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Forget China border, first settle domestic row

New Delhi, April 29: A turf war among Indian forces is shaping policy in the terrain of tent war while Indian and Chinese troops are in a face-off in Ladakh’s Daulat Beg Oldi sector.

The Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) troops have pitched tents opposite a Chinese camp at Raki Nala in eastern Ladakh where the face-off between the forces of the two countries is now in its 14th day.

But the absence of a clear directive from the government on who is in charge can lead to confusion over who is really in command of the Indian camp at the disputed border — is it the army or is it the ITBP?

The Indian Army has re-stated its demand for operational command of five battalions of the ITBP in Ladakh. Indeed, the army wants operational command of the ITBP all along the border with China but it has suggested a start with Ladakh from where it has reported the maximum number of transgressions of Chinese patrols.

But the ministry of home affairs (MHA) has rejected the demand as it had done in the past. The request is now before the China Study Group (CSG) headed by national security adviser Shivshankar Menon. The CSG comprises the secretaries of the home, defence and external affairs ministries, the cabinet secretary, the vice-chief of army staff and officials that the group co-opts from time to time.

Lt General J.S. Bajwa, who recently retired as director general (infantry), told a meeting here on Sunday that the lack of operational command over the ITBP was a hindrance in a sensitive terrain. BJP MP Tarun Vijay was one of the organisers of the meeting.

The army had first asked for operational command of the ITBP on the border in 1986. But the demands became more insistent since 1999 when a Chinese intrusion at Chip Chap in the DBO sector was reported while Indian troops were engaged in the Kargil war with Pakistan.

The army says that its 14 Corps chief stationed at Leh should be in charge of all forces.

In the past, the home ministry had rejected the demand. The MHA told the government that the ITBP was raised specifically for the China frontier after the 1962 war. In addition, the MHA argued, peacetime border management is done by central police forces according to international norms and the army should be employed only in a “hot war” situation.

The army has counter-argued: in unsettled borders, a “hot war” situation can flare up at any time and escalate fast.

Technically, the Chinese also have border guards on the Line of Actual Control. Even the platoon, which has pitched tents at Raki Nala near DBO — that the Indian government has said is an intrusion of 19km inside India — belongs to the border guards.

But the Chinese border guards are part of the People’s Liberation Army and is directly under its command.

In India, however, central police forces like the ITBP are under the home ministry, and the army, navy, air force and the Coast Guard are under the defence ministry.

The Indian Army has also argued that units of the BSF, that also reports to the MHA, deployed on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan are under its operational command. In the Northeast, the Assam Rifles, engaged in counter-insurgency operations, is also under the operational command of the army.

The Indian government is, however, hesitant to follow a similar system along the undefined Line of Actual Control because placing a police force under the army could be construed as an aggressive move.

At Raki Nala, however, the troops of the ITBP and the army, from posts in Bush Area (ITBP) and Track Junction, were reported to be getting along well.

Reports sourced from the army said about 10 sentries each from the Indian and Chinese sides are in a face-off barely 100 metres apart and keep guard 24 hours. It is bitterly cold with temperatures dropping well below -10C at night but the troops are holding up banners, each side asking the other to return to their original positions.