Since the removal of Article 370, Ladakh has been through a range of emotions — from the initial euphoria to anxiety about its new status as Union Territory and the diplomatic and security challenges that followed. Attempts by Pakistan and China at internationalising Ladakh at the UN were blunted. However, China accused India of “undermining its territorial sovereignty” by amending its domestic laws; Beijing announced that it “does not recognise the new status”. Ladakh is being used as a pretext to backtrack on key border agreements — China even resorted to military hostility along the LAC and has refused to commit to the pre-2020 status quo.
For New Delhi, severing Ladakh from Kashmir was necessary to prevent it from getting engulfed in the vortex of instability that plagued the region, and to forestall any prospect of it falling in the list of international concerns. Be that as it may, the Ladakh problem was left behind by the British to protect India from the Russian, rather than Chinese, threat. The British did accept the extent of its boundary with Russia at Karakoram Pass in 1873. China too erected a pole at the Pass in 1892. Attempts to define a line east of the Karakoram and Kunlun ranges varied from the “forward” one proposed by William Johnson and John Ardagh to include Aksai Chin and Karakash River in India to a more “moderate” claim line endorsed by Lord Elgin in 1898. London approved George Macartney’s suggestion of dividing Aksai Chin between Britain and China along the Laktsang range, leaving Aksai Chin to China and Lingzi Thang to India.
It was proposed to Beijing in 1899 by Claude MacDonald, but China did not reply to the proposal. London adhered to it till the end of the Qing Empire in 1911. But in view of Russia’s advance in Xinjiang, the British, in 1927, adopted a forward strategy of favouring a boundary from Afghanistan to the Karakoram Pass running along the crest of the mountain range. The Johnson-Ardagh line once again became handy.
China claimed Aksai Chin after Li Yuan Ping first surveyed the area in 1890. Essentially, Aksai China was a KMT (Kuomintang) project that the Chinese Communist Party planned to execute. Chinese forays began in the 1950s when they began clearing the old Chang Chenmo trading routes. The routes in the eastern extremity via Kiam, Sumdo, Lumkhang, Nischu, Lingzi Thang, Kizil Jilga, Khush Maidan, Shor Jilga, Chung Tash and Karatagh moving towards Sumgal and to Karakash were made inaccessible. By 1958, the PLA had crossed the Khurnak fort and detained Indian troops near Haji Langar. With the construction of G219, other (western) Chang Chenmo routes via Pamzal, Gogra, Hot Springs, Shamal Lungpa, Dehra Compas, Samzungling and onwards to Kizil Jilga were made out-of-the-way.
Chinese aggression began on November 15, from DBO, Koyul Demchok sector, and continued till it declared a unilateral ceasefire on November 21, with the intention of retaining the area it occupied. It falsely claimed the captured area as the LAC of November 1959. Since then Chinese position has changed as per their convenience and as they progressively increased the extent of occupation.
In 2020, the PLA wanted to cut the most western Chang Chenmo route — Tangtse, Durbuk, Galwan, Murgo to DBO that runs along Shyok Valley. Earlier, in 2013, the PLA had tried to cut the Karakoram Pass by intruding into Burtse/Depsang Plains. India’s position in the 972 sq km Trig Heights Burtse/Depsang Plains still remains vulnerable. The PLA has been building a 20-km road below the Murgo post. Like in Galwan, the road here can potentially cut off the Indian supply line to DBO.
All in all, the intrusions are part of China’s strategy to push the Indian position west of the Indus and Shyok rivers and reach the line claimed in 1960. But India’s Aksai China policy is still ambiguous and bordering on the sanctimonious — “will take back every inch of territory from China”. No serious study is being conducted to resolve it. Some moderation will be required, though, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still in power. Worse, India does not have administrative capabilities over the vast area beyond Shyok in the east to Sesar in the north towards Depsang, Murgo, Burtse — no post office or police station.
Surely, the Army alone cannot hold the land. Heavy lifting has to be done now by the UT administration. Its official branches need to access the area regularly to take stock of its spatial reality, flora and fauna, wildlife, rare plant species etc. that are in abundance. As for the local sentiments, the Ladakhis do not seem to have a perspective on these issues. The conferment of UT status had initially caused a lot of excitement but it fell short of fulfilling their demands. At the heart of the matter seems to be power that has since been shifted to the Lt Governor. Their concerns are not issue-based but demand-based — lack of political representation, inadequate say in local governance, fear of losing control over land, employment opportunities and immigration et al.
It is inevitable, though Ladakh too has been corrupted by the Kashmir administration. No administrative accountability — financial or otherwise — existed. Now that all the central laws have been extended to Ladakh, the people appear crestfallen. Obviously, it will take time for change to happen. But whether legitimate or not, their demands need to be looked into. The formation of the Union Territory needs to be taken to its logical conclusion.
The writer, a former ambassador, is an expert on India-China affairs