Forty-five years after the 1962 India-China war, a solution to the vexed border dispute that constituted that war’s rationale is nowhere in sight. Instead, the Chinese have consolidated their territorial gains, refused to recognise India’s de facto boundaries, persisted in cartographic aggression against India and exposed New Delhi’s moral hollowness on Tibet.
The Indian political establishment uses the excuse of ‘the border issue being complex’ for its failure to act. The issue is far from complex. The boundary dispute essentially revolves around two areas — the 38,000 sq kms of Aksai Chin, an icy desert in eastern Ladakh, the surreptitious occupation of which was the remote cause of the 1962 border war; and the Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian response has to be fashioned on its own perceptions of its borders and on China’s long-term territorial ambitions. If only India could trust the Chinese, there is a solution in the offing for which perhaps there exists a latent left-of-Centre consensus. The core of this latent consensus would be to concede Aksai Chin to the Chinese in return for the Chinese recognition of India’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh.
This territorial quid pro quo is likely to be met with two strong objections from the nationalistic Right: first, that the territorial integrity of India is sacrosanct; and second, that it would be a great injustice to those soldiers who laid down their lives in 1962 . To engage with the first objection, Aksai Chin was never a part of British India. At best, it belonged neither to India nor to China and if any country had a claim to that territory it would be Tibet.
To the second objection, the response would be based on Neville Maxwell’s comprehensive analysis of the 1962 war in his seminal book, India’s China War, that attributed Chinese aggression to Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ and particularly to the part that constituted a breach of the McMahon Line when the Indian Army established an outpost at Dhola in the Thag La Ridge. According to this hypothesis, the immediate cause of the 1962 conflict was transgression by India.
The chief problem, however, for the ‘Arunachal Pradesh-for-Aksai Chin’ solution is that it requires that Chinese territorial ambitions do not extend beyond Tibet and Aksai Chin. The actions of the Chinese Communist Party, however, have belied the theory of limited Chinese territorial ambitions. In 1950, the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet and subjugated its people. In 1951, it forced Tibet and the Dalai Lama to accept a 17-point treaty at the point of a gun. This treaty, while recognising the Tibetans as a distinct nation with the right of political autonomy over the area they inhabited, forced a recognition from Tibet that they were an integral part of the Chinese mainland. In 1954, China duped Nehru into signing the Panchsheel Agreement by which India recognised the Tibetan region as a part of China.
In 1955, it surreptitiously commenced the construction of a road linking the Xingjiang province of China to western Tibet. From 1951 to 1959, China suppressed the rights of Tibetans. When Tibetans revolted in 1959, China ruthlessly suppressed them causing the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers to flee to India. Chinese activity until 1959 finally convinced Nehru of Sardar Patel’s sagacity revealed to him in a letter written to him on November 7, 1950 that China was a “potential enemy”. It was after 1959 that Nehru commenced the fateful ‘Forward Policy’ that China apparently tolerated until that policy transgressed the McMahon Line. China never accepted the McMahon Line and during the 1962 conflict, it captured the Tawang district of modern day Arunachal Pradesh that India had taken control of in 1951. While China subsequently relinquished Tawang unilaterally, it has never given up its claim to that district.
While Nehru and Sardar Patel both believed that the Himalayas constituted Indian’s natural boundaries in the north, Nehru did little to secure these boundaries. China’s obsession with Tibet was part of a well-conceived frontier policy that recognised India as the only threat to its supremacy in the region. The inclusion of the Tibetan plateau as a part of China must be understood not as an exercise in revanchism but as a deliberate Chinese policy to establish safe and strategic boundaries, particularly with India. The incorporation of Tibet into China, and the eradication of any viable dissent in Tibet, can only be understood in this context.
So it is not surprising that the Chinese have insisted upon and managed to extract a concession from almost every visiting Indian PM about Tibet being a part of China. Beijing managed to secure such a concession even from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his visit in 2003. This was the same Vajpayee who in April 1989, commenting in the Rajya Sabha on the just concluded visit of Rajiv Gandhi to China, criticised Gandhi for saying nothing about Tibet when the Chinese themselves had raised the issue. He went on to say that “I am an admirer of Nehru, but in accepting Tibet as a part of China, he has made a Himalayan blunder.” Perplexingly, when the Chinese raised the Tibetan question in 2003 during his own visit as PM, Vajpayee only endorsed Nehru’s Himalayan blunder by confirming that Tibet was part of China.
Certain statements of Manmohan Singh in November 2006 suggests that the Indian government has accepted as a fait accompli the Chinese efforts to reduce ethnic Tibetans to a minority in Tibet. According to him, China could not do any more than what it had already done in Tibet. Read in conjunction with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s statement that the present Tibetan revolt was an ‘internal problem’ of China, New Delhi’s present China policy appears dangerously like a tacit seal of approval to the Chinese persecution of the Tibetans.
The time is now propitious for a new, bold and imaginative approach to India’s border dispute with China that is inextricably linked with the Tibetan issue. India must now look China in the eye and tell it that it will revoke its earlier recognition of Tibet as a part of China. That recognition was, at most, a de facto gesture; it had no de jure basis. At one stroke, India would serve its own national interest, express its solidarity with a long-persecuted friend and enhance its moral stature by recognising Tibet as an independent State. China may finally stand up and actually take notice of India.