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LADAKH, bordering on Sinkiang and extending even further north than Tibet, forms the eastern half of the wedge that peninsular India thrusts into the heart of central Asia. From earliest times great caravans of trade, tides of culture and sometimes waves of conquest passed through Ladakh and its capital, Leh, as part of a more or less continuous intercourse between India and Central Asia. It was by this route, through what is now the State of Jammu and Kashmir, that Buddhism travelled to China from India via Sinkiang, becoming the universal religion in the entire region in between, and as far as the shores of the Caspian in the west. As late as the seventh century, when the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang passed through Central Asia, he noted the dominance of Buddhism and Indian culture there. At that time, these regions which are now so remote were the crossroads of the civilized world.
With Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India in 1498, the centers of power shifted to the maritime countries of Europe and trade found new and cheaper routes across the oceans. Central Asia lost its importance, strategic and commercial. Then the great mountain barriers also closed in, and although a thin trickle of travel and trade continued in the traditional manner the local societies lapsed into serene isolation and became totally stagnant.
And so in Ladakh, while all its people know and worship the Buddha whose message probably came to them in the time of the Indian Emperor Asoka (circa 273-232 B.C.), they generally do not know today about Mahatma Gandhi. His photograph hangs in Hemis, an ancient and famous monastery 24 miles from Leh, to the right of the golden image of the Buddha. It had been presented to the monastery by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Nehru, when he went there a few years ago. But when I asked the Lamas whose photograph it was, they did not know; and on being told it was Mahatma Gandhi, they did not know who Gandhi was. Similarly, while the Buddhist "wheel of life" literally runs the lives of the Ladakhis, the "wheel of the road" has yet to make its appearance. There is as yet nothing on wheels of any description in Ladakh--not even the slow, squeaking, venerable bullock cart, the familiar landmark of Indian scenes.
Leh itself is more of a village than a town, an untidy cluster of low, squat, flat-roofed structures made of sun-baked bricks and with a population of only 3,000. It has just one main broad street with small shops on either side selling cheap cotton prints, colored scarves, grains, salt, butter, tea and other similar humble requirements. The rest are narrow winding lanes lined with blank grey walls and barred doors.
Atop the eminences are the Gumpas--the Buddhist monasteries. Physically, materially and spiritually they dominate the lives of the people, who know no other "ism" except "Lamaism." They are so powerful that it has not been possible for the government to interfere with their traditional rights and privileges. Thus, though landlordism has been abolished in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the monasteries of Ladakh have been exempted from the application of the reform. Yet they are the biggest landowners in the district, each owning thousands of acres as against the average holding of a Ladakhi family of a meager three acres. They continue to rent out their lands at exorbitant rates and even exploit free labor. The Ladakhi local leader and political representative in the Kashmir state assembly and government is also the head Lama--Kaushak Bakula.
Actually, so long as Kashmir was an autonomous state under an Indian ruler, the Ladakhis were a forgotten and unknown people. The British considered their land as of great strategic importance and they posted a special officer in Leh to watch British interests; but nobody paid any attention to the people. And so until 1947 there were less than half a dozen primary schools in the district; practically no medical facilities, aside from the local amchi, who prescribes the same cure for both men and animals--by branding; the minimum of administration; in fact, no features or attributes of modern life at all. The state of society could only be described as primeval.
In 1957, also, there is no piped water; no telephone; no paved road; no industry; no newspaper; and no local democracy in any form. Till recently there was scarcely any money in circulation. The barter system prevailed and is still extensively in use. Almost none of the people has seen a train and very few an automobile. When they do see a car for the first time, they may rush to offer it grass and water. The mass of the people are exceedingly poor and there is no middle class. They live mainly by agriculture, near the perennial springs and streams, for everything, including trees, must be irrigated. In the extensive pastures of Chang Tang, to the east, they are still pure nomads exactly as their forefathers were three thousand years ago.
Such, then, in the mid-twentieth century, are life and its pace in this distant district, once considered an exceedingly important British outpost. The region of northern Kashmir as a whole, including Ladakh, Baltistan, Gilgit, Nagar and Hunza, forms a deep salient into Central Asia. Its frontier touches Afghanistan at the northwestern extreme; then it closely approaches the Soviet territory (some maps show a common border for about 20 miles); thereafter it runs in a southeasterly direction for about 400 miles along Sinkiang; and then turns south contiguous with Tibet for another 450 miles. At a pivotal point lies Leh, at the crossing of the routes from Yarkand in the north, Lhasa to the east, and Srinagar to the south.
This area came to be known as one of Britain's most "sensitive" possessions in the last century, both in the scheme of defense of British India and as a base for Britain herself to pursue a forward policy in Asia. For here also converged the other two of the largest empires of the world as it was then, the Russian and the Chinese. The confluence of these three impregnated once again the almost dead and forgotten heartland of Asia with a revived political and strategic significance.
China, however, was as yet a weak Power. She therefore avoided any international involvements and endeavored merely to keep her traditional claims open. The direct rivalry, accordingly, was confined to Britain and Russia, who after much intrigue and manœuvring, at the peak of their expansion, met appropriately around the Roof of the World--the Pamirs.
Throughout the last century Russia's expansion in Inner Asia, especially the fear that she might attack India, was the constant bogy of British statesmen. To a great extent it conditioned British policy in this part of the world and was one of the reasons for Britain's far-from-fruitful involvements in Afghanistan, Sinkiang and Tibet. In view of their constant state of unsettlement these countries were considered, to use a modern phrase, "power vacuums," and Britain sought to fill them lest Russia fill them instead.
Of these three empire builders in Central Asia, Britain has now withdrawn totally, and her legacy, including the northern districts of Kashmir, has been partitioned between the two new states of India and Pakistan. Both the Russians and the Chinese, however, are still there, firmly installed and consolidated. China, formerly the "weak third," is now herself a Communist Power and rapidly becoming modernized. Recently she has extended effective control, as distinct from the traditional distant suzerainty, over both Sinkiang and Tibet.
With extension of the mutual frontiers of the Soviet Union and China, now in friendship and ideological alliance, a new center of gravity likely to influence strongly the political balance of the world has developed in Central Asia. Both Britain and the United States are intensely concerned with the decisive area but neither has now any direct access to it.
Obviously, any further Russian or Chinese expansion in Central Asia can only be southward at the expense of India or Pakistan. The danger is heightened by the fact that the borders are still largely undefined and several rights and claims are in dispute.
Thus, according to K.P.S. Menon, the Chinese during the T'ang dynasty "performed the remarkable feat of sending an army of 100,000 men which marched up the Pamirs from Kashgar, crossed the Darkot Pass (15,400 feet) into Yasin, occupied the whole of the Gilgit and Hunza valley, then known as Little Polu, and turned it into a military district with a garrison of 10,000 men. By the end of the eighth century Chinese authority in this region declined--and indeed disappeared forever; but the tradition of Chinese dominion over Kanjut has survived. And until the Revolution of 1911 the Rulers of Hunza used to send 16 misqals of gold to the Emperor of China for which they got handsome presents in return."[i] This "tribute" in recognition of Chinese suzerainty continued to be sent in spite of the fact that Hunza constituted a part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and was garrisoned by troops commanded by British officers.
On the other hand, adds Mr. Menon, "until recently Hunza had the right not merely to graze their cattle in the Pamirs but to levy grazing fees from others who did." In 1936, however, the Chinese encroached on these customary rights and seized sheep and two men of the Mir of Hunza in Sarikol.
Obviously, then, the Chinese frontier claims in the complex Pamir region are still open to definition and re-definition between India, Pakistan and China. In the circumstances, the strategic importance of Ladakh and northern Kashmir is self-evident, and in fact there is widespread apprehension that it offers the most facile route of entry to Communist forces, ideological and physical, into the Indian subcontinent. As Josef Korbel says:
Expansionist powers have always moved into militarily undefended spaces, and it is no reflection on the fighting spirit of the Indian and Pakistani forces to state that they would be no match for the combined strength of a Chinese and Soviet onslaught, facilitated, as it would be, from within by the disruptive activities of the Communist fifth column and the almost paralyzing hostility that now exists between India and Pakistan. Indeed, one does not need to think in terms of an open attack, but rather in terms of spasmodic infiltration and the subjugation of exposed areas close to the Soviet-Chinese boundaries.[ii]
Almost every Western commentator has expressed the same fears. To what extent are they justified? How far is India unaware of these dangers or guilty of deliberately ignoring them, as some openly allege and others imply?
Let us note first of all that considerable parts of the area under survey, namely the tribal dependencies of Hunza, Nagar and Gilgit and the western portion of Ladakh and Baltistan, are occupied by Pakistan. The socio-economic condition of their sparse and scattered population is as backward as that in Ladakh, or even worse. One factor considered a safeguard against their being Communized is that they are all Muslims. But then so are their cousins and neighbors across the border in Sinkiang. Another is that Pakistan is a recipient of United States military aid and is an active member of the Baghdad Pact and SEATO.
The fact that India has not joined the Western defense system is important as regards the situation in Ladakh, which is Indian territory. Moreover, there is a solid bloc of 40,939 Buddhists there, all of whom are ecclesiastically under Lhasa. An added reason why the danger of Communist infiltration is considered a greater possibility and likelihood in this part of the territory is that it is contiguous with both Tibet and Sinkiang. Historically, further, Ladakh was a part of Tibet till the fifteenth century, when it became independent under a line of Tibetan kings who accepted the Dalai Lama as their suzerain. It was only around 1840 that Zorawar Singh, an Indian soldier of great repute, conquered Ladakh, Baltistan and Gilgit for his master Gulab Singh, who in 1846 was installed by the British as the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir. The modern frontiers of Kashmir were born at that time.
Racially, the Ladakhis are the same stock as the Tibetans. Economically, also, their traditional ties have been mainly with Lhasa and with Yarkand, in Sinkiang. From Yarkand came rice and mules, beautiful carpets, handicrafts and luxury goods. (This trade has ceased now and Sinkiang has been declared closed territory by the Chinese.) From Tibet came, and still come, salt, tea, butter, wool and so on. Local culture, the style of living, the household furnishings, the decorations and motifs of art are all from Sinkiang, Tibet or China beyond. From India the only import of significance seems to be Buddha, but his worship also is totally in "Lhasa form."
There is obviously danger, therefore, that ideological propaganda will infiltrate from across the border and will find a favorable soil in Ladakh, despite all the precautions that the Government of India may take and is taking. Whether it will strike root is not quite so certain. Actually, it is not so much the ideology that is likely to arouse a response in the local people; they are perhaps too backward for it. It is the report of the "fantastic" development evidently taking place in Sinkiang and Tibet that has the simple Ladakhi agog with wonder and envy. There is not a single factory yet in Leh--no electricity even. Not so long ago Sinkiang too was jogging along in the "mule age." Now there is even an atomic power plant there.
No Communists are yet in Ladakh but the basic problem there is that of all new democracies: established order is very old, very weak and very tottering. Its powerful elements are also the reactionary elements, and although they can be depended upon to oppose Communism tooth and nail, because it will have no place for them, they must also become the first victims of any truly democratic reform. The choice for the Indian Government is therefore not easy. It is either to leave these interests intact, indeed bolster them further, and permit them to continue oppressing the population and holding it in ignorance and backwardness; or to destroy them and rapidly "democratize" the society and in so doing destroy the only existing social bulwark against Communism. The present administration in Ladakh is following a compromise policy of harnessing the traditional vested interests themselves to work to promote democracy--in other words, to commit suicide. It is tightrope walking and the outcome is difficult to foresee. But the sincere effort is there. In the meantime the government is also trying to counter the Red threat by improving the local standard of life by positive and constructive measures. Ladakh is now included in the development program of the State of Kashmir; it has a Five-Year Plan of its own and the necessary financial allocation.
As a result, there now are over 70 primary schools and two high schools in Ladakh. This year four Ladakhi students took science for their high school examination for the first time. The newest structure in Leh is the 20-bed hospital. Here the first batch of 12 midwives and eight apothecaries to man the first village dispensaries of modern medicine is undergoing training. Also as part of the Five-Year program, efforts are being made to improve the local breeds of cattle. New canals to reclaim lands for cultivation are being dug and experimental agricultural farms have been set up. This is highly important, as the area has only one crop a year, due to the severe winter, and its seed rate is very low. Only wheat, barley and gram are cultivated.
Above all, a motor road is under construction to connect Leh with Srinagar, a distance of 252 miles. Only this will be able to break the present chronic isolation of the land and its people. At present the only regular line of communication with India is an air service of Dakotas between Leh and Srinagar which is able to function once or twice a week for barely 20 weeks in the year, in summer when the weather is fine. Even the caravan route, which normally takes two to three weeks to traverse, is closed for pony transport from October to the end of May. To fly a bag of cement to Leh costs Rs. 40. No steel is to be seen there nor, of course, modern machinery or equipment of any sort. Practically the only "modern" tools that it has been possible to transport so far are a couple of "mediaeval" spinning wheels and handlooms of improved design. The Ladakhis spin and weave their own domestic woolen requirements on taklis (hand spindles) and their looms are so primitive as to weave cloth only nine inches wide and of a very rough texture. Other cottage industries like carpet weaving are also being introduced for the first time.
Official Indian policy discounts the likelihood of a physical invasion by this route by either Russia or China. But this is not because, as is widely believed, Nehru is convinced of the "non-aggressive nature of the Soviet and Chinese policies" and therefore "underestimates the outside threat to India."[iii] That is an oversimplification. The position is that with the western part of Kashmir under the control of Pakistan, India for the time being does not physically adjoin any Soviet territory. There remains China. With China, India shares a common frontier for 1,800 miles, which means that the problem is not confined to Ladakh but is 1,800 miles long.
Most of this frontier with China runs over the world's highest and mostly uncharted ranges of eternal snows, the Himalayas. Here lies perhaps the longest and certainly the tallest and coldest divide in the cold war. Thus the only route from Leh to Yarkand, in Sinkiang, is across the mighty massif of the Karakorams, called "the whitest, snowiest and iciest range outside the polar regions." It crosses five passes, each more than 17,000 feet high.
As in northern Kashmir, most of this frontier is undetermined and open to dispute, for the McMahon Line, which was supposed to have demarcated the border in 1914, was never accepted by China. Several other caravan routes from Tibet into India may be more convenient than the ones to Leh. Moreover, along this same Indo-Tibetan border further east lie the three independent kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, which are as vulnerable from every point of view as Ladakh. In 1887, for example, the Tibetans did make an "inexplicable invasion" into Sikkim, but were driven back the following year with British help. India is fully conscious of the possibility of these states being "Tibetanized." She is responsible for their protection should their security be threatened from any quarter. Repeatedly she has made plain that she will not brook any outside interference with their independence or in their internal affairs.
As for the "spaces" lining the Indian side of this front, they are not so much "militarily undefended," to use Mr. Korbel's phrase, as undefendable. Not even with much greater resources at her command, in fact, could India ever hope to guard wholly, much less seal, her entire border with China. What is more important, however, is that it is patently unnecessary to do so. For even though superior modern technology on the other side might overcome to some extent the difficult topographical and climatic conditions of the terrain, annexation could be achieved only at an inordinately high cost, for a short period and with barren results. The desperate enterprise would end ultimately in disaster for the aggressor. The entire area is so rugged, so poor, so desolate that it permits neither the movement of large bodies of troops and heavy equipment nor the stationing of sizable garrisons.
Furthermore, India has no rivalries, interests or involvements in Central Asia comparable to those of Britain in the past--except for the unfortunate dispute with Pakistan which is confined to the subcontinent. Moreover, India has no ambition to project herself or her influence beyond her frontiers. Today the northern border of India is no longer a part of the frontier of another nation involved in power politics on a world-wide scale. India's frontiers do not have their former international importance but have shrunk to their own national dimensions.
India has taken as her first premise, then, that it is utterly impracticable to try to fortify militarily the whole of her northern frontier with China. Even so, wherever it is defensible it is guarded.
The second premise is that it would be equally futile for any Power to try to cross the Himalayas to annex any nearby Indian territory. Apart from the cost in terms of hard fighting, it would not be profitable in any commercial or strategic sense. These regions offer a conqueror nothing except poverty. Strategically, while they are of great importance to India they would be a liability to anyone from the other side of the mountains.
The third premise is that though India today admittedly is not as powerful as Britain, there is no "vacuum" caused by the absence of Britain, militarily or politically. In defense, at least, India is highly competent in relation to her needs. She does not suffer from a false sense of security; she is prepared for defense.
However, India believes that, even though the policies of the Soviet Union and China may not be essentially non-aggressive (she is not as gullible as she is made out), her northern neighbors will not commit aggression without some raison d'être or provocation. On this northern front none exists at present. Moreover, war between India and China is a possibility for which, remarkably enough, there has been no historical precedent in the 5,000 years and more of known history. So far India has not been exposed to any diplomatic or military pressure from either China or Russia.
Meanwhile, India holds to the McMahon Line, although some Chinese maps have shown encroachments beyond it. As Mr. Nehru said in a speech in the Indian Parliament on November 20, 1950, the McMahon Line "is our boundary, map or no map. We will not allow anybody to come across that boundary." There has been no change or modification in the policy since. And the boundary he referred to definitely includes Ladakh.
[i] K. P. S. Menon, "Delhi-Chungking: a Travel Diary." New York: Oxford, 1948, p. 28.
[ii] "Danger in Kashmir." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954, p. 301.
[iii] Korbel, op. cit., p. 273.