History and policy

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

A.G. Noorani's book gives a perspective on the boundary dispute between India and China.

AS a political legatee of the Raj, Nehru's India was heir to its varied commitments, both within and outside its borders. It was, in many ways, an exciting legacy albeit not without its difficulties and challenges. Perhaps the most important challenge came from the newly independent country's borders and its relations with its neighbours.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, who led the country for almost two decades after Independence, had a great fascination for its major neighbour in the north-east, China. He rated India-China ties as easily the most crucial in the uncomplicated network of India's relations with the world at large. Nehru had a great fascination for the United Nations too; his contribution to its birth and early years was by no means small. All the same, China, and Asia at large, occupied a very special place in the world as Nehru saw it.

Not long afterwards, and especially with the emergence of Mao Zedong and the People's Republic of China in the early 1950s, there were a number of rude jolts beginning with Beijing's somewhat less-than-courteous, if not positively rude, responses to India's concern about Tibet. The Chinese made it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that they would tolerate no interference in what was deemed as an internal affair, their very own, exclusive turf.

The appropriate noises made during the Indian and Chinese Prime Ministers' visits to each other's country (1954-56), with their bonhomie exhibited in mutual backslapping, soon yielded place to a measure of acrimony. India was less than happy about what it called Chinese incursions into its territory, both in the east and in the west. The McMahon Line and Aksai Chin sprang into newspaper headlines as did Ladakh. New Delhi was convinced that Beijing had reneged on its commitment regarding maps. Diplomatic notes and exchanges that had hitherto been kept under wraps became public knowledge when Nehru shared these with India's Parliament and through it with the world at large (1956).

Noorani, we are informed, had initially decided to end his narrative with a description of the eve of Independence but later reflection made him investigate some major decisions that were to crystallise the issues in the dispute. His objective, he says, is to delineate how independent India applied history to shape its policy on the frontier and what diplomacy it crafted to pursue that policy. The present volume would appear to be an ad interim report. A fuller examination of the earlier record, from 1947 to 2010, would be the subject matter of the author's next, and companion, volume. Noorani's overall conclusions make for interesting reading. There was, he tells us, a total disconnect between the facts of history and the Indian policy on the boundary dispute. Moreover, New Delhi's diplomacy was inflexible and it espoused a policy that barred give and take (page 229).

Two brief comments may be in order. The total disconnect to which the author refers appears to be elusive, for the text cites chapter and verse from historical documents to show how policy came to be formulated or knocked into shape. No country not even the Soviet Union, which had on the morrow of the October (1917) Revolution announced a new revolutionary policy did, or in fact could, break from its Tsarist past. Much less has the People's Republic of China which it would appear is now veering around to its rich Confucian past. And this for no other reason than that, professions to the contrary notwithstanding, the past does impinge on the present and cannot be wished away.

A brief word on New Delhi's alleged inflexible approach. Unhesitatingly, one straight rhetorical riposte may not be difficult to fire. How flexible have been other countries and, more to the point, China? It is hardly necessary to underline that no policy, least of all ours, is conducted in a vacuum. For policy, one would imagine is, by definition, the end-product of a number of inputs, of interactions. And since Noorani is preoccupied with the boundary dispute, it would help to refresh his mind on a few salient facts. As British rule advanced across the Indian peninsula in the latter half of the 19th century to its land frontiers in the north-west British India's eastern frontier had, for all practical purposes, remained dormant, passive and inactive it harked back to the policy of the last Sikh ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Khyber was to be defended in much the same way as it had been done earlier by the Mughals. Tribal incursions were to be kept in check, whatever the cost in terms of men and munitions.

Nor is the situation entirely different in our own day. Af-Pak defence is an important, if not a crucial, component for any meaningful policy for peace and security in this part of the world. It would be worth one's while to recall that Kabul was for long deemed to be an inseparable part of India's security concerns. And a little further back, one will note that it had been an integral part of the empire of Akbar (1556-1605) and his successors.

Time and again Noorani's narrative harks back to April 1960 when Zhou Enlai met Nehru in the wake of an ignited public opinion enraged by the Longju and Kongka Pass incidents. A divided Cabinet, an irresponsible opposition, an uninformed press and a restive Parliament all fed on bad history held Nehru hostage; not that he had a different view of the past. Had he so willed, between January 21 and March 22 (1959), when he replied to Zhou Enlai, a policy based on the historical truth and a sensible diplomacy conducted in private could have charted a route that would assuredly have led to an accord. The incontrovertible historical truth could have been recalled to inform the Cabinet, Parliament and the nation, after a settlement had been reached, and events would have taken a different course (emphasis as in the original, page 232).

Two expressions need to be highlighted: could have charted and assuredly, both highly speculative, the stuff of ifs and buts and what the historian calls his might have beens. They are useful exercises in intellectual gymnastics which, by definition, are not related to harsh ground realities. Again, apart from his oft-repeated, and not exactly subdued, rhetoric, the author does not adduce any fresh evidence to review the border dispute. Most of the points he has underlined have been scrutinised time and again and at considerable length. Nor do references to Vasant Sathe or Sardar K.M. Panikkar, or this reviewer for that matter, lend any fresh weight to the narrative. The long and short of it would appear to be that Noorani would have New Delhi accept the Chinese position as adumbrated in their Prime Minister's note of March 1959, lock, stock and barrel. And if it does, things will be hunky dory. Any recalcitrance or remonstration would invite dire consequences.

To his credit, the author has dug up a lot of archival sources, most of which are well-known and have been used by one and all who have worked on the border dispute. One is not so sure if reproducing John Ardagh's memorandum or the proceedings of the Simla Conference, parts of which he has cited in extenso, is any help. They add to the volume and look impressive but their texts are in the public domain and are available without much hassle. To say all this is not to unsay that reproducing the correspondence at the highest levels of government adds depth and dimension to the narrative. The serious scholar and the researcher would find these at once educative and instructive.

There is also some revealing discussion on the how and why of the 1899 offer to China. And the fate it met (chapters 8-9). Two significant points need added emphasis here. One, China was an important factor in any determination on the boundary and was oft-times far from easy to handle. More, it had ignored the offer of 1899, which was fairly precise. It never defined its own claim line bar the occasional assertion of its claim to the Karakoram boundary. The British were uncertain. Lines were proposed again and again. There was no finality (page 143).

On the eve of the transfer of power, the situation was as follows: In the western sector of the boundary, Hunza was exclusively under British control; it had become a vassal of Kashmir when the Mir received a sanad from the maharaja, agreed to bear allegiance to him and pay him an annual tribute. In the Aksai Chin, the boundary had remained undefined. In the east, the McMahon Line (1914) marked the frontier.

His rhetorical flourishes and hyperbole some easily dispensable notwithstanding, Noorani's India-China Boundary Problem comes out as a useful addition to the subject. Especially in a better understanding of how the situation evolved over the hundred-odd years before Nehru's India took over the reins.

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