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An Expert Explains: Missed chances on India-China border

The boundary dispute that led to the 1962 war with China remains unresolved 60 years on. Nehru made a series of mistakes that governments after him continued to repeat. A historian of India-China relations takes stock.

(From left) Prime Minister Nehru, Vice President S Radhakrishnan, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and President Rajendra Prasad in New Delhi. (Express Archive)

Sixty years ago on this day — October 20, 1962 — Chinese troops came down from the Himalayan heights all along the India-China border and confronted an unprepared India, shredding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s faith in the Himalayan shield.

But relations with China, whether on the borders or in the political sphere, had long been a cause for concern, Nehru’s benign view notwithstanding. As would be seen, there were infirmities in India’s boundary with China, both in the east and the west.

Uncertainty in east & west

Back in 1950, Nehru had declared in Parliament that in the east, “McMahon Line was our border, map or no map”. In the west, the border in Aksai Chin was marked “undefined” in the Survey of India maps that India inherited on Independence — but Nehru said it was known by custom and usage.

On March 13, 1949, with the civil war in China at its peak, India had rejected a suggestion to demarcate the Aksai Chin border: “In the present disturbed conditions, it is not possible to demarcate undefined frontier between Kashmir and Sinking (Xinjiang).”

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Subsequently in 1954, the border along Aksai Chin was defined by Nehru’s fiat, dispensing with the mandatory requirement of consulting the other stakeholder, China. The new, unilaterally defined boundary included Aksai Chin within India; however, no effort was made to occupy it or to even plant the Indian flag there as a mark of sovereignty.

India remained unaware that this area was already in use by China. It came to know that the Chinese had built a 220-km-long road there only after the completion of the project was announced in 1957.

In the eastern sector, the McMahon Line had been drawn in 1914 without even a survey. Henry McMahon admitted in 1935 that the “want of local accurate knowledge and absence of detailed surveys rendered it impossible to define large portion of it, except in a general term”.

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Unrealistic expectations

While negotiating the Tibet agreement in 1954, India consciously avoided discussions about the border, leaving the boundary question open while giving up all the facilities it had inherited from the British. By the end of 1959 there were enough straws in the wind to suggest an impending escalation, since the dialogue between the two countries had by then become polemical.

The April 1960 discussions between Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in New Delhi failed to bridge their differences. The major stumbling block was in the western sector, involving Aksai Chin. Nehru stonewalled repeated suggestions from China on the need to negotiate and demarcate the boundary through joint surveys. Having unilaterally defined the western boundary, he contradicted himself repeatedly — maintaining that even if there had been no demarcation, the border was known by usage and custom, and by the watershed principle.

At the same time, Nehru remained unsure of India’s position. On December 9, 1959 he told Rajya Sabha that “a lingering doubt remained in my mind and in my ministry’s mind” as to the future, but insisted that “we should hold our position and lapse of time and events would confirm it and by the time challenge came, we would be in a much stronger position to face it”.

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China, on the other hand, had accepted that its maps were old, and its borders — not only with India but with other neighbours — needed surveys and discussions before new maps were printed. Zhou specifically told Nehru in Beijing in October 1954 that China “would undertake surveys and hold discussions with the other stakeholders before finalising its international boundaries”.

Nehru had acquiesced with that position. Yet, he expected that China should accept the delineations as on the Indian maps and replicate them in its own maps, which was unrealistic.

War and no settlement

With the Panchsheel agreement (1954) having squeezed India out of Tibet, China found the time right to enforce its territorial claims along the Indian border. Its initial intrusions were dismissed by the PM as minor incidents, which used to occur “long before Chinese came to Tibet (and) conceded that the frontier was not clearly demarcated”. While the intrusions continued, and became worrying, no serious view was taken until it was too late.

The unfortunate part of Nehru’s China’s policy was that the differences on borders were kept wrapped in a false veneer, and an uninformed but mesmerised public went hoarse shouting “Hindi-China bhai bhai”. After the Kongka pass incident (1959), in which nine Indian policemen were killed, tore apart the veneer of friendship, the government held China responsible, creating a sense of betrayal in the public. The border problem snowballed into armed conflict in 1962.

Even after the ceasefire, Nehru did not respond positively to Zhou’s suggestion to create a demilitarised zone to avoid future conflicts. The two countries were left without an agreed line separating them. A couple of unsuccessful attempts were made at reaching a settlement, including one by a group of non-aligned countries led by Sri Lanka.

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Prisoners of the past

After Nehru’s death, successive governments remained prisoners of the past and stuck to the position taken by him, failing to respond positively to the Chinese offer made in 1960 for a swap between the western and eastern sectors, which was available until the mid-eighties, when that offer was withdrawn. China now claims the eastern sector too as part of any settlement, while holding on to the western sector.

In an interview in 2016, Dai Bingguo, State Councillor and China’s Special Representative at 15 rounds of talks with his Indian counterparts between 2003 and 2013, described the eastern sector as “inalienable from China’s Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction”, and called for “meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustment” to reach a “package settlement”.

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The “package” that Dai demanded: India must “take care of China’s concern in the eastern sector”, which is Arunachal Pradesh, a state of the Indian Union, with a population of 1.4 million.

In for the long haul

Nehru’s failure to react positively to Zhou’s suggestion for a demilitarised zone after the ceasefire in 1962 has become a bane in relations, with both countries batting on their own perceptions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, the first by an Indian prime minister since Nehru’s visit in 1954, froze the border in China’s favour in return for relationships in various other domains such as trade, science and technology, and culture. It is open to question whether freezing the borders and promoting relations in other domains benefitted India. The Chinese remain in all the territories they had occupied in 1962.

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It has created a stalemate in China’s favour with little urgency for a settlement. The several agreements between the countries since then — on ‘Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity’ (1993), military CBMs (1996), ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles’ for the settlement of boundary question (2005), and border defence cooperation (2012) — have failed to lead to a settlement of the border question.

This has primarily been on account of the failure to find a mutually acceptable LAC. It needs to be noted that Dai Bingguo’s claim on the eastern sector violated the agreement on political parameters. His demand for adjustment in the east violated Article VII, which called on the two countries to “safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”.

Since the appointment of the Special Representatives in 2003, 22 meetings at their level and more at higher levels, have not helped to resolve the border issue. If the stand Dai took remains China’s final position, the two countries are stuck for the long haul.

First published on: 20-10-2022 at 05:22 IST
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