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Giving our foes the advantage

Jawaharlal Nehru junked the geostrategic policies pursued by Britain. India is paying the price for his folly, writes Bharat Karnad.

ht view Updated: Oct 13, 2014 00:58 IST

The Line of Control (LoC) dividing the Indian portion of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir from its Pakistan-occupied parts is, like the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating India and China, a Cease-Fire Line (CFL).

These lines were established when the last major hostilities with these countries — the 1971 War, and the withdrawal by the Peoples Liberation Army to a more defensible and logistically maintainable line in the 1962 War — ended.

Under international law, a ceasefire line is just that — a temporary stand-still agreement terminating active military operations without prejudicing legal or other claims on territory held by either country pending a final negotiated settlement of the boundary.

Implicit in the concept of a CFL, therefore, is the sanction available to any of the parties to violate it at any time for any reason, including gaining of military or other advantage or slivers of territory to buttress its claims.

This is the legal status of the LoC and LAC that both Pakistan and China respectively adhere to.

India, curiously, has adopted the view that these Lines are, for all intent and purposes, international borders whose violation New Delhi will not brook.

The unilateral stance by India of the LoC as a settled border, for instance, has resulted in New Delhi rarely bringing up in international councils the disputed nature of western Kashmir and the Northern Areas, inclusive of Gilgit, Hunza, and Baltistan illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947, thereby reinforcing the Pakistani contention that the only matter remaining to be resolved is the status of Indian Kashmir.

Unquestioningly accepting the Chinese annexation of Tibet and the forcible assimilation of the Tibetan people by supporting the myth of an ‘autonomous region of Tibet’ as integral to the Chinese whole has likewise bolstered the Chinese position that peace will come when Arunachal Pradesh regarded by it as only another part of Tibet — ‘southern Tibet’ — is ceded to Beijing. India has thus lost ground politically and legally vis-à-vis both Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Chinese-occupied Tibet.

Neither Pakistan nor China has made the mistake India has, and continually contest the LoC and LAC with armed intrusions, artillery duels, and indiscriminate firings, to highlight the disputed nature of these borders and to ensure their respective territorial claims are active, for fear that not doing so may, in time, accord the status quo sanctity which New Delhi desires.

Thus, frequent military eruptions on the LoC and LAC and, hence, a series of never-ending crises on the borders with Pakistan and China, are preordained with tensions being stoked by sensation-seeking 24/7 electronic media and print media, both apparently as ignorant of the meaning of CFL in international law as the ministry of external affairs (MEA).

At the root of India’s problems with the LoC and LAC is the absence in the Indian political leadership, the Indian government, and especially the MEA, of what the great theorist of geopolitics Halford Mackinder called, “the map-reading habit of mind”. The importance of expanding and safeguarding sovereign territory on land and sea is scarcely understood.

The spatial imperatives of strategy and foreign and military policy, when not reduced to military-wise nonsensical axioms, such as “not an inch of territory will be lost”, are treated as matters of political expediency.

Thus, the diffident Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent, overcome by the flattery of Field Marshal Ayub Khan seeking “rahmat”, magnanimously returned to Pakistan the Haji Pir salient captured at great cost by the Indian Army in the September 1965 War, without appreciating its strategic importance as a finger sticking into Indian Kashmir and which piece of real estate has ever since been used to infiltrate militants and other undesirables to create havoc in J&K and elsewhere.

Six years later, with Bangladesh liberated, 93,000 Pakistani Prisoners of War (PoWs) as leverage, and Islamabad on its knees, a supposedly hard-headed, Indira Gandhi, instead of imposing a victor’s peace sanctioned by international law requiring the formalisation of the LoC as international border, in a fit of misplaced generosity, accepted the supplicating Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s plea that he be given time to create consensus at home for such a permanent solution.

Rather than telling Bhutto that thrusting the Indian design for peace down resisting Pakistani throats was his problem, and the price for waging war and the return of PoWs was his signature on the dotted line, Indira gave in. India still suffers due to her myopia.

One of the main consequences of such political ham-handedness even when dealt a winning hand is that the Indian military simply does not trust the elected rulers and the Indian government to do right by them and the country.

Whence, the unprecedented warning some years back by an army chief that if the Siachen Glacier is asked to be vacated of Indian troops as part of some grand compromise with Pakistan, and should the situation be exploited by the Forces Command Northern Areas of the Pakistan army to establish an armed presence there, New Delhi must not expect the Indian army to retake those forbidding heights.

The respect for geography and the spatial concerns of good strategy were at the core of British imperial policy of ‘distant defence’ based on Indian control of the Indian Ocean littoral, influence in regions stretching from the Caspian Sea to Central Asia, and the strengthening of the ‘Mongolian fringe’ to the north and the North-East.

Those geostrategics were discarded by Jawaharlal Nehru — his suspicion of geopolitics surpassing his good sense. To promote peace Tibet was not contested, nor was the taking of Aksai Chin by China, Coco Islands were gifted to Myanmar and, in 1974, the Kachchateevu Island to Sri Lanka. India has never recovered.

Bharat Karnad is professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal