LADAKH / GILGIT BALTISTAN / AKSAI CHIN : How did they end up the way they are ? A Historical Perspective

By Kiki Mathawan 

As a second part of my series on the state of Jammu and Kashmir and its complex geography / history. I wont get into the history of Kashmir Valley as it is usually well known. Please note that what I write below is from an Indian POV of the history of the region.

Zorawar singh historical perspective
The bust of General Zorawar Singh at the Zorawar Fort in Leh Pic from July 2004. Leh, Ladakh

In this part I will try and comment on the Ladakh region and Gilgit Baltistan, the Trans Karakoram Tract (Shaksgam Valley) and last but not the least Aksai Chin. Out of all these regions most parts of Ladakh is under Indian control as well as a tiny part of what used to be the Baltistan Wazarat. All the rest are under de facto Chinese and Pakistani control and visiting these is impossible for Indian citizens so all what I state here has been through different sources in Books and on the Internet. Please note that to really understand the Geography at present we will need to dwell into History as to how things ended up how they are today.

We start off with Ladakh which is geographically and culturally much closer to Tibet and was usually referred to as Western Tibet by the Europeans. Ladakh was first conquered by the Sikh / Dogra armies led by General Zorawar Singh. As per a Treaty with the British, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s was free to add territory to the North of the Sutlej River but not to the South of it. Jammu was already held by the Dogra Raja Gulab Singh who was a vassal of the Maharaja. Kashmir was already held by the Sikhs in the 1820’s and was ruled by an appointed Governor from the Court of Ranjit Singh.

Due to some bad blood between the Governor and Raja Gulab Singh, General Zorawar Singh was forced to go through Kishtwar on his first expedition to Ladakh. He ended up entering Ladakh region through the Suru Valley and went on to subjugate the whole of Ladakh in a series of expeditions starting in 1836.

After the conquest of Ladakh, General Zorawar turned his attention towards Baltistan and Skardu. As it happened one of the sons of the Raja of Skardu/ Baltistan, Muhammed Shah, sought his help in a war of succession for the Skardu throne. Not one to let go of this opportunity General Zorawar Singh went on to invade Skardu and after a tough campaign finally managed to add Skardu and Baltistan to the Sikh Empire with Muhammed Shah as the nominal ruler paying an annual tribute to the Sikhs. Another contingent of his Army went on to conquer Astore.

Zorawar Singh was subsequently killed while on a campaign in Tibet and the Tiebtan and Chinese forces re-occupied Leh and most Ladakh. But subsequently the Sikh / Dogra armies returned, wanting to take revenge for the death of their beloved General Zorawar, and they ousted the Tibetan Chinese combined forces from Leh and subsequently a Treaty, the Treaty of Chususl, was signed between on the behalf the Sikh Maharaja and the Dogra Raja on one side and the Tibetan Dalai Lama and the Chinese Emperor on the other side, which demarcated the border pretty much as it stands today. Ladakh was hence ordained to be a part of India as the Chinese/Tibetans gave up all claims over it. The Treaty stated

“As on this auspicious day, the 3nd of Assuj, samvat 1899 (16th/17th September 1842) we, the officers of the Lhasa (Government), Kalon of Sokan and Bakshi Shajpuh, commander of the forces, and two officers on behalf of the most resplendent Sri Khalsa ji Sahib, the asylum of the world, King Sher Singh ji, and Sri Maharaja Sahib Raja-i-Rajagan Raja Sahib Bahadur Raja Gulab Singh, i.e.. the Muktar-ud-Daula Diwan Hari Chand and the asylum of vizirs, Vizir Ratnun. In a meeting called together for the promotion of peace and unity, and by professions and vows of friendship, unity and sincerity of heart and by taking oaths like those of Kunjak Sahib, have arranged and agreed that relations of peace, friendship and unity between Sri Khalsaji and Sri Maharaja Sahib Bahadur Raja Gulab Singh ji, and the Emperor of China and the Lama Guru of Lhasa will hence forward remain firmly established forever; and we declare in the presence of the Kunjak Sahib that on no account whatsoever will there be any deviation, difference of departure (from this agreement). We shall neither at present nor in the future have anything to do or interfere at all with the boundaries of Ladakh and its surroundings as fixed from ancient times and will allow the annual export of wool, shawls and tea by way of Ladakh according to
the old established customs.

Read also: Stories by the Dogras of Jammu: Baba Raghu, a ghost or a friend?

Should any of the Opponents of Sri Sarkar Khalsa ji and Sri Raja Sahib Bahadur at any time enter our territories, we shall not pay any heed to his words or allow him to remain in our country. We shall offer no hindrance to traders of Ladakh who visit our territories. We shall not even to the extent of a hair’s breadth act in contravention of the terms that we have agreed to above regarding firm friendship, unity, the fixed boundaries of Ladakh and the keeping open of the route for wool, shawls and tea. We call Kunjak Sahib, Kairi, Lassi, Zhon Mahan, and Khushal Chon as witnesses to this treaty.”

Gilgit was again captured by the Sikh/Dogra forces in a repeat of events as they happened in Baltistan. One of the sons of the Raja of Gilgit sought the help of the Sikh Maharaja Sher Singh in expelling the Raja of Yasin who had conquered Gilgit. With the help of the Sikhs he was able to expel the Yasin Raja and Gilgit also became a vassal state of the Sikh Empire with a contingent of Sikh Army
permanently stationed there under Nathu Shah. With the passage of time the Sikh/ Dogra rule extended over to Yasin, Hunza, Darel, Chilas, Chitral and Nagar.

However the British took over the Gilgit Wazarat and called it as the Gilgit Agency. It acted as a listening post into Central Asia and more importantly it was just a few miles south of the borders of Imperial Russia and acted as one of the main stage where the Great Game in High Asia was played out. And the Brirtish pretty much ran the affairs of the Gilgit Agency and set up the Gilgit Scouts.

Old map of jammu kashmir
An old time Map for people who like their Geography and History mixed up. You can get more modern maps by searching on Google.

Thus the state of Jammu and Kashmir came into being as it existed on the day of independence.

It quickly unravelled after the British left who returned the Gilgit Agency back to the Maharaja. The Gilgit Scouts revolted against the Dogra Maharaja’s Governor on November 01, 1947. Brig Ghansara Singh, the Dogra Governor was taken prisoner and Gilgit was proclaimed, after some to and fro, as a part of Pakistan. The Commander of the state troops in Skardu, Col.Majid came in with re-enforcements for the Brig, but his own troops revolted and Col. Majid was also arrested. The Gilgit Scouts then turned their attention towards Skardu which had a garrison of the Maharajs’s state troops whose Commander Col.Majid was already in their custody. With no supplies coming in the Maharaja’s State troops were thought be easy targets by the Gilgit Scouts. Only they didnt factor in one fine detail. The second in command at the Skardu Garrison was a young Gurkha Officer, Major Sher Jung Thapa.

The Gilgit Scouts attacked the Skardu Garrisson in February but the forces led by Maj. Sher Jung Thapa kept repelling all their attacks. The indomitable Gurkha Major held out for seven months until he rant out of all supplies and ammunition and he turned down many offers to surrender. Finally after firing the last bullet and throwing the last stone the Major finally surrendered on August 14. All the people in the Garrisson was put to the sword. All except Maj. Thapa who was taken a prisoner and later repatriated to India. The Indian Government decorated him with a Maha Vir Chakra and he was named “The Hero of Skardu” and was inducted into the Indian Army. He went on to become a Brigadier in the Indian Army and after retirement he peacefully passed away in 1999 in New Delhi.

The different acts of valour notwithstanding almost the whole of Gilgit Baltistan was lost and at the same time Ladakh was held onto inspite of great challenges.

As for Aksai Chin it was always an uninhabited area and was not seen worth as keeping a garrison on. The boundaries were never officially recognized by the Chinese and the Kashmir Maharaja/ British Authorities. At present the Indian claim is based on the Johnson Line of 1865 where as the Chinese claim till 1959 was the MacCartney MacDonald Line of 1899. After 1959 however the Chinese came across this line which resulted in the conflict of 1962 and subsequently most of Aksai Chin came under Chinese control. For Chinese the area holds importance as the Tibet to Xinjiang Road runs through this region.

The Trans Karakoram Tract or the Shaksgam Valley was ceded to China by Pakistan as a part of their boundary agreement which settled the borders between these two countries.

To think of how beautiful and challenging the mountains in this whole region are but due to events in our history we are unable to enjoy the beauty which now stands divided by man made borders.

Lets hope and wait 

To read Part I –  Click here  (Dummy’s Guide to Kashmir)

Originally posted by Kiki Mathawan‎ to The Himalayan Club on Facebook


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