IDSA COMMENT

Time to Take Up Demarcation of the India-China Border

June 11, 2012

Addressing a seminar on India-China relations in Itanagar, former Army chief and the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh JJ Singh questioned India’s historical stand on the India-China border issue and said that "it is important to solve the India-China border dispute, and for that some give and take is necessary… India will have to move away from its position that our territory is non-negotiable." Further, General JJ Singh called for normalisation of relations between India and China, and said that "the world has changed and we are a much more confident nation now. It is important to realise that we need a speedy resolution to the boundary dispute."

General Singh’s remarks should trigger introspection over a colonial legacy and not nationalistic outrage. It is time for a public debate on a subject that has long been taboo—where our northern borders lie on the ground.

All empires in India have had an ambivalent attitude to the northern border, where the Himalayas were considered an impregnable barrier, and the British were no exception. For example, in the 1890’s, the Deputy Commissioner of Almora, in the central Himalayas, would each year open the Lipu Lekh pass for traders to cross and mark the boundary; that is also currently the international border. Around the same time, a letter to the Viceroy sought clarification regarding complaints that the Jongpen of Tibet comes each year to collect taxes from Garbyang, which is 30 kilometres within Indian territory. When the Viceroy referred the matter to London, the reply clearly ordered him to ignore such complaints so long as the Tibetans did not interfere with trade. The situation was even more fluid in Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin. In this context, the question that needs to be raised is whether any give and take will really amount to ceding Indian territory, because there had never been a clear demarcation of the border on the ground.

There are many unanswered questions about our northern borders. Are we following the McMahon Line as it was drawn on a map in 1914, admittedly on a very small scale using a thick pen and not based on an accurate survey, or where it is supposed to be—along the highest ridges, or watershed? Though Mr. Chen I-fan, the Chinese representative, initialled the map, his government disavowed it. China has never recognised the McMahon Line.

The McMahon Line also only covers the Arunachal border and is it true that the British did not enter into any agreement with respect to Aksai Chin, and in 1899 drew a line based on strategic considerations that largely left out the area now under the control of China and sent it to Beijing for endorsement? The maps attached to two white papers on Indian States published by India in 1948 and 1950 show the border from the tri-junction with Afghanistan to the tri-junction with Nepal as “boundary undefined’. This was the position when the Panchsheel Agreement with China was signed on April 29, 1954. Did we later prepare new maps to show there was a firm and definite border?

On July 1, 1954, Nehru is reported to have ordered that “all old maps dealing with the frontier should be… withdrawn… new maps should also not state there is any undemarcated territory… this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody.” The government should come out with a statement whether this was indeed the case. Is General JJ Singh now suggesting that it is in the national interest to review this policy?

According to a report in the BBC, India rejected a swap offer made by China's former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1960, asking India to recognise China's control of Aksai Chin in the west as a quid pro quo for China's recognition of the McMahon Line. Is this correct? Does this offer correspond to British-era official maps shared with China, and would we be really ceding any territory, if so, how much and where? Will this be a ‘climb down’ as the BBC prefers to describe it, or ‘pragmatism’, as asserted by CV Ranganathan, a former Indian ambassador to China who also attended the conference organised by the Indian Council of Social Science Research in which General Singh made his remarks?

The country has a right to know the facts to determine where the real national interest lies, rather than leave it to the media to play up frictions and influence perceptions. The political leadership has failed to speak directly to the citizens on the India-China border dispute, and this is an appropriate time for a bi-partisan group to be established to bring out the facts related to the northern borders, and suggest the contours of a deal with China. Our common future, in the emerging multi-polar world, depends on it.

Mukul Sanwal is a former civil servant.