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International relations

Uneasy Ladakh locals watch India-China spat at close range

While diplomats talk, residents see more fighter jets and troop movements

The threat of war hangs over Leh's picturesque main market in India's troubled Ladakh region. (Photo by Bhat Burhan)

LADAKH, India -- For the last few weeks, 19-year-old Singay Angechuk, a resident of Leh in the Himalayan region of the Indian-controlled Union Territory of Ladakh, has woken to the terrifying roar of jet fighters circling overhead.

The morning disturbances began after exchanges of fire further south in Ladakh on Aug. 30 and Sept. 7, the first overt hostilities since 1975 between China and India along their fractious Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Indian troops hold the high ground in dominant positions that at some points are just a few hundred meters apart.

The situation in the area has long been tense. China and India share the world's longest unmarked border, which includes Ladakh, a region that was separated from India's former state of Jammu and Kashmir last year and became a new union territory.

The hostile nations are today both nuclear powers. They fought a more traditional war in 1962 for a month, and there have been intermittent skirmishes since. On June 15, the latest of these left casualties on both sides. At least 20 Indian troops were killed, but China has not owned up to its losses.

With the borders unmarked, both Beijing and New Delhi have different ideas of where their territories end. The latest friction has elevated anxiety levels, and forced some locals to relocate.

Angechuk attends a local secondary school, and finds the threat of war a distraction from his studies. "Every time jets circle or an army convoy moves, I get scared," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We have no idea what is going on beyond Leh because the movement of civilians has been stopped. These developments add to our nervousness."

A cafe owner in Leh, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he has had no recent contact with a friend who lives close to the border because Indian authorities have imposed a communication blackout. "I am worried for his safety," he said. "There has been no news at this vulnerable time."

An Indian Air Force Chinook being loaded at a forward airbase in Leh.    © Reuters

With no sources of information, Ladakhis, especially in Leh, can but look skywards and count the birds of war. Sitting outside his closed shop, Nazir Laroo, 65, fears for his family of seven. With small grandchildren, he is torn between staying put and taking refuge elsewhere.

Smoking nervously, Laroo brooded on the exceptionally harsh winters that confine people to their homes. Temperatures fall to well below freezing. "What will we do if there is face off?" he asked. "We would die inside with our kids, wouldn't we?"

Laroo said that weapons and ammunition have resolved nothing. "Both countries should sit down and solve the issues peacefully," he said. "Everyone should call for a dialogue process and not war."

An Indian jet fighter on patrol over Ladakh in September.   © Reuters

Both countries have deployed thousands of troops and materiel along the border. Earlier this month, when the Indian Air Force inducted its first batch of French Dassault Rafale twin-engined fighter jets, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh commented in a speech in Hindi that a strong message needed to be sent to the entire world, "especially to those threatening India's sovereignty."

Some heat seemed to go out of the situation when Wang Yi and S. Jaishankar, China and India's respective foreign ministers, met on Sept. 10 in Moscow after a four-month standoff and agreed on a five-stage roadmap. It included a quick disengagement of troops and avoidance of any acts likely to escalate tensions. Locals, however, only see the the jets and increased troop movements.

A 2015 study in the International Journal of Indian Psychology concluded that such security tensions weigh heavily on people's peace of mind. Nuzhat Firdous, the study's author from Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, wrote that "in areas affected by chronic strife a larger chunk of population is expected to experience mental health problems."

People with Buddhist prayer wheels on the outskirts of Leh. (Photo by Bhat Burhan)

Social activist Sajad Ahmad recalls the war India and Pakistan fought in Kargil in 1999, some 200 km from Leh along another troubled border. "We have been victims of cross-border shelling and seen our homes reduced to rubble," he told Nikkei. "Scores of people were left homeless and scattered -- so, we all are afraid of any escalation."

The fighting in 1999 displaced people in both Kargil and Leh -- nearly 28,000, by some accounts.

Meanwhile locals say they have seen Indian troops arriving along the LAC equipped with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, but there have been no reports so far of residents being moved away -- only of rising anxieties.

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