Nations on attaining independence and sovereignty will, like any family inheritance, also inherit disputes and legacies needing resolution. In any family, the options are to settle the disputes amicably and pragmatically or create lifelong feuds with resource sapping legal and other contests. The same holds good for nations.
Colonial Britain addressed boundaries and frontiers from the perspective of imperial interests and not securing lasting sovereignty for a unified India. Consequently, except where a direct threat from a neighbouring power suggested demarcation so as to draw the inviolable line, the British were content to declare major stretches as frontiers; North West, North East. Or leave the process at unilateral delineation, even when acceptance was repudiated by the other; MacMohan Line in the East and the Johnson, MacDonald lines in the West with Tibet / China. While the Mac Mohan line came near to defining the generally accepted alignment of the Indo – Tibetan boundary in the Eastern Sector, the Western Sector remained the major bone of contention with irreconcilable perceptions of where the boundary should lie.
Post the First Anglo-Sikh War and under Article 4 of the Treaty of Lahore 9 March 1846, the Lahore Durbar ceded all territories between Rivers Beas and Indus to the British and Article 12 in turn rewarded Gulab Singh with ‘Independent Sovereignty” of these territories to be made over to him by a separate treaty. Treachery of a vassal of the Sikh Kingdom had been rewarded. This was translated through Article 1 of the Treaty of Amritsar 16 March 1846. Article 4 further stipulated that the territories of Gulab Singh shall not be changed without British concurrence. The Karakoram in the north and its extension south-east was the extent of the Sikh Empire when these treaties were concluded.
Johnson, an official of the Survey of India, while at Leh en route to Khotan in 1865 came up with the “advanced boundary line” of the Kashmir State without any serious physical survey. This extended the ceded territories of the Sikh Empire eastwards to the Kun-Lun watershed encompassing Aksai Chin. It found expression in the Survey of India map of 1868 and continued to be shown as such thereafter. In 1872, Johnson resigned from the Survey of India and joined the Maharaja’s service as Wazir of Ladakh. Perhaps the appointment was a favour for cartographically extending the maharaja’s domain without any physical presence or control.
In 1893, the Chinese official at Kashgar handed a map to George McCartney, the British consul-general at Kashgar showing the proposed boundary along the Karakoram Mountains, which was a natural boundary. This showed the border up to the Indus river watershed. The British presented this line, known as the McCartney-MacDonald Line, to the Chinese in 1899 through Sir Claude MacDonald, the British representative at Peking. The Chinese did not respond and it was taken as accepted. The boundary had more or less reverted to the extent of the ceded territories of 1846. And then there were other unilateral suggestions and cartographic presentations
Based on imperial British cartographic declarations of shifting boundaries in the Western Sector, India inherited and chose to persist with the whole of Aksai Chin being part of erstwhile Kashmir state integrated into India. In 1962, the People’s Liberation Army advanced up to the 1899 MacDonald Line and is generally now the Chinese claim line as was also articulated in 1959.
With the recent Chinese move up to their perceived Line of Actual Control and as the charged discussions and shrill harangues of TV anchors fuels the passions of the present times, it may be appropriate to take an unemotional and detached view of the situation on our northern border. Like the map of India with an impressive crown that includes Gilgit – Baltistan and Aksai Chin, the actual ground position is substantially different. Reality they say is harsh and so it is.
Published Chinese literature and political utterances as also the state-controlled media clearly indicates the Chinese thinking which can be summarised as; pride in past glory and resentment against historical injustice, firm desire to consolidate nationhood, a firm belief that economic development is essential for power and that economic power generates military power; in keeping with Kautilya’s axiom in the Arthashastra—“from the strength of the treasury, the army flows.” The Chinese today feel they have the military power and asymmetry generated through economic development which can be used for national objectives including addressing historical wrongs and to settle its borders by including areas historically seen as theirs.
The recent moves on the LAC must be seen against this background and a pragmatic acceptance of realities.
The Chinese Highway 219, vital for linking Sinkiang and Tibet, both restive provinces, and effective control over Tibet, was constructed within their 1959 claim line. The Chinese claim line of 1959 and proposal of 1982 emphasise this ground reality and is very unlikely to be given up. Our claims in Aksai Chin are totally irreconcilable with Chinese objectives. By simply claiming Aksai Chin without any means to reclaim it is meaningless. The Chinese may be willing to accept the MacMohan Line in the East simply and realistically because our claim and physical control are congruent and reciprocally its forced occupation by China would involve a heavy cost and perhaps consequences.
All the talks and treaties to date have made no difference to the ground situation. We have been content to ‘talk and discuss’ the boundary question and not ‘negotiate’ in any meaningful manner. The only irritant was repeated intrusions by both sides up to their ‘perceived LAC’. China now feels it is time to formally settle the borders as perceived by them. ‘Perceptions’ of LAC are only generating grounds for endless discussions. The recent Chinese military action is to fix and hold the LAC / claim line to eliminate the ‘perception’ claims. A border war is also acceptable. In the process they have presented a fait accompli. Talks can go on as in the past and are leading nowhere.
There is a very earthy Punjabi metaphor called ‘kabja’, commonly applied to matters relating to agricultural land. It implies physical occupation and possession of land, generally in dispute, leaving the other party options of a long drawn out and ruinous legal battle with uncertain outcome or costly physical action to regain it. The Chinese can be said to have taken ‘kabja’ up to their claim lines leaving us with exercising any option.
We can defend what we have, however, the Chinese have no immediate need to dislodge us from there. If and when the opportunity arises the Ladakh region offers a much more convenient link between Aksai Chin and Baltistan in POK thereby greatly facilitating their link to the Karakoram Highway. But that is another chapter to be in the future.
And outside the military-diplomatic domain, while much talk and hype has been generated to boycott Chinese goods, infrastructure equipment, web-based applications and curtail commercial ties, that too when evaluated realistically does not go far and is not without economic costs which we can ill afford.
We had a claim and a problem but perhaps our priorities lay elsewhere or compulsions precluded doing anything worthwhile. Post-independence, we simply wished away a legacy issue needing resolution and were content with the prevailing status quo on the borders and sought refuge in managing the problem with diplomacy and goodwill. Diplomacy aims at influencing the decisions and behaviour of foreign governments and peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence. However, no dialogue is meaningful without the backing of hard power. We gave up our consulates and garrisons in Tibet, accepted Tibet as part of China, tacitly supported Chinese stand on Taiwan and side lined the Dalai Lama. Our neglect, unwillingness and incapacity to invest in creating corresponding power and allowing the asymmetry to reach the present state fore-closes any military options. The future therefore holds humiliation behind the façade of diplomacy. A common jingoistic refrain heard is that our Army is not the Army of 1962, what is wished away is that neither is the Chinese Army of 1962 nor is the Indian Army what it should be in 2020. It must also be accepted that notwithstanding our cartographic, supposed cultural links and academic arguments to back our claim, we, including the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and British India, had no communication, administration or settled population in Aksai Chin. Even our pathetic attempts to ‘show the flag’ and set up military posts as part of the ‘forward policy’ before the border war of 1962 barely took us a few kilometres ahead of the present position with no infrastructure to support the deployment. And, as mentioned above, we did nothing after 1962 to realise our claim.
When the Chinese commenced their modernisation, including the military, in 1990 we ignored it and only when their developments, infrastructure and deployments reached our doorstep in Tibet did we react, but too little too late. As Major General DK Palit, the Director Military Operations in 1962, wrote in his book War in the High Himalayas – ‘There was a propensity to ignore military reality and adopt an emotional attitude that pandered to patriotic urges while shrugging away inter related problems with optimistic assumptions.’ Perhaps not much has changed today. An unsettled, un demarcated and contentious border has been ‘policed’ by the ITBP and the Home Ministry rather than ‘defended’ by the military. Prior to 1962 it was the blind belief in the assessment of the Intelligence Bureau Chief that the Chinese would not resort to use of force, now it was assumed that the economic cooperation and personal equation of the leadership would ensure status quo.
Meaningful policy formulation comes about through institutions peopled with and injecting expert opinion and advice in the policy formulation process. Our security policy apparatus is totally devoid of any formal military representation right through the process of policy formulation. And nor are the diplomatic-intelligence inputs integrated right through the military planning and force structuring process. Seeking a one-off view or comments is no substitute for participative policy formulation. The civil and police bureaucracy, which handles our security policy formulation, is conditioned and oriented towards finding solutions to an issue while the military is conditioned to handle and address an issue and problem. We have been content to manage our security issue rather than address them. That our intelligence structures and apparatus has repeatedly failed remains unaddressed. Needless to say, our politico-military objectives have never been clearly formulated. Individuals cannot replace institutions but our experience has been the opposite. Safeguarding turf, vested interests and a misplaced sense of prerogative overrides institutional and national interests.
Recommendations of all committees, study groups, reports of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and Standing Committee of Parliament for Defence have, except for some cherry picking, died a natural death in the hands of the bureaucracy or lost in the maze of the government apparatus. Blaming the past leadership – political, bureaucratic and military – may serve some purpose if it leads to some meaningful and positive change. And finally, our internal political discourse, far from addressing reality and reaching a consensus, only promotes obfuscation and mutual recrimination. The fact is that the situation has been brought about by the institutions, systems and individuals that the nation nurtures and throws up; the sum total of national character. It would be appropriate to say that it has been a national failing.
Be that as it may, the harsh reality is that there are no meaningful options available without very heavy costs. Are we willing to bear them?