The Indian case for ownership of Aksai Chin, or the white desert, rests essentially on the cartographic exertions of a man like W.H. Johnson
The roots of our problem with China go back a few hundred years when Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander met in July 1807 on a great raft moored on the river Niemen at Tilsit in east Prussia to conclude a treaty of partnership against the British, thereby beginning “The Great Game”. This expression was first found in the papers of Arthur Con-nolly, a British artillery officer and adventurer whose Narrative Of An Overland Journey To The North of India chronicled his travels in the region in the service of the British empire. As the Russian empire began its eastward expansion, which many felt was to culminate in the conquest of India, there was a shadow contest for political ascendancy between the British and Russian empires: the “Great Game”.
Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo had very little impact. Russia’s longing for a colonial empire and a warm water port didn’t diminish and the Great Game continued. Britain’s response was to establish a forward defensive line in the north so a Russian thrust could be halted before the plains of Hindustan. For this, Afghanistan and Tibet had to become buffer states and suitable and convenient borders fixed. Several lines were proposed, the most notable being the 1865 Ladakh-Tibet/Sinkiang alignment proposed by W.H. Johnson, a junior Survey of India sub-assistant. This was to link Demchok in the south with the 18,000-feet Karakoram Pass in the north: it took a circuitous route beyond the Kuen Lun mountains and thus included the barren, cold Aksai Chin desert.
It is believed Johnson may have had personal reasons for doing this. He was an India-born “Englishman” and in the subtle social graduations that guided an individual’s destiny in the Raj, there were limits to where he could go. Johnson couldn’t aspire to commissioned rank or high civilian status with the Survey of India, so what better way to improve his prospects than by entering the Kashmir maharaja’s service? By greatly enlarging the size of the maharaja’s domain by incorporating Aksai Chin, Johnson caught the eye of Maharaja Ranbir Singh.
On March 16, 1846, the British ceded to Gulab Singh, the Sikh state’s feudatory, as reward for his treachery towards his masters in Lahore, the lands they had acquired — the territories of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh — “for the sum of Rs 75 lakhs”. He acknowledged the supremacy of the British government. Article 4 of the Treaty of Amritsar stated: “The limits of… Maharaja Gulab Singh’s territories shall not at any time be changed without concurrence of the British government.” This is what the maharaja did and saddled posterity with the Aksai Chin problem.
Johnson’s survey wasn’t without controversy. To complete the journey to Khotan, that lay well beyond the forbidding Kuen Lun range, and return to Leh when he did, he would have to cover over 30 km a day. Even if that frenetic pace were possible, it’s doubtful any serious survey would have been possible. Besides this, there was the issue of the disappearance of a consignment of silver ingots the Khan of Khotan sent with him as a gift to the “Lord Sahib” in India. Becoming an embarrassment, he was passed over for promotion. Before long, he resigned from the Survey of India and entered the maharaja’s service. He did well here and rose to become governor of Ladakh. Not bad at all for “giving” the maharaja an uninhabited 18,000 sq. km.
That the British were undecided about Johnson’s line is evident by the recommendation in 1889 by Ney Elias, joint commissioner of Leh. Elias, an authority on trans-Karakoram territories, advised against any implicit endorsement of the Johnson line by a claim on Shahidulla in the far-off Karakash valley, about 400 km from Leh, and just short of Khotan in Xinjiang, as it couldn’t be defended.
On the other hand, responding to Capt. Younghusband’s report on his meeting with the Russian explorer, Col. Grombchevsky near Yarkand, Maj. Gen. Sir John Ardagh, director of military intelligence at the War Office, London, recommended claiming the areas “up to the crests of the Kuen Lun range”. Before Whitehall could make up its mind, the Chinese occupied Shahidulla in 1890. To this, the opinion of the secretary of state for India in Whitehall was: “We are inclined to think that the wisest course would be to leave them in possession as it is evidently to our advantage that the tract of territory between the Karakoram and Kuen Lun mountains be held by a friendly power like China.”
The Indian case for ownership of Aksai Chin, or the white desert, rests essentially on the cartographic exertions of a man like Johnson, and we must begin to think about its validity. It’s also not without some irony that the grandiose dreams of another Kashmir maharaja, Hari Singh (Ranbir’s grandson), of an independent state led to India’s other major problem with another neighbour.
Though Jammu and Kashmir was an independent kingdom, the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar gave the British the responsibility for its security. This made the British responsible for Kashmir’s northern and eastern borders with Sinkiang and Tibet. The British, however, never really got around to fixing the border along this line.
In 1899, another line was suggested. This was the MacCartney-MacDonald line that excluded most of Aksai Chin. The British tried to get the Chinese to sign an agreement to this effect. The Chinese didn’t respond to these moves and Lord Curzon concluded their silence could be taken as acquiescence and decided that, henceforth, this should be considered the border, and so it was.
Interestingly this line, by and large, corresponds with the Chinese claim line, which in turn, by and large, coincides with the Line of Actual Control.
But in 1940-1941, things began to change again. British intelligence learnt that Russian experts were conducting a survey of the Aksai Chin for the pro-Soviet Sinkiang government of the warlord Sheng Shih-tsai. It was obviously time for the Great Game again. Once again, the British went back to the Johnson claim line. But nothing else was done to clearly demarcate the border. No posts were established in Aksai Chin and neither were any expeditions sent there to show the flag, as is normal in such situations. For all practical purposes the British Raj ceased at the Karakoram range, but by the rules of the Great Game it went further beyond just in case the Russians showed up. The irony is that the Russians gave Xinjiang to the Communist Chinese in 1949 and left.