Tadak Pakba no longer feels safe in Daporijo, his hometown in the Upper Subansiri district in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Pakba, a 30-year-old student leader, knows the perils of living at the border.
Daporijo, with an estimated population of 13,405, is one of the most sensitive border towns that fall between India and China. During the India-China war of 1962, the town was one of the headquarters of the Indian Army. Almost six decades later, the region continues to be sensitive, and the locals are wary because of recent events.
Last week, five men from the border village of Nacho, roughly 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Daporijo, were allegedly abducted by China’s army, People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The village is the last administrative circle along the McMahon Line—the colonial-era demarcation between India and Tibet drawn in 1914. China does not accept this division.
On September 3, in a Facebook post, a man called Prakash Ringling from Daporijo posted about his brother, Prasad, and his four friends being abducted from the border. The five men, reportedly abducted, belong to the Tagin tribe.
On September 8 at 5 p.m., Indian Union Minister Kiren Rijiju tweeted that China’s PLA responded to the Indian Army’s hotline message about the abducted men. “They confirmed that the missing youths from Arunachal Pradesh have been found by their side,” he stated. “Further modalities to hand over the persons to our authority is being worked out.”
“The fear is not just among the Tagins, though. Other communities living along the border also do not feel safe,” Pakba told VICE News.
The Nacho area is also known to be poorly connected via road or phone.
Pakba said that this is the second time he has ever heard about such kidnapping. The first time was in March this year when a 21-year-old man named Togley Sinkam was reportedly abducted. He returned almost a month later.
The sentiment of fear and wariness was reiterated by other Tagins whom VICE News spoke with over the phone. There is no official statement by the families of five men, nor was VICE News able to reach out to them due to unavailability of phone connections. VICE News reached out to Prakash Ringling via Facebook, who did not respond to the queries at the time of writing this article.
Taru Gussar, the superintendent of police of Upper Subansiri, told Indian publication The Indian Express that police officials had gone to verify the news. “We came to know from social media only,” the newspaper quoted Gussar as saying on September 7. “There is no complaint yet.”
Gussar told VICE News that there were no updates in the investigation. He did not respond to follow-up questions.
On September 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made a statement about the reported abductions in a press briefing. He said that he was not aware of Indian Army’s message to the PLA regarding the missing Indians. He added that China has never recognized Arunachal Pradesh. “[The state was] illegally established on the Chinese territory,” said Lijian.
Experts see the reported kidnapping as a part of China’s persistent denial of Arunachal Pradesh being a part of India. In 2006, Beijing’s envoy to India, Sun Yuxi, said that Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory. “We are claiming all of that [Arunachal Pradesh]. That is our position,” Yuxi had stated. Lijian’s Monday statement followed the same tone and tenor.
“This is a calculus by the Chinese to ask for more territorial concessions,” Srikanth Kondapalli, a Chinese studies professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, told VICE News.
Tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—India and China’s de facto border in the Himalayas—have been high since May this year. It peaked in June in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed and over 70 injured in a “barbaric” combat between soldiers from the two countries.
Since then, the two countries have had several rounds of military and diplomatic talks. The two countries also accuse each other of provoking military tensions and aggression at the border. The standoff continues.
In the case of abductions, experts told VICE News that it’s common for locals from either side of the border to cross over for work, hunting, fishing or grazing animals. Sometimes, they get lost to find themselves on the other side of the porous, unmanned border. “Most of the Indian locals work as porters with the Indian Army, or as tourist agents,” said Kondapalli. “There have been instances where China would take Indian locals in captivity to obtain tactical information about the Indian Army’s movements.”
Kondapalli said that there are over 400 transgressions by the Chinese soldiers at the LAC every year, but “abductions” are strictly localised.
“Generally, the PLA does not act in an irrational or barbaric manner. The only recent exception was what happened in the Galwan valley,” he said. “In incidents such as these reported abductions, captured people are usually returned.”
Ninong Ering, Member of Legislative Assembly from Arunachal Pradesh, told VICE News that there have also been instances of brainwashing of Indians living at the border by the Chinese soldiers. The Chinese soldiers, he said, promise better prospects and life. “But our people, even if they went with them [Chinese], never stayed back,” he said.
Ering also noted increased transgressions into the Indian side of the LAC by the Chinese soldiers. “If abductions continue, our government will have to take very stern measures,” said Ering. “People of Arunachal are ready to act against China.”
Locals, in the meantime, just want to feel safe.
For Lardik Kare, the secretary-general of Tagin Cultural Society, a welfare group for the community, the last few days have been “harrowing and emotional”. “The Tagins are in a state of sorrow. We still don’t know where our five men are,” Kare told VICE News.
There is also the fear for worse among the community. “Today it’s five people. Tomorrow, it could be 10 or 15. The Chinese army could even take the whole village,” said Pakba. “They could just pick us up any time. We shout for help, but is there anyone to hear us?”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated on September 8, 7 p.m. to reflect PLA’s response to Indian Army’s hotline message about the men who were abducted.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.