By: Satyakam Bharti
It has been nearly a fortnight since news first broke out about two trucks loaded with red sandalwood being seized on the Indo-China border in Kinnaur. Following this, there was another instance of goods consignments meant to be smuggled into the Indian territory being seized from the same sector. But, despite the seriousness of the issue, there has been no reaction from the Himachal Pradesh government. Well, why should the state government react to something not under its direct purview? Because it suits “everyone’s” interests, but no one realizes the greater implication it may have.
Smuggling of goods into Chinese-controlled Tibet from India is nothing new, and also the other way round. There are enough such instances in the immediate past to prove the point, but it is the first such seizure from the state. This illegal trade was primarily being carried through the Nepal border, and in March this year huge blocks of red sandalwood were recovered from Laddakh border, thus hinting that a well-organized cartel was operating in the area. In the first place, it is surprising that sandalwood loaded in trucks manages to travel thousands of kilometres from south India to the northern borders, crossing state after state without being intercepted.
Obviously it cannot be done without the connivance of officials who are entrusted with the job of not letting such illegal trade happen. But why is nobody raising an alarm? Because there may be more to the nexus than just unscrupulous smugglers and colluding officials. In 2005 the then Kerala forest minister was indicted by the state high court in a case of sandalwood smuggling, thus hinting at a deeper malaise. In Himachal Pradesh too local timber smuggling has been flourishing rampantly, and it could not be without political patronage. Given that sandalwood smuggling to other countries ensures high profits, it would not be out of context to think that local political satraps may have been lured to join the party.
But what we may be missing here is a wider conspiracy and its implication. Given that people in Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti and the Tibetan region adjoining the state are culturally connected, it is not unnatural that they indulge in trade, but following the 1962 conflict there has been almost negligible trade through the traditional routes joining Tibet with India. But if ones goes around small hamlets in Kinnaur, it would is not surprising to find local shops stuffed with Chinese-made goods. Fine, we Indians have got used to seeing cheap Chinese-made things around us, but in places that are culturally fragile this kind of imposed consumerism may prove damaging to the local social fabric and this may actually be happening in the remote tribal districts.
But even more than that, it also raises concerns about national security. Any of our men in ITBP or other forces manning posts on the Indo-Tibet border would tell you that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does not tolerate invasion by even an inch, so how come huge trucks get loaded and unloaded on the border. Undoubtedly, there is corruption in PLA, as it is in Indian security forces. But it can also be that there is a greater design whereby activities like espionage are being carried out under the shadows of illegal trade. There is a greater possibility of such a scenario in Himachal given that the Tibetan government-in-exile has its headquarters at Dharamsala and that Tibetans share cultural ties with people living in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti.
The Indian government has time and again been caught napping over monitoring Chinese activities, be it incursions in the North East or PLA presence in PoK. The Himachal border may be just another frontier where PLA may have opened up a front in its proxy war.