India-v-China Historical perspective

Context is very important when looking at any conflict situations whether it is in International Diplomacy or managing an IT Team! It is important to look at all sides of the argument before reaching conclusions and taking a firm stand. And sometimes, just sometimes, NOT taking a decision is also a Decision! ๐Ÿ™‚ With that perspective, I will take a moment to look at the arguments on both sides of the India-China border conflict to provide readers with that important thing called CONTEXT! I will restrict myself to the border question and not going to go into issues like Global Power play etc.

The Indian argument is simple – they are defending the borders that they inherited from the British colonial powers. Before the European colonial powers arrived, India was a collection of Kingdoms each ruled by King. There was a complex hierarchy called “Chauth” (Quarter) dating back to Sher Shah Suri’s time on the Delhi throne, where each minor King paid a quarter of the Revenue collected to the one above him.

The British were the major power in India who managed to kick out the competing Dutch and Spanish interests (Kochi, Kollam etc) and keep the Portuguese and French contained within their small principalities. The story of how the British East India company went from first minting their Indian currency in Bengal to total control over all of India in a span of 152 years is well known. This expansion was based on taking advantage of conflicts between various Indian Kings to take posession of their kingdoms. Marathas in 1819, Sikh Confederacy in 1849 and finally what remained of the Mughals in 1857 – one by one the major kingdoms fell to British expansion. The minor kings, over 800 in number, chose to make peace with the British at this time to keep some of their power in return for allowing a British “Resident” posted in their Kingdom. The British-Indian empire at this time also included Yemen in the East, Ceylon/Sri Lanka in the South as well as Burma/Myanmar in the East.

Post 1857, British power was on its peak and they used this period to “settle” the borders of the British-Indian empire. The means they used to do this, sowed the seeds of the conflicts that India has with all its neighbors – Pakistan, China, Nepal and even Burma/Myanmar! Lets look into this in a little detail beginning with the Ladakh sector in the North.

Ladakh – a short History

The area of current day Ladakh can be first traced to the Indo-Greek Kushana Empire (Emperor Kanishka) – their territory included parts of present day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and Punjab. The major religion of the area called Ladakh, like that of the Kushanas, was Buddhism and the first recorded arrival of Chinese pilgrims was in 600AD. Chinese pilgrims would take a route that would bring them as far south as Keylong in the Lahaul Valley. The Kingdom of Ladakh at this time, called Marsul/Maryul, became a Tributary Kingdom to Tibet around this Time bound by a common link to Buddhism. The 7th century was also the period in which Ladakh transitioned from the Indian flavor of Buddhism towards the Tibetan flavor. The next 5 centuries, effective Chinese control over Tibet waxed and waned depending on the competence of the incumbent Emperor in China. However Tibetan/Chinese control over Eastern Ladakh remained strong throughout this period. Roughly, the areas north-east of Pangong were controlled by Troops from the Chinese Territory of Turkestan(Xinjiang today) while territory south of Pangong was controlled by the Tibetans who were suzerain to the Chinese Emperor. Territory West of the Ladakh Range also faced dozens of almost ritualised annual raids from the Chinese from the Northern (Xinjiang) side which were mainly for Loot and Plunder. But they failed to fully dislodge the Tibetan influence over Ladakh which was bound by strict Buddhist Religious code. Whenever a Maryul (Ladakhi) King found his position threatened, he would flee across the border to Ngari in Tibet and return to Ladakh after the Raids had subsided – a pattern that would be repeated for the next 1300 years! The reasoning behind this is simple – It was difficult, even impossible to fight any sort of sustained military campaign in these altitudes, especially east of the Ladakh Range where the altitude went upto 21000 ft ASL! Any invader who came would eventually have to leave and the King would return!

By the beginning of the 1800s, Mughal control of Punjab had all but dissappeared and the Sikh Empire had taken over most of the Possessions here. The Sikh Empire extended from Punjab in India all the way to Quetta in the West and included Kashmir. Kashmir was governed by a Hindu-Dogra Governor called Gulab Singh as part of the Sikh Empire. Gulab Singh would later betray the Sikh Empire at a crucial point in the Anglo-Sikh war and receive Kashmir as a gift from the grateful British. But that comes later! ๐Ÿ™‚

In 1834, Gulab Singh, on instructions from the Sikh Emperor Ranjit Singh, sent one of his bravest Generals, Gen Zorawar Singh in an audacious move to grab Ladakh from Tibet. They had heard of the fratricide in the ruling families of both Ladakh and Tibet, and chinese suzerainty over Tibet, loose in the best of times was at an all time low. The Sikhs saw a fit opportunity to add Ladakh to their expanding Kingdom. Control of Ladakh would give the Sikh Empire access to the cherished Silk Road and all the riches that promised.

General Zorawar Singh

Gen Zorawar approached Ladakh from the Kargil side – the traditional summer route to Ladakh back then. On receiving reports of the arrival of the Sikh troops at Khaltse, the Ladakhi King fled to Ngari and returned 3 months later. The local governor negotiated with Zorawar to allow the King back in return for an annual tribute. Zorawar built a fort in Ladakh (that stands to this day) and returned to Kashmir. The moment Zorawar and his Sikh troops exited Ladakh however, the Ladakhis went back to Tibetan suzerainty and stopped paying the annual tribute. So in 1841, Zorawar returned to Ladakh to teach the king another lesson. This time he moved on further from Leh towards North Eastern Ladakh where the Xinjiang based Chinese were effectively in control. Zorawar was supposedly retracing a route previously taken by the Sikh Guru Nanak, but he could just be following the instructions of Gulab Singh who always had his eye on this territory. Chinese and Tibetan Tax collectors were present in the Nubra Valley area as late as 1950’s! The bit about Zorawar going from Xaidullah to Mansarovar and from there to Nepal border and then to Hemkund Sahib that is mentioned in some Sikh History books is pure fiction as no historical record for that exists. However what is known for certain is that Zorawar did take the Depsang route via Nubra all the way to Xaidullah, from there to Pangong and then crossed the Chang La back to Leh before returning to Lahore. The Tibetan and Chinese Tax collectors would do what they always did – flee back to the safety of Ngari in Tibet or Khotan in Xinjiang when the Sikh Troops approached only to return after they had left. Knowing the Tibetan/Ladakhi history, Zorawar and his small band of troops established a series of “Chawkis”/Patrol Points (PPs) on the way totalling around 80 in number which he intended to man permanently through the year. The rapid decline of the Sikh Empire after 1842 however meant that Zorawar would never return to the area and these PPs remained only a theoretical idea.

The Hindu-Dogra Gulab Singh betrayed the Sikh Empire at the most crucial moment in the Anglo-Sikh war and in return received Kashmir as a gift. Effective Dogra control remained upto Leh with all territories to the North and East of the Ladakh Range remaining firmly in control of the Tibetans. From a geographical perspective this makes sense – The Ladakh Range forms a formidable and defensible barrier for Western Ladakh. Anyone who has ridden to the area can attest to the dramatically different and challenging terrain beyond the Ladakh range both to the North and towards the East. It costs India almost 10% of the Defense budget every year to just keep Khardung La and Chang La open through the year to ensure defense of the areas beyond Ladakh Range! The Tibetans had easier access roads and infrastructure on that side dating back centuries. The newly installed Hindu-Dogra Maharaja of Kashmir, who now had British backing, thought it was the opportune moment to again try his luck to grab North Eastern half of Ladakh and add it to his royal posession. Till about 1865 at least, The British were initially keen on fixing the border between the Ladakh Range and the Karakoram Range and viewed Raja Gulab Singh’s plan of drawing the border at Xaidullah/Kunlun Range with skepticism because they knew the area there was difficult if not impossible to defend. Incidentally, this original British idea of where the Border should be also aligns perfectly with the “1959 line” which the Chinese Premier Zhou-en-Lai had offered as a compromise in 1959! But ultimately the British went along with the greedy Maharaja because the Foreign Office felt it allowed them a new route into Central Asia. Chinese Empire at this time was fast collapsing. Chinese governor in Turkestan (today’s Xinjiang) was expelled and the British saw an opportunity. The India born geologist and surveyor William Johnson was hired to do a survey of the area east of Ladakh Range. According to his highly suspect memoirs, he travelled from Leh to the Aksai Chin area and even an unauthorised excursion to Chinese/Turkestan Khanate controlled Khotan, from there to the Pangong area and back to Leh in 18 days! Why is this suspect? As anyone who has ridden to this area can attest, this seems like a work of fiction! A journey from the Chinese military bases in Khotan to the LAC in Depsang takes over 3 days by truck TODAY over much better roads! A journey from Leh to Sasoma can take all day by motorcycle TODAY! To think that Johnson could have executed this journey without motor vehicles and with a retinue carried on a pack of mules over non-existent roads in 18 days seems like an impossible task!

Nevertheless, Johnson did return to Leh and compiled his maps which were published in 1870. This was British cartographic aggression at its best because this map established the controversial “Johnson Line” – establishing the British claim over Territory extending to the Xaidullah Patrol Point established by Zorawar Singh. This was controversial even at the time because British/Dogra physical control never went beyond the Ladakh Range. Neither China nor Tibet were in any position to challenge the British Maps but it did not matter at the time because effective control over the areas east of the Ladakh Range remained in Chinese/Tibetan hands. Technology and Infrastructure limitations of the period meant that even the British could not man the “Chowkis”/PPs year round. Infact it is a herculean task even Today! The Chinese are getting better with use of Pressurised “Eggs” etc to enable troops to man the posts through the year. Not impossible, but difficult and expensive! Effective control remained and still remains with Chinese/Tibetans because of that bitch called Geography!

However this Cartographic Aggression would set the stage for the conflict that followed. The Republican govt that came to power in China after 1912 followed the same maps as the preceding Emperor of China. The Communist Party that ousted Republicans in 1949 also stuck to the original maps and refused to accept the British drawn lines in Ladakh – or the border in Southern Tibet for that matter. India after Independence inherited these British drawn borders and felt compelled to defend them. Between 1952 and 1959, Indian PM Nehru, in an ill-advised plan called “Forward Policy”, sent Patrolling Parties far into these areas of North Eastern Ladakh known as Aksai Chin. These areas had NEVER been patrolled before in the British era even though the British had unilaterally drawn the lines on the map in 1870. Teams of British geologists and mineralogists that visited the area for research in between 1870 and 1937 took permission and logistic assistance from the Chinese Amban in Khotan! So these aggressive patrols post 1952, along with similar issues with the border with India in Southern Tibet, would set the stage for the 1962 war! China was not the superpower it is Today so it is a miracle that the Indians even managed to hold the territory they did after 1962! Chinese were fighting in favorable territory – East of the Ladakh range where they always had the advantage. Perhaps the time to accomodate the resurgent Chinese and undo the British cartographic aggression would have been in 1959 when Zhou Enlai made that offer!

Did Nehru really “surrender” Aksai Chin to the Chinese in 1962? Well, that depends on which WhatsApp group you subscribe to! ๐Ÿ™‚ But the area known as Aksai Chin was NEVER in Indian or even British control! The British had unilaterally extended the map lines to include Territory east of the Ladakh Range as well as the Zangnan province of Tibet (which we now call Arunachal). 1962 war was fought by India to defend these lines on the map drawn by the British. Indeed, the British drew similar lines separating territory belonging to Myanmar and including it in India. Those are the states called Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland today! India would be using Indian made Gnat and French Ouragan (Toofani) aircraft to keep these other areas in Indian control well into the 60s!

Contd on Next Page – The North East Sector


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