October 7, 2008 11:58:37 pm
Reaching it involves a bone shaking four-hour drive from Leh, but the first glimpse of the incredibly blue Pangong Lake is a sight for sore eyes. Nestled between India and China at an altitude of 14,500 feet, the salt water lake with its various shades of blue is a photographer’s delight. However, the deceptively calm Pangong Lake — or Lukung Lake as it is known among locals — is also one of the key border flashpoints between India and China that is waiting to explode. The area under contention is a 5-km stretch along the lake that both sides lay claim to.
Things deteriorated in 1999 after China, taking advantage of the Indian Army’s buildup in Kargil, built a 5-km permanent track into Indian territory along the lake. Both sides now carry out routine patrols on the track and mark their presence, but avoid physical contact.
While the frequency of incursions by Chinese troops on Indian territory in and around the lake has not increased over the past few years — three to four incidents of transgression on both land and water are reported every week — the calm is still very much only on the surface.
On the lake itself, 45 km of which is in India while the remaining 90 km lies in China, both sides carry out regular patrols. While the standard drill when two boats from opposite sides come face to face is holding up flags saying “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” by soldiers from both countries, the subdued aggression sometimes surfaces.
Close to two months ago, an Indian motorboat on regular patrolling duty along the perceived border in the lake, was surrounded by three Chinese naval crafts. Things started turning tense as the Chinese crafts approached the Indian boat (which was sufficiently armed with two machine guns and a 20 -member contingent). The situation calmed down only after the quick thinking operator swung around the larger Indian boat in circles to disperse the Chinese crafts.
While such incidents of aggression are rare, Indian soldiers have to remain on their toes. Especially as China has a stronger military presence on the lake. The Chinese Navy operates close to 22 armed patrol boats in the lake — mostly smaller vessels seating five to seven soldiers.
India, on the other hand, has two patrol boats that are operated by the Army. While these boats are bigger — carrying up to 21 soldiers — the numeric superiority that China enjoys is undeniable. Stuck in the corridors of South Block is a proposal to ferry in an additional 10-12 boats for better patrolling of the lake. Last month’s visit to Pangong Lake by Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta is expected to give an impetus to the proposal.
Until India and China resolve the border dispute at the political level, incursions and transgressions in the region will continue. “There has been no change in pattern in the past few years. They come in and we record their movements, we go there and they record ours,” an Army officer says.
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