Eastern Ladakh: The Torrent of Strategic History, the Wrath of Strategic Geography and the Torment of Geo-Strategy

Trade caravans and explorers historically knew no political boundaries, except the mountain ranges. The ancient routes, with knowledge having been passed from generations to generations, moved through the western Himalayas, traversed the Pamirs, Hind Kush, Karakoram, the Greater Himalaya, and the Plateau of Tibet. There were exchanges in culture, ideas, thoughts and religious ideologies, and certainly, trade. Eastern Ladakh (Ladakh is the land of passes) along the Shyok River Valley formed the corridor for trade with Punjab and Kashmir.

The names in Eastern Ladakh have an informative character and are of Yarkhandi (a Turkic dialect) Balti or Ladakhi (in Nubra Valley) origins. The ice peaks for Yarkhandis was Muztagh, Baltis prefixed Sar and Ladakhis called them Kangri (Kangri is a Balti Name too).  Hence, Karakoram Pass is a pass of black gravel, Polu is a temporary shelter (do not linger here!), Chip Chap River is a very quiet River and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) implies a place where a very rich and great person died! Aksai Chin denoted eastern China. The Depsang Plateau was a long open space after a slope, Qazi Langar was the kitchen run by a Qazi, Burtse refers to shrubs (which had medicinal qualities), Murgo was the gateway to darkness or hell, and Chhongtash a big stone.  The Shyok River was the river of death, Gapshan (where Rimo and Chip Chap rivers meet) had a type of shrub or wood and Saser La was a pass of the golden earth, Saser Kangri ice peak of golden earth and Saser Brangza a temporary camp at the foot of Saser La.  Rimo was a huge and mountain with beautiful colourful stripes.  Sultan Chyushku is the resting place of the Sultan, Chang Chenmo were the big northern plains.  Darbuk denoted a flourishing village in a valley and Tangtse a higher ground to cross the northern pass – Chang La.[1]

Axiomatically the Chinese profess to have atavistic, though highly selective, memories. The history is singularly convoluted, with the role of the British and Russians, and of course the Chinese. Lord Curzon had stated that “the idea of a demarcated frontier is itself an essentially modern conception and finds little or no place in the ancient world,” He also tellingly remarked that, “it would be true to say that demarcation has never taken place in Asiatic countries except under the European pressure, by the intervention of ‘European Agents’… he would be a short-sighted commander who merely manned his ramparts in India and did not look beyond.”  History of Eastern Ladakh is not the purpose of this paper.  Suffice it that it commences with the First SIKH War and the Amritsar Treaty in 1846, when the British recognised Maharaja Gulab Singh of J&K, under their suzerainty. What followed was a history of ‘Lines’ that attempted to delineate the boundary between Ladakh and Tibet – by William Johnson, a civil servant with the Survey of India – the “Johnson Line” in 1865, the Ardagh–Johnson Line of 1897 and the Macartney–MacDonald Line of 1899.  In the geopolitics of that era, the Karakoram Pass, a 5,540 m or 18,176 ft mountain pass on the Karakoram Range, got formalised as the boundary between India and China in 1892, and has, till yet, remained outside any controversy.  The pass is 45 metres wide, devoid of vegetation and it is generally free of snow.

After Independence, the Ministry of States, headed by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, published two White Papers; in July 1948 and February 1950. Both showed the entire northern boundary from the Indian-China-Afghan trijunction, the subject of the Sino-Pakistan agreement to the India-China-Nepal trijunction as “undefined”, in contrast to a clear depiction of the McMahon Line in the east. This was the position when India and China signed the Panchsheel Agreement on Tibet on April 29, 1954. The then PM wrote to the Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs, Note of 01 July 1954: “All our old maps dealing with the frontier should be carefully examined and, where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our northern and north-eastern frontier without any reference to any `line’. These new maps should also not state there is any undemarcated territory… this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody.”[2] In 1954, India published revised maps with… the Johnson-Ardagh Line, which the British had proposed to the Chinese in 1899 – extending the Indian frontier in the western sector to the Kunlun Mountains.[3]

There is a protracted correspondence between PM Nehru and Premier Chou en Lai on the vexed issues of the border. A letter was written by Premier Chou en Lai dated 07 Nov 1959 postulated ‘…each side withdraw 20 kilometres … from the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west (Ladakh).  Shivshankar Menon has explained in his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy that the LAC was “described only in general terms on maps not to scale” by the Chinese. Zhou (Chou en Lai) clarified the LAC again after the war in another letter to Nehru: “To put it concretely … in the western and middle sectors it coincides in the main with the traditional customary line which has consistently been pointed out by China”. During the Doklam crisis in 2017, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson urged India to abide by the “1959 LAC”.[4] Shyam Saran has disclosed in his book How India Sees the World that the LAC …India formally accepted the concept of the LAC when (PM) Rao paid a return visit to Beijing in 1993 and the two sides signed the Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquillity at the LAC. The reference to the LAC was unqualified to make it clear that it was not referring to the LAC of 1959 or 1962 but to the LAC at the time when the agreement was signed. To reconcile the differences in some areas, the two countries agreed that the Joint Working Group on the border issue would take up the task of clarifying the alignment of the LAC. During his visit to China in May 2015, PM Narendra Modi’s proposal to clarify the LAC was rejected by the Chinese.[5]  The two countries are also engaged in Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) on the border with bilateral agreements signed in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013.[6]

Nearly six decades have passed since then, but the border issue remains unresolved. Over time the Chinese have developed infrastructure, especially metalled roads right upto their perception of LAC. The travesty of this undemarcated border is wrought at the tactical level, where the units and formations deployed in Eastern Ladakh face the belligerent Chinese, while dominating their area of responsibility. In the course of the last twenty years, India has undertaken immense strides in developing axials and laterals in Eastern Ladakh, to sustain the graduated build-up of forces with clear-cut tasking. What is called “transgressions”, happen with regularity and most are mutually and amicably resolved without reaching the media, under the provisions of the various agreements by ‘banner drills’ or ‘Border Personnel Meetings’ (BPM).  Certain pertinent issues need stating:

  • The belligerence and newer claims of the Chinese on the 826km frontier in Eastern Ladakh are creeping into areas, hitherto fore considered uncontroversial. This increases the challenge greatly.
  • Since April 2013, the ‘faceoffs’ have transcended to another level, that does not lead to disengagement for a very long time, fisticuffs, brawls, use of batons and finally firming in an adversarial atmosphere for a long time, till resolved through BPMs. Raki Nalla, Chumar, Pangong Tso, Demchok, Hot Springs and recently Galwan River, are names that come to fore. Though to the credit, none of these incidents has led to the firing or spiralled out of control, there is obvious disregard to the normal measures like disengagement post banner drills.    
  • Indian axials development reached a major significance with the construction of the bridge over Shyok River in 2019 on the Darbog-Shyok- DBO Road (DS-DBO). The DS-DBO Road greatly facilitates management of the Sub Sector North of Eastern Ladakh. Other developments include habitat creation for the accretions. Understandably, the Chinese have ‘watched’ and followed these infrastructural and force level upgradations, without protestations.
  • The PLA having created its own road network to the farthest end of its claim, takes advantage of the same by using transport to arrive in the best time, to deny own foot patrols undertaking their task. Case in point is Pangong Tso, where while tasked to move to Finger 8, as movement from the track on the rock face from Finger 3 to 4 takes time, PLA is able to move by vehicles from Sirijap and deny progress at Finger 4/5 itself. This invariably leads to a brawl at that area.  Having witnessed many, and followed most, the gross media exaggerations (without official pronouncement/ confirmation) of the ‘area’ transgressed and the quantum of force pitted by either side at the site of the altercation causes immense consternation among the public. 
  • A level has now reached, which mandates infrastructural development in proximate areas of the LAC, like feeder roads to Galwan River and the Pangong Tso Finger 3 and 4 connection. While the PLA on its own has the same to the very end, this last mile connectivity by Indian Army is what causes the later day violent reactions, despite the fact that these are in own territory. This proximate work should be pending in many, many areas along the LAC, and the objections are inexplicable.
  • It is also obvious that the PLA is relying on the state of the art ISR systems to monitor movements of own patrols or attempts to upgrade infrastructure, to react at the opportune time.
  • As a first, the level of the BPM has been raised to the level of the Corps Commander of the Fire and Fury Corps (14 Corps), also implying that normal level meetings at Commanding Officer, Brigade Commander or even the previously rare Divisional Commander meetings, have been unable to break the impasse. One is hopeful of a resolution of the current imbroglio under the express contact planned at this very high level.   

It must be unequivocally stated that the rationale for provocations and the timing of it has been debated in the audio-visual, print medium and social media ad infintum and requires no repetition. It is a given that any rapprochement on demarcating the LAC on ground, or resolving it in finality does not seem even in the distant horizon.  Hence as the proximate infrastructural development by the Indian Army is of utmost necessity, and domination of the LAC may be further focused upon wholesomely, to enable execution of the task at tactical level the face-offs and transgressions may become a NEW NORMAL.  There may hence be certain pathways for the management of the LAC that are imperative:

  • There is an optimal necessity of the state of the art upgrade at the LAC of the ISR and communication network (including the adequacy of secure satellite communication and digital links) for the last mile connectivity, at the earliest. The procurement must not be hardwired into budgetary constraints and procedural wrangling’s.
  • Multifarious agencies, including civil sector, be utilised for infrastructural development as had been previously done by the ITBP/MHA.
  • Though immense efforts have been made to rationalise and make permanence of the units in Eastern Ladakh, and delinking from the glacier loop, this requires further addressed. In the same context, sons-of-soil (home and hearth) concept of TA-isation will be a step in that direction.
  • As stated above, the recent events may become the new normal, a deliberate media dissemination policy is imperative. Vacuum of information, allows many to have their imagination run riot, which gets quoted in international media too. While it may be rightly said that there are prickly issues of demands of diplomacy and politics, the information in 21st century is a major force multiplier – or can cause immense consternation and negatives.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, the current protocols and architecture of ameliorating any problematic situation is under grave stress. There may need to find fresher solutions at the military or even the political level, pronto, for future eventualities.

Contextually, no attempt is made towards tactical responses; the serving establishment is well versed and most competent.  

End-Notes

[1] The names nomenclature is largely drawn from famous mountaineer Harish Kapadia’s The Siachen Glacier and Mountains of East Karakoram, A Historical Review.  Please refer http://nawang.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Siachen_Booklet.pdf  and https://www.himalayanclub.org/hj/42/20/19-eastern-karakoram-a-historical-review/

[2] AG Noorani, Facts of history, Frontline, Volume 20 – Issue 18, August 30 – September 12, 2003 accessed at https://web.archive.org/web/20111002095213/http://frontlineonnet.com/fl2018/stories/20030912002104800.htm.  This article in detail traces out a survey of the treaties and engagements that have dealt with the status of the western sector of the Sino-Indian boundary in Jammu and Kashmir, in the 19th Century.

[3] Shyam Saran, How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2017, P125-126, quoted in Travis Wheeler, Clarify and Respect the Line of Actual Control, 10 May 2019, accessed at https://www.stimson.org/2019/clarify-and-respect-line-actual-control/

[4] Sushant Singh, Line of Actual Control: Where it is located, and where India and China differ The Indian Express 02 Jun 2020

[5] Sushant Singh, Line of Actual Control: Where it is located, and where India and China differ The Indian Express 02 Jun 2020

[6] Mihir Bhonsale, Understanding Sino-Indian Border Issues: An Analysis of Incidents Reported in the Indian Media, ORF Occasional Paper No 143, Feb 2018.