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McMahon line to Galwan

This is an opportunity for both India and China to undertake fresh initiatives towards peaceful co-existence in a spirit of give-and-take and not make the border issue a zero-sum game. Colonialism has ended but its legacies still haunt us. A new Westphalan state system in our region is imperative.

Subrata Mukherjee | New Delhi |

The India-China border conflict has its origins in the 1914 convention between Britain and Tibet. At that convention in Tibet, the McMahon line was marked as the official border between British India and China, denying Chinese suzerainty over Outer Tibet. However, McMahon was summoned to London as he had presented a different map to the Chinese representative. Britain distanced itself from the question of legitimacy of a well-settled border between India and Tibet.

However, its administrators ensured that its cartographers showed the McMahon line as the settled and legitimate border between the two countries. On 29 October 2008, David Miliband, the British foreign secretary in the Labour government, announced that the Shimla Accord of 1914 which led to the agreement between India and Tibet resulting in the promulgation of the McMahon line was an anachronism and part of a colonial legacy. He apologised to China for the lapse. This announcement had the support of Lord Chris Patten, the last British Governor-General of Hong Kong who described it as ‘quaint eccentricity’.

When India became independent, it inherited all the British territorial agreements, including the McMahon line as the legitimate border. The then Prime Minister Nehru, as the architect of the country’s foreign policy, refused to entertain the Chinese proposals for a negotiated settlement in 1954. He argued that since the McMahon line marked the border between India and China there was no need for negotiations on a settled issue. China, not having signed the Shimla convention, rejected any agreement between Tibet and Britain as it violated Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

The Chinese position was in consonance with its previous two regimes, the Imperial government and that of Chiang Kai Shek as both had rejected the agreement. Even if the McMahon line was accepted as the border it covered only the eastern sector but not the western and central sectors. According to Noorani, on 1 July 1955 Nehru shut the door to negotiations on the India-China boundary question. He rejected Zhou En-lai’s proposal when Zhou visited India in 1960 with regard to the eastern border thus accepting the McMahon line. India also refused to accept the actual line of control in the western sector ceding the Aksai Chin area to China.

Nehru unilaterally drew the lines where the border was undefined and also ordered the destruction of old maps. In the crucial years between 1959 and 1962, there was considerable adhocism in Nehru’s policy towards China and related issues. In 1959, when Ayub Khan proposed a joint defence mechanism between India and Pakistan, Nehru’s reply was, ‘Against whom’? On 16 March 1959, China cautioned India not to have two fronts. Nehru concurred with Defence minister Menon’s assertion that both Communism and nonalignment pursued the same objective.

Apart from rejecting any barter between the western and eastern frontiers, Nehru ignored the American assurance to China that it would not intervene in a conflict with India. The Soviet Union, in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, advised India to settle the border issue on China’s terms. In the larger geopolitical perspective of the Soviet leadership, India was accorded a relatively minor rating. In the 1962 war, India suffered a humiliating defeat.

Fifty-eight years after the war, Indian opinion is broadly divided into two categories ~ (a) criticism of China for its treacherous act; and (b) blaming Menon and the then intelligence chief, Mullick. Nehru was also considered as naive. Maxwell’s India’s China War (1970) and Karunakar Gupta’s numerous publications were strictly avoided by the think-tanks and security analysts. China takes credit for maintaining peace for 58 years and that its position has not changed from the 1960 Zhou position except that along with the barter proposal it also wants to stake greater claim in the eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh.

Very few remember Nehru’s own admission that ‘we are getting out of touch with reality and living in an artificial world of our own creation’. At the 1955 Bandung conference, which was convened primarily on India’s insistence, Pakistan, already tied to the USA through SEATO, was against China’s participation. However, at the conference, Zhou assured Pakistan that it had no dispute with it. India did not initiate any talks on the border and Zhou did not criticise the West in his speech and instead stressed on Asian-African unity. It was a master- stroke as it ended China’s diplomatic isolation and helped it to forge a feeble but tactical de facto bloc against the West.

China needed this front in order to consolidate its position in the context of the Sino-Soviet split. Patel’s warning in 1950 that for China, nationalism was more important than Communism proved to be prophetic. It also proved Wright’s observation correct when he wrote that non-alignment was clearly a tactic and not a philosophy. At Bandung, Zhou found Nehru to be arrogant and resented the latter’s attempt to lead the non-aligned movement. It was a fact that India had tried to forge a close relationship with China in the 1950s with its support to China in the UN and in the Korean War, but the fact still remained that this effort was totally one-sided as China was indifferent. In 1950, when India cautioned China against taking military action in Tibet, the Chinese reply was sharp.

It alleged that India was affected by foreign influences that were hostile to China. When Nehru brought to China’s attention that its maps were showing even the Brahmaputra foothills as part of China, the Chinese reply was that these would be withdrawn as the maps were prepared by the Chiang Kai Shek regime. The situation worsened after India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959, which according to China was a violation of the principles of Panch Sheel. One of the major factors in the Sino-Soviet split was the Soviet supply of armaments to India and also its promise of help in the atomic area coupled with Soviet pressure on China to restrain it against India.

The crux of the matter was that Nehru had enough opportunity to settle the border issue. His forward policy was the pretext for Chinese invasion. The opposition parties in India blundered in the run-up to the war as well. Its attitude was based primarily on the perception of short-term gains. The right-wing opposition party leaders of the day, notably Kripalani, Masani and Rajaji were blamed by Maxwell for the crisis. In spite of the 1962 War a working relationship and relatively peaceful coexistence between India and China evolved slowly. It seemed that the present arrangement and respect for LAC would now continue indefinitely.

This relative co-existence along the LAC was, however, shattered when a violent faceoff between the two led to the deaths of 20 Indian military personnel on 15 June this year. A relook at the entire border problem becomes imperative. The 1993 agreement between India and China which stipulated the LAC as the basis for a stable and peaceful relationship would have to be the basis of a future settlement with minor adjustments to natural boundaries and for the transfer of mutually advantageous border adjustments. Equally important is that India should develop its strong defence mechanism to deter China from attacking and overwhelming border ports.

The argument of a stronger China and that its economy being five times that of India is not of much relevance as a plausible deterrence would be enough to force China to bring it back to the discussion table which could be prolonged and tortuous. But we should remember the lessons of the Cold War which never became hot, not even when the erstwhile Soviet Union was an incomplete and one-dimensional super power. Our nuclear doctrine is also based on deterrence. We have to ensure, as Vietnam did in 1979, that we are capable of defending our borders and we have a firm resolve to do so.

We will have to demonstrate to China that India will always follow an independent foreign policy whether it is with Quad or our relationship with the USA and our policy will be determined by our national interests and priorities. Following Gandhi’s belief in the beauty of compromise and accepting the faultlines created by the imperialist powers this is an opportunity for both the countries to undertake fresh initiatives towards peaceful co-existence in a spirit of give and take and not make the border issue a zero-sum game. Colonialism has ended but its legacies still haunt us. A new Westphalan state system in our region is imperative. This means that we will have to be restrained regarding internal happenings in China as that was one of the basic conditions of the Westphalan model to ensure lasting peace between countries.

(The writer is retired Professor, Dept of Political Science, University of Delhi)