Facts of history

Print edition : September 12, 2003

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.

"There exists a relatively bigger dispute" on the western sector in the Sino-Indian boundary dispute, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai said in New Delhi on April 30, 1960. This sector covers the Ladakh province of Jammu and Kashmir. "We have asked the Indian government to adopt an attitude towards this area similar to the attitude of the Chinese government towards the area of the eastern sector." This was an allusion to his offer to Nehru on January 23, 1959. China would "take a more or less realistic attitude towards the McMahon Line". Zhou Enlai wanted each side to "keep its own stand, while agreeing to conduct negotiations". He defined the boundary in the west as running "from the Karakoram Pass south-eastward roughly along the watershed of the Karakoram Mountain to the Kongka Pass, then turns southward... " As an authority notes, the Mustagh-Karakoram range "forms the true water-parting between the rivers of the Tarim basin on the north and the Indus system on the south" (British India's Northern Frontier 1965-95 by G.J. Alder; Longman 1963; page 8). India, however, said it was the Kuen Lun range, further in the north, which marked the watershed and claimed it as the boundary. More, China said that the boundary was not defined. India said it was; by a treaty of 1842. Both asserted that their respective claim lines represented "the traditional customary line" as distinct from "the Line of Actual Control" (LAC).

It was ironic that while the dispute over Kashmir drove India and Pakistan apart in 1947, disagreement over its boundary with China emerged as a major issue in the India-China boundary dispute in 1959. The crucial questions are: What is the boundary that India inherited on its Independence in 1947? And, relatedly, what was China's boundary, on the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949?

A good clue is provided in an authoritative work - A Collection of Treaties, Engagements and Sanads relating to India and Neighbouring Countries compiled by C.U. Aitchison, Under-Secretary to the Government of India in the Foreign Department.

Volume XI of the 1909 edition held good until 1947; for, nothing happened in the western sector in between and there was no live dispute then. He wrote: "The present State of Jammu and Kashmir was created by the British government when Gulab Singh was established as Maharaja under the Treaty of Amritsar." The British first signed the Treaty of Lahore with the Lahore State on March 9, 1846 after the First Anglo-Sikh war, and acquired "in perpetual sovereignty" inter alia the province of Kashmir. This was in part-payment of the equivalent of "one crore of rupees" which the British demanded as "indemnification for the war expenses".

A week later, on March 16, 1846, the British ceded to Maharaja Gulab Singh the lands it had thus acquired - the territories of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh "for the sum of seventy-five lakhs of rupees". He "acknowledged the supremacy of the British government". Article 4 said: "The limits of the territories of Maharaja Gulab Singh shall not be at any time changed without concurrence of the British government." All map-making was to be done thereafter by the British alone and they went about it obsessed by the fear of Russia appearing on the frontier. The British would even encourage China to take over some areas in the north.

The earlier Treaty, of September 16-17, 1842, between Ladakh and Tibet was one of non-aggression rather than a boundary treaty. It marked the collapse of Zorawar Singh's ambitious Dogra venture with Tibet and an equally unsuccessful retaliation that brought the Tibetans to Leh. It is in three separate, but essentially identical, versions. One each between Tibet and Ladakh and another between their principals, the Sikh Darbar and China. The Persian text in Tibet's possession reads: "We shall remain in possession of the limits of boundaries of Ladak and the neighbours subordinate to it, in accordance with the old customs, and there shall be no transgression and no interference in the country beyond the old-established frontiers" (emphasis added, throughout). The Tibetan text in Kashmir's possession was of the same tenor.

On October 17, 1842, the Sikhs and the Chinese concluded a treaty which said (Article 1): "That the boundaries of Ladakh and Lhassa shall be constituted as formerly, the contracting parties engaging to confine themselves within their respective boundaries, the one to refrain from any act of aggression on the other" (An `Agreed' Frontier: Ladakh and India's Northernmost Borders 1846-1947 by Parashottam Mehra; Oxford University Press, 1992; pages 167-170). Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru replied to Zhou Enlai's letter of January 23, 1959 on March 22, 1959. Zhou Enlai had said that "border disputes do exist between China and India". He hinted at acceptance of the McMahon Line and was concerned about the boundary, "particularly its western sector". Nehru flatly denied the existence of a dispute and cited this 1842 Treaty as defining the boundary. Even if he was advised to invoke it, Nehru, himself a student of history, should have realised its irrelevance in 1959 for two reasons. The language was too imprecise to furnish a clue: "the boundaries... shall be constituted as formely". Secondly, surely he knew and the advisers ought to have known that from 1846 right down to 1947 the British went about erratically drawing boundary lines on the map of Kashmir, which they would not have done if the boundary was a defined one. Except twice, when offers were made to China and the Tibetan authorities on August 4, 1846, and to China formally on March 14, 1899, the exercises were unilateral. "Mountains that had been constructed in London", as some one remarked then.

With Zorawar's misadventure in mind, the British made earnest efforts to seek a boundary accord with China, five months after the Treaty of Amritsar; they failed. China was weak and suspicious. Two Boundary Commissions were set up. The first comprised R.A. Vans Agnew and Alexander Cunningham. Its task was to determine a boundary between British territory (the districts of Lahoul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh) and Ladakh. The second, set up in 1847, comprising Cunningham, Henry Strachey and Dr. Thomas Thomson, was to define the boundary between Ladakh and Tibet on the east. The northern boundary divided Kashmir and east Turkestan (now Xinjiang). The first task was accomplished; not so, the second. However, Vans Agnew wrote a memorandum dated May 13, 1847, defining a boundary which he thought was clear with the exception of its extremities.

Aitchison wrote: "On the appointment of the second commission steps were taken to secure the cooperation of Chinese and Kashmir officials; but no Chinese delegate appeared and the demarcation had to be abandoned. The northern as well as the eastern boundary of the Kashmir State is still undefined." He did not cite the 1842 Treaty as defining the boundary, as Nehru did 50 years later in 1959.

The Governor-General of India, Henry Hardinge's letter to China and to the authorities in Tibet, dated August 4, 1846, did not cite the 1842 Treaty, as marking a frontier, either. Instead it sought their cooperation "to lay down the boundary" between the two countries. China did not respond.

Surveys of the frontier regions proceeded apace. The first was by Henry Strachey of the 1847 Commission. W.H. Johnson of the Trignometrical Survey of India came next (1865), followed by G.W. Hayward (1868) and T.D. Forsyth (1874). A century later, India relied on Johnson's map since its alignment for the Aksai Chin supported its claim. He was, however, censured by the British; resigned and was made Governor of Ladakh by the Maharaja who was pleased with the map. Col. Walker, Surveyor-General in 1867, ridiculed Johnson's map as published. It differed from the original. On June 10, 1873, a cartographer at the India Office, Trelawnay Saunders produced for the Foreign Office a map that excluded the Aksai Chin from Kashmir.

Forsyth agreed with Hayward's opinion: "The natural boundary of eastern Turkestan to the south is the main chain of the Karakoram; and the line extending along the east of the range, from the Mustagh to the Karakoram, and from the Karakoram to the Changchenmo passes, may be definitely fixed in its geographical and political bearing as constituting the limit of Kashmir's dominions in the north."

Noting discrepancies in the maps, Viceroy Lord Northbrook noted in 1873 that the boundaries are "not laid down authoritatively". Count the steps that were taken in that direction:

1. On November 23, 1878, Ney Elias, the British Joint Commissioner in Ladakh, wrote a memorandum which proposed "the crest of the Mustagh" and the "crest of the Karakoram Pass" as the boundary; not the Kuen Lun range.

2. On December 10, 1888, Captain H.L. Ramsay, the British Joint Commissioner in Ladakh, opined: "For geographical and ethnological reasons, the Karakoram would appear to be the natural boundary... that amounts to saying that the watershed of the Indus system forms the frontier."

3. The legendary Captain F.E. Younghusband was despatched to the region. He wrote to the Foreign Secretary of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, on August 20, 1889: "In the former Chinese occupation the Kuen Lun mountains (that is the branch of them over which the Kilian and Sanju passes) were always recognised as the frontier and the country to the south belonged to no one in particular."

4. Viceroy Lord Lansdowne minuted on September 28, 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 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 she be to us as an obstacle to Russian advance along this line."

5. Meanwhile, Ney Elias urged Col. J.C. Ardagh to endorse the Karakoram line: "The Indus water-parting would form a more rational, a more simply defined and easily guarded frontier than an artificial line further north... The simplest solution of the matter... would be to influence the Chinese to claim all the country draining into the Tarim system, i.e., up to the heads of the Indus water."

6. Lansdowne advised the Secretary of State for India, Lord Cross, on July 14, 1890: "We should gain little by extending our responsibilities to the further side of great natural barrier like the Karakoram mountains. It is, on the other hand, evidently to our advantage that the tract of the country intervening between the Karakoram and Kuen Luen mountains should be definitely held by a friendly power like China."

He urged that China "be informed that we desire to see the frontiers of Chinese Turkestan... and Chinese authority definitely asserted up to the Karakoram mountains". Obviously, there was no Chinese presence there.

The British Resident in Kashmir was informed that he "should regard the limit of the Indus watershed as the boundary of His Highness's territories towards the north" (The Northern Frontier of India by S.C. Bajpai; Allied, 1970; pages 128-131. Vide also Aksai Chin and Sino-Indian Conflict by John Lall; Himalayan Frontiers by Dorothy Woodman; and The Sino-Indian Border in Ladakh by Alastair Lamb). Cross noted that Lansdowne "himself was not aware of definite boundary". The truth is that the linear boundary is a modern concept. In olden times, states were divided by frontier regions. The record does not support either India's or China's claims in the western sector, which were made in 1959-60.

7. Younghusband told the Amban of Yarkand, on September 5, 1890, that the Viceroy "had ever been of opinion that the best boundary between Kashmir and Yarkand was that formed by the watershed of the Karakoram range".

Calcutta urged London to take up boundary delineation with China in earnest. Col. Ardagh, now Sir John Ardagh, Director of Military Intelligence in the War Office, drew up a memorandum on January 1, 1897, which rejected the Karakoram line and said: "We are justified in claiming (sic.) up to the crest of the Kuen Lun range." It was rejected in India. Viceroy Lord Elgin reminded London: "No invader has ever approached India from this direction where nature has placed such formidable barriers." He propounded his line in detail in a note to Lord Hamilton, Secretary of State, on October 27, 1898: "We regret that we have no maps to show the whole line either accurately or on a large-scale."

8. This was the line that the British Ambassador to China, Sir Claude MacDonald, presented to the Chinese Foreign Office in a historic note of March 14, 1899. It is also called the Macartney-MacDonald line after Sir Charles Macartney, the British Minister at Kashgar. It is still relevant not only for the part east of the Karakoram Pass but also to the one west of it on which China and Pakistan signed a boundary agreement in 1963. Delineation would suffice. Demarcation on the ground was unnecessary. "It will not be necessary to mark out the frontier. The natural frontier is the crest of a range of mighty mountains, a great part of which is quite inaccessible." Shahidullah, Sugat and the Aksai Chin plateau, north of Lingzi Tang were conceded to China. But it did not respond to the Note. Hunza's claims to Raskam were renounced in return for China's renunciation of Hunza's tribute to China. (In 1960-61, Indian officials disingenuously argued that this Note placed the Aksai Chin in India. Worse, they misquoted it.) Viceroy Lord Curzon was restive about the uncertainty and decided to close the chapter - unilaterally. He wrote to the Secretary of State St. John Brodrick on March 24, 1904, that "as they (the Chinese government) have not shown any reason for not (sic.) disagreeing with the proposals placed before them in Sir Claude MacDonald's (despatch) of the 14th March, 1899, we shall henceforth assume Chinese concurrence and act accordingly". He did not stop at that. On August 10, 1905, he proposed a modification of the 1899 offer so as to include fertile tracts of Raskam north of the Shimshal Pass in Hunza. The Aksai Chin part of the offer remained unaffected, however.

9. In 1907, Richmond Ritchie, the Secretary of the Political Department at the India Office, asked Sir Louis Dane, India's Foreign Secretary, to look into the boundary mess. Dane's reply of July 4 settles all doubt: "For the time being, we had followed the old maps and gazetteers and had shown the boundary as following the Kuen Lun range from the north eastward of the Gusherbrun Pass... We are afraid that the boundary must be withdrawn from the Kuen Lun range to the line detailed in para 10 of the attached Note, this being the boundary indicated to the Home Government in 1898 and to the Chinese authorities in 1899, and unless there is any objection this will now be done.

"We hope, however, to be able to keep Aksai Chin in Tibet in order to adhere to the Kuen Lun boundary for that country as far as possible, and we are having inquiries instituted with a view to determining, if possible, the southernmost marks of Chinese jurisdiction in the neighbourhood of the Kuen Lun Range."

A note on the history of the boundary of Kashmir between Ladakh and Kashgaria, which was attached to Dane's letter, explained: "It will appear... that prior to 1898 no definite boundary was recognised as existing between Ladakh and Kashgar, but that since that date we have been consistent (except with reference to the trivial alteration near Shimshal) in recognising one definite boundary line, which has twice been described in detail to the Secretary of State and once to the Chinese authorities. At the same time, the Chinese have never accepted our proposed boundary, so that we cannot be held to be committed to abide by it. In regard to the Chinese, it will be seen that their ideas as to the boundary are extremely vague, though it is probable that, in view of the boundary pillar and notice board, they would make every effort to avoid having it pushed back beyond the Karakoram."

10. The Chinese Revolution in 1911 prompted second thoughts. The Viceroy Lord Hardinge wrote to the Secretary of State for India, on September 12, 1912: "There are serious objections on political grounds which must not be overlooked or underestimated, to occupation of New Dominion (Sinkiang) and Kashgar by Russia, even though such occupation may be inevitable and may entail no specific military danger. Russia would be brought thereby within 300 miles of Simla and 150 miles of Srinagar... suzerainty over Hunza Nagar is claimed by China; the claim is harmless in Chinese hands, but it will prove embarrassing if transferred to Russia...

"But the first essential, in the event of this being forced on us, is to demand that a boundary line placing Raskam, Aksai Chin, Shahidulla and Taghdumbash inside our territory, and outside that of Russia, should be recognised as a preliminary to negotiations. This object will be obtained by line similar to that which was proposed in 1897 by Sir John Ardagh."

The line would run "along Kuen Lun watershed to frontier of Tibet crossing Karakash river, the plain of Aksai Chin being left on our side of the frontier."

11. As the situation in Russia had changed, Denys Bray, the Foreign Secretary, suggested to J.E. Shuckburgh, Ritchie's successor, on September 7, 1917, that the MacDonald offer had lapsed: "These limits, however, exist only on paper and have been indicated by us not as the result of any treaty or engagement with China, not as finally and definitely marking the bounds of our sphere of influence, nor altogether as forming a scientific or strategic border; but partly because they follow a lofty and well-defined watershed and partly in order to assign some limit to China's indefinite political relations in that neighbourhood. The Chinese government were invited to accept the line in Sir Claude MacDonald's despatch dated the 14th March, 1899, but as nothing resulted, it was proposed in Lord Curzon's despatch... dated the 24th March, 1904, to inform the Chinese Government that we assumed their concurrence... The line was slightly modified in Lord Curzon's despatches Nos. 20 and 153 (Secret-Frontier), dated the 26th January and 10th August 1905, but it was decided... that it was not desirable to press matters with the Chinese government, and the boundary has accordingly never been accepted by China.

"That it cannot be regarded as in any sense a fixed and final international boundary appears from the suggestion made in Lord Hardinge's telegram dated the 12th September, 1912, and repeated in his telegram dated the 14th October, 1915, that as a basis for negotiation in the event of the then impending Russian occupation of the Chinese New Dominion (Xinjiang), the first essential was to demand recognition of a boundary line which would include the Tagdumbash, Raskam, Shahidulla and Aksai Chin within our limits.

"We cannot therefore regard ourselves as absolutely bound by a border line which we have ourselves laid down without the concurrence of the other party concerned, which we have already more than once altered without reference to this other party, and the substantial pushing forward of which we have already advocated should a certain chain of circumstances render this desirable."

12. The net result was well summed up by Sir Arthur Hiztzel of the India Office to V. Wellesley of the Foreign Office on January 10, 1924: "So far as we know there is no officially recognised boundary, though obviously the main Muztagh-Karakoram divide would constitute a natural frontier."

Aitchison's Treaties repeated in 1931 the 1909 formulation: "The northern as well as the eastern boundary of the Kashmir State is still undefined" (Vol. XII; part I, page 5).

After Independence, the Ministry of States, headed by 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. In June that year Zhou Enlai came to Delhi. Nehru paid a return visit to China in October. Between the two visits Nehru wrote a fateful document. He first wrote to the Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs on May 12, 1954: "We should establish checkpoints at all disputed points, wherever they might be, and our administration should be right up to these borders" (Selected works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 25; page 470). Nehru wrote two more Notes to him. They should be read, alike, by those who denounce him as an "appeaser", belittle him as a "romanticist", as well as by apologists who laud him as an "idealist". Nehru was in truth a hardliner. The first note of June 18, 1954 warned: "No country can ultimately rely upon the permanent goodwill or bona fides of another country." A Sino-Soviet split was "not inconceivable". He added: "Certainly it is conceivable that our relations with China might worsen." We must "not be taken unawares". The Agreement on Tibet "is not a permanent guarantee... Of course, both the Soviet Union and China are expansive."

The second Note of July 1, 1954 spelt disaster: "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."

That explains Nehru's reply to Zhou Enlai on March 22, 1959 - there was nothing to discuss. Yet, ironically, Nehru's Note of July 1, 1954 referred to Chinese maps and said "we should not put up with this for long" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 26; pages 476 and 481, for the texts of the two Notes).

In August-September 1959, Nehru publicly conceded that the Aksai Chin was disputed territory. In November he reverted to the former position. He wanted China to withdraw from the areas it had recently occupied, as a preliminary to talks. China declined.

If Nehru had relied instead on the MacDonald offer of March 14, 1899, in his talks with Zhou Enlai in New Delhi in April 1960 - instead of citing the irrelevant Treaty of 1842 - a boundary settlement could have been reached and history would have taken a different turn.

Instead, Pakistan abandoned the old British maps and settled with China on March 2, 1963, on the basis of the MacDonald line of 1899 to the west of the Karakoram Pass (Vide the writer's article "Lessons for India: Sino-Pakistan boundary accord", Frontline, January 24 and February 7, 1997). China conceded Curzon's modification of 1905 and ceded 750 square miles of administered territory in exchange for Pakistan's writing off of old maps.

If not in his letter to Zhou Enlai of March 1959, Nehru could certainly have used the MacDonald offer during Zhou Enlai's visit to New Delhi in April 1960 to settle the dispute and also persuade hardliners in his Cabinet such as G.B. Pant and Morarji Desai. But by then he had weakened his position by his mishandling of the Longju and Kongka Pass incident in 1959.

This tragic episode has lessons of abiding relevance - a leader who practises what George Kennan called megaphone diplomacy in disputes with other countries undermines his own ability to settle them later, even if national interest requires that. Lies told during a cold war cannot be untold later. Public opinion had been moulded and the leader is unable to lead any longer. There is another lesson besides. The media and the academia, who revel in chauvinism, proved to be unpatriotic in the long run. For they do not subject official claims to critical scrutiny - as they alone can - to the harm of national interest. That is not patriotism; that is an abdication of duty.

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