A MAP IN TIME SAVES NINE
It is often a besetting flaw in Indian thinking not to recognize the legitimacy of any interest other than its own. Reconciliation is the primary object of diplomacy and in some cases it may be difficult if not impossible to carry out this mandate. At the root of India and China’s conflicting interests lies a border-dispute, and the process of negotiations between the 2 nations may be a rather assiduous climb. Since China deployed troops in the region of Daulat Beg Oldi in April this year, India was dragged into a politico-military imbroglio with its mighty neighbour, which reached a crescendo when both countries deployed troops facing each other who were ready for action on the ill-defined border. Thereafter, it took several flag meetings along with tremendous diplomatic activity on either side to dial down the stress, yet the abatement of tensions near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh came not a day too soon. Unlike India’s ‘idealism’ and ‘romanticism’ under Nehru and China’s consequent ‘betrayal’ of its trusted friend in 1962 which culminated in an unnecessary war, the Indian government has acted more reasonably this time round. It has not seamlessly allowed itself to get agitated; further even though Indian and Chinese troops were on the brink of engaging, there was no exchange of fire, thank God for that; and lastly it has played a proactive role in seeking a diplomatic solution to a problem which is in fact reconcilable.
In 1950 the Survey of India issued independent India’s first map. In this map, the political divisions of the new republic were well-defined with Pakistan in the east and the west; they were also fairly clear with China except in 3 areas where they were marked as “undefined”: first, in the extreme east (Tirap subdivision) which is present-day Arunachal Pradesh, second, central region of what is today Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and, third, eastern Kashmir including Aksai Chin. However, in 1954 the Survey issued a new set of maps were issued by the government, wherein the “undefined” colour wash was replaced by a hard-line, and consequently Aksai Chin was Indian Territory. The old maps were withdrawn, even from the Survey archives itself and what’s more, drawing the Indian map in the old way became illegal. What was the government up to? It was either just a deceitful act that the government assumed at the time that it would get away with, or it was something that was a part of a larger covert operation which remains classified till date in the high echelons of our intelligence apparatus. Evidence that has come forth regarding the shocking events preceding the 1962 war suggests the former.
Nehru’s speech to Parliament in 1950 after the first set of maps were published is particularly significant, “To admit that a lingering doubt remained in my mind and in my Minister’s mind (Panikkar) as to what might happen in the future. But we did not see how we were going to decide this question by hurling it in that form at the Chinese at the moment. We felt that we should hold by our position and that the lapse of time and events will confirm it and by that time perhaps, when the challenge to it came, we would be in a much stronger position to face it. I may be perfectly frank to the House. It is not as if it was ignored or that it was not thought about.” This speaks volumes of what Nehru’s intention was behind the unilateral act of changing the border at Aksai Chin. China was obviously not amused. When the devious act came to light, Nehru defended the new border time and again against Chinese opposition that the McMohan Line as it was a treaty line and historical evidence showed that the territories claimed in 1954 were always associated with India since ancient times.
In the midst of this debacle, China issued a reply in 1959 which read as follows, “First of all, I wish to point out that the Sino-Indian boundary has never been formally delimited. Historically no treaty or agreement on the Sino-Indian boundary has ever been concluded between the Chinese Central Government and the Indian Government. So far as the actual situation is concerned, there are certain differences between the two sides over the border question…. The latest case concerns an area in the southern part of China’s Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous region, which has always been under Chinese jurisdiction. Patrol duties have continually been carried out in the area by the border guards of the Chinese government. And the Sinkiang-Tibet Highway built by our country in 1956 runs through that area. Yet recently the Indian government claimed that the area was in Indian Territory. All this shows that border disputes do exist between China and India.”
The dispute went through needless tension and conflict owing to the fact that the parties never really sat down to discuss the issue. China’s case in 1962 centred on India’s unilateral action, which gave them leverage to justify their incursion however illegitimate it was. This is because it is not as though China has a particularly good case either when it comes to their western boundary in Tibet. The Chinese empire was never clear about its western extremities; further it rejected any British attempt to demarcate the border and settle the issue once and for all. Aksai chin is a high-altitude uninhabited desert and is of little strategic importance for India; but for China it is vital. It is a geographical imperative for China to control the western border of Tibet; this is important to its control over all of Tibet. Resultantly, the Chinese entered Indian territory and exploited the issue of an undefined border to their advantage. It developed the Aksai Chin road, which cut through the McMohan Line into Indian Territory. India discovered China’s advance only too late in 1961 and instead of negotiating the issue took the offensive against China, only to see a crushing defeat at their hands and a further westward advance into India which led to many territories coming under permanent Chinese control.
When we look at it from a historical perspective, transgressions have been made on either side. It is now high-time to settle. At the moment, China’s incursion in Daulat Beg Oldi cannot be considered a mere isolated event as it is evidently a component of a larger scheme to strengthen its control over Tibet. Hence, there are apprehensions over whether China will settle on anything at all. Until now, the LAC is only a notional line, which has never been put down in mutually agreed maps, let alone defined in a document with specific geographical features. Nevertheless it has been substantially respected by both sides. In some parts of the LAC however, either side have overlapping claims and thus, troops patrol up to the LAC as they understand it. China has in the past on some occasions withdrawn from a particular area after an interval of time.
Hence, even though China may seem to be dragging its feet on the border issue, there is hope that a comprehensive solution may result after the recent change in leadership. China’s President Xi Jingping when spoke to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the sidelines of the recent BRICS Summit, described India as its “most important bilateral partner” and declared that the Special Representative mechanism should strive for “a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible.”
2013 is not 1962. Rather than delving into the fecklessness in the Indian leadership and the ambitiousness in the Chinese leadership, it is time to concentrate on the terms of settlement. India and China are giant trade partners, and each is monetarily invaluable to the other, hence making out a hostile situation out of border transgressions is not a positive way forward that either side need embark upon. Many may disagree with author, yet the past has clearly shown us that a hard-line stand won’t do us any good considering China’s military prowess is indubitably superior to that of India’s. The border first needs to be conclusively demarcated before an act of transgression can be definitively proved. And that can happen only across the table with minds at work, rather than across a piece of land with guns at work.
Further, it is important to note that China has managed to claim territory after developing the areas of Aksai Chin and Tirap, whereas India has shown no such interest in the regions; rather it has woken up late after the alleged damage was already done. In order to prevent such situations from recurring it is high time the government look beyond the simple establishment of an army camp and think of more proactive measures in incorporating the territories it wants to call its own; India has to build structures in the regions so that it doesn’t end up beating its chest crying out: “Throw them out!”. Indian diplomats cannot walk to negotiating table with a strategy deficit as seen in the past.
India needs to focus on other much more serious border issues it has; for instance with Pakistan in the North-west. The Kashmir frontier which has been perceived as ‘leaky’ in the past is causing irreversible and horrific damage to Indian security as a whole. Pakistani and Bangladeshi non-state elements have breached Indian borders and have been proved to be involved in numerous terrorist activities. India indeed has too much on its plate! It’s time the Chinese boundary chapter is closed now and forever.
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