Ever since the first reports of Chinese transgressions into Ladakh emerged in early May 2020, experts warned India was staring at a formidable security threat.

Then recently, when China’s new road cuts travel time to Karakoram Pass raised red flags, China watcher Andrew Chubb responded with, "if Xi Jinping was to conclude that Indian nationalist sentiments are so strong as to make escalation inevitable, then he might be inclined to strike first, as Mao did in 1962."

Tens of thousands of troops from both sides are still locked face to face, often just meters away, with no resolution signs. Friday’s meeting saw both sides agree to maintain “close consultations” at the diplomatic and military levels and convene again soon.

The two major border issues between these neighbors, namely the territorial disputes of Aksai Chin in the west and the McMahon Line in the east, no doubt, have their origin in the colo­nial 'cartographic mischief' a subject about which we will present new research.

In his 2020 book, China's India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World, Bertil Lintner describes how the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 dramatically altered the geopolitics of the entire region. Until then, Tibet had closer ties to India than China and was no longer a de facto independent country. One of the few in the Indian government who understood the profound significance of this change was the home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, who, only a month before his death in December 1950, wrote to Nehru,

We have to consider what the new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we know it, and the expansion of China up to our gates. Throughout history, we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalayas has been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against threats from the north. We had a friendly Tibet, which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. They had their domestic problems and never bothered us about our frontiers.

Whereby Lintner proceeds with; China’s wars have always been ideologically motivated, meant to show its superior strength vis-a-vis adversaries and to demonstrate socialist solidarity with its ‘comrades-in-arms Describing describes China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), as an ideologically motivated ‘people’s army.

Different from Lintner, Ismail Vengasseri, in his book 1962 Border War: Sino-Indian Territorial Disputes and Beyond (2020), argues that the fundamental reasons that prompted Mao’s China to adopt a belligerent attitude in its relations with India in the late 1950s stem from three aspects. First, the USA's active intervention in the dispute with an extended arm of the CIA providing military training to the Tibetan rebels, in addition to arms, ammunition, and other logistical support, had no doubt aggravated the border situation. The US factor is still a persisting issue as far as China is concerned. Sino- Indian relations since 1949 have always been intricately intertwined with the USA's active presence in between. The coven or oven operations of the CIA along the border regions, colluding with agen­cies like the anti-PRC Taiwan cliques, had been active on Indian soil. Hence, discussions on armed Sino-Indian conflicts would be incom­plete without reference to the USA. the interventions of the USA had turned the border dispute into a military conflict.

Second, overwhelming interest in the Tibet issue prevailed in India, beyond international refugee norms' standards. The Indian stand on the Tibetan issue and the passion and enthusiasm it had shown in accommodating the Tibetan rebels on the grounds of human rights played a role in worsening bilateral relations. When the Dalai Lama became a favorite in Western and Indian media and was accorded reverence on Indian soil with state honors at the cost of portraying China as a belligerent undemocratic country, the friend­ship that India and China shared gave way to mutual distrust. Nehru’s efforts to attain Asian unity, by extending support to new Communist China in the face of a hostile Western world, had gone in vain. The Chinese government accused India, stating that Tibetan rebels were working at the behest of India’s instigation. They propagated the idea that the expansionist policy of certain neighbors caused tension in the Tibetan region. In this effort, China unsuccessfully tried to win over the allegiance of various tribes inhabiting the border areas, which, no doubt, encouraged disruptive elements in the north-eastern states and other border regions. After several decades, when the Tibetan community assimilated to the Indian society and was accommodated even in the Indian military and government, Peking continued to allege that New Delhi was taking political advantage of China's internal affairs.

Third, Indian ‘reactionaries’ efforts in colluding with the Western imperialists for anti-China propaganda, which was an active component of Indian politics, played an auxiliary role in this Sino- Indian issue. All of Nehru’s detractors, among various parties, rallied in the name of Tibetan sympathy for active anti-Peking rhetoric, which got strengthened in India with US backing. The covert relations of Indian bureaucrats, press, and political leaders with the USA and other external forces strengthened the anti-China debate not only at the frontiers since 1961. But it is also illogical to assume that a militarily superior nation would not dare to strike any time to score points in national or international politics. But those who appraised the political authority about an unreal situation in the border were responsible for the debacle. Contemporary China’s recurring military muscle-flexing and belligerent attitude in the border region is also a concern in this context. What was surprising was that Peking had raised objections on several occasions when Indian official dignitaries had visited the NEFA. The infrastructural development activities of the Border Roads Organisation had also been objected to by Peking. At the same time, China was suspected of encouraging subversive activities in the region.

But as we shall see,  for all their continued relevance and ubiquity, territorial borders are rarely examined through the historical practices and ideas that actually produced them.

Lindner and Vengasseri both believe that central to the dispute is the McMahon Line, a demarcation line between Tibet and the Northeast region of India proposed by British colonial administrator Sir Henry McMahon at the 1914 Simla Convention signed between British and Tibetan representatives. It is currently the generally recognized boundary between China and India. However, the Chinese government disputes its legal status. But there is much more besides McMahon as we will show next.

We tend to agree with Vengasseri that the India-China border dispute is, in essence, a collision between two essential different patterns of legal thought.

Beyond the Westphalian model of “perfectly equal” and exclusive states that dominates the modern world system as a byproduct of European imperialism, there has existed an array of multilayered conceptions of inter-state relations that were neither “perfectly equal” nor strictly connected to the idea of exclusive control over a bounded space.1 Even within those apparently Westphalian states, sovereignty was far from being clearly delimited. In her recent work on law and geography in the Longue durée of European empires, Lauren Benton has noted that “European imperial pursuits” often produced “uneven legal geographies.”2 Although Benton’s work largely focuses on maritime examples of sovereignty, law, and geography, she also acknowledges that these “uneven” geographies included undefined land borders, or ambiguous designations for particular spaces (enclaves, corridors, etc.). While it is less surprising that maritime sovereignty and territory should be rather fluid in the legal definition, it is worth underscoring the distinction between the formal articulation of political space and the result of practices employed to produce it. Geography was employed to determine territory by attempting to rationalize and standardize boundary-making principles and practices. Frontiers and borders were not only physical spaces; they were spatial ideals reflecting a host of aspirations and anxieties of the state, both imperial and national.

Ladakh and its surroundings (with terrain). Map by David Bates-Jeffreys.


Geopolitics and the Making of Regions

In the late 1830s, towards the end of his long reign, it is said that Maharaja Ranjit Singh was shown a map that depicted in large swathes the extent of British-controlled territory on the subcontinent. After looking upon the map in silence, the aging ruler responded ominously, “sab lāl ho jāyegā [all will become red].”3 From his position in Lahore, he had witnessed the rapid expansion of the East India Company’s military-fiscal machinery and its ever-widening territory. With the defeat ofNepal'se recently unified Gurkha kingdom in 1816, the British had taken their first territorial steps into the Himalaya. By the end of the 1840s, the British had achieved, either by direct or indirect rule, expansion towards what James Mill had called “the most desirable frontier” of India.4 But a series of major problems soon arose. As we will show next, the simultaneous and contradictory view of the northwestern Himalaya as both a secure boundary and a commercial conduit produced a complex frontier for the British. The prospect of accessing the region’s high-value trade networks would tempt generations of British administrators and a couple of short-lived private ventures. Yet the more time the British spent surveying this “most desirable frontier,” the less clear that frontier became. 

This political mode of seeing distinctly reflected imperial concerns. It understood Ladakh to be first and foremost a territory to be controlled, be it for economic, political, or military gain. The political landscape of Ladakh had long been contested by aspiring conquerors and home-grown rulers alike. But it was only with the conquests of the 1830s and 1840s that the new rulers found it necessary to enclose Ladakh in an often-shadowy borderline that symbolized unambiguous sovereignty. 

Complicating the static territorial vision of this space were long-established networks of trade. The seasonal change led to uncertainties in all spheres of daily life, from trade and pilgrimage to crop yields and the survival of animal herds. Flooding, precipitation, and unusual temperature fluctuations impacted pashmina prices in India's far off plains and beyond. At the same time, these climatic variables had an even more profound impact on staples consumed closer to home. The crucial role played by the transhumant Changpa in the wool and salt trades illustrates how critical migration was to the economic livelihoods of many Ladakhis. These material connections to the landscape did not neatly transpose onto a political vision of territory. 

Detail from Frederic Drew’s “Language Map.” Frederic Drew, The Jammu and Kashmir Territories. London: Edward Stanford, 1875.

Similarly, the Himalayan landscape was imbued with cosmological significance. This no doubt resulted from an agricultural dependence on the land, but was also the result of a deep mixing of spiritual traditions at this “crossroads of high Asia.” Acknowledging this cosmological aspect of northwestern Himalayan space leads to a multidimensional image of Ladakh that complicates a strictly political conception of space. Mountains, rivers, streams, and trees were associated with particular deities, many of whom were worshipped through sub-village and village-level social groupings. This further connected individual Ladakhis to their local environments by means of a variety of spiritual-spatial beliefs and practices. Through these connections, natural features like mountains would, in many cases, become “centering” objects that tied the landscape together rather than divide it.

While the bounding of village-level geography was precisely reflected in walls, irrigation systems, and other structures, the bounding of the larger polity of Ladakh was much less defined. Instead, distances reflected the space between points such as a particular mountain pass, stream, village, or pilgrimage site. As we will show, a novel kind of geography would soon arise to transform the spatial conception of Ladakh. A region that had long been a nexus would be increasingly pushed to a new, ill-defined periphery.


The secure boundary and commercial conduit syndrome

A century after Governor-General Hardinge had requested “clear and well-defined boundaries,” the British still lacked a satisfactory border in the northwestern Himalaya. Mosts reflected by the production of this was reflected maps that failed to include any borders in the region. As was later in 1962, “Survey of India maps issued in 1865, 1903, 1917, 1929, 1936, and 1938 do not show any boundary at all in the western (i.e., Ladakh) sector.”5 These borderless maps illustrated the formal representation of territorial ignorance on supposedly precise maps (See Figure 1.).

Figure 1. “Map of India (showing provinces and districts).” Published under the direction of Colonel Sir S. G. Burrard, Surveyor General of India, 1915. 1st Edition 1915; 2nd 1930; 3rd 1934; 4th, 1936. Scale 1 inch = 160 miles. IOR/X/9070. Courtesy British Library.

In the British imperial context, the practice of imbuing maps with authority involved transforming terra incognita into the colonial territory, a process that oscillated between surveying the land and rendering it on paper. D. Graham Burnett describes how Americans charged with resolving boundary disputes in Guyana went in search of maps and documents in Europe, presuming the scientific accuracy and the completeness of work done on the ground in the tropics of South America. In appearing to present physicality, cartographic images attempt to settle the political and technological struggles they represent.  

The northwestern Himalayan frontier's cartographical construction was itself an epistemological development of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and drew on the work of many geographers, most prominently Alexander von Humboldt, “the scientific traveler par excellence.”6 For British surveyors and administrators of the mid-nineteenth century, the naturalness of the great Himalayan barrier, and its apparent linearity, could be reinforced through its water partings, which increasingly acted as territorial demarcations and formed the basis of a major principle of international boundary-making enshrined in international law by the twentieth century. The rise of cartographical thinking illustrates both the growing authority of colonial (and eventually postcolonial) maps and the evolving logics of border making. Surveying and map-making came to represent a vision of a space organized and triangulated through specific measurement and vision technologies. But the clarity of that vision was often obstructed by complex mountainous landscapes, as was the case in Ladakh and the broader northwestern Himalaya.

The story of mapping the northwestern Himalaya demonstrates that it is important to disaggregate three apparently interwoven aspects of these colonial maps as historical sources: first, the representation of land and water rendered on the map from a variety of surveying practices and speculations; second, the lines drawn over that representation to denote political units and their limits (aka territory); and third, the cartographic and geographic rationales used to render and determine the first and the second aspects. While historians of the Himalayan borderland do acknowledge inaccuracies on maps (particularly pre-1899 maps) as sources of disputes arising from this first aspect, they tend to ignore the third aspect, the process and the rationale involved in making the land and its supposedly natural boundaries conform to the map.

Paying closer attention to how practices (the rise of the science of surveying, and the coeval rise of the geographical sciences) and products (maps, survey reports, the regular publications of the Royal Geographical Society) worked to facilitate this shift to a more border centric world can reveal the deeply uneven texture of the process of border making. Such an analysis could denaturalize maps and denaturalize frontiers and the supposedly natural foundations upon which they were established. The history of the long-elusive border in Ladakh, a boundary supposedly derived from mountain systems and watersheds, offers a perfect test case for such a revision. The production of borderless maps of the northwestern Himalayan region reflected the simultaneous lack of sufficiently precise information, and an unwillingness to acknowledge that ignorance. It also reflected the unsuccessful application of a geographical concept, the water-parting principle, that was meant to provide a clear means to determining natural and political limits. The nature in natural was all too human.

Unlike the North-West Frontier with the Durand Line and the North-East Frontier with the McMahon Line, the post-independence northwestern Himalaya never inherited a single “line.” Like the McMahon and Durand Lines, the general principle of following the water parting of the Indus watershed had long been accepted as the ideal borderline in mountainous terrain. But the arid Aksai Chin offered no clear mountain range upon which to impose such a line. As post-1947 surveys would later reveal, much of the Aksai Chin would actually drain its waters into the Tarim Basin, a self-contained, endorheic watershed, instead of the Indus. But by the time of the transfer of power to an independent India in 1947, Ladakh still had a number of lines of hypothetical borders. It had the Johnson Line of 1865, the product of a traverse survey by William H. Johnson, who likely sketched in (or had the Survey of India sketch in) a presumed crescent of mountains that were not actually surveyed. Then there was the Macartney-MacDonald Line suggested to the Qing Government in MacDonald’s now-infamous memorandum, based in part of an earlier Chinese map given to George Macartney in Kashgar. And then there were the maps with no lines at all. This last group of official documents, products of the standardization and restriction of imperial maps, reflected official acknowledgment of territorial illegibility. The requirements for boundary demarcation exceeded the amount of information available about India's mountainous northern periphery. This illegibility, and the official practices that accompanied it, were bequeathed to India at independence.

Figure 2. Detail of “Territories of the Maharaja of Jammoo and Kashmir” Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1903. Note “Monument on N. side to Mr. Dalgleish murdered here” is visible above the point marking the Karakoram Pass.

The northwestern Himalaya’s continued borderless state also represented a profound irony to the geopolitical sensibilities of the frontier experts who spent so much time concerned with a region with neither immediate military threat, nor a large commercial pay off. The region had been one of the key imperial laboratories for border making and the development of the geographical sciences. It was central to the concerns of frontier experts and geographers across the globe. But when 1947 arrived, this once central “crossroads of high Asia” had become a palimpsest of frontier configurations, configurations that reflected a consensus on the geopolitical significance of this mountainous, inhospitable space, but with no detailed survey to support the hypothetical borderline.

When the Radcliffe Commission took six weeks to draw the lines that would partition India, they dispensed with any of the rationalized border-making principles that such people as Holdich had taken such pains to develop.7 Instead, the commissioners used district census records to determine, by religious majority, which districts would belong to future India, and which to Pakistan. Mountbatten even went so far as to state that it was not in his, nor in Britain’s, interest to leave India and Pakistan with defensible borders.8 Post-independence friction along the newly demarcated borderlines was of no concern to the imperial administrators eager to leave a country they could no longer control.

In Ladakh, the transfer of power was notable only in its absence. In 1946, the last British Joint Commissioner left Leh at the end of another lackluster trading season and did not return the following summer. The Resident in Srinagar did not bother assigning someone to the posting when the transfer of power became apparent in early 1947. Under the dual layers of Dogra and British rule, Ladakh’s political existence became tied to Jammu and Kashmir's princely state. The exceptional and “asymmetrical” features of the region that Ney Elias and many other frontier experts had earlier noted complicated an already complex problem. The Dogras were a Hindu dynasty ruling over the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.9 This princely state, in turn, had come to rule over the Buddhist-majority Ladakh. The uncertainty as to which state Jammu and Kashmir would accede was mirrored within the state itself by concerns in Ladakh. Would it join India or Pakistan? By the early 1950s, a third option also materialized: Tibet

The geopolitical significance of the region, coupled with the post-1947 disputed status of Kashmir, put Ladakh in a paradoxical position. It was simultaneously central to enormous magnitude's geopolitical tensions while increasingly isolated as part of a still ambiguously defined territory. By becoming appended to the imperial-turned-national frontier, Ladakhis slowly became more aware of their isolated, peripheral position. More significantly, as postcolonial nationalism infused the young state’s conception of itself, that nationalism became attached to the territory bequeathed to it. But the exact shape of that geo body was still far from clear.

Whereby the “McMahon Line” was never fully demarcated on the ground, but was instead hastily superimposed over a map of the borderlands and, like the infamous “Durand Line,” became a source of post-independence territorial disputes.


Enter Olaf Caroe

As far as Tibet was concerned, a more specific border demarca­tion, distinguishing its territory from China, as well as the extent of the Tibetan autonomous region from Chinese sovereignty as a ‘blessing’ from the British, was the avowed aspiration of these sit­tings. The demarcation of a borderline between India and Tibet was neither the professed aim of the tripartite Simla Convention nor was it a concern for either Tibet or China. Therefore the red outer line did not go into the nitty-gritty of the border between India and Tibet. But McMahon and the team had secretly made efforts for an made the mystery surrounding their actions a part of history, inserted fraudulent and falsified documents into the archives which, in due course, largely influenced the historical narrative of the nature of the Sino-Indian border. Since the Simla Convention had given a fractured mandate, the McMahon Line had a fetal death at its inception itself. What remains in the archives is the presence of Olaf Kirkpatrick Kruuse Caroe's distorted version and, therefore, the borderline could better be called the ‘Olaf Caroe Line’.

Olaf Caroe (15 November 1892 – 23 November 1981) was an administrator in British India, working for the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Political Service. He served as the Foreign Secretary to India's Government during World War II and later as the Governor of the North-West Frontier Province (the frontier with Afghanistan). As Foreign Secretary, he was responsible for reviving the McMahon Line, which included the Assam Himalayan frontier (present-day Arunachal Pradesh) within India. After retirement, Caroe took on the role of a strategist of the Great Game and the Cold War on the southern periphery of the Soviet Union. His ideas are believed to have been highly influential in shaping Britain and the United States' post-War policies. Scholar Peter Brobst calls him the "quintessential master of the Great Game" and the "foremost strategic thinker of British India" in the years before independence.


China's creative mapmaking

As we have described elsewhere, also the Chinese worked with what they among others called 'Land and Water' maps in order to weaponize the study of history and geography. Thus in 1928 the director of the Nanjing government’s Ministry of Propaganda, Dai Jitao called for the establishment of geography departments at all the country’s major universities, arguing that they would play a vital role in national defense. The output of these departments was dedicated to serving the state and its frontier mission. The Chinese historian Ge Zhaoguang has described this period in academia as ‘national salvation crushing enlightenment’ (jiuwang yadao qimeng).

The nationalists felt the need to invent why the non-Chinese parts – Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Manchuria – should remain part of this new country.  

Yet how could they persuade a child in a big coastal city, for example, to feel any connection with a sheepherder in Xinjiang? Why should they even have a connection? The general purpose of human geography was to explain how varying environments had created groups with differing cultures. However, nationalism required all these different groups to feel part of a single culture and loyal to a single state. It was up to nationalist geographers to resolve the puzzle. They found two main ways to do so. One group of textbook authors stated that all Chinese citizens were the same: they were members of a single ‘yellow’ race and a single nation, and no further explanation was needed. However, a second group acknowledged that different groups did exist but were nonetheless united by something greater. Within this group, some authors made use of ‘yellow race’ ideas; some used the idea of a shared, civilizing Hua culture. In contrast, others stressed the ‘naturalness’ of the country’s physical boundaries.

The multifaceted image of the Han Chinese nationalism further developed in the buildup of modern Chinese statehood. Han Chinese nationalists had created a hostile opinion towards ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans, viewing them as dangerous for the Chinese state due to its cultural differences and lack of sympathy for ethnic Han Chinese.

A major contribution to this patriotic education movement was the series of textbooks written by Zhang Qiyun. In 1928 the Commercial Press published one as Benguo Dili – ‘Our Geography.’ Its key message was that China formed a natural unit despite its enormous size and variety. 

The book contained various maps of the country drawn on blank backgrounds so that the rest of the world disappeared from view. The simple black line marking the national boundary encompassed huge areas that were not actually under the government's control: the independent states of Mongolia and Tibet. Zhang portrayed them as a natural part of the Republic, nonetheless. How reality would be reconciled with the map was not explained to the pupils. Remarkably, given present-day politics, there was a significant omission: Taiwan was not drawn in any of the textbook's national maps. It seems that, in Zhang’s view, the ‘natural’ shape of the Republic was exactly the same as the shape of the Qing Empire at its collapse in 1911. Mongolia was included; Taiwan however was not. Neither were today's so virulently disputed rocks and reefs of the South China Sea did not feature at all.

Zhang's book was far from being the only example. Dozens of geography textbooks were printed during the 1920s and 1930s, and they all ignored Taiwan while stressing the importance of Mongolia and Tibet.

The textbook writers argued that the answer to the ‘border question’ was to ‘civilize’ the inhabitants. One of the textbook writers at that time, Ge Suicheng, argued that; ‘We should urgently promote the acculturation of the Mongols, Hui [Muslims] and Tibetans so that they are not lured by the imperialists, [and we should] move [Han] inhabitants to the border areas for colonization...’

The historians Robert Culp and Peter Zarrow have documented many examples of other geography textbooks that use different, sometimes contradictory arguments and analogies to persuade students of the ‘naturalness’ of the Republic’s putative borders.

The leader of that time nationalists Chiang Kai-shek lobbied Indian nationalists to win support for his claim on Tibet and sought the early return of Hong Kong’s New Territories from Britain.10 The British were not prepared to concede either point, but they were willing to see Japan give back Manchuria and Taiwan. The compromise was sealed at the Cairo Conference between Chiang, Churchill, and Roosevelt in November 1943. 


Chinese government troops this time under Mao invaded Tibet on 7 October 1950.

By the late 1950s, optimism in India over the Panchsheel (“five virtues”) Treaty and overtures of Sino-Indian brotherhood (“Hindī-Cīnī bhā’ī- bhā’ī”) had faded.48 The 1954 treaty that had asserted mutual respect between China and India on issues of territorial integrity and sovereignty wrongly assumed that both sides shared the same idea of those territories. That same year the Government of India revised its official maps that showed “undemarcated” or “undefined” borders in Ladakh to show a definite border, a composite line of the Johnson Line of 1865 and the 1899 Macartney-MacDonald Line based on no additional surveying or demarcation.49 This was, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s estimate, the simplest way of dealing with the continued borderlessness inherited from the British across much of the Himalaya. But when Bakula Rinpoche (who served as the First Deputy Minister of Ladakh Affairs) visited western Tibet in the summer of 1957, he reported to the Indian government (pictured below) that the Chinese military had been constructing a road across the uninhabited Aksai Chin plateau, connecting Xinjiang and Tibet.

Sino-Indian relations were made even worse when, in 1959, India received the Dalai Lama, who had fled an uprising in Lhasa and was subsequently followed into exile by nearly one hundred thousand Tibetans. And a series of incidents between Indian and Chinese soldiers and officials in the northwestern and northeastern Himalaya began to push Indian public opinion against China.

In writings produced within the People's Republic of C and some scholarly writings abroad, the term Tibet is used for the western half of the Tibetan plateau (referred to in Chinese as the Qinghai-Tibet plateau) or at least those parts that currently are claimed by  China as lying within its borders. This area often referred to in Tibetan as central Tibet but in fact, including much of far western  Tibet as well  (Houzang or “Farther Tibet,” as the Republicans called it), matched roughly the polity directly ruled by the Lhasa-based government of which the Dalai Lama was the head from 1642 till the arrival of the Chinese army in 1950–51. Since 1965, the Chinese authorities and writers in China have also used the term “Tibetan Autonomous Region” to refer to that area. Conversely, they refer to the Tibetan-populated areas in the eastern part of the plateau as “Tibetan areas” (Ch.: Zangqu) or more specifically as “Tibetan autonomous areas” that are under the administration of the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, or Yunnan. However, the former government in Lhasa claimed and at certain times had control of some areas particularly in the eastern half of the plateau, the northeastern and southeastern part.

The nature of the British's border dispute at their departure remained dormant between the two nations. The official documents of the government of British India in the years pre­ceding their departure show a vivid picture of such a dispute that had been lying latent in both sectors. Records reveal that the nationalist government in China had served several protest notes to British India because border posts in the north-east frontier region were pushed from the foothills of Assam towards the vicinity of the McMahon Line. The republican government had sent protest notes to the British Embassy in China. In April 1947, during the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, Chinese delegates protested against a map of Asia showing Tibet outside the boundaries of China, and subsequently, the map was withdrawn. This shows that the disputes were present even before the departure of the British and that it did not originate between the PRC and independent India. However, in the early half of the 1950s, Peking and New Delhi adopted cordiality in relations and did not immediately speak their minds on the border issue. But a silent phase of frontier consolidation was in progress on both sides, without leading to clashes.

In 1951, India peacefully annexed Tawang and started implement­ing the reports of the Himmatsinhji Committee in the period 1951-1954 by mobilizing frontier posts. At the same time, India extended several friendly gestures, including recognition of Tibet's Chinese occupation, and relinquished all its privileges in that territory. But during this period, the PRC made an impression that it was by and large silent on the border issue. However, Peking was also actively working on a secret construction of a road connecting Sinkiang and Tibet through Aksai Chin. China strongly believed that independent India’s percep­tion of the frontiers with China was basically based on British imperialist devices' outcome. But the issues were slowly entering a phase of complication by 1954-1955 with the publication of a new map by India in 1954 specifying the Sino-Indian borderlines as per its claim. So the divergence between the two nations in the perception of the border started getting stark as early as the bhai bhai days. In the meantime, the news of Aksai Chin road also began to get attention by 1957. When the issue of the road was brought to Peking's attention, they pointed out that New Delhi’s occupation of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) was based on an imperialistically devised McMahon Line that was illegal. Despite all these grey areas, bilateral relations were cordial and not complicated, and any serious divergence in per­ception of the border began to get aggravated only at a later point. It was with the Tibetan Uprising in 1956 and New Delhi’s expression of empathy with the rebellion.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, and an unknown woman in a car on the Hindustan-Tibet Road in Shimla. The sign says “Tibet 182 [miles].

In part two we will detail how the legacies of the 1962 war continue to shape our perceptions.  

In part three we will detail the CIA's involvement in the 1962 war and what all of this means for today.


1. The degree to which the Westphalian model can lay claim to a modern form of sovereignty, superseding pre-modern models like tributary systems has been a source of debate among historians, most notable historians of Qing China. James Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995) called into question John Fairbank’s Chinese “tributary system” by illustrating the degree to which Qing “guest ritual” during the Macartney Embassy (1793) constituted a Qing conception of sovereignty that was neither solely a guise for trade, nor the isolationist and Sinocentric behavior that the British read it to be. Rather, Hevia argued, the embassy represented two competing views of sovereignty articulated by two expanding empires. Elsewhere, Hevia has also called attention to the degree to which the British themselves employed tributary systems within their own empire. See James L. Hevia, “Tributary Systems,” The Encyclopedia of Empire (John Wiley & Sons, 2016). 

2. Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900, xii. Although borders and borderlands are ubiquitous in the modern world, historians and political scientists often restrict their analyses to the political rivalries between imperial powers and their successor states. In so doing, they tend to overlook the physical practices that generated what is now often considered to be “peripheral” spaces. By drawing on insights from anthropology, geography, and environmental studies, I argue that the use of geography by the British imperial state reveals the increasingly intimate relationship between imperial security and the process of conceptualizing and making legible political territory. This relationship reflects a major spatial reorientation of the modern period, a geopolitical vision of the world as a set of coterminous territories tied to, and dependent upon, geographical features. This history also suggests that on its periphery at least, the postcolonial state is often still an imperial one.

3. The episode may be apocryphal. Majumdar in his Advanced History of India (p. 741) mentions the remark but fails to give a source, date, or location. Was it originally spoken in the given Hindustani or in the maharaja’s native Punjabi (“sabh lal ho javega”)? More context is given in a less authoritative chapter by S. K. Pachauri, “British Perceptions of Relations with Maharaja Ranjit Singh,” in Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Ruler and Warrior, ed. T. R. Sharma (Chandigarh: Panjab University Publication Bureau, 2005). No mention of the statement is made in Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia and Parm Bakhshish Singh’s An Overview of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his Times (2001), or in the expansive Life and Times of Ranjit Singh: A Saga of Benevolent Despotism, by Bikrama Jit Hasrat (1977). Despite the questionable nature of its origin, it is instructive to note that Ranjit Singh has recently reemerged as a major political figure of South Asian history whose short-lived empire has wrongfully been consigned to a peripheral position because of its defeat by Britain and the relatively more central role played by the declining Mughal empire in the central narrative arc of South Asian political history. For an example of this type of literature, see Patwant Singh and Jyoti M. Rai, Empire of the Sikhs: the life and times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (2008).

4. “Evidence of James Mill,” 16 February 1832: Parliamentary Papers, 1831-2, Vol. xiv, p. 8, Qu. 49. 83

5. National Archives of the United Kingdom (NAUK). DO 196/190, 1962, “India’s Himalayan Frontier.”

6. Kapil Raj, “La Construction de L’empire de La Géographie: L’odyssée Des Arpenteurs de Sa Très Gracieuse Majesté, La Reine Victoria, En Asie Centrale,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 52, no. 5 (October 1997): 1157.

7. The history of the Partition of India has generated a vast body of work. Recent notable histories include: Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007); Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

8. Chatterji, “The Fashioning of a Frontier: The Radcliffe Line and Bengal’s Border Landscape, 1947-52.”193.

9. See Mridu Rai, Hindu Ruler, Muslim Subject: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Chitralekha Zutshi, Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

10. Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007, pp. 314–49; Simon L. Chang, ‘A “Realist” Hypocrisy? Scripting Sovereignty in Sino-Tibetan Relations and the Changing Posture of Britain and the United States’, Asian Ethnicity, 26 (2011), pp. 325–6.

11. Literally translated as “Indian-Chinese brother-brother,” the term was used to refer to the Indian government’s post-independence assertion of a longstanding historical connection and growing brotherhood between the two countries, underscored by the 1954 Panchsheel Treaty.

12. Alastair Lamb, The Sino-Indian border in Ladakh (Asian publications series), 1975, 70.


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