History bears clear testimony to the fact that the Indian rulers held jurisdiction over the entire territory of Kashmir including Baltistan, and Ladakh including Aksai Chin since the early 19th century even as China continues to make false territorial claims in the region.
An expansionist China has been eyeing further territorial gains after it annexed Tibet in a ruthless military crackdown in 1950, bringing the Communist country to India’s doorstep on the Ladakh border.
In the faceoff with China on the border issue, it has perhaps not been adequately highlighted that the entire territory of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh was an integral part of the Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh who reigned from 1801 to 1839. After 1848, when the Sikhs were defeated in the second war with the British, this region came under the rule of Dogra chieftain Gulab Singh, who was earlier a Governor of these territories during Ranjit Singh’s regime.
General Zorawar Singh, one of the ablest Generals in Ranjit Singh’s army, carried out highly successful high-altitude campaigns between 1821 and 1841 to firmly establish the jurisdiction of the Sikhs over Kashmir and Ladakh. He also captured a large chunk of territory in south-western Tibet in 1841.
A detailed account of Zorawar Singh’s exploits has been chronicled in a well-researched book titled "Footprints in the Snow" authored by Major General GD Bakshi.
Also referred to as India’s Napolean, Zorawar Singh was eventually killed in a fierce battle in Tibet in 1841 as he had advanced too far in the harsh winter and his army ran out of supplies. A memorial built to honour the great warrior stands to this day in western Tibet near the Indian border at Lipulekh.
After the British defeated the Sikhs in 1848 and took over Punjab, they allowed Gulab Singh to take over as the ruler of the entire region of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as a quid pro quo for betraying the Sikhs. It was a classic case of the divide and rule strategy followed by the British.
Gulab Singh’s dynasty continued to rule this region till 1947 when Maharaja Hari Singh decided to join the Indian union as Pakistan was poised to invade his territory in the chaos and mayhem following the Partition. It was at this time that Pakistan managed to forcibly occupy areas such as Baltistan, now referred to as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
With its growing military strength and ambitions of becoming a superpower, China has now further expanded its claims in the region beyond Tibet as it has done in the South China Sea.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, had in a reference to Aksai Chin, pointed out in Parliament recently that China continues to be in illegal occupation of approximately 38,000 sq. kms in the Union Territory of Ladakh. In addition, under the so-called Sino-Pakistan 'Boundary Agreement' of 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq. km. of Indian territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to China. China also claims approximately 90,000 sq. kms. of Indian territory in the Eastern Sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh.
China had illegally built the Aksai Chin road in the mid-fifties and invented the 1959 claim line to justify it. With the reiteration of this claim, Beijing has clearly shown that it has gone back on international agreements that it has signed with India on managing the border areas.
These territories are high altitude areas which cannot be permanently occupied because of the harsh weather and terrain. China has been deliberately beefing up its military strength in the region to assert its position. Consequently, India has been left with no choice but to build up its forces to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The recent agreement reached between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in Moscow on September 10, if implemented sincerely by the Chinese side, could lead to a complete military disengagement and restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas. However, there is no indication at the ground level of China giving up its belligerent policy as of now.
A key element of both the 1993 and the 1996 India-China agreements is that the two sides will keep their military forces in the areas along the Line of Actual Control to a minimum level. These agreements also mandate that pending an ultimate solution to the boundary question, the two sides will strictly respect and observe the Line of Actual Control. Furthermore in these agreements, India and China also committed to clarification and confirmation of the Line of Actual Control to reach a common understanding of the alignment. Thus, in late 1990s and up to 2003, the two sides engaged in an exercise to clarify and confirm the LAC. But, thereafter the Chinese side did not show a willingness to pursue the LAC clarification exercise.