Col. Satish Singh Lalotra
“He who climbs upon the highest mountain laughs at all the tragedies ,real or imaginary. ”
The world over ,man has been in a constant state of seesaw battle with his fears, some real and others imaginary. In the race to conquer his fears ,some times the line dividing the real and imaginary gets so obliterated that the casus belli itself vanishes giving rise to an altogether different hue to his struggles .At the time of writing this article something of a similar nature is happening nowadays in the remote Galwan valley of eastern Ladakh ,where the Dragon and the elephant have locked horns over an issue which dates back to the 19 th century with no signs of thawing up and putting the entire south Asia in a tizzy which as it is battling the scourge of Covid-19 pandemic with its back to the wall .At the center of the storm is the Galwan valley along with few other hotspots in eastern Ladakh where China has intruded in the 1 st week of May 2020 and changed the satuts quo ante which was the norm for decades .Galwan valley the latest flash point between the two giants of Asia,is named after River Galwan which flows from the disputed Aksai chin area in southern Xingjian of China to Ladakh in India .It originates in the area of Samzungling on the eastern side of Karakorum Ranges and flows west to join the Shyok river at 34deg 45mins and 33seconds N/ Northing and 78 degrees 10mins’and 13 seconds E/ Easting on the map .It is one of the upstream tributaries of River Indus .
Going back to the times of mid and late 19 th century this area was the hotspot in the scheme of things for both the super powers of that time ,the UK and Russia who had locked Horns by proxy to gain access to the mountain passes /routes which lead from south to north and vice versa on to the hinterland of India as part of the ‘Great Game’ .’The Great Game’ that was in full swing in the hey days of mid to late 19 th century lasting up to the mid of 20 th century claimed many famous personalities known and unknown who perished in these Godforsaken places to die a lonely death to honour the pledge taken to keep the flag high of their respective countries .Galwan valley the present day casus belli between India and China is the only valley which has been named after a river whose discovery was an act of serendipity on the part of a Kashmiri explorer cum Bandit cum Caravan Bashi or in charge of caravans. Ghulam Rasool Galwan belonged to the notorious tribe of Galwan which in Kashmiri language meant as ‘Black Robber.’ His Great Grand father’ Kala Galwan was from Kashmir and a notorious robber to boot. Ghulam Rasool says that his Great grand father robbed rich people and helped poor people and even Maharaja Ranbir singh of J&K used to keep a safe distance from him .Though illiterate Galwan was able to publish his now famous book ‘Servants of Sahib” wherein he details his roots which can be traced back to Kashmir .As per the book, the Maharaja hatched a conspiracy with the trusted friends of Kala Galwan to catch him alive ,and accordingly a well was dug in his house by his friend ,when Kala Galwan was finally trapped .Later he was hanged to death which resulted in breaking up of his gang in Kashmir .
Most of the members of Galwan gang ran away to far distant places like Gilgit/Baltisthan/Ladakh to escape Maharaja’s retribution. His Grandfather Mahmut Galwan ran away to Baltisthan , and later on his father shifted to Ladakh with his entire family . Ghulam Rasool Galwan as a twelve year old started off his forays into the business of far distance travels often into the bleak Himalayas/Karakorum mountains .He was hired by Lord Dunmore in 1890 to the Pamirs and later on he served with many of the top class explorers cum British Army officers like Capt Francis Younghusband ,Phelps ,Church ,Welby etc as part of the great game when the British crown ordered these army officers to map the northern areas of India to get these areas surveyed and constructed for usage in a future conflict with Czarist Russian army .In 1899 Ghulam Rasool Galwan who was part of an English expedition was the first person to set his foot to the north of Chang Chenmo valley, when he suddenly came across the river which was hitherto unknown to the outside world as such .Since Ghulam Rasool Galwan was the first person to spot the river ,hence he was given the privilege by the British joint commissioner to name it after him.
After working with a host of British and American expeditions in the region he was named and appointed as Akasakal of Ladakh -the chief native assistant of the British joint commissioner who under a commercial treaty between Britain, and Maharaja of Kashmir Ranbir singh was an authority over the traders meeting at Leh to exchange the goods coming in caravans from India ,Tibet and Turkestan. In 1914,he was appointed the ‘Caravan Bashi’/Caravan leader of a big Italian scientific expedition Filippo De Fillipi which explored the Remo glacier system. The present standoff between India and China has its genesis in the period starting at the height of ‘Great Game ‘ in the late 19 th century ,when England was afraid of an expansionist Russia eyeing the hinterland India .Incidentally many of us may not be even aware that there existed four/4 claim lines /boundaries in the disputed Aksai chin area viz Macartney-Macdonald line of 1899,which was accepted by the Chinese till 1959, the Johnson-Ardagh line of 1865 converted to De facto Indian claim line ,the Chinese claim line of 1960 and finally the foreign office line of 1873. The Macartney -Macdonald line was primarily the proposed boundary line in the disputed Aksai chin area by the British GOI in 1899 by its envoy to China Sir Claude MacDonald . The proposed line starting from the Karakorum pass turns south below the 35 th parallel skirts around passing the Laktsang range finally sloping in south easterly direction. The Chinese never gave never any response to this British proposal .Subsequently the British reverted back to its earlier claim line known as the Johnson-Ardagh line abutting the Chinese -Turkestan and Tibet. This boundary line was finally proposed to the British GOI by Maj Gen John Ardagh ,chief of British military intelligence in London in 1897 based on the surveys conducted by William Johnson in 1865.The Johnson -Ardagh line represented the ‘Forward school’ that wanted to advance the boundary as forward as possible as a defence against the growing Russian empire as mentioned above .Following the Chinese reluctance to acquiesce to the more conservative Macartney -MacDonald line the British finally reverted to the forward line of Aksai chin.
Upon independence in 1947,the GOI fixed finally its official boundary line in the west which included the Aksai chin ,in a manner that resembled the Johnson-Ardagh line .India’s basis for defining the line was based on long usage and custom .Though India and China both have fought in 1962 a border war which was a result of differing perceptions of the boundary ,but after Rajiv Gandhi’s ice breaking visit in 1988 to China wherein several border settlement mechanisms known as CBMs(Confidence building measures) were initiated to defuse any future border conflagration things seemed to stabilize .But due to changed Geopolitical situation as obtaining in the world more so after the collapse of USSR in 1991,China has found itself at the center stage of world politics with hardly any one credible to pose a challenge to its might .Just as an example ,in the year 2018 only, there were about 150 Chinese intrusions and 100 face offs in Ladakh sector by the PLA(People’s liberation army ) of China. The latest intrusion of PLA in the Galwan valley , Pagong tso and Hot springs is an ample testimony to the fact that Dragon has started flexing its muscle once again after 1962.
Cut to the present times ,the intrusion in Galwan valley has confirmed three things…Firstly there was no differing of perceptions in this sector between the two countries, secondly the intrusion has taken place at the junction of Galwan river with the Shoyk river with the neighbouring heights occupied by the PLA ,thirdly the intrusion effectively dominates our newly constructed DS-DBO(Durbuk Shyok Daulat Beg oldie) road both by observation and fire. Moreover all these intrusions are well beyond the 1960 claim line of China which is a worrisome factor . However a much more worrisome factor which India might have to contend with is the cutting off waters of river Galwan to Shoyk which amounts to weaponisation of China’s upper riparian rights .This is an ominous indication of state of things which Ladakh in particular might have to face in future .If not challenged immediately ,this could lead to cutting off waters to other river systems with serious consequences for agriculture and potable water in the country .Since Ladakh faces water problems in winters and much of Ladakh economy still dependent on agriculture ,thousands of livelihoods will be at stake due to this action of China .The Galwan river is a tributary of Shyok river and joins the later after crossing the LAC after a few kilometers. The point to be noted over here is that the intrusion by PLA in the 2nd week of May 2020 showed visible signs of movement near the patrolling point number 14,15 ,17 and Gorga area ,but soon that movement ceased and also the waters of Galwan river started receding very fast ,thus exposing the rocky under bed of the river .This indicated PLAs nefarious designs, and is a serious breach of trust and runs contrary to the Chinese assurances at several international forums that it would not block or divert waters of south and westwards flowing rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau. This stopping of waters of Galwan river has serious repercussions in international law and the rights of lower riparian states as it indicates that China is willing to use water as a geopolitical tool to settle old scores .With J&K and Ladakh being union territories controlled by the center ,a quick and possible solution is sought by the Ladakhis to get their rightful share of water from Galwan river .History bears testimony to the fact that almost all major world civilisations progressed and developed along major river systems to include Indus valley, Egyptian etc. But it seems China is bent upon reversing the clock with cutting off the waters of Galwan river .It would be in the fitness of things to come to some sort of tangible solution to the present impasse with China failing which India and Ladakhis in particular may repent at leisure.
(The writer is a retired Colonel from the Indian Army)
Col. Satish Singh Lalotra