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R. N. Ravi, strategic affairs analyst, was in charge of India's land borders in the Home Ministry (IB) for over twenty years.



India and China, the two most populous countries, having the world’s largest militaries, have been locked in volatile land border disputes for over half a century. The border tensions between the two countries escalated into a full-scale war in 1962. Since then, sporadic armed face-offs between the troops of the two countries are not infrequent. Notwithstanding several mutually arrived agreements and protocols in the last two decades, about 4000 km of ‘India-China’ border remains highly sensitive and prone to armed confrontations. Some of these have the potential to escalate into major conflagrations with far-reaching geo-political, geo-economic and military consequences for the region and beyond.


Until military occupation of Tibet by China in 1950, India’s border with China was limited to the one between India’s Ladakh and tenuously held Chinese province Sinkiang, now Xinjiang, in the stretch between tri-junctions of India-Afghanistan-China and India-Tibet-China.


India and the Tibet-Sinkiang Frontiers


India had a traditionally settled and age-old friendly border with Tibet. Trade between India and Tibet flourished. People – traders, pilgrims, scholars, artisans and explorers moved across the border with ease. While the Tibetans, since millennia, thronged every year for pilgrimage at Bodh Gaya and Sarnath in India, the holiest of places for the Buddhists across the world, Indian pilgrims in hordes visited Mount Kailash – Kang Rimpoche and Mansarovar Lake, the mythical abode of Lord Siva, the most revered deity of the Hindu pantheon.


Nalanda University in India, a vibrant centre of scholarship in the first millennia where liberal arts, science and philosophies – predominantly Buddhist philosophies - flourished and spread to various parts of Asia, attracted a large number of Tibetan scholars and students. Guru Padma Sambhava, Dharmakirti, Rinchen Tsangpo, Atisha and Milarepa among the pioneer scholars and Buddhist saints of India carried the teachings of Buddha and Buddhist practices to Tibet.


When the invading Turks from Central Asia in the 12th century destroyed Nalanda University and unleashed unimaginable mayhem and killings, its remaining scholars and artifacts moved to sanctuaries in Tibet. During the long subjugation of India by the Central Asian invaders, some of its cultural and intellectual heritage was relocated in Tibet for safety and continuity. Indian students and scholars went to Tibet in pursuit of their intellectual and spiritual quests.


When Communist China invaded and occupied Tibet, Tibetan spiritual leaders, scholars and lay people escaped to safety in India to safeguard their culture, traditions and spiritual heritage from cultural genocide and religious persecutions. While China, during the Cultural Revolution, wreaked massive destruction of the iconic cultural and religious institutions and symbols in Tibet, the expatriate Tibetans replicated them in India to thwart extinction of their unique identity. The 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal head of Tibet, other high lineage holder Lamas of different strands of Tibetan Buddhism and nearly 1,50,000 Tibetans found a welcoming home in India. The two countries shared a profound cultural, intellectual and emotional bond.  The long political border between them was friendly and was seldom a source of tension.


India’s border with Sinkiang, tenuously held by Imperial China, ran along the crest of the high mountain ranges – Kuen-Lun, Karakoram, Mustagh to Tangdumbash Plains between the Sarikol and Mustagh Atta Ranges north of the Kilik-Mintaka Pass up to India-Afghanistan-China tri-junction. It was to the west of India-Tibet-China tri-junction near the point 80 degrees east. The region of Sinkiang was ruled by a number of warlords who for the greater part of recorded history kept fighting with each other and could not be subjugated by China.


The region of Sinkiang was so volatile that in 1860 when the travellers and traders from Shahidullah, Malikshai and adjoining areas oppressed by the marauding gangs appealed to the central Sinkiang authorities for taking these areas under them, the latter declined on the ground that these areas fell beyond the jurisdiction of Sinkiang. Since virulent lawlessness seriously affected trade between India and Yarkand in Sinkiang region, India subdued the marauders, extended its administration up to Shaidullah and enforced peace along the trade routes.


Imperial Russia, in the 18th century, had expanded its empire into Central Asia up to the north-western border of Sinkiang. The emerging geo-political and strategic environment in the region on account of Russian expansion kept the Indian and Chinese authorities worried. China was not in a position to offer any credible resistance to Russia’s potential march through Sinkiang to the borders of India. The British Indian authorities responded by ceding the area north of the watershed Kuen-Lun Range under India’s control to Sinkiang and sought to turn Imperial China into its ally. In the strategic calculus of the British, Imperial China smarting under humiliating defeat in the Opium War and subsequent wars with Britain and resultant unequal treaties could be comforted with this territorial gift and be a buffer between India and Russia.


It is an irony of history that when China’s hold over its westernmost province was tenuous and often teetered on collapse by internal rebellions, it was India that lent the most needed strategic and tactical help to China in consolidating its position there. Communist China betrayed a nascent independent India committed to world peace by militarily grabbing some 40,000 sq km of India’s land in Aksai Chin in 1962 and further annexing some 5,100 sq km of India’s land west of the Karakoram Pass through an illegal treaty with Pakistan in March 1963.


Pakistan, soon after its creation, had surreptitiously moved their armed militia (Rangers) into Kashmir and Ladakh in 1948 and grabbed a large chunk of India’s land.  While the issue was yet not resolved between India and Pakistan, China fished in troubled waters and took away a part of it through an illegal treaty with Pakistan and built strategic infrastructure including roads linking Xinjiang to Tibet and the rest of China besides access to the Arabian Sea and strategic assets around it. China as quid pro quo rewarded Pakistan with military nuclear proliferation.


Chronicles of Interactions between India and Tibet


The history of the north-western frontier of India with Tibet and China in the first millennia has been elaborately recorded in Ladakhi chronicles. Reputed historians including A. H. Francke, Luciano Petech and Z. Ahmad translated these historical documents that vividly described the geo-political developments and power struggles between India, Tibet and China during the T’ang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). China’s efforts to keep control over its far-south-western areas of Turkestan (Sinkiang) involved sporadic clashes and cooperation with rulers of west Tibet and Ladakh of India. Baltistan, Gilgit and Ladakh regions of India served as buffer between China and Tibet. Fisher, Rose and Huttenback, famous historians have recorded in their book Himalayan Battleground, “Even the most exuberant Chinese historians have never claimed that Tibet was part of China in the 10th century.”


The fact of a settled border between India and Tibet since ancient times is amply borne out by the vastly recorded and oral histories of the two countries and their people. In the pre-modern era, in the absence of advanced scientific cartographic tools and techniques, the borders were mutually defined with the help of natural markers – passes in the mountain ranges and the courses of rivers. Traders traversing the border paid levies to the foreign governments. Adventurers and pilgrims from either side entered the other’s territory after obtaining required permits-visas, from the respective governments. There were traditionally established trade marts on both the Indian and Tibetan sides of the border. In the high altitude mountainous terrain, yaks and horses were the carriers of goods. There was a flourishing class of auxiliary traders – local nomads – on both sides, who rented their yaks and horses for trade. Since trade and pilgrimage involved long-distance travels along the traditional foot-trails, several villages en-route were used for rest and recuperation. All these activities sustained and enhanced local economies of the people of the two countries.


Instances of localized clashes between the adjacent local rulers of the two countries were few and far between. In one such recorded clash, Tibetan forces captured parts of eastern Ladakh in 1639. However, in 1684 the Tibetans were pushed back to Tashigong, the traditional India-Tibet border in this sector. The Treaty of Tingmosgang was signed in 1684 delineating the border between India and Tibet in this sector at Lha-ri stream, a tributary of the Indus River five miles southwest of Demchok. Under this treaty, India got the trading monopoly of export of shawl wool from west Tibet and the Dalai Lama obtained monopoly of trading in brick tea with India. Subsequently, for nearly three centuries, the treaty was respected and the integrity of the border was preserved in letter and spirit both by India and Tibet until Communist China attacked India in 1962 and captured Demchok after it had invaded and captured Tibet in 1950. The Chinese invasions negatively altered the geo-political ecology of the entire India-Tibet border region and the peace that had lasted for centuries was shattered.


Detailed accounts by European travelers, adventurers and historians of the region bear ample evidence to the fact that India and Tibet had a peaceful border and commerce between the two had flourished. Caravans of traders carrying goods from both sides frequently visited the each other’s trading marts and paid levies to the respective governments.


William Moorcroft, superintendent of the East India Company’s stud, visited Ladakh on the way to Yarkand in 1820-22 on a dual commission: one by the Company to purchase Turkman horses for its cavalry and the other by the British merchants of Calcutta to establish a commercial intercourse with North-Western Parts of Asia. He recorded the nature and extent of Ladakh’s border with Tibet and China extensively. He found a vibrant trade between the three countries –India’s Ladakh, Tibet and Yarkand in Turkmenistan over which China exercised only a tenuous control. Leh in Ladakh was a large trading hub. Moorcroft in his letters to the Company clearly mentioned the Aksai Chin area as being under India. He also mentioned how the trade routes through the Aksai Chin traversing between India and Turkistan, now called Xinjiang by China, and to Tibet were administered by India.


The population on both sides of the India-Tibet border was largely nomadic. Their main economic activity was tending the livestock mainly sheep, goats and yaks. The pastures of India and Tibet, some of them straddling the border between the two countries, were well-recognized by nomads of both countries. These pastures were administered according to customary laws and prevailing practices. The nomads residing in border areas used to take, without let or hindrance, their livestock to pastures in the other country. The direction of such seasonal movements of livestock was locational. The country whose pastures were customarily used by the nomads of the other country annually received a pre-determined amount in kind or cash by the government of the other country. This annual payment was called ‘posa’.


The region of India extending up to the India-Tibet-China tri-junction is a vast expanse of over forty thousand square kilometers of high lands that includes Aksai Chin, Soda Plains and Lingzi-thang. The extreme climate renders the region incapable of sustaining more than a meagre population. Important trade routes linking India, Tibet and Sinkiang traversed through this cold mountain dessert. These routes, besides being the life lines of regional trade between the three countries – India, Tibet and China (Sinkiang), fed the traditional Silk Route – a set of arterial and capillary routes linking countries and civilizations from the Mediterranean Sea to the East, South and Southeast Asia.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.