1/ 007

How the Aksai Chin became the bone of contention?

Indian and Chinese troops are in yet another face-off in the Aksai Chin region. How this cold and wind swept desert became a seemingly intractable dispute is tale worth telling. It was the ambitions of two
2/ Kashmir Maharaja’s have saddled India with its two biggest security challenges. We know how Hari Singh’s vacillation led to the invasion of his realm by the Pakistani raiders in 1947 and what followed is well known. But not so well known is how the ambition of Maharaja Ranbir
3/ Singh led to the cartographic annexation of Aksai Chin into the kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir.

On March 16, 1846, the British ceded to Gulab Singh, the Sikh state’s feudatory, as reward for his treachery towards his masters in Lahore, the lands they had thus acquired - the
4/ territories of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh ‘for the sum of seventy-five lakhs of rupees’. He in turn acknowledged the supremacy of the British government. Article 4 of the Treaty of Amritsar stated: ‘The limits of the territories of Maharaja Gulab Singh shall not at any time be
5/ changed without concurrence of the British government.’ But this is exactly what the Maharaja did and saddled posterity with the Aksai Chin problem.

Aksai Chin covers an area of about 14,380 sq miles. The area is largely a vast high-altitude desert with a low point on the
6/ Karakash River at about 14,000 feet above sea level. In the southwest, mountains up to 22,500 feet extending southeast from the Depsang plains form the de facto border (Line of Actual Control or LAC) between India and China. When Jawaharlal Nehru’s told Parliament that it
7/ was ‘a place where not even a blade of grass grows’. The Congress MP, Mahavir Tyagi, riposted that the Prime Minister’s head did not have a single hair but that didn’t make it useless?

In this context WH Johnson’s controversial ‘advanced boundary line’ of 1865 merits
8/ attention, especially since thereafter, the Johnson boundary continued to be shown in one trans-frontier map after the other. India’s claims to the Aksai Chin plateau rests squarely on Johnson’s map. This boundary line first found concrete shape in the Survey of India’s 1868
9/ map and the Kashmir Atlas. It was based on the Kashmir Maharaja’s outpost at Shahidulla. This made Johnson opt for the Kuen Lun watershed as the divide, and not as some later surveyors were to do, on the main of the Karakoram.

It has been suggested that Johnson, a civil
10/ sub-assistant at the Survey of India, while at Leh on the eve of his historic journey to Khotan in 1865, colluded with the Kashmir Maharaja’s Ladakh Wazir who provided him with money, a sizable retinue for safe conduct, apart from generous supplies of transport and food.
11/ Then there was the matter of some silver ingots the Khan of Khotan had given him to be carried as a gift to the Viceroy, but which never got that far. In 1872 Johnson quit to join the Kashmir ruler’s service as Wazir of Ladakh.

If the above presumptions are true, Johnson
12/ emerges as a double dealer, who while on an intelligence mission for the British Government, proceeded to ‘show more than the usual zeal’ in the cause of his future employer, the Maharaja of Kashmir. The fact remains that the map prepared on his return showed the entire
13/ plateau area in the Maharaja’s province of Ladakh.

The survey itself is not without controversy. To have completed the journey to Khotan, which lay beyond the formidable Kuen Lun range, and to return to Leh in the time he did, would have required Johnson to cover 30 km.
14/ per day, on the Aksai Chin high plateau without halting once. Even if that frenetic pace in thin air were possible, experts were always doubtful that any serious survey would have accompanied it.

Others of that time also were skeptical of this border. Viceroy Lord
15/ Lansdowne even minuted on 28 September, 1889: ‘The country between the Karakoram and Kuen Lun ranges is, I understand, of no value, very inaccessible and not likely to be coveted by Russia. We might, I should think, encourage the Chinese to take it, if they showed any
16/ inclination to do so. This would be better than leaving a no-man’s land between our frontier and that of China. Moreover, the stronger we can make China at this point, and the more we can induce her to hold her own over the whole Kashgar-Yarkand region, the more useful will
17/ she be to us as an obstacle to Russian advance along this line’.

On the other hand, responding to Captain Francis Younghusband’s report on his famous meeting with his old Great Game rival, the Russian explorer Colonel V.L. Grombchevsky, near Yarkand in 1889, Major General
18/ John Ardagh, Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office in London, recommended claiming the areas ‘up to the crests of the Kuen Lun range’, i.e. the WH Johnson line. However, in 1890, before Whitehall could make up its mind, the Chinese occupied Shahidulla.
19/ Following this occupation, it is instructive to note the opinion of the Secretary of State for India in Whitehall, Lord Curzon: ‘We are inclined to think that the wisest course would be to leave them in possession as it is evidently to our advantage that the tract of
20/ territory between the Karakoram and Kuen Lun mountains be held by a friendly power like China’.

In 1893, Hung Ta-chen, a senior Chinese official at Kashgar, handed a map of the boundary proposed by China to George Macartney, the British consul-general at Kashgar. This
21/ boundary placed the Lingzithang plains, which are south of the Laktsang range, in India, and Aksai Chin proper, which is north of the Laktsang range, in China. Macartney agreed with the proposal and forwarded it to the British Indian government.

A border, along the
22/ Karakorum Mountains, was suggested and supported by the British for a number of reasons. The Karakorum’s formed a natural boundary, which would set the British borders up to the Indus river watershed while leaving the Tarim river watershed in Chinese control. Besides Chinese
23/ control of this tract would present a further obstacle to the feared Russian advance from Central Asia.

The British presented this line, known as the Macartney-MacDonald, to the Chinese in 1899 in a note by Sir Claude MacDonald, the British Minister to the Qing dynasty
24/ Empire of China. The Qing government did not respond to the note, and the British took it as Chinese acquiescence. Although no official boundary had ever been negotiated, China believed that this had been the accepted boundary. It may be pointed out that the 1899
25/ Macartney-MacDonald line, by and large, corresponds with the Chinese claim line.

In 1941, Military Intelligence in Delhi got reports of Soviet troops garrisoning in Xinjiang. It was then decided to push the boundary outwards to the old Ardagh-Johnson line, after which
26/ Aksai Chin once more became part of J&K, though it was just on some maps only. The India map of the original Constitution of India adopted in 1950, the longest written constitution of any sovereign country in the world, containing 448 articles in 25 parts, 12 schedules, 5
27/ appendices and 98 amendments leaves the boundary between India and China at Aksai Chin as an airbrushed blank without a line running through it.

In 1962 the PLA advanced to a line towards the Macartney-MacDonald line. The present dispute between the two sides mostly stems
28/ from overlapping perceptions about where the LAC is? This is where we are now! And this is why 'stand-offs' happen.


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