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Under the shadow of the dragon
At first glance, life in Arunachal Pradesh's north-western town of Tawang seems to glide through its happy, carefree routine, marking the seasons with joyous Buddhist festivities. The smiles on the faces of the locals belonging to the Monpa tribe appear permanent as they loll around the town's vibrant square, trek to the guardian Gaden Namgyal Lhatse (the Tawang monastery) which stands as a sentinel over the town, or go about their business in a relaxed fashion.
But scratch the surface and the ghosts surface - the ghosts of 1962. Fifty years on, many remember the swift invasion by the Chinese, the ignominious retreat and a few acts of gallantry by Indian forces, and the upheavals they faced that bleak October five decades ago. Their faces cloud over when they talk of that border war, and even those born after the conflict - the only one where the Indian army faced total humiliation shudder at the very mention of it.
They fear what the future holds in store for them. China's well-equipped People's Liberation Army (PLA), after all, is stationed just 37 km away and has Tawang within its telescopic sight. Their fears are reinforced by periodic rumours about the possibility of Delhi reaching an agreement with Beijing to hand over Tawang to China in exchange for Aksai Chin.
Their fears find substance in the popular notion that the PLA is much better equipped than Indian troops, and the fact that China has built much better infrastructure, including all-weather four lane highways, along the contested McMahon Line that serves as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This side of the border, the miserable dirt track from the plains of Assam up to Tawang is proof of the pathetic incompetence of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Even the overwhelming presence of the Indian army fails to serve as a concrete assurance to the inviolability of Tawang.
The Chinese, after decimating the Indian army and overrunning Tawang, had launched a charm offensive to win over the locals. "When the Chinese came in, most locals fled to Bhutan and Assam. But the Chinese sent word through those who stayed back to the Monpa refugees to return. They told us we were their kin and had nothing to fear from them, " says Ka Tashi, 74, a resident of Lhou village, about 10 km from Tawang. Ka was a porter with the Indian army when the Chinese attacked in 1962.
Gendan Tashi, 84, also of Lhou village, recalls that the first thing the Chinese did after consolidating their positions was to rebuild the homes of villagers which were destroyed or damaged by shelling. "Chinese soldiers even helped us harvest our produce, thresh the paddy and store the grains. They organised cultural functions and gave all of us portraits of Mao and even started giving lessons in communist philosophy, " said Genden, who used to carry huge loads of rations to remote Indian army posts for a measly Re 1 a day.
Kunto Tashi, 74, who was working as a sleuth with the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) in 1962, recalls being impressed with the civic projects carried out Chinese. "Bomdilla (about 175 km from Tawang on the road to Tezpur) was a terribly dirty town with sewage flowing through the streets and garbage all over. It fell to the Chinese on November 18 and the Chinese withdrew after a week. But in that span, they had constructed drains, put in place a garbage collection system and cleaned the town. When we returned to Bomdilla in mid-December as an advance scout party to ensure that the Chinese had left, we were surprised to find it looking so neat and clean. "
But the attempts by the Chinese to win over the locals failed and throughout their stay in the Tawang tracts (as the area corresponding to the present Tawang district was known then), the Monpas looked uponthem with suspicion and distrust. They knew very well the persecution of the Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese and the brutal suppression of the Khampa rebellion in that country, forcing the 14th Dalai Lama to flee Tibet and enter India through Bumla (the mountain pass on the LAC about 37 kilometres from Tawang) on March 30, 1959.
"We knew they were speaking with a forked tongue. The appalling stories of Chinese persecution of Buddhists in Tibet had reached us and we knew that the Chinese could never be trusted, " says Lhou village's Gendan Tashi. "There was never any doubt in our minds that we are Indians and were grateful to our (Indian ) leaders for providing refuge to our spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, " says Gen Chow, 82, a senior monk at the Tawang monastery who attended to the Dalai Lama during the latter's stay at the monastery for a few days after fleeing Tibet.
But all of them also remember that the Chinese had, while returning, promised to be back. "While leaving Tawang in end-November, a Chinese officer told my uncle that they would be back, and that this time it would be forgood. We fear the Chinese will make good that promise sometime. There's news that for India, Aksai Chin is more important now than Tawang. So India may give up this place in return for Aksai Chin, " says Thupten Gendun. There are many who assert they heard that the Chinese had said they'd be back after 50 years. Such rumour-mongering feeds latent fears of a renewed occupation among the Monpas.
Many among the younger generation, though, dismiss such thoughts. "2012 is not 1962 and the Indian army is much stronger. Also, Tawang has as much, if not more, strategic importance than Aksai Chin. All that talk (of an exchange of Tawang for Aksai Chin) is the imagination of idle minds, " says Tsetsen Jambey, 38, a hotelier in Tawang town. "A repeat of 1962 is highly unlikely. Both China and India have a lot at stake to launch hostilities against each other, " asserts Gombu Tsering, a building contractor who studied in Pune.
But what agitates Tsetsen, Gombu and many other young men and women is the lack of development on the Indian side of the LAC in comparison to China. "Look across the LAC and you'll see the roads and buildings they have built. We can see communication equipment and mobile phone towers. But here, getting a call through to someone in Tawang is considered an achievement, the internet doesn't work on most days and we get electricity for just five hours a day. The roads are a shame. Employment opportunities are few and New Delhi has done nothing to improve Tawang's economy, " says Pemba Tsering, 30, a taxi driver.
Much more than the imaginary threat from China, it is the sorry under-development south of the LAC which is a cause for concern. Some people also wonder, though in mock-seriousness, if the plight of the Monpas in India is better than that of their kin in Tibet. India's failure to develop this tiny part of its territory is what keeps the ghosts of 1962 alive.
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