AS a Chinese term, Aksai Chin is a misnomer. The Uyghur Turks refer to China as Xittay or Tabghach, and not as ‘Chin’. In Uyghur, Aksai Chin means ‘the white ravine’ — ‘Ak’ (white), ‘Sai’ (ravine) and Chin (real). Most of the places here have Hor(Uyghur)-Ladakhi names and not Sino-Tibetan ones.
By 1892, the Indian guards had been withdrawn. China occupied the Karakash valley, knocked down the Maharaja’s fort and built a new one at Suget Karaul.
Ladakh’s frontiers once touched the Kunlun range and bordered the ancient Buddhist Saka Kingdom of Khotan-Gaustana, known to native Ladakhis as Ling-yul, where Indians from Taxila, Gandhara and Kashmir settled in the first century BC. The Scythians ruled the area until Khotan fell to the Chinese and Kashmir to Kanishka.
Central Asian ruler Mirza Abu Bakr Dughlat ruled Khotan until Gazi Sultan Syed Khan of Kashgharia established the Yarkand Khanate in 1510.
For a long period of time, Shahidulla in the Karakash ‘Black Jade’ river valley was the gateway to the region. It became a pivotal point for Kashmir, British, Russian and Chinese empires during the Great Game.
Sumgal — ‘three fords’ in Ladakhi — is another oasis in Karakash between the Hindu-tash mountain and Aksai Chin plains. Formerly known as Kangxiwar, it is the base route from Karakash to Khotan. Kyrgyz nomads paid taxes to Yarkand, but they faced periodic raids from the Kanjutis of Hunza, who controlled the Raskam Valley.
Kashmir’s sovereignty extended up to the Hindu-tash in the mid-19th century, when Maharaja Ranbir Singh ordered the building of a fort on a bluff at Shahidulla in 1864 to prevent the spillover of unrest when Yakub Beg was driven out by the Chinese from Khotan.
A small Dogra detachment guarded the fort till 1866, when it was abandoned due to its distant location. Kokandi troops held the fort before the Chinese demolished it in the 1890s.
Remarkably, in the midst of the Great Game, British surveyor WH Johnson travelled to Khotan in 1865 to establish a forward line to thwart Russian entry into the subcontinent. Johnson fixed a point — Brinjga — as India’s boundary in the Kunlun, opposite Karanghu Tagh of Ladakh. The Chinese Yangi Langar post fell deep inside Khotanese territory. A broad slice of territory along the Kunlun range, on which Kilian and Sanju passes are located, depicted India’s northernmost boundary line. Thus, the entire Karakash valley was ascribed to be part of Kashmir.
The Ladakh-Khotan frontiers drawn by Johnson then ran eastward of Kunlun for 100 miles and took a circuitous alignment beyond the Kunlun before taking a south-easterly direction to include Aksai Chin to join the Lingzi-Thang plains of Ladakh.
Apart from the defence of Kashmir, Johnson was possibly prompted to draw the alignment for several reasons: First, Shahidulla formed a vital tract junction between the Karakoram and Kunlun ranges through which Uyghur, Indian and Tibetan caravans traversed; second, Karakash had a strong Indian Buddhist imprint since ancient times; third, the Uyghur tribes historically recognised Hindu-tagh or Hindu-tash to be the traditional frontier with India; fourth, the entire Karakash valley with its waters could have been easily brought under cultivation by farmers of Nubra and Changthang; fifth, settling the population in the valley would have been another consideration, though the area was prone to attacks by Kanjuti robbers; sixth, Yaqub Beg himself regarded the Kunlun range to be the limit of Kashgharia.
British India, however, dismissed the Maharaja’s claim to Shahidulla with an offhand attempt to romanticise it with cartography. Even before ties could be established with Kashgharia, Yaqub Beg died in 1877 and the Chinese quickly re-annexed it, renaming it Xinjiang.
The Ladakh-Turkistan boundary remained undecided. From George Hayward, Douglas Forsyth and Ney Elias to HL Ramsay, British officials torpedoed Johnson’s plan and accepted Shahidulla falling within Beg’s jurisdiction; they regarded Ak-tagh in the Karakoram range to be India’s natural boundary.
They practically showed no interest in holding on to the passes north of the Karakoram; instead, they recommended against any implicit endorsement of the Karakash valley as a claim line, and advised: (a) to consider Indus water-parting (watershed) to become a simplified frontier on geographical and ethnological grounds; and (b) to influence the Chinese to claim the territories under the Tarim drainage system.
What’s more, British Army officer Francis Younghusband suggested to Sir Mortimer Durand in 1889 that the Kunlun mountains belonged to China and the Chinese could be encouraged to fill up the gaps (no-man’s territory) in the south to serve as a buffer zone. Younghusband succeeded in persuading the Chinese during his second 1890 mission to Yarkand. Before John Ardagh, Director of Military Intelligence, could respond, the Chinese occupied Shahidulla in 1890.
Viceroy Lord Lansdowne finally sealed the fate of the Johnson Line when he said that as Shahidulla was of no value, unlikely to be coveted by Russia, the Chinese should be encouraged to take it if they wish to do so. The logic was that “the stronger China holds her own over the region, the more useful will she be to us as an obstacle to Russian advance along this line.”
To this, Lord Cross suggested in the Whitehall that “the wisest course would be to leave the other side of the natural barrier in the Chinese possession as it is evidently to our advantage that the tract of territory between the Karakoram and Kunlun mountains definitely be held by a friendly power like China.”
The British Resident in Kashmir was informed to “regard the limit of the Indus watershed as the boundary of Kashmir”. This was how the British messed up the Ladakh boundary demarcation. The Chinese were then faced with Russia’s thrust in Central Asia as they were also too weak until the 1950s to control the Kunlun and Karakoram ranges.
By 1892, the Indian guards had been withdrawn; China quickly occupied the Karakash valley, knocked down the Maharaja’s fort, and built a new one at Suget Karaul near Suget Pass. Chinese forays into the south of the Karakoram and Aksai Chin have not stopped since then.
We need to build a more Ladakhi and Uyghur narrative on Aksai China by way of invoking Maharaja Ranbir Singh, Wazir-e-Wazarat of Ladakh, William Johnson and Atalik Ghazi Yaqub Beg of Kashgharia.
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