Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Great India-China Game

The roots of our problem with China go back a couple of hundred years when Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander met in July 1807 on a great raft moored on the river Niemen at Tilsit in east Prussia to conclude a treaty of partnership against the British, thereby beginning 'The Great Game.' This expression was first found in the papers of Arthur Connolly, a British artillery officer and adventurer whose Narrative Of An Overland Journey To The North of India chronicled his travels in the region in the service of the British empire.

As the Russian empire began its eastward expansion, which many felt was to culminate in the conquest of India, there was a shadow contest for political ascendancy between the British and Russian empires -- The Great Game.

Napoleon's waterloo at Waterloo did not see a let-up in the fervour with which the game was played. The Russian longing for a colonial empire and a warm water port did not diminish any and so the game continued. The British response to meet the Russian threat was to establish a forward defensive line in the northern region so that a Russian thrust could be halted well before the plains of Hindustan.

This called for making Afghanistan and Tibet into buffer states and for fixing suitable and convenient borders with these states. At various times, several such lines were proposed.

The most notable of these was the 1865 Ladakh-Tibet/Sinkiang alignment proposed by W H Johnson, a junior civilian sub-assistant with the Survey of India. This line was to link Demchok in the south with the 18,000 feet high Karakorum pass in the north, but it took a circuitous route beyond the Kuen Lun mountains and thus included the barren and cold Aksai Chin desert.

It is believed that Johnson may have had some personal reasons for doing this. He was an Indian born 'Englishman' and in the subtle social graduations that guided an individual's destiny under the Raj, there were limits to where he could go. Johnson could not aspire to either a commissioned rank or a high civilian status with the Survey of India and what better way to improve his prospects than by entering the Kashmir maharaja's service? By greatly enlarging the size of the maharaja's domain by incorporating Aksai Chin, Johnson caught the maharaja's eye.

That the British were undecided about Johnson's line is evident by the recommendation in 1889 by Ney Elias, joint commissioner of Leh. Elias, who was an authority on trans-Karakoram territories, advised against any implicit endorsement of the Johnson line by a claim on Shahidulla in the far off Karakash valley about 400 kilometres from Leh, as it could not be defended.

On the other hand, responding to Captain Younghusband's report on his meeting with the Russian explorer, Colonel Grombchevsky near Yarkand, Major General Sir John Ardagh, director of military intelligence at the war office in London , recommended claiming the areas 'up to the crests of the Kuen Lun range.' Before Whitehall could make up its mind, the Chinese occupied Shahidulla in 1890.

To this, the opinion of the secretary of state for India in Whitehall was: 'We are inclined to think that the wisest course would be to leave them in possession as its is evidently to our advantage that the tract of territory between the Karakorum and Kuen Lun mountains be held by a friendly power like China.'

The Indian case for ownership of the Aksai Chin or the white desert rests essentially on the cartographic exertions of a man such as Johnson and we must begin to think about its validity. It's also not without some irony that another Kashmir maharaja's grandiose dreams of an independent state resulted in India's other major problem with another neighbour.

Though Jammu and Kashmir was an independent kingdom, the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar gave the British the responsibility of its security. This made the British responsible for Kashmir's northern and eastern borders with Sinkiang and Tibet. The British, however, never really got around to fixing the border along this line. In 1899, another line was suggested. This was the MacCartney-Macdonald line that excluded most of the Aksai Chin. The British tried to get the Chinese to sign an agreement to this effect. The Chinese did not respond to these moves and Lord Curzon concluded their silence could be taken as acquiescence and decided that, henceforth, this should be considered the border, and so it was. Interestingly this line, by and large, corresponds with the Chinese claim line, which in turn, by and large, coincides with the Line of Actual Control.

But in 1940-1941, things began to change again. British intelligence learnt that Russian experts were conducting a survey of the Aksai Chin for the pro-Soviet Sinkiang government of the warlord Sheng Shih-tsai. It was obviously time for the Great Game again. Once again, the British went back to the Johnson claim line. But nothing else was done to clearly demarcate the border. No posts were established in Aksai Chin and neither were any expeditions sent there to show the flag, as is normal in such situations. For all practical purposes the Raj ceased at the Karakoram range, but by the rules of the Great Game it went further beyond just in case.

On the eastern sector the Game was also being played, but a little differently. In 1826, the British annexed Assam, which then mainly meant the Brahmaputra valley. The hills were first penetrated in 1886 when an expedition went up the Lohit valley at the far end of what is now Arunachal Pradesh. But in the western end of this sector, immediately east of Bhutan, a Tibetan-administered wedge known as the Tawang tract, located alongside the east of Bhutan up to its southern alignment and running eastwards till just west of Bomdila, was considered by the British to be open country.

In 1903, Lord Curzon concluded that Tibet too had now become a possible launching pad for a Russian thrust and by the rules of the Great Game the Russians were to be pre-empted. Thus came about the celebrated Younghusband mission to Lhasa the following year. But in 1907, the British and the Russians came to an agreement that it suited both their interests to leave Tibet 'in that state of isolation from which, till recently, she has shown no intention to depart.' Thus Tibet, like Afghanistan, was to be a buffer state between the two European imperial powers. But by mid 1910, the Chinese were back in Tibet exercising full control. This reassertion of Chinese power caused concern to the British once again. A consequence of this was a renewed urgency to the perceived need to have a buffer between the Chinese and the precious British investments in Assam.

Another forward line was now mooted. This line called the Outer Line included the entire tribal belt except the Tawang tract. Though the then viceroy, Lord Hardinge, initially saw this as incurring too many risks and expenses, he ordered the establishment of 'a sound strategic boundary' in 1911, citing the Chinese policy of expansion as a cause. Thus, by September 1911, the British had decided that the Outer Line, but now including the Tawang tract, should be the boundary with Tibet-cum-China.

With the collapse of the British and Soviet empires, the only inheritors of this squalid and sometimes bloody game are the Chinese and Indians. The other significant difference is that it is no longer a game played by armchair empire builders in Europe with their assortment of secret agents, cartographers, commercial travellers and explorers, but a deadly serious game between the world's two largest nations with the fastest growing economies, and two of the world's major military powers made even more formidable by their openly deployed nuclear forces. The prize now is no longer an entire subcontinent, but merely a barren and desolate desert high amidst cold wind-swept mountains where, in Jawaharlal Nehru's words, 'not even a blade of grass grows.'

The battle for the border

The next major development with China and Tibet was when the British called for a conference at Simla in October 1913. The Chinese attended reluctantly, but the Tibetan authorities came quite eagerly as they were now engaged in conflict with their Chinese suzerains. Henry McMahon, then foreign secretary to the 'government of India,' led the British delegation. McMahon was some sort of an expert at drawing boundary lines, having spent two years demarcating the Durand Line at the northwest frontier.

The boundary that followed was the now famous McMahon Line. This boundary now extended British India up to the edge of the Tibetan plateau. It was not really a cartographers delight as it violated several rules of boundary demarcation. But it was an ethnic boundary in the sense that the area, except for the Tawang tract, was non-Tibetan in character.

The Chinese soon repudiated the Simla Convention and thus the McMahon Line. All through this period, the British never challenged Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The new boundary was not made effective till Olaf Caroe, an ICS officer, urged the British authorities to do so in 1935. Thus, in 1937, the Survey of India for the first time showed the McMahon Line as the official boundary. But confusion still abounded.

In 1938, the Survey of India published a map of Tibet, which showed the Tawang tract as part of that country. Even the first edition of Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery Of India showed the Indo-Tibetan boundary as running at the foot of the hills. The Tibetans did not accept this 'annexation' of the Tawang tract and challenged the British attempts to expand their government into this area. But they tacitly accepted the rest of the McMahon demarcation. It is clear that, but for the Tawang tract, there is little basis for the Chinese claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Even the claim they might have on the Tawang tract is rendered invalid in the sense that it becomes a geographical anachronism and incompatible with India's security interests.

The Japanese thrust towards India in World War II gave urgency to the British need to fix this boundary firmly and securely. Thus, in 1944, J P Mills, the then government's advisor on tribal affairs, established a British administration in the entire belt from Walong in the east to Dirang Dzong in the west. Several posts of the Assam Rifles were established and soon Tibetan government officials were packed off from the Tawang tract also.

The purpose of this laborious recitation of the events of nearly a century-and-a-half of the Great Game is to only show that borders were either never clearly demarcated or established. Lines kept shifting on maps as political contingencies arose. The Indian people were, for this entire period, passive spectators to these cartographic games.

In 1947, the British finally left India. Our choice then was to either call an end to the Great Game or continue playing it with all the intensity and commitment it called for. We did neither. When the Chinese Communists occupied Tibet, we acquiesced. Neither did we firmly move into the areas claimed by the British as Indian territory, particularly in the western sector. How well we looked after territory we claimed as our own is seen by the fact that, in the early 1950s, the Chinese had built a road connecting Tibet to Sinkiang across the Aksai Chin and we did not have a clue about it for several years.

The Indian government did move into the Tawang tract in force in 1951, overriding Chinese/Tibetan protests. In this sector, at least, it was clear that the Indian government was firm about its control of all the territory claimed by the British. There are several signs that indicate the Chinese too seem to have accepted the McMahon Line as the boundary in this sector.

The situation in the western sector was entirely different. Here no definite British Indian boundary line existed. The only two points accepted by both sides were that the Karakoram Pass and Demchok, the western and eastern ends of this sector, were in Indian territory. Opinions on how the line traversed between the two points differed.

India's boundary was inclined towards the Johnson claim line whereas as the Chinese, having built their road through the Aksai Chin, naturally preferred an alignment closer to the McCartney/MacDonald line of 1899. The Chinese claim line however went further west and included the Chip Chap valley, Samzungling, Kongka La, Khurnak Fort and Jara La. More importantly, as far as the Great Game was concerned, the Chinese had occupied all this territory by the early 1950s.

This is how matters were by the end of 1952 and by and large how things are today. The Chinese hold all territory, give or take some, within their claim line in Ladakh. In the east, India holds most of the territory below the McMahon line give or take some. These de facto boundaries could have been a basis for a permanent settlement of our boundaries. But we did not pursue it, though there are indications from time to time that the Chinese might want to settle on this basis.

Now the question that arises is: Why did the Government of India not extend its control to the boundaries it claimed in the western sector as it did in the east? This was mostly due to the terrain. The boundary claimed lies beyond two high mountain ranges and is logistically and militarily indefensible. Besides, the Chinese were already in control of much of the area by 1951. The question then is: Why did the government of India not make serious diplomatic or military efforts to assert control over territories it believed was ours?

The answer obviously lies in the fact that, legally, there was not a very good case. Besides, the military price this barren uninhabited windswept desolation would demand did not make it a worthwhile cause. Despite all this, there abounded the zealous spirit with which recently freed nations regarded their inherited boundaries that were often without regard to geography, ethnicity and history. Even in 1954, the most advanced Indian post was at Chushul. Barring a couple of patrols to Lanak La, no attempt was made to show the new flag. Even Lanak La was well south of Aksai Chin and short of the Sinkiang-Tibet highway, which passed east of it at that point.

The main rule of the Game for the previous 150 years was that it be played as quietly and surreptitiously as possible. In the 1950s, these rules still seemed to prevail. The two contesting governments decided to keep the lid on the problems while jockeying around for local advantages. On the surface it was all 'Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai' and the practice of the Panchsheel philosophy. Underneath was the realisation the titles to large tracts of territory under the control of both parties were under dispute. The lid on this roiling cauldron blew away when in March 1959 the Dalai Lama fled to India and was given political asylum.

Peace with China

The Dalai Lama's flight to India was followed by two ominous incidents. On August 25, 1959, Indian and Chinese forces clashed over the possession of Longju, a small village in the eastern sector. We said it was on the McMahon line and, therefore, ours, the Chinese said it was two miles north of it and, therefore, theirs. There were a few casualties on both sides. On October 20 the same year, the Chinese ambushed an Indian patrol sent to probe the Aksai Chin at Kongka La, in which nine Indian frontier policemen were killed and seven were taken prisoner. With this, public opinion in India was inflamed. A democracy is nothing but a government sensitive to public opinion and governments that ignore this do so at theirs own peril. But public opinion, even when not inflamed, is quite often ill informed. Even among the leadership, many never really understood the historical background of the dispute.

We claimed what the Chinese were claiming and occupying was our 'sacred land' and this was accepted by almost all, except the doctrinaire Marxist Communists who may have done this for reasons not related to history. The Indian government knew better, but allowed itself to be swept by the tide of public opinion and, true to the manner the great game of democracy is played here, the opposition did nothing to bail it out.

The influence of the domestic imperative in the international politics of democratic countries must never be underestimated. It is also an inherent characteristic of democratic societies that very little flexibility is given to the decision-makers in choosing a policy from a wide spectrum of options. If for instance, Nehru accepted Chou En Lai's offers of a settlement on a give and take basis, he would have been accused of giving up our 'sacred' territory. As it is, the opposition was exploiting Nehru's discomfiture over his failed China policy and his naïve reliance on Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai and the Panchsheel policy with the world's foremost practitioners of realpolitik.

In the highly partisan atmosphere that characterised our politics then, as it is even now, any stick is good enough for the opposition to beat the government with and vice versa. The opposition, though small in number then, made up for lack of quantity with quality. Eminent leaders like Ram Manohar Lohia, Acharya Kripalani, Asoka Mehta, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Minoo Masani and C Rajagopalachari, known for their incisive intellect and oratorical abilities and smarting at their electoral inconsequence, tore into the government in Parliament and outside. Others like Atal Bihari Vajpayee , who is now the prime minister of India, were well known for their fiery demagoguery.

Many of Nehru's colleagues, upset by his 'loftiness' and his fondness for Krishna Menon, often preferred to be bemused observers enjoying these blistering attacks. China was treated as Nehru's problem. To be fair to them, Nehru had for long kept the problems with China to himself as he did with most matters pertaining to external relations. To get over this uncomfortable 'debating' situation in Parliament, Nehru often had to sound tough and uncompromising. This would have been fine, if he had the military strength to back him up. Unfortunately for the country, this was not so.
The Indian Army then was poorly equipped, short-staffed and generally in a bad way. Krishna Menon as defence minister squabbled with the generals in public and wrought havoc with the morale of the military's top brass. Aiding him in good measure was a Nehru kinsman, Lieutenant General B M Kaul, a soldier with no combat experience. In his bid to be one up over his peers, he would agree to do things the politicians wanted done, but the general staff baulked at.

The press in those troubled days was not very helpful either. The major English language papers shrilly, and almost in unison, demanded the Chinese be expelled and often accused the government of not doing its duty. The influential English language media, with few notable exceptions, were still conditioned by their pro-British past. They were generally pro-West and found this a good opportunity to needle the government on its policy of non-alignment, seen by them in Dullesian terms as being pro-Soviet. The editors and pundits, never comfortable with Nehru's non-alignment, went hammer and tongs at him. Given this atmosphere, partisan political interests took precedence over national interests. This is not unfamiliar even today. The need to develop a non-partisan national consensus based on a rational survey of facts and events never was greater, yet was as far as it often seems even now.

Against this surcharged backdrop, Nehru had to come up with something. This something was the Forward Policy. This policy called for establishing posts in the disputed areas often behind the Chinese line of forward posts. Thus a number of small forward posts were set up with meagre resources, poor communications and extremely vulnerable supply lines. Most of these posts had to be supplied by air drops and quite a bit of the supply would end up in Chinese hands. The Chinese People's Liberation Army would then hand them over to our men to derive a psychological advantage.

Nothing describes the Forward Policy better than the words of an Indian Army officer: 'We thought it was a sort of game. They would stick up a post and we would stick up a post and we did not think it would come to much more.' It came to be much more, as it had to, and the consequences were felt in 1962 when a full-scale border war broke out. The Forward Policy was against all sound military advice.

Lieutenant General Daulat Singh, GOC, Northern Command, bitterly criticised this policy in his memo to the government on August 17, 1962. He wrote: 'It is imperative that political direction is based on military means.' Singh's warning, like those of many other senior officers, was ignored. Then defence minister Krishna Menon, Intelligence Bureau director B N Mullick and Lieutenant General B M Kaul, who had conjured up this policy, had Nehru's ear and that was what mattered. If Nehru had learnt a little from the much-publicised Bay of Pigs fiasco the new American administration of then President John Kennedy had landed itself into in 1961, he would have been very wary of this threesome.

In Kennedy's case, he allowed the legendary Richard Bissell, the Central Intelligence Agency's then director of operations, to awe him, his cabinet and his military chiefs into approving an operation that was based on little hard intelligence and a lot of wishful thinking. Also, in Kennedy's case, the pressures of the domestic imperative were overwhelming. The planning of the operation had begun in Eisenhower's time with Richard Nixon playing a leading part in it. If Kennedy aborted the plan, he would have been accused of being 'soft on communists' and what greater crime can there be in that bastion of 'freedom and liberty' than this? He succumbed to the fear of an inflammable public opinion just as Nehru was to do later. In both cases, the policies ended up as unmitigated disasters that almost irretrievably hardened positions and thus shaped the future course of national direction and domestic politics.

Incidentally, the order to 'throw the Chinese out,' was given on September 22, 1962 by K Raghuramiah, then minister of state in the defence ministry. Raghuramiah was in the chair, Krishna Menon being in New York to deliver yet one more of those long harangues he was so fond of, when then army chief General K N Thapar gave his appreciation of the situation in the Dhola area. The then foreign secretary then gave his appreciation that the Chinese were unlikely to react strongly and, for good measure, repeated the prime minister's 'instructions' on the subject. We went to war!

In the 41 years that have followed the debacle of 1962, little has changed. We in India have not yet been able to get together a non-partisan consensus on crucial issues such as this. We do not seem to have as yet grasped the real and futile nature of the border dispute. In an overpopulated, overcrowded and primarily agricultural country with a relatively small landmass to share, the concern and obsession with land is understandable. Land is our primary economic resource and hence it is an ingrained national characteristic to be possessive about it. Our leaders, notorious for their land grabbing ways, have not surprisingly acquired an estate agent's mentality as far as territory goes. It seems that, to us, our country no longer means people but land. Why would we care so little about our people and their interests and honour and care so much for an inhabitable desert?

While it is possible for us to settle our eastern border disputes with China on the basis of a clearly demarcated McMahon line, there seems little or no chance that the Chinese could be persuaded to hand over Aksai Chin to us, thereby de-linking Tibet from Sinkiang. There also seems an equally remote chance that we might be able to retrieve it from the Chinese by military means. Even if we summon the political will to stake a fortune, the sheer lack of any tangible benefits, material or spiritual, will only make this even more foolhardy.

There are many indications that the Chinese would settle along these lines. We in India still seem prisoners of our past and continue to take an excessively legalistic view of past events and present inheritances. We have even bound ourselves in knots with a jingoistic and unrealistic parliamentary resolution that binds us to an undefined boundary bequeathed to us and to the 'liberation' of occupied territory, so desolate and inhospitable that let alone animal life, even plant life is hard pressed to exist upon it! By freeing ourselves from this mindset, we could meaningfully negotiate a settlement with the Chinese, whose only aim in this sector seems to secure the Sinkiang-Tibet highway through the Aksai Chin. While this will not entirely dissipate the rivalry between the two countries, it will remove a cause of frequent tension that only serves to underline our unfavourable strategic position.

The challenge now for our national leadership is to harmonise reality with sentiment, pragmatism with unhistorical belief and national aspirations with imperialistic legacies. To be able to do this we first need to extricate such sensitive and critical issues from the ambit of partisan politics. The responsibility for this lies with the government of the day, which alone can orchestrate such an exercise. By doing this, we can once again bring into alignment our political objectives, with military means and reality. We can then negotiate from a position of strength and give ourselves secure, defensible and natural boundaries in the north at least. And who knows this may even lead to lasting good relations between the two great countries.

SOURCES: Mohan Guruswamy (

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home