For millennia, the Himalayas have not only been our protector but also a region touched by three of the major linguistic, racial, and cultural dividing lines of Asia.
The valleys of this great mountain range have been inhabited by people speaking Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman languages, by populations of Caucasian racial features meeting and coalescing with Mongoloid ethnic groups, not to speak of Hinduism and Buddhism coexisting and interacting in overlapping spheres.
Of the vast ‘Himalaya Sphere’ ~ that broadly extends northwards to swathes of China, southwards to Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India, and westwards to Afghanistan and a part of the region historically known as ‘Asia Minor’~ the western part said to have birthed the ‘quintessential’ Indian civilisation is matched by its eastern part, that is known to embody ‘quintessential’ Chinese civilisation.
It is a pity that the two Asian giants that share a long history of intellectual, cultural, and religious exchanges dating back two thousand years are now bitter rivals contesting over barren territories. Ladakh, circumscribed by Tibet in the east, Kashmir and Baltistan in the west, Xinjiang in the north, and Lahoul, Spiti, Kulu, Bushahr and Chamba in the south, was an independent kingdom for many centuries until it was invaded by the Dogras in the 19th century.
When the Dogras wrested Kashmir, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir took Ladakh and neighbouring Baltistan under his wing. Following the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947, the Baltistan region fell on the Pakistan side of the ceasefire line, and the rest of Ladakh became part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
A little further away, the north-western frontier of China, otherwise known as Xinjiang, has been important from the geostrategic point of view besides being a region in which four civilisations ~ the Han Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Islamic ~ have met since the sixteenth century though Xinjiang’s Chinese association dates back to more than 2,000 years. The range has stayed impaired or under control of majestic China discontinuously for a little under five centuries until the Qing rulers usurped this region into the Chinese empire.
What all these facts try to allude are the overlapping factors that combine nations and defy boundaries. In time of peace, such cultural and anthropological resources can be an asset. But when contesting nations live side by side, strategic imperatives get the better of abstract commonalities. Now that the situation in LAC is simmering for months on end, it is clear that India paid little attention to safeguarding the territory of the trans-Himalayan frontier possibly because it trained its entire focus on the valley of Kashmir.
Since a sizeable portion of Ladakh territory (Baltistan, Raskam, Aksai Chin) had been under the occupation of Pakistan and China since 1947, the strategic retrospection on the subject is that had India taken proper measures after independence to safeguard the Gilgit and Aksai Chin regions, Pakistan and China could not have occupied them and the Chinese could not have built the Tibet-Xinjiang link road across Aksai Chin, a region the strategic importance of which was tamely ignored by both the civil and military authorities of India. Historically, we had been diffident in pressing our border claims strongly with China relying, instead, on the exchange of the 1899 note between the British government and China.
If India had noted how right from 1860 the British had started taking greater interest in the Ladakh region because of threat of intrusions across the northern frontiers over the Karakoram range, we would have taken steps to secure the area against both Pakistan and China. The British nursed concerns that Tibet might be occupied by China, as it was British India’s boundary policy to create a buffer state with natural boundaries between Tibet and British India. For China, this Karakoram Highway is of vital importance. It provides an essential link with Pakistan and opens the Indian Ocean region to China.
And Aksai Chin has opened the gates of Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan to China and vitally connected Tibet with Xinjiang. Aksai Chin not only provides China with a link between Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas) and Tibet through the Shylock valley, but also routes of entry into Ladakh. Thus, India’s biggest failure and strategic threat has been the occupation of GilgitBaltistan by Pakistan and Aksai Chin by China.
And Pakistan’s exploitation of Gilgit-Baltistan to threaten the Zojila Pass and the national highway between Srinagar and Leh is well documented particularly since the Kargil war in 1999 when this area was used as a route for infiltration into Ladakh and Kargil. Pakistan, meanwhile, is mulling an upgrade of GilgitBaltistan to a full-fledged province.
Nehru seriously miscalculated. In his eagerness to play for India a global role in a new postcolonial world with China by his side, he compromised India’s national and security imperatives. The Chinese incursion was in the words of B N Mullik, ‘a betrayal of trust’ (“My Years with Nehru: The Chinese Betrayal”, 1971) that showed how trust between nation states should never be one-sided, but reciprocal, or else love becomes unrequited.
It is ironical that the emergence of renewed attention on reviving the natural security qualities of India’s Himalayan frontier, since the post-1757 period, happened more out of the imperative to protect British colonial dominance within the Indian subcontinent than to accomplish the security of the citizens of colonial India. Both personal ambition and colonial goal put a gloss on the security priorities of the Indian state. China’s hostile stance to India and its history of hostilities – some of which are ongoing – with a host of other nations including the US is already beginning to be counter-productive.
The Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969 inspired Mao’s strategic decision to break the deadlock in China’s relationship with the United States. These policies resulted in the signing of the historic Shanghai Communiqué in 1972 and the normalisation of Sino-US relations seven years later. Japan and South Korea have had large-scale wars with China in the past, while India, Vietnam, and Russia have had serious border clashes with China.
Some such as the Philippines, Vietnam have contested Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, while a few others, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, at one time or another have had to fend off communist insurgencies backed by Beijing.
Now China is encircled by a commonalty of ill-will that might well bandwagon against it. The bottomline of the entire charade in eastern Ladakh is that China apparently is very well aware of the contested regions, perhaps also that it is laying a siege on territories claimed by India as its own but is plainly intolerant or disdainful of Indian sensibilities. It is bent on showing force and wants India to blink first.
The Chinese disavowal of the McMahon Line and claims on large sections of Indian territory in Ladakh as well as Arunachal Pradesh festering since the early 1950s have been allowed to metastatise for far too long. Through the Nehru years, China got used to the policy mode of appeasement as opposed to strategic confrontation. But as our subsequent brush with China has amply proved over the years, effective conflict management sometimes requires force in lieu of compromise.
The unilateral Indian decision to garrison the Siachen region in the late 1980s and the use of air and ground forces during the Kargil incursion in 1999 are two cases in point. It is time we revived the natural security qualities of India’s Himalayan frontier armed with a combination of circumspect militarism and unblinking diplomacy.
The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues