Gangtok: Hours after the Indian Army on Monday confirmed a “face-off at Nakula area of North Sikkim on 20 January, 2021,” EastMojo takes a look at the region and how recurrent skirmishes with China in the area affect life of the locals there, especially the high-altitude yak and sheep herders.
Tenzing T. Kaleon, DC North, asserted that no information on border skirmish gets passed to the civilians. “Even I was kept in in the dark whether the incident occured at Nakula or not. I urge people not to spread fear in such a manner,” he told EastMojo.
Nakula is located about 40 km from the popular tourist hamlet of Lachen in North Sikkim. It is about 20 km from the popular tourist spot of Muguthang, famous for its Oxbow lake.
From Lachen, enroute to Gurudongmar Lake, a detour takes commuters towards Muguthang, famous for its Oxbow lake and beyond it lies Nakula.
Other than the spring and early monsoon seasons, these places are covered with snow for most of the year. The commute to Muguthang is tough, challenged by bad roads and blocked routes because of snow, rain and landslides.
Entry to North Sikkim is restricted, with foreign nationals facing brunt of these restrictions. The border check-post at 2nd Mile, near state capital Gangtok, issues the visitor passes. The route to North Sikkim is long and arduous, with Lachen situated at a 119-km distance from here. Tourists frequent Lachen mostly to visit the holy and picturesque Gurudongmar Lake, at a distance of about 180 km from Gangtok.
The closest border, Nathula in East Sikkim, is 62 km from Gangtok, which also has a trijunction area between China, India and Bhutan. High military presence and restriction on civilians is imposed right from the 2nd Mile check-post, with sparse local population on most of these border-sensitive areas.
Places like Muguthang and Nakula see seasonal habitation with mostly yak herders, who camp there while taking their cattle for grazing. The practice of migrating higher north for grazing, towards Tibet, begins in October. The yak herders stay there during the course of the winter along with their cattle.
The houses they live in are close to the border and under strict vigilance of the Indian Army. These houses are made of stone walls and tin roofs, enough to protect the yak herders from blizzards.
All the yak herders from Lachen take the route towards Muguthang and Nakula, even crossing over to Tibet with their cattle at times.
Muguthang houses close to 15 families as yak herders, locally knows as Dokpas, some of whom are of Tibetan origin, while others are local Sikkimese. In recent years, yak herders are also brought from higher reaches of Nepal to spend the long winter months, from October to April, in the snow clad areas of Muguthang, Nakula and beyond, aiding the yaks and sheep.
For most of the Dokpas (from Muguthang), Lachenpas (from Lachen) and Lachungpas (from Lachung), yak herding is more of cultural practice rather than a hunt for resources. While families in Lachung and Lachen have an average of 40 yaks and sheep per household, the numbers are lower for the Dokpas of Muguthang and other areas closer to Gurudongmar and Thangu.
Ancient Sikkimese tradition also calls for yak herders continuing the practice of devoting yaks to the erstwhile Chogyal (the King), despite the regime not being in existence since 1974.
According to sources, the situation grew tense after an attempt at intrusion through the Nakula border by soldiers of China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) last Wednesday.
On Monday, Army sources said situation at the border site was tense but stable. The Army also urged the media to “refrain from overplaying or exaggerating reports.”
Earlier in May 2020, soldiers of the Indian Army and Chinese PLA were involved in a fierce face-off in the same Nakula area, which involved 150 soldiers on both sides. The clashes were later resolved at the local level.