Truth & Tawang

Saturday, December 13, 2008

RECENT official statements by India and China on their boundary dispute merit a calm and realistic appraisal shorn of both chauvinism and sentiment. The two countries have set themselves firmly on the path of friendship. But the dispute is an obstacle – serious, but easily removable. Yet little is being done to settle it. Progress in the talks has been insignificant. We must not lose heart; equally, we must not ignore the realities. Neither side has been, or is, free from blame. A fair appraisal will necessarily be a nuanced one. Notoriously, both hawks and doves shun nuances.The statements must be read in the context of vastly improved relations between the two countries. Chinese writings on world affairs, unlike ours, are shorn of sentimentality and are starkly realistic. A brilliant article by Han Hua, Professor of International Relations at the School of International Studies at the University of Beijing, is a fine example of such a calm appraisal, albeit from the Chinese perspective. It is entitled “Friends or Foes: Mutual Perceptions between two Asian Giants” (China & India edited By Isabelle Saint-Mezard; Centre of Asian Studies, The University of Hong Kong). She notes that “the two have shown their increasing keenness to appreciate the salience of their ties… one must admit that there still are obstacles to be removed in order to achieve a cordial and sensible relationship.” The first obstacle she identifies is the border dispute, which lends force to her emphasis on sensibility. For, the dispute simply makes no sense at all. Each has its non-negotiable vital interest securely under its control – China has the Aksai Chin and India has the McMahon Line. Neither side can compromise on this. Han Hua accurately sums up the perceptions each has of the other and holds that both have moved towards the mainstream.

“The mainstream-view holders consent [sic.] that while the border war scenario is unlikely, they don’t foresee a quick accomplishment of a final resolution.” On this, she is on target, and China is responsible for this perception. Just as India’s policies led China to suspect that the Indian leadership lacked the will and political clout to arrive at a fair compromise and sell it to the people, China’s stand leaves many in India with the uncomfortable feeling that it is not ready for such a deal, either.

Han Hua praises both countries for adopting “a pragmatic policy… on various bilateral issues in the past few years”. Is it “pragmatic” for China to question the McMahon Line drawn in 1914, nearly a century ago, and demand that India cede Tawang to China? It is as impossible a demand as if India were to demand the Aksai Chin – which it does not. The Tawang demand, if persisted with, would be a deal-breaker, and there is no reason to believe that China does not want a settlement. As this writer argued earlier (“Maps and borders”; Frontline, October 24, 2008), we must analyse rigorously the situation created by China’s demand and ask why it persists with it so stridently. The truth is a great liberator, and history puts paid to China’s demands in the eastern sector and to India’s stand in the western sector.

On October 24, 2008, Pranab Mukherjee, External Affairs Minister, informed the Lok Sabha that the two countries had agreed to exchange maps delineating the frontier and disputed areas but that the progress was “not very bright”. There were different “perceptions”. In 2003, Special Representatives were appointed to resolve the border dispute. “This is going on, but this is taking time.”

On November 9, at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, Pranab Mukherjee rejected China’s claims to the territory: “The people of Arunachal Pradesh regularly elect two representatives to the Lok Sabha, and there is an elected State Assembly…. The question of parting company with Arunachal Pradesh or any part of it does not arise.” He referred to the 12 rounds of talks that the Special Representatives had held and his efforts “to develop friendly ties with China” and “to persuade them to reopen border trade with Arunachal Pradesh”. On November 11, the official spokesman of China’s Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, said: “We deeply regret the Indian side’s remarks that take no regard of the historical facts.” The McMahon Line was “illegal”, he said, adding, “China and India have never officially settled demarcation of borders, and China’s stance on the eastern section of China-India borders is consistent and clear-cut.” China was willing to find a “fair, reasonable and acceptable” solution to the dispute through negotiation in the spirit of “mutual understanding and adjustment” – a 50-year-old mantra whose implications have varied with the times.Qin is absolutely wrong in claiming that China’s stand has been consistent. From 1956 to 1960, China was prepared to accept the McMahon Line. In his talks with Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi on April 20 and 22 in 1960, Zhou Enlai accepted the Line: “We make no claim in the eastern sector to areas south of the McMahon Line.” It was most unwise of Nehru to have insisted on China’s withdrawal from the Aksai Chin, which caused the talks to collapse. Which is why Zhou revealed, at his press conference on April 25, in answer to a question by K. Rangaswami of The Hindu, that “comparatively less time has been spent on discussions of the eastern sector of the boundary” and “there exists a relatively bigger dispute” on the western sector (Premier Chou En-lai’s Visits to Burma, India and Nepal; Information Office, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China; pages 25 and 26).The McMahon Line of 1914 stretches over Myanmar, which was a part of India until 1937. Zhou accepted it in the boundary agreement with Myanmar on January 28, 1960, shortly before coming to India.

Nineteen years later, China performed a somersault. Far from softening its stand after the war of 1962, China hardened it. On February 14, 1979, in Beijing, Deng Xiaoping offered External Affairs Minister A.B. Vajpayee “the package deal” – de jure recognition of the status quo by both sides. He asserted that the eastern sector was “the area of the biggest dispute”. It was of economic value. This was inconsistent with China’s stand until that day. Was it a tactical riposte to pre-empt India’s expected demand for the restoration of the status quo before the 1962 war? One cannot be sure. What is clear is that China has persisted in this stand for the past nearly 30 years in total variance with its earlier stand.

The nuances have varied. Initially, China insisted on parity of concession – India concedes in the east; China, in the west. Later, this was varied to an insistence that India must first concede in the east if there were to be a settlement. But the room for concession there is restricted. The 1914 sketch map is susceptible to improvement in this age of satellite cartography. But China wants more than a few limited areas that do not disturb the Line. It wants the Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh.

Qin Gang’s plea for “regard for the historical facts” is justified. China opened its archives recently. India’s archival policy is the most illiberal in the entire democratic world; it is more illiberal than Russia’s or China’s. Our historians ritually pass resolutions at their annual meetings but do not mount a campaign together with supporters in the media and the academia. Why not present a petition to the Prime Minister, himself an academic? A high-power delegation should call on him. Failing redress, have recourse to the Right to Information Act, move the Central Information Commission and eventually the Supreme Court. The National Archives is barred from revealing files after 1914 on this subject.

The Government of India has failed to fulfil a 40-year-old pledge to the people. On June 15, 1966, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was asked at a press conference, “Will it not be better, in order to obtain a clear picture of our border disputes with China and also to end speculations going on here and abroad, to see that all pertinent documents, especially the full proceedings of the 1914 Simla Conference and also the minutes of both meetings of Nehru and Zhou Enlai, in 1954 and 1956, are made public?” She replied, “It is just a suggestion; it can be considered.” Nothing has been done about such an obviously sensible step as yet. The job has been left to private research. Indian scholars are obliged to go to London to do research in the British Library.

The results of all the significant research on the question were published well after the war of October 1962. Margaret Fisher, Leo E. Rose and Robert Huttenback’s pioneering work Himalayan Battleground was published in 1963; Alastair Lamb’s masterly essay “China-India Border” in 1964 was followed by his two volumes on The McMahon Line in 1966; Dorothy Woodman’s definitive Himalayan Frontiers appeared in 1969. W.F. Van Eekelen, a Dutch diplomat who made excellent use of his sojourn to New Delhi and London, published his work Indian Foreign Policy and the Border Dispute with China in 1964. All these were works of original research based on archival material. P.C. Chakravarti’s The Evolution of India’s Northern Borders and S.C. Bajpai’s The Northern Frontiers of India were published in 1971; Parshotam Mehra’s The McMahon Line and After appeared in 1974 and his two volumes of documents, The North-Eastern Frontier, in 1979-80. Mehra is the doyen of scholars in this field, and my debt to him is enormous.

No scholar has been more sympathetic to China than the formidable Alastair Lamb. He wrote in 1964: “The Chinese attitude to the McMahon Line, indeed, seems to have been little influenced by any Chinese views as to the availability of that line as a boundary. In fact, in the 1960 Sino-Burmese boundary agreement China accepted a portion of the McMahon Line as the border the moment the alignment had been renegotiated. No doubt in any genuine boundary discussions with India the present Chinese government would be willing to abide by a freshly negotiated boundary of more or less the McMahon type so long as such a boundary did not carry with it the implications of the March 1914 notes. The McMahon Line is, on the whole, quite a fair and reasonable boundary between China and India along the Assam Himalaya. In a few places, however, it includes territory on the Indian side which could well have been left in Tibetan hands” (emphasis added throughout).

What of Tawang? “Tawang north of the Se La [Pass] was a district which could also have been returned to Tibet at any time before 1947 without sacrifice of Indian interests. It did not, it would seem, actually come under direct Indian administration until 1951, and at the end of British rule in India it was still controlled by Tibet, just as it had been before 1914. Tawang south of the Se La, however, had by 1947 definitely come under Indian control. The retention of this region, moreover, was clearly essential on strategic grounds so as to avoid a salient of Tibetan (and, by 1947, potentially Chinese) territory thrusting right to the edge of the Brahmaputra valley. If, however, all these possible modifications had been made, then India would have reduced its theoretical limits by perhaps less than a 1,000 square miles and this would have represented the maximum adjustment of the McMahon Line that any Tibetan government could have reasonably expected” (pages 169-170, 1964).

He misses two points. First, tripartite talks among Britain, China and Tibet became necessary because of the collapse of China’s power in Tibet after the Revolution in 1912. Earlier, Chao Erh-feng’s military campaign to occupy Lhasa had alerted the British. His armies reached as far as Kima. To find out how far the Chinese had penetrated, Noel Williamson set out with an escort party of 44. All were killed by the tribesmen. Calcutta was incensed.

There was in this region an Inner Line fixed by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873 and an Outer Line. The British administered up to the Outer Line along the foothills of the Himalayas. Between it and the McMahon Line lay an area that China claims. However, from 1873 onwards, the British gradually extended a shadowy administration beyond the Outer Line – except in Tawang. The region was depicted on the maps as falling within Britain’s sphere of influence.

In October 1910, the Viceroy Lord Minto advised the India Office to “gain a buffer” by “extending the Outer Line” to Tibet. The alignment he suggested excluded Tawang. So did his successor Lord Hardinge’s alignment.

Surveys galore beyond the Outer Line were conducted by the Survey of India – by Major J.W. Beresford, J.F. Needham of the Bengal Police, Captain E.H. Molesworth, Captain G.A. Nevill and Captain F.M. Bailey. “The entire country was surveyed,” Dorothy Woodman recorded (page 138). The McMahon Line was drawn on the basis of these surveys. It was not drawn arbitrarily.

There was no Chinese presence here ever . Zhou Enlai was altogether wrong when he claimed at his press conference that the area was under China’s administration. The Tibetans did have a presence, but only in Tawang. There was a British, at one remove, Indian, presence, incontestably. “We only administer politically,” as Hardinge put it. Charles Bell, who knew the region like the back of his hand, warned in 1910: “If the Chinese regain control over Tibet, later on they will pay special attention to the development and consolidation of the at present thinly populated but warm and fertile districts in the southwest of Tibet, which are not far from Assam and from which districts, when developed, a considerable army could be fed.”

A very confidential evaluation he wrote at this time read: “Until the recent Tibet Mission, and the resulting growth of Chinese power in Tibet… China had very little power and there were no signs of her being aggressive on the Indian frontier…. The position is now completely damaged. China is becoming every year more formidable as a military power. She has seized the power in Tibet and is increasing her military strength there more and more. Only a narrow stretch of territory intervenes between her conquests and the plains of India. And these conditions apply to 1,100 miles of frontier, i.e. from the north-west corner of Nepal to the north-east corner of Assam. It is of vital importance to keep China and all foreign powers out of this narrow stretch of territory.”

Strategic importance In Ladakh in the 19th century, the fear of a Russian advance prompted the British to encourage China to bring its presence down to the Karakoram. Fear of China’s advance prompted Calcutta to advance beyond the Outer Line to reach the Himalayas. Military Intelligence agreed, but its line also excluded Tawang.

The die was cast by a “Confidential Note by Chief of General Staff” dated June 1, 1912. It warned: “The direction of the frontier line about Tawang requires careful consideration. The present boundary (demarcated) is south of Tawang, running westward along the foothills from near Udalgiri to the southern Bhutan border, and thus a dangerous wedge of territory is thrust between the Miri country and Bhutan. A comparatively easy and much used trade route traverses this wedge from north to south, by which the Chinese would be able to exert influence or pressure on Bhutan, while we have no approach to this salient from a flank, as we have in the case of the Chumbi salient…. Rectification of the frontier here is therefore imperative, and an ideal line would appear to be one from the knot of mountains near Longitude 93” Latitude 28”20’ to the border north of Chona Dzong in a direct east and west line with the northern frontier of Bhutan. There appears to be a convenient watershed for it to follow.” The rest followed.

The second point that Lamb and others miss is that China accepted Tibet as an equal participant at the Simla Conference. China accepted the terms set out in a Memorandum that the British Ambassador presented to the Waichiapu (China’s Foreign Office) on August 17, 1912.

The Order by President Yuan Shih-kai appointed Ivan Chen as special plenipotentiary for Tibetan negotiations and directed him “speedily to proceed to India, there to negotiate provisional treaty jointly with the plenipotentiary appointed by Great Britain and the Tibetan plenipotentiary, and sign articles which may be agreed upon in order that all difficulties which have existed in the past may be dissolved”.

The Dalai Lama appointed Lonchen Shatra as his plenipotentiary. The Foreign Secretary in the Government of India, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, represented India. China’s plea for London as the venue was turned down. The India-China-Tibet conference opened, instead, at Wheatfield House in Simla on October 13, 1913.


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