Asian boundaries

19 Sep 2020


<em>Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2020</em>
Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2020

INDIA’S Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement in parliament on Sept 15 did nothing to clarify the joint statement of the foreign ministers of India and China in Moscow on Sept 10. The five points the ministers formulated are delightfully vague; as vague indeed, as the famous Panchsheel or Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence formulated in the preamble to the India-China Agreement on Tibet in 1954. Accord on mutual withdrawal means nothing unless the details are agreed.

India’s ambassador to China K.M. Panikkar advised prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 not to raise the boundary question then. The former secretary general of the external affairs ministry, Girija Shankar Bajpai, then governor of Bombay, forcefully advised settlement of the boundary issue before signing the Tibet agreement. It was signed on April 29, 1954.

Nehru did worse. On July 1, 1954, he ordered that “all our old maps” should be withdrawn. “New maps should be printed” showing the entire northern frontier as a clear defined line “not open to discussion with anybody”.

This fateful decision lies at the heart of the impasse in the India-China question. In 2020, neither side is prepared for a compromise.

In 2020, neither India nor China is prepared for a compromise.

In April 1960, Nehru could have accepted Zhou Enlai’s offer in the talks in New Delhi and settled the matter — China to accept the McMahon Line in the east and India to accept China’s position in the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh in the west. The Tibet-Xinjiang road, vital to China, ran through Aksai Chin. This was and is a vital interest for China as the McMahon Line is for India.

Therein lay president Ayub Khan’s statesmanship. There were similar pinpricks on the border. The pro-West foreign minister Zafarullah Khan criticised China. Ayub Khan asked for an honest historical appraisal and put the best brains on the job. This writer had the privilege of extended talks with Agha Shahi and Abdul Sattar.

The Pakistan-China Boundary Agreement of March 2, 1963, was based on two fundamentals — the facts of history and the realities of today. The talks were long-drawn. Contrary to the lie spread by the Americans, Pakistan did not yield a square kilometre of territory. On the contrary, it gained from China some 2,000 sq km of administered territory. The late Abdul Sattar, another accomplished diplomat, described to this writer how that was won.

For decades, if not centuries, people from Hunza would cross the watershed with their sheep and had thus acquired grazing rights by long usage. There was disquiet in Hunza over omission of this right. Pakistan took up the issue with China. Its diplomats were summoned to a midnight meeting with Zhou. The first question he asked was, “Are you otherwise satisfied with the draft?” Their reply was swift and reasonable. Satisfied they were, and fully too; but purely as a gesture of goodwill, they sought the grazing rights. “You can have it,” was Zhou’s reply.

One is reminded of B.R. Ambedkar’s words: “Boundary marking is the task of a surveyor; boundary making is the task of a statesman.” China has settled its land boundaries with all but two countries, India and Bhutan; 12 out of 14 countries. They are: Afghanistan (1963), Kazakhstan (1994-5), Kyrgyzstan (1996), Lao (1990), Mongolia (1962), Myanmar (1960), Nepal (1960), North Korea (1962), Pakistan (1963), Russia (1991), Tajikistan (1999) and Vietnam (1993-6).

In India’s case, Nehru was at fault in 1954 on the maps and in 1962 on the Forward Policy in Ladakh to recover lost territory. But China is not blameless. It raises its demands. It says today that Zhou’s offer of a swap in 1960 is off the table. It chan­ges its lines on its maps. In 1980, Deng Xiaoping laid claim to areas south of the Mc­­Mahon Line. This was soon enlarged as a claim to the Twang Pact. Its Line of Actual Control changes also.

Recent clashes on the frontier have made a settlement more difficult. Since 1959, public opinion has been whipped up. In 1959-60, Nehru was advised by a historian and an external affairs ministry official who detested each other, vied for favours and misled Nehru.

The tragedy is that each has its non-negotiable vital interest secure under its control. India has the McMahon Line, China has the Aksai Chin Road. As for the territory itself, Nehru described it well: not a blade of grass grows there.

The truth is that in the 19th century there were no linear boundaries. There were frontier zones, ilaqas as they were called. And historically, from the time Kashmir was added to the British Empire, its frontier was not defined. The only frontier that was defined was the McMahon Line and the Sikkim boundary with China. Statesmanship required a prompt definition of the boundary. This was put off, with consequences that are now upon us.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2020