idle and do nothing. The government needs to build infrastructure on a war-footing.
Do you also believe that Union Territory status of Ladakh has provoked Dragon?
I don’t think this must be the reason because China has been eating away our land for years now.
China has a vast vision, and they do things keeping future in mind.
But yes, Ladakh has become voiceless after the Centre nullified Article 370 of the Indian Constitution undemocratically, and bifurcated the erstwhile state into two union territories last summer. The legislative powers that we had before August 5 are gone.
Once the status of the region got changed, China might’ve been looking for this opportunity.
But many people believe that China did it in the interest of Pakistan since the latter wasn’t happy with the August 5 decision. Do you see any link?
I don’t think so. I believe China is doing it for its own interests.
But yes, maybe, Pakistan wants to divert the attention of the masses towards it, since the country is struggling with economic pressure and COVID-19 crisis.
Phunchok Stobdan, former diplomat from Ladakh earlier told Kashmir Observer that ‘if Ladakh falls, Kashmir will be defenceless’. What do you think about it?
I don’t think tensions will escalate to that level where India will lose Ladakh.
In case of attack, India will definitely not remain silent. It will retaliate with full military might. We just had military level talks between China and India and the situation seems to be under control.
And China, right now, is not in a position to attack. It clearly wants some bargaining with India.
What type of bargaining?
China wants to strengthen its position at the strategic points of Line of Actual Control (LAC). They may bargain for that. However, I don’t think India will give up so easily.
The government needs to take it seriously and strength its position across the borders.
But do you also think that India should build LoC-type fencing across the borders with China?
When you’ve hilly terrains, fencing is not the solution.
The only thing, as I said, India needs to develop is infrastructure.
They need to develop all-weather road, railway and air connections.
Until that doesn’t happen, you can’t protect your land with just fencing from China.
What do people of Kargil think about this standoff?
People have a lot of apprehension, although the media is trying to downplay it, and we don’t have ground reports from here.
But I must tell you, people of Kargil are very furious with government for not responding to the Chinese aggression.
The way the government responded to Pakistan is missing here. However, people also understand that China is stronger than India in terms of infrastructure.
People of Kargil have seen the worst and they hope this tension stops once for all.
Do you see any further escalation at LAC?
It depends on the government of India’s response.
If they respond to China with seriousness and sensitivity, and with a planning and strategy, then I don’t think China will try to do any new misadventure.
It’s important for India to stop China in Ladakh.
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