Geography in terms of boundaries throws up myriad challenges, classified as cartographic anxieties. If not managed well, these magnify into strategic vulnerabilities. Siliguri Corridor, a tenuous link with eight North-East states and gateway for more than 50 million north-easterners, is indeed one such vulnerability.
This 200-km stretch with width varying from 17 to 60 km is aptly referred to as Chicken’s Neck and measures approximately 12,203 sq km. The narrowest 4 km strip towards western edge, Tetulia corridor is wedged between Nepal and Bangladesh. The eastern part of the Corridor is wider and borders Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Chumbi valley tapering into Dolam/Dokalam plateau is barely 100 km away. Mapping the corridor is a challenge as its limits are a matter of interpretation, exemplified in Wikipedia assertion on narrowest point being 27 km, which is closer to average width.
The corridor has major airbases: Bagdogra and Hashimara and an upcoming Army aviation base at Shaugaon. A large number of Army and CAPF installations are located in this narrow stretch. In keeping with ‘one border, one force’ policy, the responsibility of borders is divided between the Army and ITBP for China; SSB for Nepal and Bhutan and Bangladesh with BSF. Multiplicity of forces and agencies requires an effective and tailor-made coordination mechanism. Most of the border except for Bangladesh is unfenced and porous with treacherous riverine stretches. Tea, timber and tourism are the main drivers of economic activity, controlled from Siliguri.
Notorious for criminal activities, Kaliachak in Malda is hub of counterfeit trafficking, narco-terrorism and bomb making. Uncontrolled migration from Bangladesh has complicated demographics and Islamist radical groups and madrasas have proliferated with tacit support of government agencies. Adding to the complexity are non-indigenous Meitei and Bodo settlements, which provide shelter to cadres, in addition to ULFA and KLO utilising it for transit.
Simmering Gorkhaland problem coupled with Kamatapur insurgency have made this region a potential target for hybrid warfare. The obvious question is: have we allowed it to become an Achilles Heel in our geo-strategic calculus?
Terrestrial communication from mainland to the North-East are based on double line broad gauge rail link complemented by two National highways along with vital hydrocarbon pipelines passing through this stretch. Risk mitigation dictates focused investment in strategic storage for critical commodities and alternative connectivities such as Sittwe-Kaladan and transit corridor through Bangladesh as sustenance on aerial bridge has limited potential.
Humphrey Hawksley’s ‘Dragon Fire’ and ‘Assassin’s Mace’ by Brig Bob Butalia outline a scenario of Dragon using Chumbi valley through Doklam and Jaldhaka to cut off the corridor. This scenario with connected forms of threats like airborne raids have been war-gamed many times with devil given more than its due, but in every such exercise, Dragon is not only stymied but stage is set for quid-pro-quo options.
Siliguri Corridor with low hills, jungles and broken ground dotted with numerous rivers provides multiple formidable defence lines. While we certainly don’t want a war, yet for such an eventuality, our troops including mechanised forces are not only earmarked but have regularly rehearsed. In Eastern theatre, we are likely to engage in three separate sub-theatre battles in respective Corps Zones, where primary defensive architecture with inbuilt reserves is already in place.
(The author retired as Western Army Commander and commanded Siliguri Corps. He had an extended tenure in Nagaland as PSO)
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