An ‘Agreed’ Frontier: Ladakh and India’s Northernmost Borders, 1846-1947.

An ‘Agreed’ Frontier: Ladakh and India’s Northernmost Borders, 1846-1947. – book reviews

Seymour Scheinberg

By Parshotsam Mehra. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. xii, 248. $23.00.

Parshotsam Mehra’s volume deals with one of the most remote, barren, and largely uninhabitable regions in the world. Ladakh is a district of the northwestern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. A major focus of the book is the sector of Ladakh known as Aksai Chin, which juts out into modern Tibet some 144 miles. It consists in part of the Karakarom range of the western Himalayas with passes over 18,000 feet above sea level and peaks that rise beyond 25,000 feet. The second area of concern is that of Hunza in the northwest corner of the state. Aksai Chin, however, ultimately looms much larger due to its contiguity with Tibet.

The area came to the attention of the world with the invasion of India by China in 1962, in the northeast and the northwest. Three years earlier China had already occupied part of Aksai Chin and built a road across the area linking Tibet with Sinkiang. It is one of the ironies of the history of the area, and for that matter the history of the British in India, that throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the British were very concerned with Russian penetration into the subcontinent. It led to a condition known as “Russophobia,” and generated a great deal of espionage activity known as the “great game.” Intent on keeping Russia out of India, the British concentrated on establishing borderlines where China would be the buffer between Russia and India. The British, however, did not trust the Chinese any more than the Russians. The result was much waffling and deliberate indecision. Mehra quotes one official whose comments reflected their position: “We do not want accurate demarcation or a frontier agreement. We do want to encourage Chinese occupation up to Afghanistan and Russian limits” (70). In other words, the British were intent that “no gap existed between Afghanistan and Chinese territory (70). Mehra concludes that Aksai Chin was never part of China, and thus China was not justified in occupying the region in 1959 and 1962. Since other historians in the field do not entirely agree, the question still needs resolution. It may all be academic, inasmuch as China has occupied those 38,000 square miles to the present day.

Mehra is unquestionably one of the most well-informed historians of the Himalayan region and has published extensively in the field since 1968. He makes excellent use of the archival material available at the Indian National Archives and the archives in England.

Mehra’s book is strictly for professionals in the field. It is highly detailed with technical geographic references that only those who are familiar with the area will understand and appreciate. Although there are a number of line maps of small areas, it would have been helpful to have a map of India showing the general relationship of the state to the rest of the country and to its northern and western neighbors. (He does provide a section, “Biographical and Descriptive Notes,” which is exceptionally useful.) Although his bibliographic note is well done, a traditional annotated bibliography would be more useful. Still, this book is recommended to those with an interest in the region. It is a must for those doing any kind of research in the area.

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