At Nima Lhamu’s cafe and gift shop at Laxuman Chowk in Gnathang Valley, there is a steady stream of Armymen, belonging to various divisions including the artillery, who have braved pouring rain to pick up Old Monk quarters and beedi packets. They are all headed to Doka La, just 9 km away, where Indian and Chinese forces have been locked in a standoff for the past two months.
Lhamu’s cafe is in the line of sight of Doka La and thus in the line of fire. So is her village downhill. Gnathang is among two villages — the other being Kupup, which is just 5 km from Doka La — which are expected to be the first targets of Chinese area weapons in case a war breaks out.
The 30-year-old cafe owner, however, is not overly concerned. “None of us is worried here. As long as it’s going fine, it’s going fine. When it won’t, we will move. Till then it’s good business,” she says with a smile, pointing towards Armymen whose increased presence in the area has meant that her shop has decent sales even in the lean tourist season.
The three villages of Kupup, Gnathang and Dzuluk, in a stretch of about 30 km, are closest to the trijunction between India, China and Bhutan that is under dispute, and virtually survive on tourism and jobs provided by the Army.
While Lhamu believes war is unlikely, she admits she hasn’t seen so much movement by the Army in her entire life.
Nearly 350 soldiers of the Army’s battalion at Doka La moved into the Dolam plateau on June 18 to stop the Chinese from constructing the road to Jampheri ridge. More than 300 Chinese soldiers are arrayed against the Indians, across Torsa nala.
India has moved up an additional brigade to the area, but not to the site of the standoff. Other units in the area are also in a state of readiness, as per sources.
At Kupup, almost every minute, an Army truck passes by or a vehicle takes a turn towards the trijunction, carrying supplies. The road towards Gnathang has armed personnel keeping guard every few hundred metres.
A steady stream of vehicles makes a halt at Baba Harbhajan Mandir close to Kupup, built in the memory of a martyred Army soldier who is said to have acquired an afterlife. It’s a custom among Armymen to stop by at the temple and pay obeisance before going for border duty or war.
At Pema Sherpa’s cafe in Gnathang village, which has mountain slopes on either side with boards warning of land mines, sit a few Army personnel enjoying an afternoon meal.
One of them talks about the cold and showers that the 400 men stationed at Doka La are weathering, and how neither side is budging. They also speak of setting up mine fields in the area to thwart any terrestrial Chinese aggression.
Another one cuts him, laughing, “They (Chinese) are borrowing and smoking our bidis. And we are enjoying their cigarettes. Why will there be a war?”
Yet villagers have been asked to be prepared. Labourers from Dzuluk, who work with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the Army on a daily basis, inform that everyone has been asked to keep their documents and necessary belongings ready, to move at short notice.
“A Major-rank officer recently held a public gathering at Kupup and told residents of nearby villages not to panic. But he asked us to keep our passes and some clothes handy. He said China attacked India without warning last time, that is why we must stay alert,” a labourer says.
Villagers above 10 years of age in border areas are issued yearly permits. “But now all age groups have been asked to get them, and get them monthly. The authorities said it is to ensure that a quick evacuation is possible, and based on the permits, villagers can come back when the war is over,” another labourer says.
Most of the children in the area are away though, Sherpa says, as they study either at Gangtok or towns nearby.
A labourer says that movement of civilians, including workers, has also been restricted at Nathu La. After Independence Day, some top Army officers held a meeting there and a commanding officer was chief guest and a part of the meeting.
“There is cafe at Nathu La. The women who worked there have been asked to leave. Right now no civilians are there. Civilians taking supplies to the Army have also been restricted,” one of the labourers regularly employed at Nathu La claims.
The labourers say they are being employed to clear roads of landslides or large potholes. “The Army does not want movement on the roads to be restricted even for an hour. That is why small repairs of roads are being done,” one of them says.
Rather than the stand-off though, what worries the residents more is the Gorkhaland agitation, that has disrupted supplies and flow of tourists.
Gopal Pradhan, who runs a homestay in Dzuluk and whose wife was till recently the sarpanch of the village, says, “All this talk of war is in the newspapers and in Gangtok. Look at the village. Everyone is going about their job. In fact all this news has scared away tourists. If there is war, we will see. We have not been told to move or do anything by the authorities yet. When there is threat of war, lights have to be switched off. But see my homestay is lit up all night.”
Most homestays though are shut, with this being off season, and most men have found work with the BRO for now.
Nima Lhamu of Gnathang says that the only flipside of the standoff is that the trade with China through Nathu La and Sherathang — a market near the border where Chinese come to trade — has stopped. “This has led to serious paucity of Chinese goods, which is the mainstay of business here,” she says.
Adds Pema Sherpa, “No one has been asked to leave the village. Where will we go? We are one with the Army. If war happens, the men will help the Army and we will provide food. How far can we run? 10 km?”
Laughing, labourers in Dzuluk say the talk in the village is that if China takes Doka La, it would annexe Sikkim and Bhutan. “Our elders, who have seen the 1962 war, say bullets flew past their heads and the Armymen stayed with them in the village. We will again face it. But many are saying if this goes awry, it will be the third world war,” a woman smiles.