In mid-June 2020, month-long simmering tensions along the restive border between India and China came to a head with clashes between soldiers in Galwan Valley in the Ladakh region. This resulted in the death of at least 20 Indian soldiers and unconfirmed Chinese casualties. A lot of the media coverage around the incident carried references to the India-China war of 1962. In the weeks since the Galwan Valley incident, social media was flooded with images of people from the Northeast, especially Assam, who were particularly affected by the war in 1962. What is it that makes this border so contentious and restive for these two nation states? The history can be traced back at least 200 years.
The demarcation of borders and the creation of frontier zones was a major colonial project of the 19th century. Frontierisation was not just a project of the British Empire but also of other colonial powers such as Tsarist Russia and Imperial China, which marked the borders of their colonies for national security reasons. The area around the Galwan River has been perhaps one of the most interesting spaces of transnationalism since ancient times. It was part of an ancient trade route, but since colonial times also the site of border control between three major empires – Chinese, British and Russian. In the 19th century, these three imperial powers scrambled to mark their territories and tried to stop their opponents from transgressing into their own land. As a method of control, the British also started denoting some of these contentious areas as ‘spheres of influence.’ These were regions where the border was yet to be fully ratified and so were not governed by any single law or authority. The recent military skirmish in the Galwan River Valley has historical parallels to events that date back to the 19th century.
What is it that makes this border so contentious and restive for these two nation states?
The colonial logic for frontierisation is best articulated through the Romanes Lecture that George Curzon, or Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, delivered at Oxford University in 1907. Simply titled ‘Frontiers’, the lecture, which was published the next year, is key to understanding how the British empire developed frontiers not just as a science, but as an art, to control and to administer their territories. According to Curzon, the advance of different empires or colonial powers was so rapid that even the inner frontiers of the sphere of influence were unknown. He illustrated this through a footnote in his lecture, referring to an incident when Lt Col Francis Younghusband was ‘arrested’ by the Russian army under Col Yonoff in 1891. Younghusband is one of many colonial officers and explorers of the period, but what is striking is that his name has been repeatedly invoked in news pieces and articles on the Galwan River Valley today. And the origins of the name of the valley is almost always traced back to the Ladakhi explorer Ghulam Rassul Galwan, even as evidence suggests that this is more of an apocryphal narrative, a historico-myth, than a carefully documented and traceable piece of history.
Galwan started his career as a young explorer with Lt Col Francis Younghusband, a British Army officer and a famed explorer. Younghusband was born into a British military family and is known for his exploration into and invasion of Tibet in 1903-1904. He also made expeditions to the relatively less-explored Pamir region in the 1880s. A 12-year-old Galwan joined Younghusband’s team in 1890, which was formed to explore this remote area. This expedition led to a diplomatic standoff between Russia and Britain.
In August 1891, a Russian detachment of around 30 mounted Cossack soldiers led by Colonel Yonoff declared “that Younghusband was on territory claimed by Russia and that he was under orders to escort the British intruder across the border to China.” Younghusband had sent Galwan back to Leh from Yarkand with the mail and some silver before the latter proceeded to the Pamirs. Hence, Galwan was not part of this group of detained explorers.
The area around the Galwan River has been perhaps one of the most interesting spaces of transnationalism since ancient times.
However, the exchange between these two officers, as noted in Younghusband’s account of his travels, The Heart of a Continent, published in 1896, does not mention any specific hostility by the Russian army towards him or his retinue. Unlike Curzon’s account of Younghusband’s arrest, the officer writes that he was asked to leave his camp as it was on purported Russian territory and he was to be escorted by the Russian soldiers to Chinese territory. Younghusband registered a strong protest on paper and he and his retinue were escorted back into Chinese territory by the Russians. According to him, there was no hostility on the part of the Russians, whom Younghusband had treated to a lavish dinner in his camp just three nights previously. This episode from the late 19th century highlights not just how important this demarcation of territory was for imperial governments, but also how messy this process was, with zones that did not fit into sharply delineated borders.
What marked the careers of both Younghusband and Yonoff were the acts of violence that they perpetrated across the Pamir regions. Younghusband’s pioneering explorations are blighted due to his actions in Lhasa where he perpetrated one of the worst massacres led by the British in this part of the world. He was appointed as head of the Tibet Frontier Commission by the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon in 1903. He led the then British Expedition to Tibet, also known as the British Invasion of Tibet. The reasons for this invasion form a great story on political machinations, where there was jostling to be crowned as the supreme military and political power in the regions of the upper Himalaya. On the face of it, Curzon wanted to establish diplomatic relations between British India and Tibet, but the real reason was to thwart the Russians’ growing influence, real or perceived, in Tibet. In the meantime, the Chinese state asserted that Tibet was China’s territory.
The origins of the name of the valley is almost always traced back to the Ladakhi explorer Ghulam Rassul Galwan, even as evidence suggests that this is more of an apocryphal narrative, a historico-myth, than a carefully documented and traceable piece of history.
Whatever the reason for this expedition may have been, it soon turned deadly at Guru on 31 March 1904, also known as the Massacre of Chumik Shenko. The more organised and better equipped British Army slaughtered Tibetan monks who resisted using only rudimentary weapons like machetes and antiquated matchlock muskets. The official count of the dead by the British is only 600 Tibetans, but other records mention at least 2700 Tibetan casualties.
The massacre under his leadership did not, however, stop the meteoric rise of Younghusband in the British administration. In fact, he was knighted by the government in 1904 for facilitating a trade treaty between the British government and the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s sovereign. He was also awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1905 and was promoted to Lt Col in 1917. Later on, Younghusband took a turn towards spirituality and became the Paulo Coelho of his time, writing books on pop philosophy and mysticism. He attributed this spiritual ‘awakening’ to a mystical spiritual encounter during his Tibetan sojourn.
In the meantime, Colonel Yonoff of the Russian Army, who had briefly imprisoned Younghusband leading to the diplomatic standoff between the two countries, was himself responsible for a violent massacre against Afghan soldiers in 1892. The site of this massacre was Somatash, in the Upper Oxus, where there had already been conflict between the Russians and Chinese over frontier control a year before. The violence started when Yonoff struck an Afghan chief on his face which ultimately led the Russian army to massacre the rest of the Afghan soldiers. This incident eventually led to the Ameer of Afghanistan writing to the British government in India requesting protection against the Russians.
Unfortunately not much is available about the killings in the public domain, except a couple of archived and brief news reports from 1892 and Yonoff’s defense of his acts. According to the Australian scholar Hope Fitzhardinge, whose research was on the frontierisation of Afghanistan in the 19th century, the “aftermath of this [incident] led to the completion, in 1895, of the delimitation of Afghanistan’s northern frontier”.
A blend of history and myth
To return to Galwan’s tale, recent writings have suggested that the Galwan River is named after him. Some of the narratives, mostly oral, assert that the river was named after Galwan because of the bravery he exuded in his explorations with another British military figure, Charles Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore. Galwan was part of the retinue of 30 men apart from Murray and Major Roche. Murray, who was better known as Lord Dunmore or Col Dunmore, published his diaries of the expedition in two volumes in 1894 where he spells Galwan’s name as Goulam Rassoul and notes his occupation as a ‘pony-man’ and ‘shoeing-smith’. What’s interesting to note is that Dunmore also marked the ethnicities of the 30 men in his company, where Galwan had been identified as a Tibetan. Some of the other members of his retinue were Kashmiris and a Sikh man whose occupation was that of a ‘dhobee’.
At this frontier of a power struggle between three empires, the British and the Chinese were allies, at least in those moments when survival was at stake.
It is not surprising that Galwan was in charge of the horses, as he traces his origins in his 1923 autobiography Servant of Sahibs: A Book to be Read Aloud, to the pony-watchers of the Maharaja of Kashmir. Younghusband wrote the introduction to Galwan’s autobiography. It is the language of the book that stands out. It is not written in literary prose, but the nativised-English that Galwan spoke haltingly and thus, is without literary punctuation. But this is exactly why this small volume has unique appeal. Galwan seemed pretty thankful to have figured out a career for himself with the British and American explorers which emancipated him from a childhood of utter poverty. He worked his way up in his career as an explorer and later became the ‘caravan bashi’– in-charge of the whole caravan for other explorers. When this book was published, Galwan was the ‘Aksakal of Ladak’ or the chief native assistant of the British Joint Commissioner in Ladakh.
Galwan seemed pretty thankful to have figured out a career for himself with the British and American explorers which emancipated him from a childhood of utter poverty.
Galwan traces his last name to his great grandfather, Kara Galwan. He notes that his great-grandfather was a pony-watcher, who later turned into a Robin Hood figure. Thus, he got the name Galwan, which means a robber in Kashmiri. Kara Galwan was later captured by the soldiers of the Maharaja of Kashmir and was sentenced to death by hanging. Ghulam Rassul Galwan had added the name ‘Ghulam’ only after the birth of his first child on the advice of a fakir,before he went on his travels with Lord Dunmore.
In both Dunmore’s and Galwan’s memoirs, there is no record of the tale of how the Galwan River came to be named. Recent pieces suggest that Galwan rescued Dunmore when they got stuck in an area with steep gorges. As a gesture of gratitude, Dunmore decides to name the newfound passage out of the gorges through the river as ‘Galwan Nullah’. However, in Dunmore’s journals, there is no mention of this incident. He does narrate an instance when the whole party was stuck, presumably around the same area where Galwan River is, but he makes no mention of Ghulam Rassul helping the team out or him naming the river as Galwan River in gratitude.
Surprisingly, neither does Ghulam Rassul narrate this rather important event in his own memoirs, which is a painstaking journal of all the important days, events and people in his life till then. He does however, include a play, ostensibly written by him, towards the end of his memoirs, titled Testing the Sahibs. In this play, which is a mix of the fantastical combined with the autobiographical, he is one of the main characters and in one of the acts he writes about rescuing a Sahib.
In his memoir, Dunmore in fact writes about the assistance that the Chinese soldiers offered to him while navigating this treacherous stretch. His account reads like a fable from the Arabian Nights, being replete with references to “the worst precipice in Asia” and navigating through areas such as “Shaitan Kum” in the Yarkandi language or “the place in which the Devil himself could not find his way”. After Shaitan Kum, they had to contend with the Black Pass, an area so difficult to traverse that even local tribesmen from surrounding areas did not venture in. This is probably the current location of the Galwan River. It is interesting to see how Chinese troops were also stationed here and tried to venture out of this Pass.
The fascination, sometimes morbid, remains while reconstructing the histories of the frontiers, just as these were emerging through the narratives of a few major characters.
According to Dunmore’s accounts, the Chinese troops lost a large number of their horses in cliffs and precipices. Despite the loss, they gifted two horses to Dunmore’s party. Here, at this frontier of a power struggle between three empires, the British and the Chinese were allies, at least in those moments when survival was at stake. This was so even during the ‘Great Game’ – the term popularised by Rudyard Kipling in his 1901 novel Kim and used to describe the fight for political and diplomatic supremacy in Central Asia which also included Afghanistan and the northern frontiers of contemporary Southasia between Russia and Britain for most of the 19th century.
So, there is a mythological aspect to this history of the region and the Galwan River. The oral historian Linda Hess writes that one of the “great features of oral tradition is that it is embodied with givers and receivers physically present in the same place and time” and that there is “no text without context in oral history”. Thus, in this historico-myth of naming, which also means claiming, all of us become givers and receivers of meaning-making. I stand to be corrected if there is actual historical evidence that can be presented on this issue, but till then, the fascination, sometimes morbid, remains while reconstructing the histories of the frontiers, just as these were emerging through the narratives of a few major characters. Much can be discerned about policies, conflicts, environment, trade, cultures, and even human engagement through these narratives.