Though security agencies in Himachal Pradesh have been put on alert following the violent clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh’s Galwan valley, the border area in the state has been characterised more by commerce than by conflict between the two nations.
Trade relations between Tibet and what is now Himachal Pradesh have existed for centuries along an ancient silk route through the mountain pass Shipki La, which now stands at the border of the tribal district of Kinnaur in India and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
A miniature version of the once flourishing trade continues to this day, though the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted it for the time being. For a few months every year beginning June when the snow line recedes, Kinnauri traders ranging from 30 to 90 walk through the pass after obtaining clearance from an ITBP border check-post, and cross over to the other side to sell their products, a district official said.
“They mostly exchange woollen and handloom items such as blankets and carpets. There are around 36 approved items on the export list, and 20 on the import list. The total volume of the trade carried out last year was a little above Rs 3 crore,” said Dr Thakur Bhagat, general manager of the district industries centre in Kinnaur.
Sanjeev Negi, a resident of Namgia, the last village on Indian side of the border, said that traders earlier travelled on mules from Namgia but now a motorable road exists till the border, from where they have to trek into China but return within three days as per rules.
Before India’a independence, Tibetan traders entered Himachal via Shipki La and travelled up to Rampur Bushahr, especially during the Lavi fair, using the old Hindustan Tibet road built in mid-nineteenth century. The trade route was closed following the Indo-China war in 1962 and only resumed in the early 1990s after an agreement between both the countries. However, no Chinese merchant has entered Kinnaur since the resumption, and all trade activity takes place in China, officials said.
In 2017, amid heightened tension between the two nations over the stand-off in Doklam, the trade volume reduced to about Rs 59 lakh from Rs 8.6 crore in the previous year. Bhagat said that no trade has taken place so far this year as the merchants expressed their unwillingness to leave Kinnaur due to covid-related fears.
A conflict-free border so far
Besides Kinnaur, the Spiti valley too shares a border with China. But compared to Ladakh, the border region in Himachal is marked by a more rugged terrain and precipitous mountain ranges. Himachal’s highest mountain peaks such as Reo Purgyil (6,816 metres above the sea level) and Gya (6,794m) guard the border here, and only a few points such as Shipki La and Kaurik allow access across these snow-bound ranges.
Security officials said that there’s no history of any violent military encounters between the two nations along the Himachal-China border, even during the war in 1962. “During that war, there was some tension at Kaurik but it did not escalate,” said Pooran Singh, pradhan of Charang panchayat, a border village.
Nevertheless, settlements along the border have been issued precautionary advisories, especially since Chinese choppers were spotted twice inside the boundaries of Spiti in April, as reported by the state government to the Centre.
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