Tawang has a massive presence of the Indian Army. The 1962 defeat and subsequent loss of Tawang and most of Arunachal Pradesh to China, was a big jolt to the nation as a whole. Though China’s voluntary retreat has eased the tension, they have not yet taken back the claim they made of Arunachal being part of China. Tawang is the focus of both India and China, through all these years of cold war.
Monpa people make up 97% of the population of the Tawang District and inhabitants of Tawang and East Kameng. Most Monpa live in Arunachal Pradesh, but are also included among the 56 ethnic groups in China, prompting the country to make a stronger claim over Tawang.
In Tawang you’ll come across army men casually strolling down the street, drinking tea or shopping for a stove or warm clothes. There are shops entirely dedicated to the Army. In the beginning it doesn’t make a good impression, but after a while you get used to it.
During an evening stroll on my first day in Tawang, I stumbled upon a group of jawans polishing artillery. I was taken aback and I felt sorry for wandering into their camp, but there was no noticeable boundary around the army camp. Two local woman also walked by and they were least bothered by the artillery or the army men.
The closest army camp was a 3-4 minutes walk from the Tourist Lodge, where I was staying. From there on, there were camps in patches all the way to Bumla, the Indo- China border, 37km from Tawang. Even though there is a strong army presence in the area, you will never see an army parade or PT. A guy from Manipur who was in the army apprised me that they have a certain liberty from PT if they are at an altitude of 2000 m above sea level. They also get lots of additional rations because of the tough weather and high altitude.
This army man I was speaking to was trained in shooting artillery and the loud booming sound had partly taken his hearing. We were travelling in the same vehicle while returning from Tawang to Tezpur. Talking to him gave me a good insight about living life in a difficult terrain and also their state of preparedness if a war should ever take place. When I asked him about the mushroom shaped installations that I had seen on my way to PTSO Lake, he just smiled and said he lived in one of them. The army has spent crores of rupees to construct that building and it works as a weather control system; maintaining room temperature even in freezing conditions.
A few things which bothered my fellow traveller, the army man the most, were the cracked up, dusty roads towards Bumla. They gathered every year at Bumla for an Indo-China friendly summit to improve ties between both nations. He was saddened by how much China has progressed while India trails behind. “If a war should ever happen we’ll not live,” he said. “Why?” I asked.
“They’ve built tunnels near the border, they’ve stored everything there, but we don’t even have a proper road.”
Along the army camps on the way, there are crumbling ruins of old bunkers; ugly remains of the 1962 war.
In the midst of all this political tension and war bruises, locals try and live their life in the best way they can. They live in constant scrutiny.
At PTSO Lake one can hear the echoes of artillery shots bouncing off the mountains. Though we are not at war, we are not at peace either.