AS it was in the heyday of the 'Great Game' between the British, Russian and Chinese empires, Asia's geo-political fault-lines still meet in Ladakh. India's long borders with Pakistan and China link up in the icy region to the north of the Siachen glacier and it is here that the Indian Army confronts both our adversaries.
Ladakh, with a population of a little over two lakh, may be India's smallest district in terms of people but is its largest district in terms of size. It is spread over 98,000 sq km, of which about 30,000 sq km is under Chinese occupation. Most of the population is concentrated in the Indus, Zanskar and Suru valleys. Except for the PLA, there are no humans in the Chinese-held territory, as most of it consists of the Aksai Chin, an uninhabitable desert at a mean elevation of 17,000 ft with extreme temperatures.
Till its conquest by the Dogra general Zorawar Singh in 1834, Ladakh was a distinct and independent political entity despite being under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism. The area derived its income from the export of wool for pashmina shawls and taxes levied on the caravans that tra-velled from Punjab to Tibet and Sinkiang. So dependent was it on trade that when the great Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal imposed a blockade on caravans from Kashmir in 1639, it's believed to have resulted in the decline of the kingdom after his death.
The trade routes have now been closed for almost five decades. The two events responsible were the Pakistani attack in 1947 and the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950. The consequences of this were not severe, as the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict resulted in a huge Indian military build-up. Two divisions were stationed in the district. The economic benefits as a consequence made up for the loss of trade. The thaw in Sino-Indian ties in recent years has resulted in the thinning out of troops in Ladakh. The 28 Infantry Division, headquartered in Nyemo, 20 km downstream from Leh along the Indus, has moved to the Kashmir Valley and is now in Kupwara. The other division is mostly along the Indo-Pak LOC in Kargil and Siachen. The consequence on the Ladakhi economy has not been computed, but it is easy to infer that it is not insignificant.
In the last decade Ladakh has developed a tourist economy by catering to the more adventurous travellers, mostly young westerners keen on trekking and/or Buddhism. The tourist season, however, is short and as the region is mostly attractive to backpackers the economic spinoffs are still far less than what could be. While the population growth has kept abreast with the rest of the country, agricultural production has also grown, despite limitations in the acreage available, and can be compared to that of European nations.
Despite efforts to boost the Ladakhi economy, the key to its expansion lies in reopening trade with Tibet and Sinkiang. This is naturally linked to the further improvement in Sino-Indian ties and implies a mature reconsideration of our long-held beliefs on the ownership of Aksai Chin.
The present Line of Actual Control (LAC) is in many ways more sound historically and eminently practical. This line, which runs from the Karakoram Pass to Demchok via Sultan Chusker, Hot Springs, Sirijap and the Spangur gap, is just ahead of the Saser Mustagh range which juts out from the Karakorams and the southern half of the Ladakh range. It is a 12-20 day trek from Panamik to Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO) and the nearby Depsang plains, just south of the KK pass and north of the Rimo Glacier, where the river Shyok originates.
At the southern end the LAC bisects Pang-gong Lake near Chushul and goes on till Demchok. The road-link to Chushul from Leh goes over the Chang-la pass at 16,500 ft and thence to Tangtse, 28 km short of Lukung, where the Changthang, Tibet's great northern plateau, begins. The 80 km drive from Lukung on the Indian end of Pang-gong Lake to Chushul is over flat ground along the world's most beautiful water body.
Our claim over Aksai Chin is based on dubious historical antecedents. Till 1847 the boundary was defined only as far as the Pang-gong Lake. In 1865 W.H. Johnson of the Survey of India, returning from Khotan, trekked across the uninhabited Aksai Chin. On the basis of this he drew a map including it in Jammu and Kashmir. This, no doubt, was more to curry favour with the Dogra ruler in Srinagar. That he succeeded is clear by the fact that he was appointed J&K's commissioner in Ladakh after he retired from the Survey of India. Despite the Survey of India's maps, even as late as 1927 the British recognised a border that ran along the crest of the Karakorams. Whatever the legal merits of our claim, it does not meet one vital criterion—that the border must be militarily defensible. No one still lives on the Aksai Chin and "not a blade of grass" can grow on it. Yet this useless piece of real estate is at the core of the Sino-Indian con-flict. Surely good sense can prevail even now?
THERE is much that Ladakh and the country can gain from the opening up of the trade routes with Tibet. Opening of the border from Demchok will make it possible for Indian pilgrims to motor down 600 km to Kailash/Mansarovar in little over a day, as opposed to the arduous and dangerous two-week trek required now. China has recently entered into an agreement with Kazakhstan to invest US $9 billion to explore, drill and refine hydrocarbons there. Much of this energy is to be used to develop Sinkiang. Thus another market is being created which can be accessed from Ladakh. The road from Demchok joins the Tibet-Sinkiang highway. If you turn right you go deep into Tibet. If you turn left you go to Sinkiang—over the Aksai Chin. The days of playing the old 'Great Game' of empire building are long gone. The name of the game now is commerce, as it was in Sengge Namgyal's time. Not to play it well will cost us dearly.