Essay

Ruffling feathers

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks on as Chinese President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan sit on a traditional swing on the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad on September 17. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has perpetuated the Indian bullishness in border relations with China by raising hostile questions during Chinese President Xi Jingping’s visit, which was supposed to boost bilateral trade.

WITHIN four months of becoming the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi single-handedly impaired promising turns in the country’s relations with the two neighbours that most affect its interests and security—Pakistan and China. It is alarming that in both cases the causes were identical, namely, his impetuosity, passion for domestic acclaim and self-image as a decisive leader and a super-nationalist. In an interview to Reuters on July 12, 2013, he proclaimed two self-assessments for the world to know: “If you call yourself a leader you have to be decisive” and “I am nationalist, nothing is wrong. I am a born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So, I am a Hindu nationalist. So you can say I am a Hindu nationalist because I am born Hindu” ( The Indian Express, July 13, 2013). One would think that an Indian would rather pride himself on being an Indian nationalist first. These traits are compounded with a disdain for professional advice and utter lack of experience. Foreign affairs are very foreign to him.

On August 26, Modi abruptly called off the meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan, rendering their resumption fraught with loss of face. On September 17, the very day President Xi Jinping of China arrived in Ahmedabad, and the next day in the two-hour talks in New Delhi, Modi raised the issue of the border stand-off between the armies of the two countries at the Chumar-Demchok area which had begun on September 1. Worse still, he publicised the fact for domestic consumption, as well as his offer to Xi, which is doomed to failure.

“I raised our serious concern over the repeated incidents along the border” and “I also suggested that clarification of the Line of Actual Control [LAC] would greatly contribute to our efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity and requested President Xi to resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC.” (Charn Sudan Kasturi, The Telegraph; September 19).

The Prime Minister overlooked the fact that as head of government he was talking to a head of state and one of the most powerful and popular Presidents China has had since Deng Xiaoping, if not Mao. Such matters are raised at a lower level. What is worse, he publicised his demarche as well as his offer. The well-informed Suhasini Haidar reported ( The Hindu; September 19): “If President Xi Jinping’s visit to Gujarat focussed on business and bilateral bonhomie, it was clear that his day in New Delhi and talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi were defined by discussions on the boundary issue and reported incursions in Ladakh’s Chumar sector. According to one source, the shift came after some members of the Sangh Parivar, both in the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh expressed concern about the “over-effusive” welcome to Mr Xi despite reports of more Chinese troops entering Chumar sector.

“‘It was particularly disturbing for them to see images of the two leaders sitting on a swing by the Sabarmati riverside, while China is openly challenging us at the border, and we asked that security officials update the PM with the latest situation,’ the source said. It was also indicated that the traditional position of the BJP on China was tougher, and it had criticised the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government for not tackling border incursions directly.” (Emphasis added, throughout.)

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval contributed his mite when he “briefed” the Prime Minister on September 17. He has laid us in debt by expounding his outlook in very many articles to the press. They reeked of chauvinism. The correspondent added: “Mr. Modi is reported to have taken Mr Xi aside directly after their dinner in Ahmedabad and taken up the concerns very strongly. On the 18th morning too, Mr Modi made special mention of the incursions in talks that extended an hour longer than expected. The Prime Minister first met Mr Xi with a restricted group of advisers, followed by a one-on-one meeting and then along with their delegations. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is also understood to have taken a strong line on the border incursions during the talks with the Chinese delegation.”

All this to a President whom The Economist characterised as “the most powerful and popular leader China has had for decades” ( September 20). Xi could not have been impressed with Modi’s diplomatic capabilities and experience when he heard his startling offer to demarcate the LAC. For 54 years since Zhou Enlai came to India in April 1960, China has consistently refused to discuss with India the border to the west of the Karakoram Pass. At the Experts Group meeting on June 19, 2002, the Chinese side returned brusquely, without much ado, India’s sample map for the western sector because it included Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as the 5,180 square kilometres which India says that Pakistan gave away to China. Outside the shores of India, not one authority on the subject accepts this claim, which contests the China-Pakistan boundary agreement of March 2, 1963. China will not abandon it. Whoever advised the Prime Minister to make such an offer served him poorly. Had he any reason to believe that either side had changed its stand since 2002? Xi Jinping’s reply was clear.

Delineation and actual demarcation

Here one must distinguish between the delineation of a boundary, on a map or in words in a treaty, and its actual demarcation on the ground. When President Xi said on September 18 that “some incidents are there because the boundaries have not been demarcated”, he meant delineated. It was a tacit rejection of the Prime Minister’s offer to “demarcate” the LAC, which China has been opposing all along, since at least 1999. Xi stressed, instead, the need for a boundary settlement, that is, a definition of the boundary by its delineation, followed, as is the practice, by its demarcation on the ground. He said that the two sides are “fully capable” of acting promptly and effectively so that such incidents “do not have a large impact on the bilateral relationship”; ergo, no need for “demarcation”. Another point he made was one that China has been making recently. The boundary issue must be resolved “at an early date”.

Are we ready for that? The Prime Minister thought, simplistically enough, that the incursions occur because there is no line. So, define and demarcate the LAC, regardless of the diplomatic record of 15 years.

The effect of Modi’s maladroit diplomacy was described by two foreign observers of impeccable credentials, Ellen Barry of The New York Times and Professor Roderick Macfarquhar, an acknowledged authority on China and a friend of our country.

Barry reported that Modi’s “bristles have mainly shown in the arena of foreign affairs. Last week, Mr Modi was faced with a snap decision during a rare visit by the Chinese President, choreographed to cast the two leaders as potential partners. Chinese officials had dangled an investment package of as much as $100 billion, but as the two men sat down to dinner, Chinese and Indian troops were facing off against one another in the highlands of Ladakh, Kashmir, near the disputed border between the two nations.

“With little time to decide, Mr Modi took the unusual step of publicly prodding his Chinese guest over the border issue at a news conference, and the message of confrontation began to overshadow the sunny message of deepening trade.” ( International New York Times; September 27.)

Macfarquhar was asked, “Just before Xi arrived in India, China’s Consul General in Mumbai announced that deals worth $100 billion were likely to be signed. In the end, the MoUs [memorandums of understanding] covered investments not worth more than $20-$25 billion. What might explain this huge gap?” He replied, “The Consul General is unlikely to cite a figure not even close to the ballpark. I suspect something went wrong during the visit. Most probably, Narendra Modi was tougher on the border question than Xi expected.” ( The Indian Express; September 27.)

This posturing is part of the wider agenda of erasure of Nehru’s legacy. Drunk with the rise in the BJP’s fortunes in the 1989 elections, a top BJP leader spelt it out for me, asking what was the word in Urdu for the idol-breaker. Like Jesting Pilate, he did not wait for the answer and named the “idols” which had to be demolished—non-alignment (“appeasement”) and planning. The third he cited at a public meeting in Mumbai; secularism, of course. Ironically, while seeking to depart from Nehru’s legacy, his critics trap themselves in the coils of a false history and end up in the cul de sac into which Nehru took India’s China policy. Only a U-turn can help. But there are not the men to face the truths of history or the fact that Nehru was neither a romantic or an idealist, least of all an appeaser. He was an arrogant unilateralist.

No defined boundary

India did not have a defined boundary in the western and middle sectors, right from the India-China-Afghanistan-trijunction to the India-China-Nepal trijunction. Neither legally nor morally can India claim more areas than were depicted as its territory in the maps on August 15, 1947. Both the White Papers on Indian States (1948 and 1950) as well as Mountbatten’s Report to the King showed that frontier as “undefined”, in contrast to the one in the east, the McMahon Line.

It is not the Army but the politicians who have refused to face the realities. Major-General (Retd) P.J.S. Sandhu wrote an informative essay, “1962—War in the Western Sector (Ladakh)”, in the Journal of the United Service Institution of India (July-September 2013). This patriotic soldier’s complaint is justified. “There is a difference in policing a border and defending a disputed border. India from 1959-62 was using its Army to police the border with China which was unsettled, un-demarcated and disputed. Police-like border posts were being established by the Army at the behest of political authorities abetted by the Intelligence Bureau. It was for the Army to resist such an irrational course and insist on holding ground based on operational and tactical considerations. That is the real test of generalship.”

Hardliner Nehru

On November 20, 1950, Nehru declared in Parliament that “the McMahon Line is our boundary … map or no map”. He made good the Line on the ground as well. On February 12, 1951, Major R. Khating evicted the Tibetan administration from Tawang and established a sub-divisional headquarters there. China did not protest.

Nor did he have a “romantic” view of China. On June 18, 1954, Nehru sent a note on “Tibet and China” to the Secretary-General, the Foreign Secretary, and Joint Secretary. He wrote: “Certainly it is conceivable that our relations with China might worsen, although there is no immediate likelihood of that. Therefore, we have always to keep in mind the possibility of a change and not be taken unawares. Adequate precautions have to be taken. If we come to an agreement with China in regard to Tibet, that is not a permanent guarantee, but that itself is one major step to help us in the present and in the foreseeable future in various ways.”

On July 1, 1954, came his fateful 17-para memorandum in which he gave an important and explicit directive. Paragraphs 7 and 8 read thus:

“7. All our old maps dealing with this frontier should be carefully examined and, where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our Northern and North Eastern frontier without any reference to any line.

“8. Both as flowing from our policy and as consequences of our Agreement with China, this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody. There may be very minor points of discussion. Even these should not be raised by us. It is necessary that the system of check-posts should be spread along this entire frontier. More specially, we should have check-posts in such places as might be considered disputed areas.”

Paragraph 8 shut the door to negotiations on the boundary—“not open to discussion with anybody”. India unilaterally revised its official map. The legend “boundary undefined” in the western (Kashmir) and middle sectors (Uttar Pradesh) in the official maps of 1948 and 1950 were dropped in the new map of 1954. A firm clear line was shown, instead.

Under K. Zakaraiah’s supervision the Historical Division had prepared in 1951 a comprehensive and objective paper entitled “Studies on the Northern Frontier” based on the archives. It discussed the history and circumstances in which different lines of frontier were suggested in the past. The paper is still kept secret, though the public has a right to its disclosure. On March 24, 1953, a decision had been taken to formulate a new line for the boundary. Old maps were burnt. One former Foreign Secretary told this writer how, as a junior official, he himself was obliged to participate in this fatuous exercise.

The Director of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), B.N. Mullik, recounted authoritatively in detail in his memoirs the stand taken by the Ministry of External Affairs even in 1958, four years after the 1954 directive, when the report of a patrol party showed the presence of Chinese personnel in the Aksai Chin plateau in north-east Ladakh. “This report was discussed in the External Affairs Ministry with the CGS present. The line taken by the Ministry was that the exact boundary of this area had not yet been demarcated and so in any protest we lodged we could not be on firm grounds.…

“In January 1959, at a meeting in the External Affairs Ministry with General Thimayya, Chief of the Army Staff, present, Thimayya quite categorically stated that he did not consider that the Aksai Chin road was of any strategic importance.… The Foreign Secretary also agreed with the Army Chief.”

Sir John Addis, former British Ambassador to China, aptly remarked in his paper after the dispute erupted: “At the time that the Indians were moving to fill the void in the eastern sector, the Chinese were moving to fill the void in the western sector. The Indians got there first in the east, the Chinese in the west.” In the records of old, the Aksai Chin belonged to nobody; it was a “no-man’s land”.

The clash at Longju on the McMahon Line on August 25, 1959, and on the Kongka Pass on October 21, 1959, inflamed public opinion. The Jana Sangh, ancestor of the BJP, the Swatantra Party and the Socialists mounted an attack on Nehru which made up by its fervour what it lacked in information and understanding. As with the maps, Nehru had unilaterally modified the 1914 McMahon Line. He said on September 12, 1962, that “in some parts … it was not considered a good line and it was varied afterwards by us”. But what right had India unilaterally to vary a Line agreed in a boundary treaty—the exchange of notes on March 24-25, 1914, between India and Tibet or the official maps? On what basis did he include the Aksai Chin in India’s territory? Neville Maxwell was not wrong when he noted that “on the Right, the Jana Sangh probably reaped some benefits aroused by the border war” ( India’s China War, page 484). He was The Times (London) correspondent in New Delhi. These parties egged on Nehru, as did Morarji Desai and the Jana Sangh’s ideological kinsman, Gobind Ballabh Pant, the architect of the fraud at the Babri Masjid in December 1949. The opposition was baying for Nehru’s blood. The border clashes came handy.

Nehru adopted not a romanticist but an intransigently untenable position when the issues in the boundary dispute were joined. He did so well before the Longju and Kongka Pass clashes. Zhou Enlai’s letter of January 23, 1959, asserted that “border disputes do exist between China and India” and cited the western sector particularly. In his reply on March 22, 1959, Nehru flatly asserted: “A treaty of 1842 between Kashmir on the one hand and the Emperor of China and the Lama Guru of Lhasa on the other mentions the India-China boundary in the Ladakh region. In 1847, the Chinese government admitted that this boundary was sufficiently and distinctly fixed. The area now claimed by China has always been depicted as part of India on official maps, has been surveyed by Indian officials and even a Chinese map of 1893 shows it as Indian territory.” Every one of the statements was historically untrue. As late as 1950, Indian maps showed the entire northern boundary as “undefined”.

In 1842, there was no linear boundary, only border zones ( ilaqas). The Treaty of 1842 was a non-aggression pact concluded after a war. If it defined the boundary, why did the British (a) set up two boundary Commissions to negotiate with China after making Kashmir part of the Empire in 1846; (b) keep deliberating from 1847 to 1905 on possible boundaries to offer to a China reluctant to respond; and (c) make a formal offer in writing on March 14, 1899? Nehru could not possibly have been unaware of them when he wrote as he did two months after Zhou’s letter. He wanted to shut the door on any discussion on the border. He was well aware of the Army’s stand on the Aksai Chin.

Decisive turning point

Ironically, Nehru repeatedly pointed out that the Aksai Chin was of no value to India. He said on August 31, 1959, in the Rajya Sabha: “The territory is sterile. It has been described as a barren, uninhabited region without a vestige of grass and 17,000 feet high.” On September 10, in the same House, he said, “We may get excited about the sacredness of the Indian soil and the Chinese people may get excited about something they hold sacred, if they hold anything sacred. That is a different matter, but the fact of the matter is that nothing can be a more amazing folly than for two great countries like India and China to go into a major conflict and war for possession of a few mountain peaks, however beautiful the mountain peaks might be, or some area which is more or less uninhabited.”

This was the decisive turning point in India’s relations with China, and a sensible policy decision was called for. The issue was not historical claims or the law. It was where India’s national interests lie on balance. India had been warned by Ambassador Pan Tsu-Li on May 16, 1959, that neither country could afford confrontations on two fronts. Did the national interest lie in a compromise or in the “tough” line propagated by the Jana Sangh and others? Nehru opted for the latter and wrote to Zhou on September 26, 1959, imposing arrogantly two unrealistic and humiliating conditions which no self-respecting country would accept.

“No government could possibly discuss the future of such large areas which are an integral part of their territory.… No discussion can be fruitful unless the posts on the Indian side of the traditional frontier now held by the Chinese forces are first evacuated by them and further threats and intimidations immediately cease.” Thus, even if China had agreed to put on sackcloth and ashes and withdraw in the full glare of humiliating publicity, India would still not negotiate. The result? China made peace with Pakistan.

The wild opposition and senior colleagues in the Cabinet rendered Nehru too weak for any compromise, aided, of course, by his own hubris and the public’s wrath he had unwisely built up. He had, the record shows, no cause to feel “betrayed”. Zhou offered in private explicit acceptance of the McMahon Line in New Delhi at a meeting with Nehru on April 22, 1960. It was the last of the four points he propounded then. The six points he mentioned at his press conference on April 25 were an elaboration of the first three. The fourth, rejected by Nehru, was omitted—never to be recalled. It read thus: “(iv) since we are going to have friendly negotiations, neither side should put forward claims to an area which is no longer under its administrative control. For example, we made no claim in the eastern sector to areas south of the McMahon Line, but India made such claims in the western sector. It is difficult to accept such claims and the best thing is that both sides do not make such territorial claims. Of course, there are individual places which need to be re-adjusted individually; but that is not a territorial claim.” He repeated them in crisp formulations in a meeting with Nehru the next day as forming “a common ground”.

Nehru’s approach was radically different. “We should take each sector of the border and convince the other side of what it believes to be right.” On the fourth point, renunciation of territorial claims by both, Nehru responded on April 24: “Our accepting things as they are would mean that basically there is no dispute and the question ends there; that we are unable to do.” A fine opportunity was lost. For this the opposition is as blameworthy as Nehru.

There was, however, a profound difference between Zhou’s approach and Nehru’s and this difference, overlooked by most, persists still in India. Zhou proposed a political deal in one go, covering all the three sectors. Nehru was not in a position to settle and proposed interim measures on the ground.

How India trapped itself

Thus, India trapped itself not only by the map of 1954 but also by its stand on how to resolve the boundary dispute. It, first, imposed a precondition: “No discussion can be fruitful unless the posts on the Indian side”—as determined, of course, by our version of the boundary—“are first withdrawn”, Nehru said on September 26, 1959. As late as on July 26, 1962, India asked China to withdraw in the Aksai Chin to a significant degree. After the war of October 1962 it took nearly two decades for the “dialogue” to resume.

As early as on September 8, 1959, Zhou proposed that “an over-all settlement of the boundary question should be sought by both sides, taking into account the historical background and existing actualities and adhering to the Five Principles, through friendly negotiations conducted in a well-prepared way step by step. Pending this, as a provisional measure, the two sides should maintain the long-existing status quo of the border, and not seek to change it.”

This was amplified in China’s Memorandum of December 26, 1959: “An overall settlement of the boundary question between the two countries should be sought by the Chinese and Indian sides, taking into account the historical background and present actual situation, in accordance with the Five Principles and through friendly consultations; that pending this, as a provisional measure, the two sides should maintain the status quo of the border, and not seek to change it by unilateral action, let alone by force; and that as to some of the disputes, partial and provisional agreements could be reached through negotiations.”

It was Zhou who first proposed, on November 7, 1959, that the Prime Ministers meet. He spelt out the objective later: “To reach first some agreements of principles as a guidance to concrete discussions and settlement of the boundary question by the two sides. Without such a guidance, there is a danger that concrete discussions of the boundary question by the two sides may bog down in endless and fruitless debates.”

Nehru insisted that “some preliminary steps” are taken on the ground as a result of an “interim understanding” to reduce tensions; else, he warned, they might “loose ourselves in a forest of data … a mass of historical data, maps, etc.” and “how can we … reach an agreement on principles where there was such a disagreement about the facts?” (December 21, 1959) He was reluctant to meet Zhou.

The irrelevance of the plea is obvious. What was on offer was a political deal based on agreed principles, the outlines of the deal, for the officials to flesh out. In this quest, the present was to be considered along with the past. This was how China concluded border accords with all its neighbours.

Under the agreement with Myanmar (January 28, 1960) a joint committee was set up “to discuss and work out solutions on the concrete questions” regarding the boundary (Article 1). But the disputed issues were settled already and the boundary was clearly defined (Article II). The pattern was followed in the agreement with Nepal (March 21, 1960). The dispute over Mount Everest was settled earlier between Mao Zedong and Prime Minister B.P. Koirala in Beijing.

A joint committee was to delineate the boundary, conduct surveys, and “solve the concrete questions”. But the parties recorded that their “ understanding of the traditional customary line is basically the same” (Article III). Such an “understanding” is necessarily a political one. It is an essential pre-requisite.

The Agreement with Pakistan (March 2, 1963) defined the boundary along the Mustagh-Karakoram watershed (Article II) and set up a joint commission. The pattern was followed in the agreements with Mongolia (March 26, 1963) and Afghanistan (November 22, 1963)—the boundary is first defined broadly for a joint committee to elaborate in detail. This pattern was followed in the boundary accords with the Soviet Union on May 16, 1991, in respect of the eastern sector; with its successor Russia on June 28, 1994, in respect of the western sector and on June 2, 2005, in respect of the eastern border; with Kazakhstan on April 26, 1994; and with Vietnam on December 25, 2000. The agreement with Bhutan signed on December 8, 1998, clearly records (Article 2) that the parties “have reached agreement on the guiding principles for the settlement of the boundary issue”. The boundary once defined is then demarcated on the ground and a boundary protocol is drawn to form part of the treaty, like the China-Nepal border protocol of November 20, 1979.

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