A Line of Actual Control (LAC) normally would convey just one aspect, that there is a line determining the limits of actual control. Seen in the context of our border with China especially in Ladakh, for decades the situation has remained ambiguous as the actuality has neither been frozen in time nor drawn on a map or demarcated on ground which simply means that the LAC is subject to interpretation as per the dynamics of time, our vulnerability and the extent of Chinese belligerence. It is akin to somewhat of a situation from an Amitabh Bachchan starrer where he says, Line wahan se shuru hoti hai jahan hum khade hain.
This state of uncertainty about the border in Ladakh is essentially a legacy of the British. In the nineteenth century they were more apprehensive of the Russian designs as the Chinese were not considered to be much of a threat on account of its history of the previous fifty-sixty years.
The entire British policy at that time was to somehow create a wedge between their Indian empire and the growing threat from Russian expansion. First was the creation of Wakhan corridor, a tongue of a territory given to Afghanistan north of Mintaka-Kilik Pass, so that the borders of J & K got insulated from the Russian border, present-day Tajikistan.
Later the British induced the Chinese to administer the Shahidullah territory, which was at one time in Kashmir and lay south of KuenLun range and north of Karakoram.
With this move in the nineteenth century, the British shrunk the Kashmir territory by about fifty miles and brought it southwards to the Karakoram range. In the given situation, demarcation of the boundary on the eastern flank of Ladakh became somewhat incongruous with the watershed principle of determining boundaries in mountainous areas.
While the northern boundary was brought down southwards, the eastern and northeastern boundaries were` retained according to the original dispensation. In order to formalise the new boundaries a number of proposals were moved as Johnson line, Ardagh line and the Claude MacDonald line.
The last one i.e the Macdonald line was accepted and formally proposed by Viceroy Lord Elgin as the boundary in 1899. This clearly indicated the source of the Karakash river in the extreme north-east to be in Ladakh.
Also this did not in any manner change the position of Aksai Chin, Soda Plains and Lingzi Tang which continued to remain in Kashmir state. This is also what we had accepted.
The British had only changed the ground situation in Shahidullah area and for the rest a status quo remained. On the other hand, the Chinese for the eastern sector incorrectly took the Karakoram pass as the boundary and drew an ad hoc line straight to Pangong Lake and then to Chumar via Demchok which took away thousands of kilometres of the Aksai Chin area away from India.
As this Chinese proposal was never agreed to, the border all through the British period remained undemarcated.
Though we claimed this area, it was never patrolled on a regular basis resulting in the Chinese taking advantage and building a road link between XinJiang and West Tibet.
In fact , this term, LAC, is of Chinese origin, as it was for the first time used by Zhou Enlai. In his letter to Nehru in 1959, he mentioned that the “LAC was the so-called MacMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”.
This came up again in 1962 when after the cease- fire the Chinese announced a voluntary withdrawal to 20 km behind the LAC, as it existed in November 1959. On both occasions in 1959 as well as 1962 it was rejected by us.
Nehru’s comment as mentioned in the White Paper was quite explicit and remains valid even today, “The LAC has been created by aggression. Advancing 40 or 60 kms by its military and then offering to withdraw by 20 kms provided both sides do this is a deceptive device which can hardly fool anybody”.
After the cease-fire our Parliament had endorsed the Colombo proposals of December 1962. With reference to Ladakh it was mentioned that the Chinese would withdraw 20 kms from the line of occupation i.e. the 1960 claim line except for deviations in Depsang plains and Demchok area, where Indians would hold their existing positions along that line.
This meant that in the south-eastern portion of Ladakh from Demchok to Spanggur, the Chinese would vacate the Indian territory which they had occupied by force.
However, when these proposals were referred by Mrs Bandarnaike to China, they showed little interest and in fact went back on their own proposals made at the time of ceasefire.
The LAC on account of various factors, international as well as internal to China, had generally remained quiet for a few decades except for the Chinese misadventure at Somdurongchu in Arunachal Pradesh and another incident in the eastern sector.
This led to the signing by our Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in September 1993 of a Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China. Its main feature was to desist from using force to change the border and respecting the status quo. The Chinese have since reneged on this agreement in letter and spirit.
This uncertainty of the LAC has since led to several crises particularly in 2013, 2014, 2019 and 2020. Earlier, just a few months after the 1962 ceasefire, in March 1963, China was able to obtain a favourable gift from Pakistan of a territory of 7000 sq kms of Northern Kashmir known as Shaksgam (in PoK).
This has never been recognized by India but it has changed the entire geopolitical and strategic situation of Ladakh. From then onwards the efforts of Chinese have always been to move from the east and join with Shaksgam.
In the current scenario what is worrisome for India is the strong presence of Chinese troops and armour near the Depsang plains south-east of Daulat Beg Oldie. Even a small thrust in this area can have very grave potential for us.
The Chinese in 2013 had crossed the LAC in this area but under heavy Indian pressure had to vacate after a few weeks. The China of the 21st century is much different from the China of the 1980s and 90s. Now, an ambitious China, claiming to be the top super power of the world, has embarked on an expansionist programme.
It has also tried to treat its neighbours as vassal states. India is seen by them as a challenger and a spoilsport as we have not accepted their Belt and Road Initiative besides being highly critical of the CPEC.
The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu is known to have professed that the enemy should be weakened economically and by promoting internal strife so that the war could be won even without actual fighting. In this developing climate of multiple threats to our security, we have to gear up at all levels in official as well as private institutions against organized cyber attacks, for which the Chinese have a penchant.
The situation would also have to be watched critically as the US would be fully involved in their forthcoming presidential elections. It may be recalled that in 1962 the Chinese had attacked us when the US was completely preoccupied with the Cuban missile crisis.
The writer is a former Governor and a Sr. Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation.