China has handed over to India five youths from Arunachal Pradesh who were believed to have been abducted by the army of China that claims these were infiltrators. The Indian authority will place the boys under 14-day quarantine as per COVID-19 protocols before they return to their family members, a defence spokesperson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the villages from where these boys had disappeared are not sure whether it was a case of kidnapping by the Chinese or an inadvertent crossing of the McMahon Line that separates India and China towards the eastern end of the line of demarcation between the two countries in lieu of a settled international border. The mountainous forests of Arunachal Pradesh make the locals stray at times, the villagers say. Last year, even an IAF aircraft had lost its way.
Days ago, it was a group of boys from the town of Nacho. Seven of them had gone into uncharted forests near the McMahon Line. Only two came back. After a long week of anxious distress calls by the families, denial by the communist neighbour and confirmation by India, the five youths finally returned home on Saturday.
“The borders are not demarcated well. We are hunters, we move around a lot. We can’t say which side is which. Once in a while some of us stray, and the Chinese army takes them away.” Prakash Ringling, whose post on Facebook had drawn attention to the missing boys, said.
Ringling’s brother Prasad, who had just cleared his Class X exam, cousins Tanu Bakar and Ngaru Diri, Dongtu Ebiya and Toch Singkam were among the seven who had gone hunting and foraging in the deep forests of northern Arunachal when they disappeared. “Two others, Tabu and Tate, had made it back. That’s how we got to know they had been detained by the PLA (Chinese army),” he said.
“Arunachal Pradesh is known for its rich natural heritage and adventurous people fond of exploring the nature for medicinal herbs and possessing traditional flair for hunting which involves surviving off the land for weeks in jungles and far-flung remote areas. During such adventurous forays, at times youth have inadvertently strayed to the other side,” said the statement.
The defence spokesperson said the Indian Army has always been proactive in tracing the lost locals and helping them return home.
“Three such incidents took place in the current year in Upper Subansiri and West Siang District including the latest one. All such individuals were brought back home safely after consistent efforts and coordination by the Indian Army in the past,” the statement said.
Tania Doyom, a friend of Ebiya, had narrated a similar incident earlier this year when China had detained a youngster for nearly a month. “They were within India, as far as we know. They would go often that way, we don’t know what happened that day… We are from the Tagin community. Many hunters and forest gatherers move in those areas freely,” he said. “Some time ago, there was also that other boy, from our area, who had been detained by China,” he said, referring to the nearly month-long detention of another youth from the Upper Subansiri district in March this year. Togley Singkam, like the five boys, had also been out foraging when he went missing.
The Tagins, predominantly found in Upper Subansiri, West Siang and Papum Pare districts, are a hunter-gatherer community. That comes with a fluid understanding of boundaries. Besides, with an 80% forest cover, most of Arunachal is not well-mapped, off the connectivity grid and with few roads.
What is normally a protracted process of securing people back also has to do with procedural gaps. China and India do not share an extradition treaty. There is an agreement on border defence cooperation that was signed in 2013, which says the two countries will “assist the other side in locating personnel, livestock, means of transport and aerial vehicles that may have crossed or are possibly in the process of crossing the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.”