Perseverance in peace process

Print edition : August 29, 2003

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to China marks a milestone on the long road to a settlement of the boundary question. But the success of the initiative depends on whether India is prepared to make the concessions without which no accord is possible.

PRIME MINISTER Atal Bihari Vajpayee's statement in the Lok Sabha on July 31 illustrates how a Prime Minister should not react when a minor trouble erupts in the midst of a peace process, especially when the Minister for External Affairs, Yashwant Sinha, had already spoken on the subject on July 25: "The Government is aware of the transgression of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) by a Chinese patrol on June 26, 2003 in the Asaphila area of the Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh."

Article 9 of the agreement India signed with China on November 29, 1996 says: "In case a doubtful situation develops in the border region or in case one of the sides has some questions or doubts regarding the manner in which the other side is observing this Agreement, either side has the right to seek a clarification from the other side. The clarifications sought and replies to them shall be conveyed through diplomatic channels" (emphasis added throughout).

The italicised part was inserted for good reason. On two major occasions the government of India blew up incidents, inflamed public opinion and brought the two countries almost to the brink of war. In both it was in the wrong. But the truth emerged later. On October 21, 1959, at the Kongka Pass in Ladakh, Chinese guards killed nine members of an Indian patrol and took seven prisoners. The Chinese also suffered casualties, probably of only one killed. India alleged an ambush. China alleged an attempt to capture the Chinese patrol, by opening fire. On November 27, 1959, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the Lok Sabha: "It has made a tremendous difference. There is widespread and deep-seated reaction in our country affecting almost everyone, from a little child to a grown-up man. I might tell you that I am proud of that reaction". The reaction was understandable since the first shooting incident, at Longju on the McMahon Line, had occurred on August 25, 1959.

But Nehru was unfair to the nation. The truth came out 12 years later in the memoirs of the man who had sent the patrol against all advice, the I.B. (Intelligence Bureau) chief, B.N. Mullik. On October 23, 1959, Nehru himself had presided over a meeting at which the Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, the Army Chief and officials of the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs), Home and Defence were present. "The Intelligence Bureau was made the common target by the Army Headquarters and the External Affairs Ministry and accused of expansionism and causing provocation on the frontier... We were accused by our own side of being aggressors and provocateurs" (The Chinese Betrayal, pages 243-244).

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was rightly criticised for asking Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkateswaran to brief the media, on July 15, 1986, on the Sumdorong Chu incident. From 1984 squads of soldiers led by Intelligence Bureau men began patrolling the area and set up an observation post for the summer. In the spring of 1986, however, the Chinese did a Siachen-in-reverse. They deployed their troops there before the Indian team arrived. India's protests and reinforcement, matched by media stories, led to a dangerous confrontation. Article 9 of the 1996 accord sought to prevent this, reckoning with the fact that what Sinha said of Asaphila is true of some other areas also: "There are differences in the perceptions of the LAC between the two sides." It is important to bear in mind some basic truths about that Line.

The McMahon Line was drawn up in 1914 on a map on the scale of 8 miles to the inch with a thick nib dipped in red ink. Cartography has progressed far in the near century since, thanks to satellites. The Line India admittedly claims departs from the Line on that map. China rejects the Line but is prepared to treat it as the LAC but without the extra areas north of it which India claims belong to it on a true "interpretation" of the Line. Nehru said on September 12, 1959: "In some parts, in the Subansiri or somewhere there, it was not considered a good line and it was varied by us." This was done, he explained later, to "give effect to the treaty map in the area, based on definitive topography" - the watershed principle. This is legitimate if done by consent; unilateral redrawing is not.

These are highly disputed areas. The Line ends at latitude 27 degrees 44' 30" North on the map annexed to the notes exchanged between India and Tibet on March 24, 1914. It does not run on the watershed, the highest ridge, in some places. The Thag La ridge is three to four miles north of the map Line. As the exercise for drawing up an agreed LAC began recently, differences were identified. In the east they were the Chen ju, Namka Chu area, including the Thag La ridge, Sumdorong Chu, Tulung La, Longju and Asaphi La - where an incident was waiting to happen. Sirinjoy Chowdhury reported in The Statesman of November 15, 2002: "Chinese troops are also active in the Subansiri Division patrolling the Asaphi La area... In the late 1980s the Chinese built a motorable road and a bridge. This area is held by two PLA [People's Liberation Army] companies."

The report by Sudhi Ranjan Sen in The Hindustan Times of July 24 set off the false alarm. On June 26 a 10-member team comprising four Intelligence Bureau and six Special Security Bureau men were on a "routine mission" in that area when a Chinese Army patrol stopped them. Our men, the correspondent wrote, were "14 km inside" the LAC. On July 24, the MEA's official spokesman made a properly restrained statement: "This matter has already been taken up through diplomatic channels and a response from the Chinese side is awaited." This is what Article 9 required.

He also said: "This is an area where there are differences in the perception" of the LAC. He cited the 1996 accord and claimed that China had not followed its provisions on "situations involving face-to-face contact" between personnels of both sides. Article 6 (4) reads: "If the border personnel of the two sides come in a face-to-face situation due to differences on the alignment of the Line of Actual Control or any other reason, they shall exercise self-restraint and take all necessary measures to avoid an escalation of the situation. Both sides shall also enter into immediate consultations through diplomatic and/or other available channels to review the situation and prevent any escalation of tension." The Indian team was "detained disarmed and interrogated" and released.

Sandeep Dikshit reported in The Hindu (July 20) that "sources" would "not tell how frequently the Indian troops were crossing into China beyond admitting `our boys also do that sometimes'. This should not be treated as a major issue". As Yashwant Sinha recognised, "It could not have been pre-meditated."

In such a state of things, surely, no comments were called for from the Prime Minister, the nation's CEO. Yet, he said that "the behaviour of the Chinese authorities... was not dignified" and that the accord was violated. He spoke thus because he felt his prestige was at stake. This feeling was owing entirely to the hype that was built up during his visit to Beijing (June 22-27) and, worse, to the partisanship which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government constantly injects into foreign policy issues. The Prime Minister said at Shanghai on June 27: "The kind of talks that I have had on the boundary issue during this visit have, perhaps, never taken place before." On March 29, 2002, the then External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, claimed that the result of his efforts on drawing the LAC was "something India has not been able to achieve in the last fifty years". He expected the LAC process to end in 2002. It got stuck in June 2002 and has not moved further since, for good reasons.

China has never been keen on "preliminaries" before negotiations proper. At the Sixth Joint Working Group meeting in July 1993, Vice-Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan suggested that the LAC be the one "which is well-known to both sides". This meaning was clear - we know where you are and vice versa. But, if it is to be defined, it must be the line "drawn on November 7, 1959", as Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Shuquing said on June 15, 1987.

This consistent Chinese position is based on Zhou Enlai's letter to Nehru on November 7, 1959. It defined the LAC as "the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west". This line, China says, was crossed by India in 1961-62 when it built 43 posts in Ladakh and in the east by establishing posts beyond the McMahon Line, as delineated in 1914, in order to accord with India's concept of the watershed. Additionally, it complains, India established in 1987 two posts in the Sumdorong Cha Valley beyond the McMahon Line.

Differences on the LAC have been identified. Maps for the 545-km-long middle sector were, exchanged on November 14, 2000. Each side "clarified" its own line but the two maps were not reconciled even for this small area. At the Experts' Group meeting in June 2002, China refused to accept India's "sample map" of the western sector as it included PoK (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir) and the 5,180 sq km which, India says, Pakistan gave to China.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Beijing, on June 23.-GUANG NIU/REUTERS

As far back as on June 27, 1962, China's officials presented to their Indian counterparts a map and a statement excluding the entire area west of the Karakoram pass from discussion with India. Since the exercise was about the Line of Actual Control, the map India presented wantonly created an issue of prestige for both sides and it did so in full knowledge of China's 40-year-old stand.

China has another serious reservation; the LAC must not become a boundary proper. On the 40th anniversary of the October 1962 war, Rong Ying, Deputy Director for South Asian Studies, China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, warned: "No attempt should be made to impose the illegal McMahon Line by taking advantage of the process of verification of the LOAC."

Even if accord is reached on the LAC for all the three sectors - western, middle and eastern - the boundary dispute will remain. Nor will accord on LAC prevent "incursions" unless the Line is demarcated on the ground. The best course is to abandon the LAC exercise and proceed with negotiations on the dispute itself.

The Prime Minister must understand that: (a) there will always be setbacks once any peace process is launched; (b) there is need for perseverance precisely at that very moment; and (c) he would not have needed to speak as he did on July 31 had he tried to get the Opposition behind him instead of treating the matter as a partisan issue.

On the boundary dispute with China a national consensus is both necessary and attainable. The Congress is committed after Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988. The Left favours an accord. So will the regional parties. Only unreconstructed Lohiaities/ and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) will make noises. The Prime Minister must, therefore, perform the role of an educator. He must tell the harsh truths to the nation - the boundary in the western sector was never defined; China was prepared, as Zhou Enlai offered on January 23, 1959, "to take a more or less realistic attitude towards the McMahon Line" without accepting its legality, and lastly, each side has its non-negotiable vital interest securely within its own control. India has the McMahon Line, China has the Xinjiang-Tibet Road that crosses the Aksai Chin in Ladakh.

The Prime Minister's visit to China marks a milestone on the long road to a final settlement of the boundary question. Appointment of Special Representatives is a procedural progress. Their remit arouses hope - "to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement". But its fulfilment will depend on whether India is prepared to make the concessions without which no accord is possible. At the end of his visit, the Prime Minister disclosed that both sides "have been discussing principles which have to be followed for an eventual boundary settlement". That is the core of the problem. Simultaneously, however, the exercise for delineating the 4,056-km-long LAC "will continue". The best course is to discontinue that futile quest in which China is little interested and concentrate, instead, on a boundary settlement. The agreed boundary will then become the LAC. China's Special Representative Dal Bingguo is Executive Vice-Minister, who is most senior in the Foreign Office. He is Minister in charge of the International Liaison Department in the Chinese Communist Party, a full member of its Central Committee and pointsman for negotiations on Korea. His Indian counterpart is Brajesh Mishra.

The crux of the matter is accord on the principles and, implicitly, a policy decision by India on the concessions it is prepared to offer to China against the gains it seeks in a boundary settlement.

There is absolutely nothing wrong or, for the matter esoteric, in the Chinese formulation of "mutual accommodation and mutual adjustment". All it means is a compromise based on concessions by both sides. The formula is over 40 years old.

Subimal Dutt, Foreign Secretary during Zhou Enlai's visit to India in April 1960, revealed that "the Chinese party said that they had brought no data with them". Its significance was lost on him and, sadly on Nehru also. The visitors had not come to debate on history or on recent events. They had come to discuss a settlement based on agreed "principles". These are not the generalisations, so dear to us, but the outlines of a deal.

Zhou Enlai said: "As China was prepared to accommodate the Indian point of view in the eastern sector, India should accommodate China in the Western sector... We hope that the Indian Government will take towards the western sector an attitude similar to that which the Chinese Government had taken towards the eastern sector... an attitude of mutual accommodation".

One of his six points read: " A settlement of the boundary question between the two countries should take into account the national feelings of the two peoples towards the Himalayas and the Karakoram mountains."

China consistently sought negotiations on the boundary dispute. India has consistently proposed accord on the preliminaries. Vajpayee's statement that principles "have been" discussed gives ground for hope. A major educative effort is called for if the process thus initiated is to succeed. The government of India could begin by publishing the Henderson-Brooks report and, even more usefully, the futile unilateral British ventures in map-making in the western sector. Nearly a dozen lines were so drawn, according to one account. The results of the Prime Minister's visit must be assessed realistically in the light of the entire record - on Tibet, Sikkim and the quest for "principles". The peace process should not be disturbed by incidents nor deflected by chasing the mirage of drawing an LAC.

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