A Story Of Sheer Grit: How Indian Men In Uniform Thwarted China’s ‘Salami-Slicing’ Plans Along The Arunachal Pradesh Border

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jan 23, 2023 12:37 PM +05:30 IST
A Story Of Sheer Grit: How Indian Men In Uniform Thwarted China’s ‘Salami-Slicing’ Plans Along The Arunachal Pradesh BorderBorder Roads Organisations's 'Project Arunank'
Snapshot
  • To counter China’s diabolic designs, it was necessary to build adequate infrastructure on this side of the border and make access to Maja easy and fast.

    Constructing an all-weather road to Maja was marked as ‘top priority’ and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under the MoD was given the onerous task. 

Sometime in the autumn of 2019, the Chinese started building a village in the barren mountains of the eastern Himalayas along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC); forming the Indo-China border along Arunachal Pradesh. 

The village, which is now marked in Chinese maps as ‘Lowa Xincun’ (or Lowa new village), is located at the confluence of two small glacial-fed rivers — the Mipa Chu and the Tsari Chu — south of a place called Longju that was annexed by China in August 1959. 

The Longju incident was the first act of hostility by China against India. Chinese troops attacked an Assam Rifles post in Longju, on 25 August 1959 and occupied the area. 

The Indian Army, which replaced the Assam Rifles along the LAC after the Longju incident, set up a post at Maja, 4.8 kilometres south of Longju, four days later on 29 August.

On 23 October 1962, Chinese troops attacked the Indian Army’s Maja post and advanced till the village of Limeking which is now a small town in the upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Chinese withdrew to Longju on 21 November 1962. 

Maja post, at that time, was nearly a 20-day march from the nearest road head at Daporijo, which is now the headquarters of the upper Subansiri district. Due to a ludicrous and self-defeating policy followed by Congress governments at the federal level, to keep the areas along the LAC backward and undeveloped; access to the Indian Army’s Maja post remained very poor. 

The earlier policy was reversed by the Modi government. It decided to accelerate development of all areas along the LAC. Massive infrastructure projects were initiated to facilitate easier access of Indian troops and military hardware to the areas along the LAC to counter China’s misadventures and thwart future Chinese advances. 

The Maja post, however, almost remained a forgotten frontier. Troops posted there had to undertake week-long treks through inhospitable terrain to reach the post. Supplies had to be airdropped and during harsh climatic conditions, access to the Maja was extremely difficult. 

However, like all other such forward posts along the LAC, Maja would also have been connected by an all-weather road snaking through the harsh terrain from Daporijo. 

When reports came in that the Chinese had started constructing a large village just south of Longju, alarm bells went off in India's Ministry of Defence (MoD), which promptly took up the matter with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). 

The reason for the high alarm was China’s notorious ‘salami-slicing’ policy (read this) through which it makes aggressive moves into a neighbour’s territory and takes control over a small slice of it. 

Over a period of time, a sizeable swathe of a neighbour’s or adversary’s territory (including land and sea) comes under the effective control of China, which then unabashedly falsifies documents and records to claim such territory as its own.

New Delhi rightly apprehended that after establishing the village, south of Longju and very close to the LAC, China would station its troops there and use the village as a launching pad for aggressive forays into the Indian territory. 

To counter China’s diabolic designs, it was necessary to build adequate infrastructure on this side of the border and make access to Maja easy and fast. Constructing an all-weather road to Maja was marked as ‘top priority’ and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under the MoD was given the onerous task. 

A strict timeline was set and a deadline of December 2022 was given to the BRO. It was a herculean task given the fact that the eastern Himalayas is a very young mountain range with loose soil, prone to landslides. 

Any construction on the Indian side of the mountains — the windward side — is made more difficult due to the vagaries of weather and the long monsoons during which heavy construction becomes almost impossible. 

In contrast, China-occupied Tibet that falls on the other side of the LAC is mostly a plateau, on the leeward side. This makes the construction of roads, bridges, buildings and other structures is much easier. 

Nonetheless, the BRO got into mission mode in early 2000 and plunged into the extremely difficult task headlong. The first few months were devoted to surveys by engineers and experts, Plans were drawn up and construction finally started in the middle of 2000. 

It was a backbreaking task, made more challenging by the harsh weather, including incessant rains that made construction very difficult.

Heavy road construction equipment had to be hauled over extremely tough terrain and through fast-flowing rivers, deep ravines and high mountain passes. All that was no easy task and would have daunted the best road construction crews even in the advanced Alpine nations. 

A rough road, a little better than a dirt track, existed between Daporijo and Limeking till where the Chinese troops had advanced in October 1962. For the BRO, the very first task was to strengthen, widen and black-top this 90 km track that passed through forests, steep mountains and high-altitude valleys. 

After Limeking, the BRO followed the existing trail to Gelinceniak and then onward to Gelomo, Bidak and finally to Maja. But that alignment also had to be changed to bypass geographical hurdles like rocky outcrops and other features. 

A video embedded in this tweet by the BRO on completing the road to Maja late last month gives an idea of the seemingly-impossible odds that the organisation’s road construction crews had to overcome. 

“Constructing a road in Arunachal Pradesh is extremely tough and a small window opens during spells of incessant rain. In 2020, 2021 and 2022, the state received heavy rainfall almost throughout the year and so we got very little time for earth-cutting and road construction. We worked round-the-clock during the small windows of dry spells that we got,” a senior BRO officer who did not want to be named, told Swarajya. 

Very often, landslides would literally carry away all the work and the crews had to start afresh. “Landslides hit the construction sites very often and undid all the work, forcing us to start afresh. It was very difficult. The terrain was very harsh and due to the steep mountain slopes, earth-cutting was very difficult. We faced innumerable hurdles,” said the BRO officer. 

“Even moving heavy road construction machinery through such terrain and operating them on the steep slopes and deep ravines was a tough challenge. But in the end, we succeeded in doing what was thought to be impossible and also within the tough deadline,” the officer added. 

To the BRO’d credit, not a single life was lost, nor any road construction machinery damaged, during the 2.5 years that it took to construct the nearly 150 km road from Limeking to Maja. 

To keep up the morale of the road construction crews and the BRO supervisors, senior BRO officers, including the director-general, Lieutenant General Rajeev Chaudhury, visited them. 

Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu, Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein and Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, were among the top politicians who also paid periodic visits that encouraged the BRO workers and officers on the field to work diligently. 

“Our officers and men were stationed for months at a stretch in remote and inaccessible areas with limited provisions, braving not only inclement weather but also wild animals, poisonous snakes, insects, diseases, landslides and worse. It required superhuman effort,” said BRO chief Lieutenant General Chaudhury. 

The entire road construction project was closely monitored not only by the MoD, but also by the PMO which took regular updates. Due to such monitoring, procedural hurdles in sourcing equipment or funds were cleared in double-quick time and nothing was allowed to come in the way of fast, smooth and timely execution of the project. 

Top BRO officers told Swarajya that the Limeking-Maja road project would easily qualify as one of the toughest, if not the toughest, project undertaken by the BRO in recent years.

“The timely completion of this highly challenging project is a sort of a major breakthrough for us. It has tremendously boosted our confidence in our abilities and made us realise that we can achieve any feat,” said the BRO chief. 

The road to Maja was finally thrown open at 3.30 am on 28 December last year with BRO’s ‘Project Arunank’ chief engineer Brigadier Anirudh Kanwar, site officers Lieutenant Colonel Abhimanyu Qadian and Captain Satyan and commander of 23 Border Roads Task Force (BRTF) Nagaraj Kumar, driving from Limeking and reaching Maja in a convoy of SUVs. 

Maja has, ultimately, come on the road map of India. “The immense significance of this road lies in the fact that men and military equipment can be transported easily right up to the LAC to foil any evil plans of China. It does not need to be repeated that China always harbours evil plans to encroach into our territory and claim it as their own,” said a Major General stationed at the Eastern Command headquarters at Fort William in Kolkata. 

While the entire stretch of road from Limeking to Bidak has been black-topped and offers a very smooth ride, only the small stretch from Bidak to Maja remains to be black-topped. The BRO is working on it now. 

The BRO, however, is not resting on its laurels. “Having achieved this, we are now ready to take on tougher challenges,” said Lt Gen Chaudhury. 

Till now, China was reputed to possess the prowess to construct infrastructure in tough terrain. “We have now displayed to the world that we are better,” the BRO chief added. 

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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