Nehru’s hubris about his own statesmanship, coupled with a refusal to discuss the matter reasonably since 1962, has led us to the present tangle.
Political commentators have been gushing over the possibilities of strengthened economic and strategic relations between China and India, but the unresolved border dispute remains alive and can always play spoiler in the future. A border is, after all, more than a line on the map or a series of military posts on the ground; it is a reflection of how the political elite of a nation-state thinks about its security.
Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin is claimed by India as part of Jammu and Kashmir, and Indian-controlled Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China. The only feasible solution is to accept the status quo and transform the Line of Actual Control into an international boundary. There have been several rounds of talks since the 1990s, but a resolution remains distant. Despite its parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will be unable to sell a permanent boundary settlement without being accused of ceding territory in Aksai Chin, though in reality it will only be giving up its claim over a territory India never controlled.
This raises a pertinent question: what precisely is the border upon which India and China cannot agree?
Through history, China and India have not been neighbours. The current de facto border has its genesis in a line drawn on a map by Henry McMahon during a secret treaty between Britain and Tibet in March 1914. Both entities, British India and Tibet, are no more: one has been transformed into postcolonial India and the other was occupied and colonised by communist China. Yet India and China, both of whom have overthrown the mantle of Western imperialism, are jostling over the same imperialists’ line – and have completely militarised and destroyed the traditional zone of contact that the border regions were.
The border is a legacy of a few dynamics, including the expansionist policies of the British in the Himalayan regions of India, the disappearance of the traditional Tibetan state, which had political and sacral hegemony over much of the region, and the modern nationalisms in postcolonial India and revolutionary China, which are keen on implementing a rigid notion of sovereignty in the border regions and legitimising the primacy of militarised security over the religious, cultural and human rights of the people inhabiting the region.
Stuck in the middle
The primary loser in the dispute is neither India nor China but Tibet. China has occupied most of Tibetan territory, while India has occupied the Tawang tract, which was historically part of Tibet. The Tibetan state had given up the Tawang region to British India in 1914 on the understanding that they would get friendship and assistance to protect their independence from China. When China went on to occupy Tibet in 1949-’50, India reneged on that understanding, preferring the diplomatically attractive Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai rhetoric over a strategically sound and morally defensible Indo-Tibetan friendship.
Despite reluctantly hosting the Tibetan exile community today, India did not offer any tangible help to the Tibetans in their struggle for independence. Today, as Modi and Xi plan collaborations on various fronts, Tibetans are reminded that in this world of realpolitik, morality and human rights are subservient. Tibetans are perceived as strategic assets or liabilities in bargaining with China, not people of an occupied land for whom India should raise its voice. For India, it is the border matters, not the border inhabitants.
Myths peddled by India
The popular as well as strategic approach of many in India towards the border dispute is jaundiced by the myths the Indian state peddled about the humiliating war of 1962. After the 1962 defeat, there was no credible reflection at the policy level in India. Indians accepted as real the myths that Indian territorial claims were legitimate and sacrosanct, and that the Chinese were duplicitous and stabbed gullible India in the back. The reality could not be further from this. The first Survey of India Map in 1950 showed the boundary as undefined in Aksai Chin and as undemarcated in the north east. It was only in the summer of 1954 that Jawaharlal Nehru gave personal orders for all old maps to be withdrawn and destroyed and to remove qualifiers and show the McMahon Line in bold, as if that was the de jure boundary.
Nehru later claimed innocence, insisting that there was no boundary disagreement and that Chinese claims were surprising. Since 1959, India rejected all the diplomatic overtures of Zhou Enlai and said negotiations could only take place if China withdrew from Aksai Chin, though India would not offer anything in return. Since 1961, the Indian military followed a “forward policy” in the border regions that was not only provocative but based on the assumption that China would not retaliate.
A great unresolved mystery from the time is why the best Indian minds working in intelligence, military and diplomacy accepted this assumption without a murmur of protest. It can be explained by Nehru’s hubris in his own capacity as a statesperson, bureaucracies subservient to him, and the inability of the civilian and military elite to be independent-minded. Macho posturing was the order of the day. The Indianisation of the top brass in the military occurred only after independence in 1947, so they were inexperienced as leaders. Faced with an army that had its genesis in revolutionary wars, the Indian army, which had been servant to an imperial power, failed to perform its basic duty of protecting the country.
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