Foreboding Footprints

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With the Chinese army incursions finally admitted at all levels, the newer revelations suggest that PLA border operations in Ladakh were an open secret. A young lady politician from remote Changthang was recording the routine incursions and frequenting of Red Army’s foot soldiers into Nyoma grasslands and their style of operations for the last more than one year. Apart from keeping the officials and top politicians informed, she was putting her first-hand sightings on record using her social media, reports Masood Hussain

The two PLA men with a Tibetan interpreter and their dog came silently to Demchok and left a threat for the local herdsmen. This was recorded after they left the place. Photograph: Urgain Chodon

Identifying herself as a “Changmo girl”, Urgain Chodon is an important resident of Ladakh’s Changthang belt, the main theatre of the ongoing Sino-Indian tensions. With masters in political science, she is a BJP leader and heads the Block Development Council of the border Nyoma block. Though she lives in Delhi, her summer’s are routinely spent along with her father, Rigzin Tangay – one of the founding members of the BJP in the belt, and their herds in the vast meadows of Demchok, not far away from the Chinese soldiers.

“My father is less educated but he is my inspiration,” Urgain said on phone from Leh, where she is currently living. “I joined politics in 2014 and contested for a berth in the Autonomous Council polls in 2015 which I lost. In 2019, I was elected a Sarpanch, a position that I resigned to become the chairperson of the BDC Nyoma, later.”

For all these years, she has been working closely with the 10,000-odd population that primarily rears the herds and make a living in harsh situations. Part of sprawling Changthang plains that extends up to Tibet peripheries, this is the most fascinating part of Ladakh. The population is scarce and life is harsh. Mostly, the shepherds and the herdsmen make most of the population. This is the region that is the source of famed Pashmina wool because the goats raised in hugely cold temperatures fetch the best wool to the rears.

Urgain’s block has seven major villages. “My village is around 310 kms from Leh town and the people live without most of the basic infrastructure,” Urgain said. “We do not have a hospital or a school and electricity is a luxury. The government has given us a DG set that we use when we have a community gathering.” Tourism contributes quite a little in improving the lives of the people.

Three Threats

Urgain said the community is facing serious problems and surviving with herds is becoming increasingly unsustainable. “There are three major threats that we primarily face,” Urgain said. “The first is the wolf. Its population has increased in recent years. Recently they killed 60 cattle heads and the government is not compensating the losses. The second is the disease. Last season, we lost almost 600 goats to PPR (Peste des petits ruminants also called goat plague) and there was no compensation.”

Footprints of the intrusion – These footmarks that the intruding Chinese soldier left after returning from Demchok in December 2019 is part of the Nyoma BDC’s virtual records of the happenings

“The most threatening is the intervention of the Chinese army that has been evicting our herdsmen from the meadows and grazing lands. There is no possibility of getting an animal back if it crosses the Chinese post,” Urgain regretted. Every summer, they have the problems as movement of their herds is being limited by the interventions of the PLA. In 2014, a group of them was actually arrested (from Chumar) and were freed almost a week after the two armies negotiated. “These factors are leading the herdsmen to sell their herds. We may not have more than 20,000 goats in the belt now.”

Keeping The Record

In all these years, what this young politician has done is that she has recorded everything. She drafted a detailed representation of the wildlife attacks on the herds and submitted it to the government. She once was part of the delegation that met the Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the age-old Ladakh demand that the track to Mansrover be opened. Every time, she traced Chinese intrusion, she did not inform the government alone; she made it public using social media.

Possible PLA men in civvies with flags on the other side of Indus river when the local community was busy in a gathering

“We have four villages – Demchok, Anlay, Koyul and Tsaga – located very close to the Chinese border and we face the harassment,” Urgain said. “I personally saw it happening at least thrice in recent years when they came in and returned after issuing threats and warnings.”

Over the years, PLA has evolved a system that they sent their herdsmen with cattle and then the soldiers follow and ensure these pastures are not ever used by the goat-herders from Ladakh.

What is interesting, she recorded everything on her Facebook wall.

A 2019 SOS

On July 19, 2019 updated on her FB wall reads with the caption “Attention please nation is under threat

The story goes like this (sic erat scriptum): “This is the story of Six July when people of Koyul, demchok and Dungti comes together at dohlaa community to celebrate the birthday of his holiness Dalai Lama and it’s a costumary celebration which has been celebrated from many years and on this day we used to put or unfurl the national flag, Buddhist flag and Tibetan flag but this time China comes six kilometer in our territory saying that we are instigating them and told us not to put the flag but my question is why they haven’t got instigated till now cause we are not celebrating his holiness birthday for the first time and my second question is why they came themselves when they have is telecommunition facility with them they should have informed our forces.

Coming inside our motherland and unfluring their national flag means that they have a hidden objective to occupy our winter grazing pasture land where our forefathers and we all (changpas) shift for winter grazing. Expansion is the nature of China but at whose loss is Wat is important. It is not just 6kms but so many square kilometres.

Earlier this year they made road near loc. Now they came to our territory. I would like to bring this to the notice of all our great leader regional as well as national leader to intervene in this matter of great importance of national security and for the survival of changpas & their livestock and make them feel secured abt living a very hard life near loc.

Please do something before the water level rises above our head. Jamyang Tsering Namgyal Dorje Angchuk Avny Lavasa Chering Dorje Lakrook Konchok Stanzin Tashi Yakzee Tsering Sandup Deldan Namgail Tsewang Rigzin N Rigzin Jora Vikram Randhawa Ravinder Raina Ashok Koul Thinless Dorjai Rajat Sethi Rajnath Singh Amit Shah Chowkidar Narinder Partap Singh Narendra Modi Phunchok Wangdan.”

This post accompanies a set of seven photographs. In one, there are at least seven visible young men in two SUV’s visible on the other side of the Indus river. The white vehicle carries the PLA flag. Another photo has two white SUVs with two individuals. A third photo has one SUV and two individuals. Another one has more than half a dozen individuals who fix a Chinese flag on the banks.

A Border Conference

On December 25, 2019, when she was invited to the FICCI conference Smart Border Management-2019 – Contribution of Smart Border Towards $ 5 Trillion Economy that was attended by the industry and BJP’s Ram Madhav and General (retd) V K Singh, she spoke to the event. It is not known if at all she talked about her own experience while living at border but she wrote on her wall (sic): “…but you all will surely help us in providing all the basics need and help us in reaching smart border which the theme is as for now this side of Indian border is without basic needs which china take advantage of so now is the high time to wake up otherwise tommorw will be too late to wake up…”

Urgain Chodon in a group photograph at the border management meeting conference

Urgain is part of the group photograph and she shares an interaction with General Singh as well. She said she was given barely five minutes to speak and whatever she could she talked.

A Covid-19 Fear

The next major post on her FB wall was somewhere in early this spring, either in March or April. She withdrew the post within a few hours, according to The Hindustan Times.

“Alert! This is to express my concern for my country and especially my border people. Being BDC chairperson of Nyoma block, it is my responsibility to inform that a few days ago, 50km away from Demchok village, there was movement of around 300 vehicles in China-occupied Tashi Gang region. Even aircraft movement was heard in our area. The heavy vehiclular movement is happening in their own region, but why now when the whole world is in war against Covid-19?” the newspaper quoted her Facebook post, written on Monday morning.

“It might be possible that they are planning to dump the bodies in that barren region, which is so close to our border. If that is the case, then dumping so many bodies may spread the virus through different carriers of air, water and migratory animals,” it added.

She added further, according to the newspaper: “Even if it’s not about their Covid-19 victims, what is the big urgency of doing all this during this critical time? It is my plea to the government and policy makers to investigate this urgent matter.”

Insisting that “there is something fishy and the government needs to investigate”, Urgain told the newspaper that “she had sent messages regarding the Chinese activity to BJP MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal and the Leh deputy magistrate”. Namgyal, the MP confirms to the newspaper that he has received messages from her and he is trying to “counter-verify” before “before officially writing anything to the ministries.” The newspaper reports that Ladakh Divisional Commissioner, Saugat Biswas dubbed Urgain’s claims as “unverified reports”.

Urgain confirmed that she withdrew the post after she was asked that it will trigger panic. Those were the days when Ladakh had already reported the arrival of Covid-19. On April 28, she writes on her wall: “If things were resolving by being silent than it is well and good but I hv never seen such magic.”

Broadcasting Spring

When it was fairly established that Chinese incursion have taken place, Urgain wrote on the wall on June 11: “Whatever it’s happening in Galwan valley it’s nothing new and it’s happening because of lack concern towards border area and lack of strategies towards Border area…”

The same day, she adds another post, this time with video clips of a long line of dumper trucks working on a huge road passing through a vast meadow. She had recorded the video in 2019. The post reads (sic): “Previous year in month of May 2019 Chinese communists govt construct this road with almost 150 heavy vechile under our very nose at Fukgap what we did nothing and what strategies we laid for our border. but on other hand in demchok we have to get permission from D. C even for a moment of one JCB and for putting of fencing I myslf got permission from D.C mam. On the other hand Chinese construct this road with 150 heavy vechile in almost fourth day and went back no objections and they strengthened there border… Where is our strategy.”

The three clips show in 111 seconds how the Chinese were working on a road and the number of vehicles, earth removers and other machinery that was involved in the constructions. (Kashmir Life lacks any information about the area filmed in these clips.)

The same day she shared a photograph of a macadamised road with the post (sic): “This magadamized road was constructed by chinese communist govt in month of May 2019 finish road project of there and I took the photo in the month of December..”

Urgain Chodon with the former Army Chief and now a politician, General V K Singh at a border conference.

Urgain re-shares her 2019 photographs with the caption: “During 6th July 2019 Chinese PLA came 6km in our territory unfurl there flag and went back and later in December 2019 they claim the adjoining territory as there and making our herdsmen shift there ancestral shed and we have to steps back 50 from our ancestral shed…” In another post, she added: “This is the ancestral shed of Mama Rigzin but this winter he lost his ancestral shed at laegoknonboo cause PLA made him Fifty steps,steps back so imagine how much square km we have lost..”

The latter post carried four photographs suggesting that Mama’s shed has been dismantled and there is an observation post of the Chinese army.

Soldiers And A Dog

The same day in the afternoon, Urgan shares three photographs that tell yet another story. “This year in winter in January Chinese troops came along with its trained dog in our territory warn our nomadic people not to graze our herds in our own territory and went back if they do so they told them they will take the herdmen along with them…,” the post reads.

The spot where Mama Rigzin, a shepherd’s shed was destroyed by the PLA to create an Observation Post.

The photographs accompanying the post are not high definition but are artistic – three persons along with their dog and nothing around in the vast ground carpeted by snow. Another photograph has no life in it excepting the footmarks of the intruding soldiers and their dog.

An Evolved System

“They speak Chinese,” Urgain said on phone. “But to ensure that they are able to communicate their threats, they always bring a Tibetan interpreter with them.” What is interesting is that the area has two Demjok’s – one each on either side of the invisible divide. Urgain lacks any knowledge if the two villages have any blood relations.

Raising Chinese flag in the Changthang flags is the routine PLA exercise

Nyoma is part of the Changthang belt that entire borders Tibet. Right now, it is this belt that is at the centre of the Sino-Indian tension. All the flashpoints fall either in the Nyoma block or Darbuk block or the Rupshu block. The fourth block, the Rong-Chumathang, however, lacks any proximity with the borders. The residents, mostly the herdsmen who go for grazing their herds in the forward pastures, have been living the torture for a long time. Some of them have allegedly stopped cattle rearing and have changed their profession.

The Chinese, Urgain said, have evolved a peculiar style of reaction. “We raise a flag and they say they are being provoked,” Urgain said. “We try to raise some facility, they get in.”

“Once, I requested the DC sahiba and she permitted the use of a JCB and once the Chinese saw they reacted,” Urgain said. “Last year they completed a road in 40 days and fixed even the Aluminium poles on its side and Hum Mounh Mein Ungli Bithayay Rahaye. Every year they do something.”

In 2019, Urgain said, they decided to construct a bathroom point near the Hot Springs because people go there for bathing because of the water’s medicinal properties. “Instantly, the Chinese came with labour and bricks and said we have also to make one. Finally, the army told us not to do so we stopped,” Urgain added.

Hot Springs

Interestingly, these same Hot Springs (do not confuse with Puga Valley) owe the origin to the Police Commemoration Day that India’s paramilitary and police are observing on October 21. It owes its origins to the establishment of a CRPF post near Hot Springs in 1959 following which a recognisance part comprising two cops and a porter was sent towards Tibet. They went missing following which two CRPF parties went to trace them. Both the parties fell in a PLA ambush in which 11 were killed and 10 others were taken hostage. The bodies were handed over after protracted Sino-Indian negotiations in November.

It is this belt that is home to the ongoing crisis. Authorities have cut off the road communication to this belt and they have do not have even telecommunication facility available to them. Urgain’s father is also incommunicado. He owns 70 yaks and last year five of them crossed over to the Tibetan side. “We did not get any of them back and it is a huge loss,” Urgain said.

Not far away from her home, Urgain said there is a valley on the banks of Nelung nalla. “Between 2015 and 2017, Chinese army occupied it fully,” Urgain said. “The last one to leave the valley was Yengchan, the numberdar’s daughter, who was threatened by the Chinese troops who came to her in civil clothes and destroyed her tenet.”

 (All the photographs used in this report were lifted from Urgain Chodon’s Facebook page)

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