Ladakh Region: Second Look

By K.N. Pandita

Among the regions of Himalayan heights, Ladakh enjoys unique geography, topography and social construct. In ethnic and religious terms as well, the region presents very interesting picture. In particular, harmony among the people of various faiths is a hallmark of the Ladakhi history and society. It is a snow bound area where we have the only overland connectivity via Zojila Pass, which remains closed for nearly six months of the year owing to heavy snowfall and closure of the pass. This signifies the importance of air link between Leh and the rest of the country for the major part of the year. Thus we have the Kushak Bakula Rampoche Leh Airport the highest airport in the country at an elevation of 10682 ft. Runway length of this airport is 10100 ft and the nearest airport is Kargil [220 km], which is an army base. 

Ladakh has a long border with China to its east. Knowing China’s unrestrained covetousness for nibbling at borders, this has never been a happy position for the Indian defence and security interests. Establishment of Indian military post at Siachin Glacier, too, has China-oriented security element added to it. But more recently, China’s moves in Gilgit and Baltistan region, presently under the control of Islamabad, have forced India to focus on the situation likely to develop in the aftermath of wider and deeper Chinese presence in the area. Nearly 17,000 troops of the Red Army are reported to have moved into Gilgit-Baltistan region under the rubric of technicians working at the infrastructure that China is raising there. Earlier, Chinese border guards were also reported making unsuccessful forays into Indian side of the border in Ladakh, and painting stones and boulders red with Chinese national emblem. China is reported to have even published maps showing Chinese reach up to Zoji La pass. Chinese embassy in New Delhi began issuing visa to J&K citizens on an additional sheet thereby indicating that it considered Kashmir a disputed territory.  It was only after New Delhi strongly protested against such hostile acts that Beijing offered to talk on these contentious issues, and the talks are a continuous process at diplomatic levels.

The geography and history of the region including the turmoil through which not only Kashmir but the NWFP of Pakistan and Afghanistan are passing, are strong compulsions for Indian policy planners to take such measures in good time as would serve two purposes; securing our position in Ladakh region vis-à-vis China, and providing second link between Ladakh and the rest of the country. As regards the first purpose, the defence ministry is fully seized of the situation and has committed to the defence of Ladakh at any cost. But in regard to second compulsion, it may be reminded that during the tenure of A.B. Vajpayee as the Prime Minister, the NDA government then took the decision of building the Manali (HP)-Leh road link as an alternate connectivity with the entire Ladakh-Kargil region. Even survey of the proposed link was also partially undertaken. But somehow only half-hearted decision had been made because this link did not figure in the priority list of the present government. Hindsight shows that precious time has been wasted by delaying the launching of the project. On the other hand, China has much improved the Karakorum Highway, built vital tunnels and installed missile bases along this track as its defence strategy in the region. It is reported that China is planning to lay a railway line along the Karakorum Highway, something the Chinese are competent to do as we know of their achievement in constructing rail link to Tibet. While so much of hostile activity is going on on our northern border, it is of much importance that our second link with highly strategic northern frontier region (Ladakh) is opened as early as possible. This is of immense importance to economic revolution in the otherwise backward regions of Ladakh and Kargil. Trade and commerce in the entire region will receive new impetus once the link becomes sustainable. In all probability, the existence of Manali-Leh link will reduce the isolation period of Ladakh during harsh winter months of the year. A second look on Indian strategy in northern frontier will support the view presented here.

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