Other engagements

Print edition : July 31, 1999

A RELIGIOUS festival planned by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and organised by the security establishment? A regiment of Tibetan soldiers paid for with Indian tax money and set up to invade China?

Leh's Shangri-la image is not just tourist hype. Cut off from public scrutiny, the town has become host to a spectrum of bizarre military enterprises.

Consider the Sindhu Darshan festival organised in Leh at the end of June. This programme to celebrate the Indus river has its origins in a 1997 visit to the town by L.K. Advani, now Union Home Minister. The Sindhi community in India attaches an emotional significance to the Indus. Advani, having discovered that the river flows through Ladakh, decided to organise the festival.

If none of this seems exceptionable, subsequent events certainly were. The infrastructure for last year's celebrations was provided by the 3 Infantry Division in Ladakh on the instructions of its commander, Lieutenant General V.N. Budhwar. More than 500 RSS workers, including RSS ideologue Tarun Vijay, attended the Sindhu Darshan. Most of them stayed on premises made available by the Army, which also sent troops to erect platforms and pavilions.

Two points are to be noted. One, a public-funded organisation such as the Army has no business subsidising private religious and cultural activities. Moreover, Sindhu Darshan had explicit ideological affiliations which militate against the Army's apoliti cal character. Instructions have been issued to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the district police to facilitate this year's Sindhu Darshan.

Budhwar, a controversial officer on the firing line in view of his infamous conduct of the Kargil campaign, is famous in Leh for his efforts to develop, among other things, a zoo and a sprawling children's amusement park in the tiny town. Local officials have been more than a little stunned by his ideological leanings. They fought a protracted rearguard action to fend off demands from the General to have Muslim villages evicted from the Turtok area along the Line of Control. Budhwar evidently believed t he villages to be a threat to India's security, a baseless proposition.

BUT the real news from Leh has been hushed. Last month, ITBP troopers discovered that a group of 40 Chinese soldiers had begun to construct a road near a forward position called Track Junction in the general area of Daulat Beg Oldi. The road was built so me 4 km into the territory claimed both by India and China and unheld by both. The Chinese troops were unarmed and evidently confident there would be no armed reprisal. Interestingly, the road construction began from the point claimed by China to constit ute the international border.

Mindless Chinese provocation? In May, one of the most curious units of the Indian Army saw its first known combat deployment. The Vikas Regiment was put up on the Batalik heights as first reports of Pakistani intrusion came in. Weeks later, as it became clear that the fighting was serious and that Vikas Regiment troopers could be taken prisoner, its men were withdrawn. The reason was simple. The Vikas Regiment is commanded by Indian officers but its soldiers are children of refugees from Tibet. The Tibe tan soldiers are hired on fixed-term contracts and take orders from a special political office under the command of the Dalai Lama.

The Vikas Regiment has its origins in efforts by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to set up deep-penetration guerilla units in Tibet after China took control of the region. India played along with those efforts well after the CIA aban doned its Tibet enterprise, a fact that should be of some relevance to those who believe that the 1962 war was entirely unprovoked. In the wake of the 1962 war, the guerilla units were turned into the Vikas Regiment, tasked to conduct deep penetration op erations in China in the event of war. In effect, India was doing exactly what it now complains that Pakistan engages in: funding, training and arming a force of foreign nationals with the purpose of waging war against a neighbour.

The Track Junction affair appears to have been at least partly provoked by the use of the Vikas Regiment in Batalik. Reliable sources say that the affair was discussed by the Cabinet Committee on Security and instructions were issued not to provoke a con frontation at Track Junction. Efforts by Frontline to establish the precise sequence of events leading to the use of the Vikas troops were stonewalled and public relations officials in Srinagar said that they had no information on either the Regim ent or its deployments. But some serious questions clearly have to be answered, even if news is slow in making its way across the mountains, physical and metaphorical, that guard Shangri-la.

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