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

The Politics of Cartography and Border Settlement in the Western Sector


Refinements in cartographic technologies since the seventeenth century made it possible to have well defined maps of the borders. Maps drawn by India, Tibet and China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries bear evidence to India’s borders with these countries.  Over one hundred and fifty years after the Treaty of Tingmosgang, 1684, the Treaty of September 1842 over trade between Ladakh region of India and Tibet reaffirmed the traditionally settled border between the two countries in the western Sector of India-Tibet border. W. H. Johnson, a British official of the Trigonometrical Survey of India was entrusted a commission in July 1865 to explore the country of Khotan farther north of Kuen-Lun ranges, a territory then under the local ruler of Kashmir and Ladakh and currently in Xinjiang. Johnson affirmed that the area of Aksai Chin was part of India and that the customary boundary of India was well-known and respected by the neighbouring rulers, traders and travellers.


 The Gazetteer of Kashmir & Ladakh, 1891 delineated in detail the borders of the Ladakh region of India with Tibet and the Sinkiang province of China. The map clearly showed Aksai Chin, Lingzi- thang and Changchenmo areas as parts of India.


The Chinese government shared its map with the Indian Consul at Kashgar (Sinkiang) in 1893 through its representative Hung Ta-chen delineating the borders between India and China. This map accepts Aksai Chin as part of India and it conformed to India’s traditional border alignment with China as shown in the map attached with the Gazetteer of Kashmir & Ladakh. The postal map of China published by the Government of China in Peking in 1917 further re-affirmed Aksai Chin as part of India.


Border Narratives in the Eastern Sector


The eastern sector of India-Tibet border lies between the tri-junctions of India-Bhutan-Tibet in the west and India-Myanmar-Tibet in the east. China was nowhere in proximity to this border though occasionally they made light forays into Tibet from their Sichuan bases, but had no interaction or exchange with India.


This segment of the border was quieter than the western segment. In contrast to the western segment that had facilitated vibrant commercial and sociological interactions between India, Tibet and China and served as trade corridors to Central Asia, the eastern segment was largely non-eventful. This was so primarily due to the distinct socio-economic and cultural ethos of the Indian tribes inhabiting the region south of India-Tibet border from the Tibetans. These indigenous Indian tribes did not have much interaction with Tibet.


Along the over 1,100 km of India-Tibet border in this segment, there is a pocket near the tri-junction of India-Bhutan-Tibet where the people of the three countries shared common socio-ethnic, religious and linguistic co-ordinates. The people inhabiting the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction followed the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism. This tradition was the product of spiritual, philosophical and intellectual deliberations at Nalanda University in the first millennia. From there it was carried to Tibet where it became the predominant tradition. One of the routes followed by the scholars from Nalanda to reach Tibet was through Bhutan. The people along the route embraced the Vajrayana tradition and several monasteries of this tradition sprung up in the region over the time.


When the Turks from Central Asia invaded India and attacked the famous Nalanda University in the 12th century, several Buddhist scholars shifted from India to Tibet with their artefacts. The centre of gravity of the Vajrayana tradition moved from India to Tibet. The state patronage of Buddhism in Tibet helped to promote  the robust growth of monasteries and related institutions of the Vajrayana tradition there. The people living at the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction were greatly inspired and influenced by these institutions. A monastery was built on the Indian side (Tawang) of the tri-junction in the 17th century. With the patronage of the 5th Dalai Lama’s Drepung monastery in Tibet, it grew into the largest monastery in the area. Vibrant theological and intellectual exchanges took place between the Tawang and Drepung monasteries. The affinity between the two monasteries were so intense that when the 5th Dalai Lama passed away, Tsangyang, a boy born near Tawang was anointed as the 6th Dalai Lama. Notwithstanding intense ethno-religious kinship between the people of India, Tibet and Bhutan, their political boundaries were well understood.


Indigenous Indian tribes, untouched by centuries of vigorous cultural and religious exchanges between India and Tibet through Bhutan, inhabited east of the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. These tribes were more inward looking and followed their own faith. Their socio-economic interactions were largely southward oriented, engaging with inhabitants of the plains and foothills of Assam.


India’s historically consistent approach towards them has been one of soft engagement. Their patterns of life and livelihoods were not disrupted and their customs and traditions were respected by the state. The British too, when they took over this part of India in the mid-19th century, did not tinker with age-old traditions of the state maintaining a somewhat distant grip over them. After the British left in 1947, post-colonial India institutionalized this tradition of substantive autonomy to the ethnic tribes by providing safeguards built into in its Constitution.


Unlike the western sector of the India-Tibet border, the eastern segment did not have substantial commercial exchanges. Except for a few adventurers, trans-border movements were very limited and that too only among those living in close proximity to the border. It was, by and large, a passive border with no history of conflict or border dispute. This was maintained until China moved into Tibet.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.