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Himalayan Border Dispute
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Lt Col Gurdip Singh Kler | Date:19 Oct , 2020 0 Comments

Our northern frontiers remain undemarcated from Ladakh to Burma. Though the boundary between Bhutan and Burma was delineated by the McMahon Line, the 1320 km long McMahon Line was determined and drawn on map by Sir Henry McMahon in conjunction with the Chinese and Tibetan officials. However, nothing was done to demarcate it on the ground. McMahon as a young Captain, twenty years before had accompanied Sir Mortimer Durand on his mission to Kabul and then spent two years delineating the Durand line, between Afghanistan and India. McMahon, by now a Knight and Foreign Secretary of India, was a man of marked moral strength. McMahon cherished creating and laying down of boundaries and gained good experience in this line. McMahon was able to draw his line with a Reasonable degree of precision as in the preceding two years a good deal of surveying and mapping was carried out in NEFA. He was marking details, on his map to the last moment of his tenure of office. At the Simla conference, held in October, 1913 to discuss and finalise the boundary line between India and Tibet the British delegation was also headed by Sir Henry McMahon. After the Simla Conference started Captain FM Bailey accompanied by Captain Morshead, the surveyer completed an adventurous trek which took him into Tibet and west-ward along the valley of the Brahamputra (Tsangpo), and again into the tribal area of Tawang and Bomdila following a difficult trail which was to play an important role in the Sino-Indian border war, half a century later in 1962. When Bailey got back to Calcutta, he found a telegram from McMahon, summoning him to Simla. The details Bailey supplied on the topography of Tawang Tract, presumably, enabled McMahon to draw the western extremity of the line with more confidence. Originally, the ‘Tawang Tract’, which was called by the name of ‘Tawang Salient’, was kept out of alignment of McMahon Line but the British military authorities at Delhi considered Tawang Tract as a sensitive and dangerous area and it was brought within the Indian territorial limits. The McMahon Line was accepted by Tibet.

During the conference at Simla the thinking changed as quickly as the weather changes at this queen of the hill stations-sunshine now, cloudy later and so on.

The British conception of the boundary alignment, that would best suit their interests, changed during the Simla Conference with the line being moved northwards. However, McMahon indicated that Britain would have to abide by the Tibetan possession of the entire Tawang Tract. Accordingly, in November, it was decided that the boundary should run through Sela, the high mountain just under twenty miles south-east of Tawang. Finally, in February, the British advanced their demand again so that the line ran about twelve miles north of Tawang through Bumla. This cut off the dangerous wedge of the Tawang Tract which had so far worried the soldiers. China did not ratify it and blamed Tibetans for surrendering the Tawang Tract to India and the status of this piece of land thus remained unsettled. McMahon himself had proceeded on home-leave and was later appointed British Commissioner in Egypt.

The Governor of Assam wanted a more impressive and permanent settlement, so that the possible intrusion by China into that area could be forestalled. Accordingly, an expedition under Captain Lightfoot of the Indian Army reached Tawang in April 1938. On his return from the mission Lightfoot urged that Tibetan officials be asked to withdraw from Tawang and that the local Monpa tribe be encouraged to take over the Tawang monastery from Tibetan monastic officials so that the influence of Tibet in Tawang Tract could be reduced. As the area had always been orientated towards Tibet geographically, politically and also in terms of religion and had been under Tibetan administration, the Governor of Assam changed the annexation of Tawang on both practical and legal grounds and recommended that the McMahon Line be modified so that it ran though Sela, a salient and towering feature along the watershed. The great monasteiy and Tawang were, for the Tibetans, the heart of the matter and if those had been left to them their attempt to retain Dirang Dzong further east and the rest of Tawang Tract might well have been dropped. Due to the breakout of Second World War the matter was shelved. But eventually after prolonged contacts McMahon Line was secretly agreed upon with the Tibetans and Tawang Tract remained as part of NEFA.

On the map which the British and Tibetans signed in Delhi on 24 March 1914 the McMahon Line terminated on bench mark on the boundary with Bhutan at the latitude of 27° 44’ 30” N. In this region there was no watershed to be followed and McMahon drew his line along what his maps showed as outstanding ridge feature. But when the Indians explored this north-western corner of Kameng frontier division in 1950, it was seen that if the McMahon Line were transposed from its map coordinates to the ground it would not lie along the highest ridge in the vicinity. The highest feature near the eastern extremity of the border was the Thagla ridge, three or four miles north of where McMahon had drawn his line. So the Indians decided to treat Thagla ridge as the boundary from the beginning of 1959. It may be mentioned that Thagla and Khinzemane nearby were not mentioned on the maps and the flow of Namka Chu was marked mistakenly north to south, whilst actually it flows west to east.

Apart from the fact that Thagla was deemed to be situated in Chinese territory, the Indian Army’s maps showed it as Indian. In May, a wooden board inscribed in Chinese had been found nearby which proclaimed. ‘This is our river and our mountain.’ (reference to both Namka Chu and Thagla). In fact both China and India were right. If the ‘watershed’ principle was not to be followed China could be right and if ‘highest ridge’, principle was followed India was right!

The Chinese attitude to the marginal adjustments which India sought to make unilaterally was consistent. While China observed the McMahon Line as the defacto boundary that had to be the line as McMahon drew it, and not as the Indians tried to modify it. There was no written description of the boundary in the Anglo-Tibetan Agreement of 24 March 1914 and it was merely marked on the map attached to the Agreemeent and so the location of the line, at any point, could be determined only by reading off the longitude and latitude from the original treaty map and transposing to the ground. By this process Khizamane, Dhola Post and Thagla ridge are found north of the McMahon Line and in Tibetan territory. The Indian government held that McMahon’s intention was to run the boundary along the crest of the highest ridges and since Thagla was a conspicuous high feature, so the boundary should lie along the Thagla ridge.

Regarding the borders, Nehru had something interesting and practical to say :

“…..There are two or three types of caseshere. These are border and frontier questions. In regard to some parts of the border, there can be no doubt from any side that it is our border. If any body violates it then it is a challenge to us. There are other parts regarding which it is difficult to say where the immediate border is, although broadly it may be known. But it is very difficult even in a map to indicate it; if a big line is drawn, the line itself covers three or four miles, one may say in a major map”.

It is felt that, on the whole, Henry McMahon had correctly drawn the boundry line with due appreciation of the complex and unfamiliar ground realities. It is not understood as to why he was led astray at Thagla. Perhaps he thought the Namka Chu which flowed in west-east direction, was a better line of alignment for a boundary. Only he can explain whether geographically, high crest of ridge, watershed or deep water course was a clear, significant and more lasting boundary.

That the McMahon Line of course, has never been demarcated i.e. marked out on the ground-is agreed by both parties. For a good deal of its length it follows an unmistakable crest-line, but elsewhere it is drawn over indeterminative topographical features and there the only way to determine the lie of the boundary is to trace out on the ground the co-ordinates of McMahon’s original map. Often that process would create an inconvenient and absurd boundary, and since the line marked thickly on the original, eight-miles-to-one-inch map covers about a quarter of a mile, even this could produce no precise delineation on the ground.

One of the other places in which McMahon made his line diverge from what his map showed as the highest ridge was near a village called Migyitun, on a pilgrimage route of importance to the Tibetans. In order to leave Migyitun in Tibet the line cut a corner and for about twenty miles, until it met the main ridge again followed no feature at all. As the Indians reconnoitred this area in 1959 they discovered that the topography made out boundary alignment immediately south of Migyitun, rather than about two miles south as shown on the map, was more practical from their point of view, and they set up a border picquet accordingly. The reasons for the Indian adjustment of the line here have not been stated clearly, but it seems probable that it was decided that River Tsari, running roughly west-east just south of Migyitun, should be the boundary feature. Advancing the boundary to the river put a hamlet called Longju, on the opposite side of the valley from Migyitun, within India, while providing a more practical site for the Indian border picquet.

McMahon had also discarded the principle of watershed at the big bend of the Brahamputra which contained Pemako and Chimindryu areas, he left the high watershed feature near the bend as he ignored the Thagla ridge watershed.

Now let us turn to the Western Sector Ladakh, which lies in the valley of upper north west india at an altitude of 12000 feet. It is a tract of desolate, difficult, uninhabited and uncultiable land. Ladakh has a stunning landscape, sandwiched between barren icy desert and green patches with dotted line of ‘gompas’: the buddhist manasteries. Upto the middle of the nineteenth century its frontier with Tibet remained fluid and were not defined due to the complexities of terrain. However, in 1865 the boundary alignment was made by an officer of the Survey of India, WH Johnson.

Ladakh was part of Tibet upto the tenth century when it became an independent country. In the fourteenth century, Muslim invaders conquered Ladakh, and with the decline of Mughals, Ladakh again became independent and being Buddhist veered towards Tibet in the nineteenth century. In 1834, Maharajah Gulab Singh of Kashmir invaded Ladakh and placed it under Sikhs who were then rulers of both Punjab and Kashmir.

Aksai Chin – the name, means the desert of white stones. This high and desolated plateau, 17000 feet above sea level, a wilderness where nothing grows and no one lives, lies between the towering Himalayan ranges of the Karakoram in the west, Kuen Lun mountains in the north, Changchenmo range in the south and Changthang plateau in the east. There was no police or revenue administration; (there was no need of it). Soda plains and Lingsi Tang were also coupled with Aksai Chin.

Remote, black and forbidding as the region is, with a total absence of greenery, fodder and shelter and its killing high speed winds, it has not been without fairy tale human characteristics. An ancient trade route lay across this undemarcated country. In brief summer, when for a few hours in a day, around noon, the ice melted in the streams to give water for animals, traders and pilgrims with caravans of ‘yaks’, crossed it from what is now Sinkiang to Tibet, carrying silk, jade, hemp, salt and wool. Nomadic graziers also visitied the green grassy patches some times, as there were also some good pastures between Pangong lake and Lanak La which the inhabitants of Phobrang and other neighbouring villages in Ladakh frequented during summer. Similarly, lakes of Amtogar were used for the collection of salt and some hunters ventured in the area in quest of mountain goats and bears.

It will be appropriate to have a few lines about WH Johnson who wrote about Aksai Chin. A stone shelter (langer) was built by Johnson on his journey in Aksai Chin and named after the then ruler of Khotan Haji Habibullah Khan. The road the Chinese constructed in the 1950s passed this place called Haji Langer. He was one of the British surveyers who pioneered operation in Kashmir in the mid-1850’s. He was a Junior Sub-Assistant and was an energetic man with initiative. He visited Changchenmo Valley, Aksai Chin, Kuen Lun and Khotan and prepared a map of the area but there was a doubt about the surveys, as he had undertaken the journey with such speed that he could not spare requisite time for proper survey work. On his visit to Khotan in 1865 Johnson saw Aksai Chin, Lingzhithang plain and Soda plain; so named because of the coarse soda and lime that were lying about. The area, he surveyed belonged to no one and had no claimant but later he contended that it belonged to Kashmir. This claim ran upto Kuen Lun range and beyond and it was shown on British maps and demarcation was called the Johnson Line. Chinese showed no interest in this border at that time. For his good work Johnson was appointed Kashmir’s commissioner in Ladakh.

As far as the boundary is concerned Johnson marked the line from Pangong Lake to Karakoram, between Kashmir and Tibet. Johnson showed Aksai Chin within Kashmir on a map he drew on the strength of his adventurous journey. The Johnson line was shown as the boundary of Kashmir in an atlas published in 1868 and cartographic currency was given to the Johnson version of the boundary by the then British frontier policy. There were other famous names connected with explorations just as McMahon, Baily and Lightfoot gained fame as pioneers in boundary alignment in the east; Boundary Commmissioner Vans Agnew, his assistant Captain Alexander Cunningham and Younghusband attained limelight in the layout of boundary in the west. They identified and fixed the Indian national frontiers at Chusul, Demchock, Lanakla, and along the general line of Karakoram range and included the valleys of Shyok, Changchenmo, Galwan and Chip Chap rivers upto Karakoram Pass. The Karakoram Pass became a fixed and mutually accepted point on the Sino-Indian boundary but on both sides of that Pass the alignment continued to be somewhat vague and indefinite. The other persons who distinguished themselves in thier own way were Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Viceroys Elgin and Curzon and the British Major General Sir Johan Ardagh, the famous Director of Military Intelligence on the British General Staff, Khan of Khotan and Rajah of Kashmir. However, it was Mr. Frederic Dew, Governor of Leh in 1870-71, who first drew a detailed map of Aksai Chin based on his explorations as well as those of Hayward, Shaw, Forsyth and others.

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At this time the high Pamirs rising to the staggering20,000 feet also drew attention of three great powers of Russia, China and Britain. These countries had mutual suspicions of aggression, but the Pamirs did not draw any blood. However, to forestall the Russians and Chinese, General Ardagh had also proposed the boundary, following not the line of the Karakoram watershed, but the crest of a series of ranges to the north of Karakoram, amongst them, was Kuen Lun. By following the Kuen Lun range, Ardagh’s proposed boundary would have given Aksai Chin to India, and the upper courses of Yarkand and Karakash river systems as well. So when the British quit and India achieved independence in 1947 and for several years thereafter, most official Indian maps still showed the boundary in accordance with the extreme forward formulations of Johnson and Ardagh.

India had accepted the Johnson Line, the frontier between India and Tibet, which included the whole of Aksai Chin, valleys of Chang Chenmo, Galwan and Chip-chap rivers. China subsequently built a road across the Aksai Chin linking Sinkiang with Tibet as the Gobi desert further north did not provide firm ground for road construction.

The barren Aksai Chin, which was coveted by both China and India, became the cause of dispute between the two countries and kindled the fire of war in 1962.

Incidentally, the Indo-Tibetan frontier from Himachal Pradesh to Nepal had been established by centuries of usage and custom. Traders, pilgrims and graziers frequently moved across this frontier and thus crossing points had been recognised by the two sides and crestline of the Himalaya was accepted as the boundary between the two countries, and this region remained calm in 1962. There were, no doubt, disputes about a few places like Nilang, Yedang and Barahoti where the Chinese claimed certain tracts, of the traditional pastures. With Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, the boundary along the foothills was accepted.

Book Excerpt: Unsung Battles of 1962.

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