Since early May, amidst the pandemic, thousands of Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a bitter confrontation, lined up on positions opposite each other’s, in the rugged Himalayan heights of the Ladakh region.
The faceoff, with each side matching the other’s deployment of men and artillery, has brought both sides to the brink of a conflict like nothing else has, in over three decades. For the first time since 1975, the two sides fired bullets and lost personnel to violence. Both sides have broken border peace agreements that had been successful in maintaining peace despite a 7-decade old border dispute between the two. So high is the mistrust now that at various points along their disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), both sides have amassed thousands of troops, heavy artillery and air power against each other, prepared for all eventualities. Soldiers from the two sides clashed on June 15, assaulting each other with bare hands and rocks, leading to 20 Indian soldiers being killed and many more injured. While China did not disclose its official count, news reports suggest that it suffered heavy casualties.
November will mark six months since the standoff began and there are no signs of a breakthrough, despite 19 rounds of talks between the two sides at various levels.
Amidst this uneasy peace, the Tibetan refugee community in India—in some ways at the heart of this dispute—finds itself spearheading the Indian pushback against an increasingly assertive China. The community is leading this effort on multiple fronts—from a special unit consisting of Tibetans capturing strategic heights and gaining key advantages over the Chinese on the border to local Tibetan civilians backing the Indian Army’s logistical operations in the harsh Himalayan terrain of Ladakh to Tibetans’ online activism.
In the Shadows
This sudden spurt in the community’s activities is because life has come full circle for the Tibetan community in India with the current standoff.
The community was established in 1959, a result of the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso’s decision to flee Tibet and seek refuge in India after an uprising among Tibetans, fearing Chinese attempts to seize Lhasa. Nearly 80,000 Tibetans trickled into India, trekking through the icy, inhospitable Himalayan terrain for days, some through Nepal, others through Ladakh and some more through the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, that China claims as its own and calls it ‘South Tibet.’
Since then, the community has lived in the shadows—as refugees, Tibetans are not allowed to buy land in India, nor are they eligible for government jobs or government educational benefits. They are not allowed passports and, instead, travel on ‘identity certificates’ that the Indian government issues. The lack of citizenship means they are often discriminated against, even in private sector jobs and educational institutes. Unsurprisingly, younger Tibetans are constantly seeking greener pastures—the community’s population in India has halved in 7 years since 2011 to 85,000.
Three years after the community started arriving in the country, India went to war with the Chinese over the unresolved boundary dispute in October 1962. Scholar Claude Arpi has recorded how, midway through the war, a desperate New Delhi toyed with the idea of roping in Tibetans, scattered across India, to form a paramilitary unit that could execute ‘special operations’ and launch ‘counter-insurgency’ attacks across the disputed border with China.
Thus came into existence the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a special paramilitary unit of paratrooper commandos. Before the unit could be operationalised, the war ended and the SFF, having recruited thousands of angry and eager Tibetans raring to fight the PLA, suddenly found itself without an enemy. Since then, New Delhi has never employed the unit against the Chinese. Instead, it has chosen to utilise the unit in other military and internal security conflicts—from the 1971 war with Pakistan that resulted in the birth of Bangladesh and the Sikh militancy in the Punjab state a decade later. But through it all, the SFF has remained unrecognised, officially, with the Indian State refusing to acknowledge the unit’s existence or the soldiers’ contributions.
‘Everyone Is In Josh’
This was until June 2020, when Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed with each other along the high ridges in the Galwan River Valley. That’s when the Indian government turned to the SFF. On August 29 and 30, SFF commandos led an Indian operation to capture heights in Ladakh’s Chushul sector, south of the Pangong lake, one of the sites of an ongoing standoff between soldiers from both countries. Capturing these heights has exposed Chinese vulnerabilities—these heights oversee a major Chinese camp and bring within reach a cantonment as well as the crucial G219 highway connecting Xinjiang to Tibet. An SFF soldier, Tenzin Nyima, even lost his life in the operation. But in the effort and the death, a community was finally finding its moment in the sun.
Speaking to Tibetans, I realised that this recognition of the SFF was, for the community, an acknowledgement of their own efforts. “Everyone is in full josh (excitement) now,” a former SFF soldier and Tibetan refugee Tenzin Thardoe told me.
Since this development, the local Tibetan community in Ladakh has swung in—each day, volunteers from villages close to the border are waking up at 3am, baking fresh bread, carrying supplies of fresh food and water to soldiers posted on those heights. The Indian Army’s logistics—these forward positions are at least 200 kilometres away from the town of Leh—are stretched and the terrain is rugged and steep with few or no roads connecting these positions.
Without these villagers, the Indian Army would have had to hire porters, a luxury in terms of both manpower and cost. With soldiers on either side of the border all set to brave the coming harsh winter, when temperatures are likely to dip to as low as -40 degrees Celsius, the local Tibetan community will prove to be a crucial last-mile link for the Indian armed forces’ logistics.
Far away from the border, ordinary Tibetans across India are also stepping up advocacy and online activism, using the moment to mobilise opinions against China. Various Tibetan organisations are pushing Indians to “boycott” China, joining in a larger public sentiment building up in India against China amidst the pandemic and the border tensions. The Indian government’s steps—from banning nearly 180 Chinese-origin mobile applications, restricting Chinese investment in Indian private sector companies, banning imports of Chinese equipment in the power and telecom sectors—are also helping Tibetans in their advocacy.
If not for this online activism by the Tibetans, the death of the SFF soldier, Tenzin Nyima, would have remained a tightly-wrapped secret, since the government had not officially acknowledged his death. Active Tibetans posted photos and videos of his body online, breaking the news of his death and forcing media organisations to report on his contribution. Finally, public sentiment forced the Indian government to organise a state funeral for Nyima. The funeral saw thousands of Tibetans gather, holding bike and car rallies hailing Nyima’s contribution. Nyima’s family, in Ladakh, is overwhelmed by the attention. His brother, Nwayo, told me how excited Nyima had been at being posted along the Chinese border. “This is not Kargil or Bangladesh. We are finally fighting our enemy,” Nyima had said, the last time the two met.