India Opening China Border In Ladakh?
7 December 2003
News Network International
Srinagar: With an apparent objective of opening the Chinese border for trade, the Indian Customs Department is upgrading its Customs Preventive Station (CPS) at Nyoma in Ladakh into a full-fledged Land Customs Station (LCS). Already it has approached the J&K government seeking allotment of land for building the required construction. This will be the first ever LCS in J&K that has a chain of CPS, mostly in Jammu region in areas bordering IB, Kashmir Times reported. Says V Prabhakar, Assistant Commissioner (Customs): 'There is lot of smuggling, illegal trade. We are there. We do make seizures for the last many years. We need to offer a legal window'. State government has informed the Customs that the request is at the final stage of clearance. The Customs Department deployed its personnel in the area only last summer. Prior to their arrival, the powers barring the adjucation were delegated to the ITBP under the Customs Act. Official sources suggest that from 1998 to March 2003, Customs have registered a total of 14 seizures. In certain cases, the seized material was being carried in the vehicles of certain paramilitary forces. In 2001- 02 alone, a total of nine seizures valuing well over three million rupees were made. 'We are not aware of any survey about the prospects of trade but yes we are sure that it will do a lot of business if its is formally opened by the two countries', confided one officer. The proposed LCS is located in Changthang belt - the gateway to Chinese Tibet. An ancient commercial route, this track has been the carrier of men, material and the idea as it connected Kashmir with the great Silk route for centuries together. The trade came to a stand still after partition when the concept of 'scientific borders' took over. This trade trek connects Demchok, the last habitation on this side with Tashigang belt of Tibet. Demchok is accessible by road and is 330 Kms. from Leh. Since the area has strategic importance, the movement is restricted beyond Nyoma. The government intends to use the same route for taking the pilgrims to Mansarovar yatra, if Beijing permits. China, it is recalled, treats part of Pangong lake and Damchok as disputed in Ladakh region alongwith parts of Arunachal Pradesh. The strategic 300-Sq Kms. Pangong lake that falls on the eastern border of Ladakh has around 60 Kms. in India and 70 Kms. in China. Chinese who have constructed a road along the lake are patrolling the water-body with the hi-tech boats. Insiders said the main objective of the plan is to do away with smuggling that is directly or indirectly abetted by spying. Since a number of security agencies are working in the area, they are sending their agents in the guise of smugglers. 'Since it is difficult to judge whether it is smuggling abetted by spying or vice versa, the government has decided to legalize the border trade', one official on condition of anonymity said. Though there have been seizures, and in certain cases there are police cases as well but not in a single case has there been any prosecution, indicating that barter at border has official patronage. Many shops in Ladakh market are full with Chinese products from shoes to torches, everything is selling on comparatively cheaper process. Many in the business say China has already taken over the toy market in the state. Smugglers including a good population of the Tibetan refugees, who are settled in Ladakh- the so-called mini-Tibet, have been taking cereals, Pashmina wool, leather shoes and other items which is being bartered with anything from crockery to flasks or even cigarettes. For a long time, this border was the main source of tiger bone supply to China that fetches very good money because tiger bones are essential ingredient of Chinese traditional medicine. Usually the smugglers would return with huge loads of Shatus in exchange that would eventually fetch good money in Srinagar. Police says the tiger bone trade got a severe setback after a huge haul was recovered in October 1993 in Delhi. Though there were some arrests, there has been no conviction, so far. A senior police officer who has served in Leh for some time said the smuggling in Leh is a way of life and has continued for all the post-partition days. 'The Customs presence in Nyoma will definitely discourage the trend but who cares about other areas. After all India runs a 500-KMs. long border with China and it is physically impractical to manage the entire desert stretch', he insisted. He believes the trade has created a vast network of vested interests within the system that will never permit it to die. The initiative, however, will get a massive response from Kashmir especially when a party championing the cause of porous borders is in power. The initiative will help the section of J&K's political elite that has been seeking their pie from the friendship between Delhi and Beijing. Ghulam Rasool Kar, a senior Congress leader who headed PCC many times welcomed Prime Minister A B Vajpayee's decision of recognizing Tibet as part of China. However, he said while examining the economic ties between the two countries, the group constituted by the two governments should also identify new border and trade route though Kashmir and Ladakh. 'Due to uncertainty during 1947 the Kashmir trade and commercial links were adversely affected by the closure of the routes. No consideration was given for the necessity of opening of new and alternate routes for such a revival and restoration of trade and commerce in the northern regions of Kashmir. Providing such facilities will develop people to people relations and contribute to strengthening the national integration', Kar said. This track has been the ancient trade route and a literal lifeline for Kashmir that was also used by invaders, fortune seekers and missionaries as well. Mir Syed Ali Hamadani, the Central Asian Muslim missionary credited for Kashmir's transition to Islam used this route for his frequent forays to Kashmir. Says Prof Abdul Majid Mattoo, former Director Central Asian Studies Department in the University of Kashmir: 'This was the most important of the six trade routes of Kashmir that catered to the demands of the wool industry and filler our coffers for centuries'. The trade would fetch a good income to durbar by taxes. Every year, Kashmir durbar would sponsor Lapchuk (leader of the trading community) to visit Lahasa to encourage the business with am objective to manage as much of taxes for the kingdom as possible. However, according to Mattoo, 'the Anglo-French rivalry (1870) followed by Russian and Chinese developments in Turkistan and the covetous English designs in the region (in later part of the nineteenth century) affected the Kashmir trade'. Looms dwindled to a few hundred from 40,000 as the Shawl exports to central Asia and Europe fell to an abysmal amount of Rs 12,10,012 in 1886-87 and eventually to 2,19,275 in 1892-93. This was primarily because British government discouraged Kashmiri merchants and permitted traders from Indian plains to harvest the fortunes in Ladakh as far their wool produce was concerned. Though there were some half-hearted efforts to revive the trade link, it literally went missing in the post- partition priority list. Mattoo terms Beijing claims over Demchok as far fetched. 'Even in the 1688 agreement between Chinese, Mughals and Kashmiri merchants, this place was demarcated as part of Kashmir Kingdom. An Italian traveler who trekked the route in 1714 found the wall that delineated Damchok from the Chinese territory'. The Silk Route revival in a WTO dictated era would offer a great boom for J&K in general and Ladakh in particular, believe experts. The most benifitted states include Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal that suffer for having distant ports. 'It would not be an instant hit initially but with the passage of time, it would become a important source of earning foreign exchange', Mattoo believes. However, he insists that both New Delhi and Beijing may not rush towards opening the route fearing the Muslim consolidation. 'Uigur Muslims continue to dominate the Eastern Turkistan (Xinxiang) even though China using the ethnic flooding concept has started getting Hans (non-Muslim Chinese) in the province. Infact the latter are actually surrounding the natural gas reserves in the deserts of Xinsiang', he adds. -