Dr Ganesh Malhotra
There is a common perception in India is that India has a problem with Pakistan over Kashmir, with western neighbour sitting on large chunks of India’s territory (Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, or PoJK) but it has not been readily acknowledged that India also have a CoJK problem in addition to the PoJK one. CoJK is China-occupied Jammu &Kashmir, and this part of China accounts for nearly a fifth of the original Jammu & Kashmir state that joined the Indian Union in 1948 after its Maharaja Hari Singh signing the instrument of accession.
The state of J&K had a total area of 2,22,236 sq km in 1947 before it joined India. Of this only 46 percent is in India’s possession today; the balance is under forceful occupation of Pakistan and China.
J&K forms the head of the Indian sub-continent, and has been the traditional trade route of Central and South Asia to the East and Tibet, generally called the ‘Silk Route’. It is bounded by more countries than any other state of India; in the North East with Tibet, and further North with Xinjiang province of China, in the North West with the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan, in the West with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and further South with Punjab of Pakistan. This geographic layout is strategically so important that no power of the world wants to remain away from the area, as it gives them access to the sensitive areas of the neighbouring countries.
The Sinkiang (Xinjiang) and Tibetan plateaus constitute a wedge into the Himalayas and were considered by China to be very strategic. They wanted to grab those areas that allowed them to establish roads between Sinkiang and Tibet. With the undetermined border between Soviet Turkestan and Sinkiang a source of friction and tension with Russia, China needed an effective line of communication with Sinkiang through Aksai Chin.
China is spending huge sums to build infrastructure through highways connecting Tibet to Xinjiang through the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin plateau, and Xinjiang to Pakistan via the Karakorum highway through the Kunzreb pass. This highway then connects Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, giving a warm water port and access to the Indian Ocean to China. Its importance can be visualised in that China trade can avoid the bottleneck of the Malacca straits as also cuts down turnaround to the interior provinces of China.
It is not going to be easy for India to reclaim the parts of Kashmir it has lost to Pakistan and China. But that does not mean it should not be brought on to the table for discussion. China is in habit of putting claim on every strategic territory bordering it. It lays claim on Aksai chin and areas of Tibet which historically falls in territory of J&K. But India has never countered China with historical facts and agreements.
Followingthe Sino-Sikh War (May 1841-August 1842) when Jammu ruler Gulab Singh and Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s general, Zorawar Singh, were expanding the Sikh kingdom. While Gulab Singh fought in the North West Frontier Province and Khyber Pakhtunwa region, Zorawar Singh captured Ladakh, Kargil, Suru Valley, Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza and Yagistan principalities between 1835 and 1840; these became part of the unified kingdom of Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1846.
In 1841, Zorawar Singh invaded western Tibet, possibly to gain control over the lucrative pashmina wool trade, though some scholars believe he wanted to build a land bridge between Ladakh and Nepal for a Sikh-Gorkha alliance against the British. Knowing that the Mayum Pass linked western Tibet to the rest of Tibet, he tried to capture it before winter set in.
Zorawar and his men went on pilgrimage to Mansarovar and Mount Kailash. He had extended his communication and supply line over 450 miles of inhospitable terrain by building small forts and pickets along the way. The fort Chi-T’ang was built near Taklakot, where Mehta Basti Ram was put in command of 500 men, with 8 or 9 cannon. With the onset of winter all the passes were blocked and roads snowed in. The supplies for the Dogra army over such a long distance failed despite Zorawar’s meticulous preparations.
As the intense cold, coupled with the rain, snow and lightning continued for weeks upon weeks, many of the soldiers lost their fingers and toes to frostbite. The Tibetans and their Chinese allies regrouped and advanced to give battle, bypassing the Dogra fort of Chi-T’ang. Zorawar and his men met them at the Battle of Toyo on December 12, 1841. In the early exchange of fire the Rajput general was wounded in his right shoulder, but he grabbed a sword in his left hand. The Tibetan horsemen then charged the Dogra position and one of them thrust his lance in Zorawar Singh’s chest. Wounded and unable to escape he was pulled down off his horse and beheaded. The battle marked the end of the invasion, with the death of their general and 300 dead and 700 soldiers captured, the army of Punjab hurriedly retreated to Ladakh with the Sino-Tibetan forces on their heels until they finally halted the pursuit just a day from Leh.
Qing invasion of Ladakh:
The Sino-Tibetan force then mopped up the other garrisons of the Dogras and advanced on Ladakh, now determined to conquer it and add it to the Imperial Chinese dominions. However the force under Mehta Basti Ram withstood a siege for several weeks at Chi-T’ang before escaping with 240 men across the Himalayas to the British post of Almora. Within Ladakh the Sino-Tibetan army laid siege to Leh, when reinforcements under DiwanHari Chand and WazirRatnu came from Jammu and repulsed them. The Tibetan fortifications at Drangtse were flooded when the Dogras dammed up the river. On open ground, the Chinese and Tibetans were chased to Chushul. The climactic Battle of Chushul (August 1842) was won by the Dogras who executed the enemy general to avenge the death of Zorawar Singh.
The subsequent Treaty of Chushul called for status quo ante bellum, with officers of the Lhasa (Governrnent), Kalon of Sokan and BakshiShajpuh, commander of the forces, and two officers on behalf of the most resplendent Sri Khalsaji Sahib, the asylum of the world, King Sher Singh ji, and Sri Maharaja Sahib Raja-i-Rajagan Raja Sahib Bahadur Raja Gulab Singh, i.e.. theMuktar-ud-DaulaDiwanHari Chand and the asylum of vizirs, VizirRatnun. in a meeting called together for the promotion of peace and unity, and by professions and vows of friendship, unity and sincerity of heart and by taking oaths like those of Kunjak Sahib, have arranged and agreed that relations of peace, friendship and unity between Sri Khalsaji and Sri Maharaja Sahib Bahadur Raja Gulab Singh ji, and the Emperor of China and the Lama Guru of Lhasa for no transgressions or interference in the other country’s frontiers, as neither side wanted war. In this treaty Dogras were also part as independent entity as the Treaty was contracted between the Jammu & Kashmir ruler and Tibet, and a representative of the Manchu court was present.
China later formally annexed Tibet but India instead of showing its resentment and protests silently agreed to China’s claims over Aksai Chin and other territory gifted to it by Pakistan. This illegal control of China over J&K is becoming more strategically problematic for India in the shape of China- Pakistan economic corridor and such other activities of two hostileneighbours. India has to take strong diplomatic and strategic postures to check such illegal occupation activities of China.
(The author is J&K based strategic and political analyst)
Dr Ganesh Malhotra