Discussing Ladakh we must keep in mind that last year in August when the Indian government violated its own constitution to make a unilateral announcement of annexing Indian Occupied Kashmir into India, the situation changed dramatically. Ladakh is no more a green valley; no monsoon rains fall in this region making it an arid and cold desert.
Historically, Ladakh was part of Tibet and a majority of the local people are of a Tibetan descent. In 1834 Gulab Singh occupied Ladakh and incorporated it into the Sikh realm of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh who had established his capital in Lahore in 1799. His kingdom stretched to Ladakh which was famous for its high quality wool derived from the herds of mountain sheep. The control over the wool trade benefited the Sikhs immensely. Chinese and Tibetan warriors did try to liberate Ladakh from the Sikhs but barring a few successes they failed and finally from 1842 onwards Ladakh has never been part of China or Tibet.
Within ten years after Ranjeet Singh’s death in 1839, the British forces occupied Punjab ending half a century of Sikh rule. Gulab Singh helped the British forces in the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-46, and as a reward, the British sold Kashmir to him for just seven and a half million Nanakshahi rupees, through the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846. Gulab Singh became the first Dogra maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh. After 1947, when the Kashmir dispute evolved, Ladakh remained part of the problem.
After a brief Indo-Pak war in 1948, Kashmir ended up divided between India and Pakistan, with the larger part being occupied by India including Ladakh. Now, from eastern Ladakh if you look left you see the highest point of the Karakoram Range called Daulat Baig Oldie which is adjacent to the Galwan Valley. Living or fighting in this area is as difficult as it is on the Siachen Glacier. In this windy corridor you may freeze to death within a minute or be blown away. In addition, this area is jagged and rugged, full of stones and boulders making it fairly difficult to dig or build any structure.
No heavy machinery can reach there easily, which is why both countries have been trying to fix some paved roads there, so that machinery and other wherewithal can be transported. The Indian forces have been able to smooth a landing ground which is perhaps the highest such airbase in the world. It is over sixteen thousand feet above the sea level and small military planes can land here. Across the border, China has an advantage of having a relatively plain area which is on the Tibetan Plateau. Though it is on the same height, it is relatively easy to build structures and roads on the Chinese side.
Having a bird’s eye view of this region, to the west of the disputed land we see Ladakh, and to the east from Doklam and Nathola to the valleys of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh a long line of disputed territories. China also keeps an eye on Arunachal Pradesh, especially on its district called Tawang which China considers a part of southern Tibet. There is some truth in it because culturally and religiously Tibet and Tawang are pretty close and Tawang also has one of the most sacred shrines for Buddhists.
But that should not make much of a difference, as just like Pakistan has opened so many sacred places of worship for Hindus and Sikhs, India can also show a goodwill gesture by opening the shrine at Tawang to Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists. Another aspect of this problem is the Dalai Lama who had to escape from Tibet to India in 1959 because he feared persecution after the Chinese communist occupation of Tibet. Now, whenever the Dalai Lama visits Tawang, China raises objections. We may recall that this year in February the Indian prime minister also visited Arunachal Pradesh to which China officially protested.
Since Arunachal was traditionally part of southern Tibet, the Sino-Indian border here is hundreds of kilometres long. The Dalai Lama has a divine status for the people of Tibet while China considers him a secessionist. Though the Chinese communist government had occupied Tibet in 1950, the people of Tibet led by their spiritual leader did not accept the Chinese domination. In 1959, they tried to revolt against the Chinese but the failure led the Dalai Lama to escape and seek refuge in India. Tibet had been a free country after declaring its independence from China in 1912.
The tussle between China and India started in 1959 when the then prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru decided to offer protection to the Dalai Lama. It was like declaring that India had not accepted the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Before this development, China and India enjoyed fairly good relations and prime ministers Nehru and Zhou Enlai were on apparently good terms. In the meanwhile, another significant development had taken place, and that was the falling out of China with the Soviet Union. Nehru was closer to the Soviet Union and China was moving away from it.
While the Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated, China expected India to ditch the USSR and side with its bigger and immediate neighbour, China. But Nehru preferred the USSR and according to another version, the Soviet Union supported Nehru’s decision to offer protection to the Dalai Lama. The dispute that emerged in 1959, had its fallout on the borders too and there were repeated skirmishes with an upshot of a full Sino-Indian War in 1962 in which the USSR could not help India much. The drubbing that India received shattered Nehru both physically and psychologically and he died within two years after the war.
Finally, we witnessed a pleasant change in the border disputes between China and India when in 2003 India recognized Tibet as part of China. At that time Jiang Zemin was the president of China and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India. Though Vajpayee was also leading the BJP, he was much more sensible and less pugnacious than Narendra Modi. It was Vajpayee who detonated atomic devices in 1998 but after a tit-for-tat response from Pakistan, perhaps Vajpayee realized his missteps and tried to normalize relations with both China and Pakistan.
Sadly, his efforts were thwarted by belligerent lobbies in China, India, and Pakistan. The latest from Ladakh is the interesting news about 20 martial arts experts that China is reportedly sending to Tibet to train its border guards. This is because according to an agreement signed in 1996, both China and India cannot carry ammunition and arms to the border and on both sides the guards will be unarmed, but can at the most keep batons and sticks. That’s why in the mid-June brawl nobody shot fires. Batons and fisticuffs were used but some of the sticks had nails in them that proved lethal for the Indian soldiers.
Whether you fight with batons or bombs, fighting is bad anyway. This region has seen such acrimony and ill-will among neighbours that it is about time our rulers rebooted their software. Afghanistan, China, India, Iran and Pakistan, all need a fundamental overhaul in their domestic and foreign policies, just as Europe did after WWII in 1945 and then again after the end of the cold war. In the past 70 years our rulers have not displayed similar eagerness to match Europe’s economic, political, and social integration. Are we waiting for WWIII to force us into better relations? I hope not.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad