Review: Why the Ladakh Policies of the British Raj Still Matter to India and China Today

The stale thoughts of pale males in the 19th and early 20th centuries broke up the world of the peoples and communities of Ladakh and its environs. Until we break from those ideas, their lives will never be whole again.

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Kyle Gardner has given us what is easily the best and most variegated account of the British discovery of Ladakh and their failed attempt to impose imperial “scientific” or “natural” frontiers on it.

The central thesis of the book, The Frontier Complex, is that of the Westphalian reshaping of borders (which Gardner uses as synonymous with boundaries), in a region unsuited to them. Ladakh, the “crossroads of high Asia” in Janet Rizvi’s phrase, was converted into a frontier by the British attempt to enclose it within linear borders. Gardner thus uses ‘complex’ in both senses of the term, as meaning complicated, and as emotionally charged ideas that often lead to abnormal behaviour (p. 21). As a result, Ladakh, which long served as a gateway to the plains of India and Central Asia, was turned into a “fractured and disputed borderland.” This is a process that has been carried further by the post-colonial state, introducing a contractor economy and severing Ladakh’s traditional links with her neighbours.

Kyle J. Gardner
The Frontier Complex: Geopolitics and the Making of the Indo-China Border, 1846-1962
Cambridge University Press, 2021

Unlike previous accounts such as Alastair Lamb’s, Gardner does not concentrate solely on a construct or fiction, the linear boundary, over reality, human experience, history and life in the borderlands, though, in a book that began life as a PhD thesis in a contemporary international relations department, he has to privilege the boundary and its making. Gardner details the ambiguity of the northwestern border and the imperial legacy of an undemarcated boundary in Ladakh that culminated in the war in Aksai Chin in 1962. The strength of his account lies in his recognition of the mutable quality of borderlands.

Gardner begins with Ladakh’s traditional role as the crossroads of high Asia, with border points, not linear boundaries, known to the traders, pilgrims, nomads and others who regularly travelled through pre-colonial Ladakh, Tibet and Turkestan. He places that within the political context of the day and describes the changes that the entry of the Dogras brought as forerunners of British colonialism, the slow erosion of central Asian trade after the Russian Revolution and World War I that preceded independence, and attempts by the colonial government to regulate and restrict trans-frontier movement resulting finally in Ladakh’s isolation.

He describes in detail the British attempt to apply their theories of boundary-making, using surveys, mapping and the “water parting principle,” and the problems that they faced in doing so. For most of the British period, Ladakh was “a region containing neither a direct military threat nor a large commercial payoff” (p. 230). It was therefore a laboratory for experimentation with surveying, mapping and other information management techniques of the colonial state, and the crucible in which reputations of British “frontier experts” who went on to work throughout the British empire were forged.

This is also a story of local activism and imperial reluctance. When the veterinarian William Moorcroft, the first Englishman in Ladakh, signed an agreement with the local ruler offering a British protectorate in return for his allegiance, it was repudiated by his British masters unwilling to alienate a powerful Ranjit Singh who controlled Kashmir and claimed Ladakh. A century of British ambivalence on Ladakh and ignorance about it, only exceeded by Chinese ignorance, began to change with a perceived Russian threat and new imperial ideas by the late 19th century.

Incidentally, while the British may have been confused, the locals were not and went about their trade, travel, pilgrimage and other functions quite clear about where the border points established by the Treaty of Tingmosgang in 1684 and the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846 were located, where and to whom to pay taxes, customs duties, and corvée labour, and about the other business of life. By the time of the Treaty of Tingmosgang in 1684, hierarchies of political power had arisen in Ladakh that resisted any formal and absolute notion of sovereignty tied to territory. The gyalpo of Zanskar offered tribute to the gyalpo of Ladakh. The gyalpo of Ladakh, in turn, offered occasional tribute to the Mughal emperor and triennial tribute to the Dalai Lama (though no tribute at all, it is worth noting, to the Qing emperor). This chain of tribute reveals a multilayered notion of sovereignty distinct from the form that would later be imposed by the British (p. 42).

From trade to security

The initial impetus for British involvement in Ladakh’s affairs may have been to share and benefit from the trade that passed through Ladakh from Tibet, Sinkiang and Kashmir. But soon, and especially after 1857, security considerations began to be paramount in British eyes. As security concerns gradually replaced commercial aspirations, the traditional trading missions and exchanges of gifts began to be seen as “tribute” and acknowledgements of authorities other than the Raj.

Gardner is excellent in detailing the British uses of information in the form of gazetteers, and control of roads. But in doing so, the British were effectively destroying the basis of Ladakh’s trading economy. British disquiet resulted in repeated administrative proposals to stop the triennial Lopchak missions that went to Lhasa and the annual reciprocal Chaba mission from Tibet. However, the Lopchak continued until 1950 when the last mission went to Lhasa, and was brought to an end by the People’s Republic of China’s occupation of Tibet. In British (and Chinese) eyes, the customary exchange of gifts that the missions carried in return for the permission to trade was a form of tribute and therefore aroused considerable opposition within the administration, but local custom and better sense prevailed until 1950.

Unexpected pleasures

The book is studded with unexpected pleasures and gems:

• There is a fascinating account of “pashm” wool and goats that the British insisted on receiving as tribute, and their attempts to breed them elsewhere in India and abroad, all of which failed (p. 166-7).

• The description of the “knowledge entrepreneurs” and “frontier experts” who played such a role in the late 19th early 20th century birth of geopolitics as a branch of knowledge privileging geography links British experimentation in the Himalayas and Ladakh to wider global intellectual currents (chapter 6, p. 204ff).

• And, there is contemporary resonance in his description of the decades of internal discussion in the Raj government on how to standardise colours and symbols on maps. It took the Viceroy Curzon to finally settle a debate on the colours to be used on maps for boundaries and territories – native states in yellow, British India in pink, “border tribes under British control” in orange, and so on! And simultaneously maps were increasingly restricted and classified in circulation and use. The new rules had serious consequences. The 1906 rule that only boundaries surveyed by the Survey of India could be shown on maps meant that no traditional, customary or even agreed boundaries could be shown for Ladakh in subsequent GOI maps (p.216ff).

This ignored the facts, as reported immediately after independence in 1951 by Jammu and Kashmir officials for Ladakh to the Ministry of States, that to Ladakh’s north “the boundary is not fixed by any agreement nor is it defined or demarcated but the existing boundary, as it seems to be well understood on both sides…”

As for Ladakh’s eastern boundary, they said, “the boundary is only customary.” They added that “there have been no boundary disputes so far” along the entire boundary. The British ‘frontier complex’ or obsession with Westphalian boundaries led to them leaving behind an idea of indeterminate borders where in fact long established practice and local communities had left a traditional customary boundary, as India has always asserted, and China has disputed since 1959.

If there are weak links in Gardner’s argument, they are in chapter 7, dealing in summary form with the story of the Ladakh border from 1947-1962. This portion is sketchy, compared to the rest of the book, and suffers from a lack of analysis of the new actor in the saga, the People’s Republic of China. As the book makes clear, the geopolitical framing of the border by the British failed to match reality. Gardner concludes that while the British Empire would ultimately fail to define its territorial border in the northwestern Himalaya, it bequeathed to its successor nation-states a conception of political space that made borders objects of existential significance (p.3).

Representative image of the Himalayas. Photo: Anton ven der Weijst/Unsplash

Does it matter?

Do the stale knowledge, ideas, and doings of pale males in the late 19th and early 20th centuries still matter to us in India today? Why do we still study the British discovery of India and their ultimately failed attempt to create a perpetual empire, importing and imposing their ideas of a Westphalian state with its hard linear boundaries on the subcontinent? So why do we look at British imperial history when trying to understand and deal with our border and boundary issues?

At one level, it does not and should not. The Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China have had agency and independent existence as Westphalian states for over seventy years. The state of the border and the frontier between them as it is today is overwhelmingly the result of actions taken by these two states, not by 19th and 20th century Englishmen in the subcontinent and Tibet.

But, and this is a big but, the Westphalian states that post-colonial India and China have built, have bought into and adopted for their own state and nation-building purposes many of the perspectives of late 19th century European geopoliticians and imperialists, the PRC more so than the Indian republic, and use their arguments and assertions in their contention over the boundary. If anything, the nation-state has sought to eliminate the territorial ambiguity that empire was happy to live with, when empire was confident in its own power. The securitisation of the frontier that the British began has been continued by both India and China.

Even in the matter of how it treats maps, their classification and distribution, the republic of India carries on earlier British practices. In 2016, a Bill was introduced in parliament that would have criminalised the incorrect depiction of India in maps. The government of India stamps imported books containing maps of our boundaries that differ from the official maps with a legend saying they are not authentic. The very act of the government so stamping them implicitly acknowledges that the depiction of India’s boundaries by some foreign publisher can affect India’s boundaries, which surely is an absurdity in a Westphalian legal sense.

So this history does still have practical policy implications. It matters because we have chosen to make it matter.

Gardner’s account of how the British attempted to create a boundary in a borderland that had a life of its own is also topical. Ladakh is precisely the arena where the India-China border crisis of 2020 is playing out today.

The Republic of India and PRC have engaged since the early 1950s in a similar exercise of reshaping the frontier and imposing a boundary designed not by the local patterns of life and power but by a Beijing and Delhi that were themselves discovering the Tibetan frontier. Today, the PRC is attempting state-building and seeking security by establishing villages in disputed territory, controlling and managing pilgrimage, grazing and nomadism, and blurring the distinction between state, government and people – using traditional practices of civilian life as instruments of state power and sovereignty assertion along this and other borders.

For me, Gardner’s geopolitical telling of the Ladakh border between 1846 and 1962 needs to be rounded out with a living history of the same borderlands, by which I mean the natural patterns of life, migration, trade, pilgrimages, caravans and families spread across Ladakh, Tibet and Sinkiang, and the cultural and religious ties that make this borderland special and still affect its nature today.

The changes that the last 50 years have brought along India’s borders are far more fundamental in nature than a mere assertion of a boundary line or military occupation of disputed territory. This is why the history of the borderlands must go beyond geopolitics and include the communities and their patterns of life if they are to meet Ranke’s criterion for historians: to tell “how it really happened.”

Fortunately, there is such work being done on India’s eastern borderlands, such as that with Myanmar. It is important that similar work be done on the Ladakh and Kashmir borders too. Perhaps Gardner, who writes with evident feeling about these borderlands, would consider this for his next book.

As the book reminds us, these borderlands have seen sovereigns, boundaries, and empires come and go, but continued to follow their own trajectories in the past. For the first time, that process is under threat today as the full power of the modern state is brought to bear on them. And that is why Gardner’s work of British imperial history matters and is of more than academic interest. The stale thoughts of old, pale, males in the 19th and early 20th centuries broke up the world of the peoples and communities of Ladakh and its environs. Until we break from those ideas, their lives will never be whole again.

Shivshankar Menon is a former national security adviser of India.