Do we know that the kingdom of Ladakh (now a part of India) enjoyed full sovereign right over Menser - an enclave comprising of a cluster of villages - located deep inside Chinese territory on the bank of Lake Manasarwar until 1965? Sadly is now being forgotten even from our collective memory. Bhutan too governed a small enclave Darchen Labrang near Mount Kailash (Kang Rinpoche). Both Ladakh and Bhutan collected annual tribute from these enclaves for some 350 years.
Menser had a clear history. The Enclave was retained by Ladakh ruler, after he ceded half of his kingdom (now Western Tibet) to Lhasa under the Tigmosgam Treaty of 1684. The king of Ladakh retained Menser for two fold reasons: (a) to use Menser for transit point for Indian traders and pilgrims to Kailash and (b) to use its revenue collection ostensibly to meet his expenses of annual religious offerings to the holy Kailash. When Maharaja Kashmir superseded Ladakh in 1846, he too agreed to fulfill the treaty obligations - transit and transport facilitations for traders from both sides.
Recent research findings by John Bray (a British Ladakhlogist) suggested that Wazir of Ladakh, Mehta Basti Ram (1853) collected Rs 56 revenue from Menser. It had gone up to RS 297 in 1905. According to Indian censuses (1911) and (1921), Menser had 44 houses, 87 men and 73 women. Jammu & Kashmir’s final settlement report of 1958 showed Ladakh Tehsil constituting 110 villages including Menser. The officials who collected Menser revenue included Dr. Kanshi Ram, British Trade Agent (1939), Tsetan Phuntsog (1941), Abdul Wahid Radhu (1942), Lumberdar of Rupshu and others. Annual tribute to the Maharaja consisted of 60 sheep, 20 goats, 6 yaks and 60 lambskins, besides Rs 60 towards traveling expense. Taxes were collected even after China’s occupation of Tibet (1958) and 1962 India-China war. It appeared that J&K government seemingly pre-occupied with 1965 tribal invasion from Pakistan had since then stopped exercising rights over Menser. The Tibetan and Chinese authorities never challenged Indian sovereign rights over it and the matter could have been resolved in 1950s when India and China enjoyed better political relations. Now even people of Ladakh have decided to forget about it.
There is some reference to Kushok Bakula Rinpoche had visited Menser villages when he went on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in the mid-50. According to some narratives the inhabitants of Menser pleaded Bakula to waive off their annual tribute to the State of J&K as they faced difficulty in maintaining double allegiance to both Lhasa and Leh. It is not clear whether Bakula had conceded to their demand, but the head Lama of Ladakh had no legal authority to settle the matter to that affect.
The current trend suggests that China has a fresh thinking on Ladakh and their actual motives are yet to be fully understood. In-depth research is required from all angles. Officially, China is already sitting on 38,000 sq km (Aksai-Chin) though Ladakh may have different perspective on Aksai Chin known in Ladakh as Lingzi-thang. We have consciously allowed Menser Enclave to be a part of China since 1960s and since mid-1980s; the Chinese grabbed a large chunk of pastureland in Skakjung area. The PLA has been asserting in Demchok and Chushul and now aggressively pushing through Depsang and Chumur area. In the recent case the whole issue of dispute now has been reduced to China vacating 19 kilometers in Burtse. Obviously, we are falling prey to the Chinese smart thinking.
It is inconceivable why India can’t reopen hitherto forgotten question of Menser Enclave. Is India simply overlooking the matter or has it formally abandoned its claim over Menser which is so important for the people of Ladakh for commercial and spiritual reasons? Why New Delhi can’t bring the issue on the table, in the light of present China’s assertion, and enforce residual sovereign claim over it or at least create some ambiguity? Recently, Russia has bargained hard with China over its enclave anomalies in Amur River region after a long dispute. Bangladesh is claiming its enclaves in India, and we may solve it soon.
China is unlikely to resolve the boundary issue with India until Tibet problem is finally resolved, and as such border negotiations are likely to be prolonged; the question of Menser therefore shouldn’t be considered as entirely closed. Considering that the Sino-Indian dispute in the Western Sector remains untenable, Menser and also Skaksgyam (ceded by Pakistan to China) should be forcefully factored into our negotiation with the Chinese. Of course, military option can’t bring any lasting solution in this region. Both India and China must recognize that the issue is more about restoring the web of historical, spiritual, and commercial inter relationships between Ladakh and Ngari (Western Tibet). Ladakh and Ngari, for centuries, had enjoyed religious and commercial autonomy for mutual cooperation.
Authors is a Former Ambassador and founder of Ladakh International Centre, Leh