India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of standing aside while China seizes swathes of territory in the border regions, in a rare and explosive attack from within his own party.
Anger has been mounting in the nation of 1.4 billion since it was revealed that Chinese troops annexed 60 square kilometres of land in Ladakh in early May.
At least 23 Indian soldiers were killed in brutal hand-to-hand fighting in the Galwan Valley as they attempted to uproot the ad-hoc Chinese settlement last week.
Now Urgain Chodon, a councillor for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Ladakh, has told the Telegraph that China has occupied far more land than previously disclosed - and that the government has turned a blind eye.
“There is a lot of land which has been annexed by China, not only this time in the Galwan Valley but all along the LAC [Line of Actual Control],” Ms Chodon, who represents eight border villages, said.
“I have been raising my voice and even meeting with the local administration. They know about it but neither the government or the media have raised their voices about it,” she added.
Discussions aimed at peacefully reducing tensions along the border have been ongoing this week, but Mr Modi was criticised by the opposition on Friday for stating that the contested territory had never been part of India.
Addressing claims the land had always belonged to China, Ms Chodon said:
“[The] government is lying, whatever they are saying is not true.”
The councillor’s intervention marks the first serious criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis from within the party, and breaks a tradition of almost total message discipline from within BJP ranks.
Signs of unease at Mr Modi’s conciliatory approach to China emerged late last week when Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the BJP’s MP for Ladakh, demanded a “one-time solution” to the incursions, including the retaliatory seizure of Chinese land.
The opposition Congress party has ferociously criticised Mr Modi’s response, with former leader Rahul Gandhi saying he was ignoring “war crimes” after Chinese soldiers beat Indian troops to death with nail-studded bats.
But it is Ms Chodon’s claims that will pile most pressure on the prime minister, who won a thumping two-thirds majority in the 2019 election, as the government struggles to deal with soaring coronavirus cases across the country.
She says that two years ago the Chinese army seized grazing lands her family had used for generations in the remote settlement of Koyal.
When the troops moved in, she told the Telegraph, the family was unable even to retrieve the yaks whose wool they sold to earn money.
“The shrinking of land is affecting the local people, who were actually protecting the borders by taking their herds in these areas for grazing,” said Ms Chodon.
“They were initially stopped from these areas by even the Indian Army and then over the years the Chinese have taken control over these areas.
“My father would go to Nilong, a big valley, with cattle but today there are Chinese structures and their Army.
“Our pasture lands are gone, lots of people are losing their herds. Some are selling their cattle now and moving towards the city to find some other work.”
In addition to Nilong, Ms Chodon identified Laagok Noonbo, Dumchalai and Belung as areas previously under Indian control and visited by shepherds but now annexed by China.
She said her warnings to the Army and governments were going unanswered, even though both were aware Chinese occupation had occurred as Beijing had been constructing roads and structures to the territory.
The President of the Congress Party in the city of Leh, main city in Ladakh, Tsering Namgial, confirmed to the Telegraph that land had been annexed by China.
“The Chinese have captured some key locations. It is a well-thought-out and planned strategy by them. They have captured Patrolling Point 14, an observatory post, that means it was on height and would overlook a vast area,” said Mr. Namgial.
Additional reporting by Aakash Hassan in Leh