| The Indian constable and the Chinese soldier standing on stools. Picture by Ashit Rai
Nathu-la, July 6: An Indian policeman and a Chinese soldier standing shoulder to shoulder at 14,400ft today crafted the tall and short of a story of how borders go soft despite provoking tempers in South Asia.
Constable Harish Solanki of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and a corporal identified as Chang Yeoh played out a quiet drama for several hours in the rain and blustery cold winds on the pass that continued through the official ceremonies to mark its opening for trade.
They stood in the middle of the pass as silent sentinels of each other’s countries with the Line of Actual Control demarcating India and China passing between the one’s left shoulder and the other’s right.
Solanki was deputed to be the honour guard on the line from the Indian side. The ITBP has been posted here to secure the 7-km corridor to the Sherathang market, the point inside India till where Chinese traders will be permitted to go.
In posting Solanki at the pass, the Indian side was also complying with a UN convention by which countries agree not to post armies on international boundaries. Viewed from New Delhi, this is a near-final resolution of the issue of Sikkim, whose accession to India in 1975 was objected to by the Chinese. The ITBP is a paramilitary force. The Chinese, however, kept a PLA soldier on the line.
Solanki, a strapping beanpole of a Haryanvi from Palam near Delhi is an imposing 6ft 3in.
When Solanki took his post, he found that a Chinese soldier from the PLA, who would have otherwise been just at chest-height for him, was standing on a stool. Without a murmur, the Indian side decided to get Solanki also a stool. Neither was in the script.
“What they (the Chinese) have done is against the drill,” said Raj Kishore, commandant of Solanki’s battalion. “So instead of asking them to remove their stool to avoid last-minute hitches, we have got one ourselves.”
This restored Solanki’s (and India’s) stature. But it dismayed the Chinese. They too decided to take genteel action. Their border guardsman was substituted by a taller one ' this was Chang Yeoh. The high-heeled jackboots pushed him closer to six feet.
Solanki’s ITBP colleagues decided that the Indian was still taller and if the Chinese believed that they had scaled the right height in Nathu-la, they were welcome to harbour that optical illusion. Solanki and Yeoh put shoulder to shoulder and locked eyes for a millisecond. Then both became statuesque.
The Chinese PLA now did a reassessment. There was little time left, Sikkim’s chief minister Pawan Chamling had arrived, as had the Chinese ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, and the governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Giangba Puncog.
The VIPs met warmly, shaking hands and pleasantries in the open despite the wind and the rain, prompting an Indian army officer to remark in Hindi: “When frozen relationships melt, conditions will be wet”.
During this exchange, Yeoh’s stool was replaced by a small table. The Chinese soldier displayed no emotion as he took his perch. Unlike his predecessor he was not looking sideways intermittently and jostling to look taller. This was clearly a happier state of affairs. India’s Solanki, too, accepted the enforced equality and his turban still rated him several inches higher than Yeoh’s peaked cap.
Chamling was concluding his speech. He hoped that the opening of Nathu-la was a new beginning and that border trade would pave the way for transit and tourism. Sun Yuxi said: “Border trade is a way of resolving the outstanding issues between India and China.”
Now another PLA soldier goes up to Yeoh, wipes his jackboots off water and adjusts his epaulettes. The rain gets stronger. Constable Solanki has a problem. His imposing turban is getting wet, he confides to his colleagues. Another stool is conjured up and placed behind Solanki. A fellow constable takes his position behind him and holds up an umbrella for Solanki’s turban. Water trickles off the umbrella and on to Yeoh’s shoulder, wetting his uniform.
By this time the ceremony is over and the bands have struck the Indian national song and a Chinese number. A total of 89 traders from Yatung region of Tibet are to cross into India and 100 Indian traders from Sikkim will go over to Rinchengang in China.
In the Chinese delegation there is Sonam Tashi from a village in Yatung who speaks a smattering of English and is attired colourfully in a traditional Tibeta Chhuba (robe).
What does he thinking of the reopening of Nathu-la on Dalai Lama’s birthday' “Communist, yes, communist,” says Tashi, walking off.
Behind the Chinese delegation, the atmosphere on the LAC where Solanki and Yeoh stood is now more relaxed. They have been replaced and the new border guardsmen are not on perches and are not standing frozen in attention any more.
Solanki asks for hot tea. He smiles and says “chhotu” was only up to his ears. It was difficult to gain PLA soldier Yeoh’s confidence. When it was sought, one of his comrades curtly said: “Discipline, please, discipline.” But then he also offers a cigarette, perhaps knowing plains Indians do not smoke in the rarefied air of these mountains.
That is the long and short of the Nathu-la story. The skirmishing has stopped, the jostling has not but the border went soft today.