By Sarwar Kashani
Gagangir, India, Sep 10 (efe-epa).- Apart from military trucks and ambulances carrying reinforcements and supplies to the Ladakh region bordering China, the only other movement on this strategic highway is of nomadic families with their goats, sheep, and horses traveling from Himalayan summer pastures to winter grazing grounds in the lowland plains of Indian Kashmir.
All other movement along the otherwise bustling mountainous road has been restricted apparently to let the military move smoothly amid a raging months-long standoff between India and China along their disputed border in the eastern Ladakh sector.
Civilian vehicles are not allowed beyond a police check post in the Gagangir village – nearly 15 km (10 miles) beyond the famed hill resort of Sonamarg, and some 80 km north of Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city – abuzz with the deafening roars of Indian Air Force fighter jets frequently hovering over with a sonic boom.
Paramilitary troops and policemen keep a strict vigil, particularly on journalists, to stop private cars at the checkpoint, overlooking the gushing Indus river that flows down the right of the road through the thick and lush green vegetation dotted by small glaciers.
“You cannot go further,” a policeman shouted after blowing a whistle to stop a van carrying EFE-EPA journalists on the highway to the cold-desert region.
Wali Khan, an elderly member of a nomadic family of herders, told EFE that in the last two days of his journey on the road, he had seen “nothing else but hundreds of military trucks” making their way uphill towards Ladakh.
“There were dozens of military ambulances also. The big trucks covered with thick tarpaulin moved up in hundreds,” Khan said, taking a 300-km long mountainous trek with his cattle towards the balmier south to escape the harsh winter months in Kashmir.
The highway to Ladakh was closed for any civilian movement, unless allowed by the authorities, late last month as border tension between India and China spiked afresh near the disputed Himalayan boundary in the Ladakh sector, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a brawl in June.
Tensions took an alarming turn on Sep. 8 as Chinese and Indian armies accused each other of firing warning shots on the disputed border, called the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a loose demarcation that separates the two countries.
This, according to Indian military records, marked the first time in decades that bullets were fired along the 3,500-km (2,175-mile) border that stretches from the Ladakh region in the north to Sikkim in India’s northeast.
The military tension between the two nuclear-powered neighbors began in May with the two armies accusing each other of provocative trespassing on the disputed border surrounding the high-altitude Pangong Tso saline water lake in Ladakh that houses the highest military landing strip in the world.
Both sides have since rushed in tens of thousands of troops along with artillery, tanks, and fighter jets near the frontier in Ladakh, which is at the risk of a three-front nuclear tension since it borders China on one side and Pakistan on the other.
“Every around some 200-300 military trucks move towards Ladakh and that is some 30 percent more than their routine movement,” a policeman told EFE, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The boundary dispute dates back to 1962 when the two countries fought a brief but bloody war that ended with an unmarked boundary, which passes through the 600-sq km lake. Nearly 60 percent of its length lies in the China-held Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Military and strategic experts fear that the recent moves and clashes on the border have made the situation unpredictably dangerous, raising the risk of a repeat of 1962.
“The situation is very dangerous and any miscalculated move can set it out of control,” a former lieutenant-general of the Indian Army told EFE, requesting not to be named.
He said that the Indian troops had occupied some of the gray zones in the area and the Chinese were trying to push them out, “the same way the Chinese army occupied the north bank of the Pangong Tso lake in June.”
The former officer, who once served the army’s Northern Command based in the Udhampur district of Kashmir, insited that it was unlikely that the two sides would get involved in an escalation to the point of a major military conflict.
“But let’s also not lose the sight that they are up to and have done a large scale military buildup on the border and that makes it dangerously unpredictable,” he said.