Consequent to end of 1962 Sino-Indian War, during a Parliamentary debate on the War, on 9 November 1962, opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee had said, “among other things, Chinese forces are still in occupation of Aksai Chin”. Illegally occupied territories of Jammu and Kashmir and undefined Line of Actual Control remain subject matter of debates and declarations only, the consequences of which was 2020 Sino-Indian standoff.
Aksai Chin’s ‘umbilical-cord’ got attached to British India by virtue of strategic adventures of Dogra rulers of J&K up-northwards in the mighty Himalayan lands. Dogra’s captured Ladakh in 1830s. Following their unsuccessful Tibetan campaign in 1841, the ‘Treaty of Chushul’ was signed between Dogra ruler Raja Gulab Singh and Tibetan High Lamas agreeing to stick to the old established frontiers, which were left undefined. Eventually some sources disputed the Dogra’s claim over vast areas across Karakoram Range and placed Shahidullah and Upper Karakash River firmly within the territory of Xinjiang leaving southern Aksai Chin out of Xinjiang suzerainty.
Consequent to the Anglo-Sikh War of 1846, resulting in the defeat of Sikhs, the Lahore Darbar ceded Kashmir to the East India Company against unpaid war indemnity, which was given to Raja Gulab Singh, ruler of Jammu, by Lord Henry Hardinge, the Governor General of India, for Rupees 75 lakh through the Treaty of Amritsar dated 16 March 1846. Article II of the Treaty was, ‘The Eastern boundary of the tract transferred by the foregoing article to Maharaja Gulab Singh shall be laid down by the Commissioner appointed by the British Government and Maharaja Gulab Singh respectively for that purpose and shall be defined in a separate engagement after survey”.
After signing the Treaty, Maharaja Gulab Singh consolidated his hold over newly acquired areas and further beyond which had been invested earlier and went on extending his empires boundaries further ahead. By 1850s He had become the ruler of a vast empire whose boundaries touched the empires of Tibet, China, Afghanistan, NWFP and nearly touched Russia through the narrow Wakhan Corridor.
British exploration of Maharaja Gulab Singh’s hinterland dominions began soon after signing of the Treaty of Amritsar. The main British interest at that time was the Eastern borders of Ladakh which Maharaja Gulab Singh had annexed in the 1830s and 40s. Hence the Government of India dispatched a Boundary Commission to work out where exactly the limits of newly created Dogra empire were or should be.
British members of Boundary Commission explored the border from Lahul to the mountains North of Pangong Tso and other frontier tracts of Dardistan up to the Karakoram Pass and marked the Karakoram Range as the extent of Dogra rule. By 1848 British had become officially aware of Leh-Gilgit-Karakoram routes of trade (Silk Route) under the control of their newly created Princely State of J&K.
In the 1860s British started taking more interest towards Tsarist imperialism getting alarmingly closer to Northern frontiers of J&K when Russia penetrated in Khanats of Khive, Kokand and Bokhara, (Bokhara now the capital city of Bokhara Region of Uzbekistan) situated on the Silk Route in a rough triangle of Aral Sea, North of Afghanistan and West of Chinese Turkistan.
Russians were seen fast approaching Chinese Turkistan when it looked as if Chinese rule over Central Asia would collapse to leave to what the British perceived as an extremely dangerous power vacuum. By 1865, it was evident to the British strategists that security of the Northern frontiers either was being or would shortly be threatened.
The collapse of Wanchu domination in Chinese Turkistan began in 1861 when Muslims in Kansu rebelled thereby severing ‘line of communication’ between China and the vast area of Central Asia. The Wanchu dynasty managed to survive this rebellion but when the uprising erupted in Central Asia, China ceased to be the overlord of that region.
There arose one chieftain Buzurg Khan who quickly established himself in Kashgaria with capital at Kashgar. He was replaced by Yakub Beg who consolidated his hold over Turkistan and extended his borders to mainland China and Mongolian borderlands along Altai mountains.
Russians got interested in what was happening in the former Chinese dominion. They saw the prospects of the possible annexation of Turkistan to touch Princely State’s boundaries meaning Indian Northern frontiers but that did not work out. When Yakub Beg died in 1877, Kashgar was recaptured by Chinese and Turkistan declared as Sinkiang (Xinjiang) Province of metropolitan China.
But it remained a zone of Chinese vulnerability and strategists in British India anticipated that eventually, it will become Russian territory/protectorate. It is against this background that the history and geography of Northern frontiers must be examined.
Following the ambitions of his illustrious father, Maharaja Ranbir Singh of J&K (1856 to 1885) was quick to appreciate the significance of the change taking place to his North in Chinese Turkistan. The collapse of Chinese rule created a tempting opportunity for him to enlarge, if not its territorial extent then at least its diplomatic and commercial influence. In 1864 he dispatched a composite military garrison, sixty miles as the crow flies, North of Karakoram Pass to Shahidullah on the Caravan route from Leh to Kashgharia where a military post was established, and a fort built.
"In 1865 Maharaja Ranbir Singh managed to bring the Indian government into the mapping of his Northern boundaries. The task was entrusted to W.H. Johnson, an embittered Surveyor."
At the same time, he entered into some correspondence with the Amir of Khotan, (now in Sinkiang Province) Haji Habibulla Khan, who had assumed power in the town in the absence of Chinese authority. In the quest of possible allies in turbulent and uncertain times, Amir of Khotan wrote to Maharaja Ranbir Singh to facilitate his direct contact with the Indian government. The Maharaja saw that the Amir’s overtures could well be exploited to his advantage.
He wanted to expand his territories and trade with Eastern Turkistan to protect it from bandit raids and to ensure that it was properly taxed to the benefit of his treasury. These were the major objectives of Shahidullah garrison. In 1865 Maharaja Ranbir Singh managed to bring the Indian government into the mapping of his Northern boundaries.
The task was entrusted to W.H. Johnson, an embittered Surveyor. In return for the promise of future employment with the state, Johnson agreed to act in a diplomatic capacity on behalf of the Princely State. (After his retirement Johnson was appointed Governor of Ladakh).
In 1865 Johnson crossed over from Leh to Khotan, following not the usual Karakoram Pass route but a path further to the East which ran across the high Aksai Chin wasteland on the edge of Tibetan Plateau and descended towards Khotan by way of Karakash River.
There had been some use of this approach to the Tibetan Plateau from Chinese Turkistan side over the centuries because the upper reaches of Karakash was a valuable source of Jade, a mineral much wanted in China and it seemed that Amir Habibullah Khan had been trying to improve the way as an alternate to Karakoram Pass which he could use as his private access to India.
Johnson’s journey, from the point of view of Dogra ruler, achieved three objectives.
Firstly. It established contact between J&K and Khotan through what appeared to be through a British diplomatic official. It impressed Amir Habibullah.
Secondly. It explored a route which might, as Amir Habibullah had already concluded, turn out to be alternate way around 18,000 ft extremely high and difficult Karakoram Pass and during the times of Chinese control strongly guarded. It could be of use for secret contacts, even for clandestine trade, if the Chinese were to take control of Khotan/Turkistan.
Thirdly. The resulting survey included a considerable tract of territory across the Karakoram Range as part of J&K on the official British maps, which hitherto been out of the Maharaja’s dominion. Johnson maps showed Northeastern border of the state nearly hundred miles ahead of Karakoram Pass and far beyond the watershed.
The results of the Johnson survey were published in 1868 by the Government of India entitled ‘Kashmir Atlas’. This showed the State of J&K extending far to the North of Karakoram Pass and Aksai Chin. It was calculated by one British observer that the boundary of J&K had been expanded by 21,000 sq miles eastwards.
Hence the only survey available was Johnson map which became an authority to lay the foundation for the post-1947 Indian claim to Aksai Chin. But no mention of or reference to Dogra control or Kashmir Atlas (British maps) is currently made while claiming Aksai Chin as Indian Territory. That is why Indian claim over Aksai Chin falls flat.
But most of the British observers of that period opined that the Maharaja, just by virtue of his occupation of Ladakh, possessed no valid claim much beyond the Chang Chenmo Valley. The Chang Chenmo valley lies in a depression between the Karakoram Range in the North and the Chang Chenmo Range in the South through which flows Chang Chenmo River. It is Southern edge of the disputed Aksai Chin basin which lies to the Northeast of Pangang Tso.
Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s occupation of Shahidullah and Johnson’s visit to Khotan, as well as his various contacts with the Russians, Yakub Beg and Afghans from 1868 onwards had demonstrated clearly enough to the Indian government that the princely State of J&K, unless carefully watched, could well pursue an independent foreign policy for which its geographical position presented it with unique opportunities.
The British perception of Northeastern extent of Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s empire may be reason that Shahidullah Garrison was abandoned in 1868. Same could be basis for the Indian government to turn down J&K governments proposal to reoccupy Shahidullah in 1878, in order to protect its trade from marauding bands of Hunza. British contention was that any push to State’s border so far North might result in confrontation with Chinese in what was now Sinkiang province. (In 1880s Younghusband, who explored the region, had noted that Shahidullah Fort which was built by the Dogra’s was lying abandoned).
When the State government revived its claim over Aksai Chin, British Resident told the government that Shahidullah and Suget to its South, were situated in a district which was inhibited by Kirghiz who had for many years paid tribute to China. Karakoram Range thus came to be perceived as the limit of British India and a natural obstacle against Russian expansion.
In the 1890s British strategists advocated an advanced border in Ladakh including an extensive tract of territory of Sinkiang side of the main watershed to serve as a kind of barrier where intruding Russians would be forced to reveal their intensions before they could cross the high passes.
"The results of the Johnson survey were published in 1868 by the Government of India entitled ‘Kashmir Atlas’. This showed the State of J&K extending far to the North of Karakoram Pass and Aksai Chin."
In 1897 Sir John Ardagh proposed a modification to the Johnson Line which came to be known as Johnson-Ardagh Line. In 1899 British proposed yet another revised boundary which ran over Karakoram Range considering it as a natural boundary while leaving the Tarim River watershed in Chinese control which was to present an obstacle to Russian advance in Central Asia. But the Qing Government of China did not respond to British proposal.
Till 1908 British took Johnson-Ardagh Line as the boundary. In 1927 British govt abandoned Johnson-Ardagh Line in favour of line running along Karakoram Range. However, the maps were not updated. From 1917 to 1933 the Postal Atlas of China and Peking University Atlas published in 1925 showed Aksai Chin in India.
When Russians officials started surveying Aksai Chin in 1940-41, the Warlord of Xinjiang advocated Johnson Line as the boundary between India and China. But the consensus of the British official opinion was inclined to accept that the border here ought not to run much to the North of the Chang Chenmo Valley. As a vantage point from where the British might exercise influence and defend themselves against threat from Sinkiang.
Aksai Chin, as a desolate corner of Ladakh in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, had lost most of its strategic attractions. The emphasis thus shifted to Karakoram Range and Gilgit Region. Article IX of the Treaty of Amritsar read; ‘The British Government will give its aid to Maharaja Gulab Singh in protecting his territories from external enemies’.
Rather than help the Dogra Rulers to consolidate their hold on the areas beyond Karakoram Range, British dilly-dallying weakened their hold over Aksai Chin and subsequent Indian claim over this disputed area.
When Yakub Khan died in 1877, the Chinese began to restore their control of areas under Yakub Khan. An extraordinary soldier, Tso Tsung-t’ang was appointed Governor of Shensi and Kansu Provinces bordering Turkistan. From this as base, he recaptured Kashgar in 1878 and by 1884, entire Turkistan was declared as Province of Sinkiang. Hence British started investing in Gilgit and finally took it under their direct control by 1890 on the false allegations of Maharaja Pratap Singh hobnobbing with Russians against British.
After independence in 1947, India followed Johnson Line as its Northern boundary with China. Aksai Chin was easily accessible to China but difficult for India to hold and maintain being on the other side of Karakoram Range. During 1950s, China constructed a 1200 Kms road which connected Xinjiang with Lhasa of which 179 Kms ran through Aksai Chin.
Based on this report, Indian Prime Minister Pt Nehru reiterated that Aksai Chin was part of Ladakh Region of India for centuries and this northern border was firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody. That statement was not welcome in China. Construction of this highway by China through Aksai Chin was one of the causes of the 1962 war.
After the 1962 war with China, on 9th November 1962, during a Parliamentary debate, opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee had said, “among other things, Chinese forces are still in occupation of Aksai Chin. Our stain, our humiliation and defeat will not be wiped out until we swept the last Chinese from our soil”. Thereafter a unanimous resolution was adopted by the Parliament on 14 November 1962 which pledged to get back the territory occupied by China to the last inch.
(The fact that Pt. Nehru had maintained that Aksai Chin was Indian territory and Vajpayee had raised the issue in Parliament might have compelled Home Minister Amit Shah to declare Indian resolve to reclaim Aksai Chin from China in the Parliament of 5th August 2019). Ironically no prior military preparations were made to do so by successive governments.
Illegally occupied territories of erstwhile Dogra State remain subject matter of debates and declarations only, the consequences of which India continues facing on daily basis in the dismantled empire’s Northern frontiers.
About the Author
Colonel Jaipal Singh (Retd) was commissioned into 4 Bihar from the Indian Military Academy through the Army Cadet College entry scheme and has served in the '71 war, has since held several coveted appointments. The author is a promoter of Dogra History and Co-Chairman of Maharaja Gulab Singh Coronation Day Celebration Committee Jeo-Pota, Akhnoor.
(Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)