Making Ladakh a Union Territory was not enough

Since the removal of Article 370, Ladakh has experienced a range of emotions – from initial euphoria to anxiety about its new status as a federal territory and the diplomatic and security challenges that followed. Aborted attempts by Pakistan and China to internationalize Ladakh in the United Nations. However, China accused India of “undermining its territorial sovereignty” by amending its domestic laws. Beijing declared that it “does not recognize the new situation.” Ladakh is being used as an excuse to roll back major border agreements – China has even resorted to military hostility across Latin America and the Caribbean and refused to abide by the status quo before 2020.

For New Delhi, separating Ladakh from Kashmir was necessary to prevent it from sinking into the vortex of instability that has plagued the region, and to thwart any possibility of it falling on the list of international concerns. Whatever the case, the British left the problem of Ladakh behind to protect India from the Russian threat, not the Chinese. The extent of its border with Russia at the Karakoram Pass in 1873 was approved by the British. China also erected a pole at the pass in 1892. Attempts to determine the line east of the Karakoram and Kunlun Ranges differed from the “front” line proposed by William. Johnson and John Ardagh to include Aksai Chin and the Karakash River in India to a more “moderate” line of claim passed by Lord Elgin in 1898. London agreed to George McCartney’s proposal to partition 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 respond to the proposal. London adhered to it until the end of the Qing Empire in 1911. But in light of Russia’s advances in Xinjiang, the British, in 1927, adopted an advanced strategy to favor the frontier from Afghanistan to the Karakoram Pass running along the summit of the mountain range. The Johnson-Ardagh line became useful again.

China claimed Aksai Chin after Li Yuan Ping first surveyed the area in 1890. Essentially, Aksai China was a project of the Kuomintang (Kuomintang) that the Chinese Communist Party planned to implement. Chinese invasions began in the 1950s when they began clearing the ancient trade routes of Chang Chenmo. The roads at the eastern end through Kyam, Somdo, Lomkhang, Nicho, Lingzhi Thang, Kizil Gilga, Khush Medan, Chor Gilga, Chung Tash and Karata moving towards Sumgal and Karakash became inaccessible. By 1958, the People’s Liberation Army had crossed Khornak fort and captured Indian forces near Haji Langar. With the construction of G219, other routes were built from Chang Chenmo (Western) via Pamzal, Gogra, Hot Springs, Shamal Lungpa, Dehra Compas, Samzungling and onward to Kizil Jilga.

The Chinese aggression began last November 15, from the DBO in the Koyol Damchuk sector, and continued until the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire on November 21, with the intent of retaining the area it had occupied. They falsely claimed that the captured area was the one captured in November 1959. Since then the Chinese position has changed at their convenience, gradually increasing the extent of the occupation.

In 2020, the People’s Liberation Army wanted to cut the westernmost route of Changzhenmu – Tangtse, Darbuk, Galwan and Morgo to the DBO that runs along the Cheok Valley. Earlier, in 2013, the People’s Liberation Army attempted to cut the Karakoram Pass by intruding on the Pertsi/Dipsang plains. India’s position in the 972 sq km Trig Heights Burtse/Depsang plains remains poor. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is building a 20 km road below Morgo Center. As in Galwan, the road here will likely cut off the Indian supply line to DBO.

Altogether, the interventions are part of China’s strategy to advance the Indian position west of the Indus and Cheok rivers and reach the alleged line in 1960. But India’s Aksai policy on China remains ambiguous and limits reverence – “it will take back every inch of territory from China.” No serious study has been conducted to solve it. However, some moderation will be required while Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains in power. Worse still, India has no administrative capabilities over the vast area outside Cheok in the east to Caesar in the north towards Dipsang, Murgo and Burtsey – and there is no post office or police station.

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Certainly, the military alone cannot control the land. The heavy lifting must now be done by UT. Its official branches need to come to the area regularly to assess the spatial reality, flora, fauna, wildlife, rare plant species, etc. that are present in abundance. As for local sentiment, Ladakhis does not seem to have a view on these issues. The award of UT status initially caused a lot of excitement but failed to meet their demands. At the heart of the matter it seems that power has since been transferred to the ruler. Their concerns are not issue-based but demand-based – lack of political representation, insufficient opinion in local governance, fear of losing control of land, jobs, immigration, etc.

It is inevitable, although the administration of Kashmir has spoiled Ladakh as well. There is no administrative accountability – financial or otherwise -. Now that all the central laws have been extended to Ladakh, the people seem to have fallen. Obviously, change will take time. But whether or not they are legitimate, their demands need to be considered. The formation of the union territory must be taken to its logical conclusion.

Writer, former ambassador, expert on Indo-Chinese affairs

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