What is the dispute over which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley last fortnight? According to reports, they were fighting Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control, which is meant to section off Chinese-occupied territories from the Indian side. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to claim no one had “intruded upon our borders”, the Chinese media gleefully agreed. Since the entire Galwan Valley belonged to China, they asserted, there was no dispute at all.

In seven decades, independent India and communist China have not been able to agree on a fully demarcated border. Both India and China claim the Aksai Chin plateau, part of the western sector of the frontier region. India considers it part of the Union Territory of Ladakh, which was carved out of the state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5 last year. China’s considers the plateau part of its Xinjiang province and Tibet. In the eastern sector, China claims Arunachal Pradesh, marked on its maps as South Tibet.

These two sections of the Indo-Chinese frontier have been major flashpoints over the decades. In 1962, they triggered a border war.

Although the border dispute with Pakistan has figured the most in India’s national imagination, the Indo-Chinese contestations are perhaps even more complex. To begin with, both India and Pakistan agree on where the Line of Control between the two countries lies. There is no such consensus on the Line of Actual Control, especially in the western sector. Nearly six decades after the border war, it is yet to be demarcated. This ambiguity has allowed China to inch forward over the years. It may also be why China now claims all of the Galwan Valley.

Besides, while the India-Pakistan border dispute is often called the unfinished business of Partition, the roots of the Indo-Chinese conflict go back farther. They can be traced deep into colonial history, to the ambitions of the nascent Dogra princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, the cartographic preoccupations of the imperial government and the strategic manoeuvres of the Great Game at the turn of the 20th century.

“British ambiguity” about Indian frontiers with China, as political scientist Steven A Hoffmann puts it, paved the way for this post-colonial dispute.

Dogra adventures

In 1841, Gulab Singh, the Dogra governor of the Jammu principality, which was then part of a weakening Sikh Empire, sent his forces east. Under his general, Zorawar Singh, Dogra forces pushed across Ladakh into Tibet. But by October 1841, Tibetan troops, accompanied by the Chinese, had rallied. They killed Zorawar Singh and 4,000 soldiers, pushing the Dogra forces back and advancing as far west as Leh, in Ladakh.

In 1842, Jammu forces recaptured Ladakh and a treaty between the Sikhs, the Dogras, the Chinese and the Tibetans was hastily cobbled together. It established “loose boundaries”, writes political scientists Christopher Snedden, “including in relation to Aksai Chin”, the “desert of white stones”. This barren, desolate plateau, about 17,000 feet high, stretches between the Karakoram and Kunlun ranges.

In 1846, the Sikh empire was wound up with the Treaty of Amritsar and the Kashmir Valley was sold to Gulab Singh. Some or all of Aksai Chin was now welded to the new Dogra princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which recognised the suzerainty of the British. But neither the Dogra administration nor its subjects had a presence on the plateau. It was not even very clear where the north eastern boundary of the state lay – Zorawar Singh’s victorious expeditions were sanguinely taken to have covered Aksai Chin.

The first attempt to fix a boundary line was made in 1865, by an Indian Survey officer called WH Johnson, angling for a job in the Dogra state, Snedden writes. After an expedition fraught with controversy, Johnson suggested that the border of the Dogra state touched the Kunlun mountains north of the Karakoram range and included all of Aksai Chin in its sweep. This boundary, backed by the British director of military intelligence, John Ardagh, in 1897, came to be known as the Ardagh-Johnson Line.

A map of the British Indian Empire in 1880 appears to leave out Aksai Chin.

Cartographic confusions

The problem, as Snedden points out, is that until the late 1880s, neither the British nor the Dogras really knew what actually comprised the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The first map of the state, released by the Indian Surveyor General’s Office in 1861, contained details about the towns and topography of Jammu and Kashmir provinces but little about the other districts of the princely state. Several unnamed, numbered mountains were simply labelled “Snowy Peak”.

An 1872 map suggests the north eastern border of the Dogra state was beyond the Karakoram Pass, touching the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. An 1875 map, based on surveys by Russian and British officers, seems to backtrack – it shows Aksai Chin as part of “Chinese Tibet”. But as the century wore on, “maps eventually clarified J&K’s cartography, topography and borders, although not always to the satisfaction of, or agreement with, India’s neighbours, particularly China,” remarks Snedden.

The British obsession with mapping and surveying its empire gained urgency in these mountainous regions, where the subcontinent meets Central and East Asia, for two reasons. This was the region of “colliding empires”, as British India pushed up against China and Russia bore down from the north. Tibet and the mountain ranges around it became an important site for the Great Game, a battle for influence between the British and Russian empires. They were also key to trade routes across Asia.

The “Snowy Peaks” would be measured and named, mountain passes would be charted through successive expeditions. In 1892, a 14-year-old boy named Ghulam Rassul Galwan, who was part of one such expedition, found an accessible route through mountains in eastern Ladakh and gave his name to the river that ran through it. Galwan would be part of numerous expeditions to the Karakorams, Tibet and Xinjiang, then called Sinkiang, “the new frontier”. After 15 years of rebellion, it had been restored to traditional Chinese control and christened Sinkiang in 1877.

Frontiers and boundaries

Further south, the British were also consolidating the province of Assam as a “frontier” against Tibet and China. In 1873, the imperial administration had drawn an “Inner Line” around the fertile plains and tea gardens of Assam, cordoning them off from tribal areas in the hills. No British subject could cross this line and enter tribal areas without a permit, but the administration asserted it was not an international boundary.

The presence of an Inner Line “implies the imaginary existence of an Outer Line”, writes journalist and author Pradeep Phanjoubam, even if no such boundary existed officially. He also points out that the colonial administration made a distinction between a “frontier” and a “boundary”. British army officer Henry McMahon had described a “frontier” as a “wide tract of borderland which… served as a buffer between two states”. A boundary was a clearly defined line expressing sovereignty.

For decades, a “belt of country” outside the Inner Line, described as a political “no-man’s land”, was the frontier between British India and Tibet. That was until 1914, when McMahon drew a boundary around this strip of land, present-day Arunachal Pradesh.

The ambiguities of a frontier region would continue to attend this boundary. Did the presumed Outer Line coincide with the McMahon Line? Did the Outer Line merge with the Inner Line here, leaving no buffer region? Later Chinese claims to territory seem to push the argument that the Inner Line was the Outer Line and formed the international boundary.

Arunachal’s Tawang tract, in particular, presented a challenge to the McMahon Line. The boundary, which ran along the crest of the Himalayas in this region, followed the watershed principle of map-making. But at Tawang, it pushed into the Tibetan side north of the watershed. Besides, Tawang, birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, had always had close ties with Tibet, over which China claimed suzerainty.

The McMahon Line and disputed areas.

Blurred lines

By the early 20th century, there were competing strands of British policy on both Aksai Chin and the Assam Himalayas, Hoffmann writes. The British government of India was concerned with securing its northern frontiers, warding off potential threats to its territory. At the London end, the India Office and the Foreign Office had larger strategic concerns in the intricate chequerboard of alliances and rivalries that was the early 20th century. By and large, London desisted from making forward claims, Hoffmann writes.

Hoffmann refers to a note prepared in the 1950s by the director of the Ministry of External Affairs’s Historical Division, which suggests the British had three options for the Ladakh boundary.

The one encircling the most territory was the Johnson-Ardagh Line, which had showed up on maps in 1868. According to some sources, the Chinese refused to accept it, placing boundary markers at the Karakoram Pass in 1892.

In 1899, Claud MacDonald, the British envoy to China, proposed the Macartney-MacDonald Line. This placed most of Aksai Chin in Chinese-controlled Sinkiang, but kept crucial areas on the Indian side – the Chip Chap Valley, the Lingzitang salt plain and Chang Chenmo – all of which became later points of dispute. MacDonald got no official response from the Chinese.

Earlier, in 1873, an India Office cartographer had drawn a line much farther south, placing the frontier along the Karakoram mountain range. This was known as the Trelawney Saunders Line, most favourable to Chinese interests.

Most Indian scholars agree the British pushed the Ardagh-Johnson Line post the First World War, bolstering the Indian government’s view that a border had “crystallised” long before Independence. According to Hoffmann, other scholars suggest the British were constitutionally bound to the Macartney-MacDonald Line, having proposed it to the Chinese, but did not explicitly claim a Ladakh frontier between 1909 and 1947.

After 1945, a colour wash in Survey of India maps did imply a claim to Aksai Chin at the northeastern edges of the Dogra princely state, Hoffmann adds, but the British military was reluctant to defend this frontier. India entered independence without its northernmost frontier demarcated.

A similar reticence settled around the Arunachal-Tibet border. The McMahon Line had been formalised after negotiations with the Tibetans in the Simla Conference of 1914. The Chinese envoy who attended “initialled” the agreement but stopped short of signing it. In the years that followed, China rejected the McMahon Line, claiming Tibet had no treaty-making powers of its own. It resented the Simla negotiations as a British attempt to shore up Tibetan autonomy.

The British themselves turned lukewarm to the McMahon Line, Hoffmann writes, until 1935, when a civil servant called Olaf Caroe urged that it be shown on maps. By then, Tibet was reluctant to relinquish control of Tawang. Once again, various strategic compulsions and contingencies of the Second World War put a damper on negotiations. The British left the subcontinent without making a final provision for Tawang.

Claim lines on Aksai Chin

Line of Actual Control

Despite conflicting compulsions, a dominant strand in British policy in the last decades of empire seems to have been “cartographic aggression”, to use Snedden’s phrase. “From around 1914, the British, without a signed formal treaty that specifically dealt with delimiting borders, increasingly attempted to impose their desired India-Tibet border on a weak Tibet and its troubled suzerain, China,” he writes.

Post 1947, both independent India and the People’s Republic of China, Snedden argues, pursued a policy of cartographic aggression, drawing lines on a map to assert claims to territory.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Nehru seems to have traded the idea of an autonomous buffer for a well-defined border with China. In 1954, storm clouds gathered even as India and China signed the Panchsheel Agreement, enumerating the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”. An Indian map released the same year showed the Ardagh-Johnson Line in the western sector and the McMahon Line in the eastern sector as permanent borders. According to China, the McMahon Line was illegal and Aksai Chin was an undisputed part of its territory.

In 1957, China published a map showing it had built the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway through the eastern part of Aksai Chin. “Roads have been important symbols and functional devices for both nations,” Snedden observes. It is still true today, when Chinese aggressions are said to have been spurred by the construction of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road, which hews close to Aksai Chin and is said to give India military access to a section of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway.

While Nehru sought to define borders, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai proposed a “Line of Actual Control” in 1959. This would be “the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”, he wrote.

In the years leading up to 1962, China made advancing claims on territory. Lines on a map translated to boots on the ground, which eventually triggered a border war. In the last few decades, this trend seems to have been reversed. Given the bleak history of cartography shared by the two countries, map exchanges have been stalled since 2002. Even then, only maps for the relatively peaceful middle sector were clarified. For the western sector, boots on the ground seem to have become the de facto map of a shifting Line of Actual Control.