A perilous stand-off to avoid

16 Jun 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IT was a pleasant day in October 1962. Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi was settling down for his sundowner when the watchman came charging in. “Sir,” he was quaking with fear from the news on the radio. “China has attacked Hindustan.” Unmoved by the intrusion into his quiet repast, Abbasi Sahib resolved the matter expeditiously. “Dekho, phaatak band kar do.” (Look here. Just shut the gate.)

Abbasi Sahib lived in a sprawling mansion across the road from the British-era governor’s palace in Lucknow. His wife, the celebrated thumri singer and movie actor Begum Akhtar, concealed her emotions, a trick she had learnt while performing for difficult patrons, primarily the royal courts of Jaipur and Hyderabad.

It was the masthead in the morning’s National Herald that expressed the enormity of the challenge on the ill-defined mountainous borders. “The nation is in peril. Defend it with all your might.” National Herald was Nehru’s newspaper and these were Nehru’s words, unusually positioned above the masthead to highlight the seriousness of the turn of events. Within the next couple of days — barring his sworn opponents — the nation was firmly standing behind the heartbroken prime minister.

I remember Amma going out with some women in our area to deposit jewellery in the government’s coffers. The women were not warmongers, but Nehru had asked for their help, and so it had to be given.

Had Indian leaders been more forthcoming with the truth, there would perhaps be a more informed polity.

The metaphor of the gate to stop a foreign incursion was not Barrister Abbasi’s monopoly. The current prime minister sees himself as the gatekeeper of the nation on different fronts. And it is clearly considered a lapse on Nehru’s part too, that he didn’t (or couldn’t) keep India’s gate securely fastened when the Chinese troops came calling.

Nations have settled their most intractable borders by choice but also by duress. Where to stop and how much to give and what to take instead is tricky. Usually, the higher the strategic advantage one seeks in the bargain the lower is the trust quotient in the quest.

On can construct an idea of nationhood around historical facts or around glorious and necessarily spurious myths. It seems a quirk of unalloyed history though that as a north Indian one shares the national flag with the culturally and linguistically distant Naga people but not with Nepalis where one might be more at home. Put this apparent national anomaly to a slice of colonial history.

It has been claimed by Hindutva nationalists, on the other hand, that Nepal wanted to become part of India in the 1950s and that Nehru turned down the offer over fears of appearing to be an expansionist soon after gaining independence. I’m not privy to the facts here. But we do know that land was swapped recently with Bangladesh, suddenly changing the fortunes and the nationalist loyalties of those who were thus affected by this give and take in the border enclave. Goa and Sikkim were not part of the Indian struggle for independence.

The Sikh empire made their Dogra chieftain of Jammu in-charge of Kashmir. The Dogras expanded their empire on behalf of the Sikh rulers right up to the sacred Manasarovar Lake, now in Tibet, thus giving access to trade in cashmere wool. Hindus from India travel to Manasarovar and Mount Kailash on annual pilgrimages but after securing visas from the Chinese embassy in Delhi. They didn’t need this piece of paper earlier.

It just so happened that the Dogra army was marooned in the killing winter of the Tibetan plateau. The Tibetans counterattacked but were stalled before they could reach Leh. Where should we draw the boundary? The British didn’t want Kashmir, much less any part of China or Tibet. They sought only to use both as independent buffers against a real or imagined southward expansion of the Russian empire, same quest as British adventures in Afghanistan.

The problem arises for charged-up nationalists while changing or demarcating the format of imaginary lines, which is what borders essentially are. In India’s case, Hindu nationalists imbue the nation with a spiritual dimension in the form of Bharat Mata, her head rising in the region of Jammu and Kashmir. These folks are mostly unaware that the instrument of accession cited by India shows Hari Singh as the Jammu & Kashmir Naresh & Tibbat Desh Adhipati — effectively, a ruler of Jammu and Kashmir and Tibet. Are we to then lay claim to Tibet?

Had Indian leaders been more forthcoming with the truth, and were willing to share the facts on the ground with the people, there would perhaps be a more informed polity than the mindless cacophony offered on India’s many TV channels.

Suppose the people were to be told as has been reliably claimed, that India’s ‘Iron Man’ Sardar Patel had pressed for a trade-off with Pakistan, handing over Kashmir for a peaceful merger of the Nizam’s Hyderabad to the new Indian state, would it lead to a better awareness of Indian history and of the events on the borders?

The current stand-off between India and China seems to have less to do with their border dispute, which stands as a dispute. The more informed Indian analysts do not see it as China’s land grab at all. China sought India as a critical partner in its Belt and Road Initiative, which would directly link it to Central Asia, a great alternative to the circuitous Iran port route through Afghanistan. The Chinese were, however, listening to the debate in the Indian parliament over the annexation of Jammu & Kashmir last year. The home minister said Aksai Chin was part of India. And there’s never a day when this or that TV channel doesn’t speak of capturing Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan, critical to China. Is it possible the Chinese have moved to close the gate — to be able to enjoy their sundowners, as Barrister Abbasi once did?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2020