Beginnings of a solution to the long-standing border problem: there are distinct Tibetan, Chinese and Indian points of view that need to be mutually comprehended.
First published in The Sunday Statesman, January 13 2008, Editorial Page Special Article
WAR is an existential experience from which nations emerge altered, reflective and sometimes more mature. Germany tried to purge anti-Jewish hatred, Japan to adopt pacifism, Britain to break class-structures, Russia to explode Stalin’s cult. America learnt little from its Vietnam debacle, creating new tactics and technologies to reduce American casualties in war but not showing any improved capacity to comprehend the world beyond its shores and borders.
India after the 1962 defeat by Mao’s China learnt less than was possible and necessary to do. The Government’s official history concluded: “In a fundamental sense, the origins of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict lay in Chinese expansionism and occupation of Tibet. The issue got further aggravated due to failure of the Chinese to win over the Tibetans. Indian asylum to the Dalai Lama raised Chinese suspicions about ultimate Indian intentions. On the other hand, India, while tacitly accepting the Chinese occupation of Tibet through a treaty in 1954, failed to obtain any quid pro quo on the border issue.” This is true enough but a deeper probe is also possible.
India’s 20th Century political and intellectual leadership may have grossly failed to comprehend critical world events in a realistic manner, specifically Vladimir Ulyanov’s German-assisted Bolshevik coup d’etat, the Kuomintang and Maoist takeovers in China, as well as India’s own struggle for Independence. After BG Tilak, Annie Besant, GK Gokhale and other founders of Indian nationalism passed from the scene, leaders arose like MK Gandhi, MA Jinnah, SC Bose and J Nehru who tended to be consumed, to lesser or greater extent, by their own hubris and were less able to see India’s fortunes and capacities in context of a larger world. None had military, administrative or public finance experience needed for practical government; instead there arose almost a new hereditary caste of the “professional politician” who has no other vocation or anything better to do in life. Nazi-admirers like Mashriqi and Rahmat Ali among Muslims and the Mahasabha and RSS among Hindus also lent mainstream Indian nationalism a harsh distasteful colouration.
Czechoslovakia’s great nationalist Masaryk (who famously denounced Austro-Hungary as a “corrupt, pretentious, senseless relic”) was said to be “a leader who planned further ahead than his contemporaries, understood the corroding effects of power, the vital need of restraint in the ruler, and above all the need for taking the nation into his confidence, educating it in the sense of drawing out all its innate qualities and sharing its manifold aspirations” (Seton-Watson). India’s clear-headed statesmen of that calibre were not among its most visible or ambitious. Vallabhbhai Patel, MAK Azad, C Rajagopalachari and others were left on the sidelines of free India’s politics ~ as Plato predicted, the genuine pilot of the ship of state will be hardly invited to take its wheel nor even want to do so.
Nehru alone, as chosen by Gandhi, came to wield actual power in the 1950s, having maneuvered Rajendra Prasad to being President. And Nehru, besotted in middle age with a married British woman, seemed awestruck by appearance of a victorious Maoist communism in China just as he had been adoring of Stalin’s Russia two decades earlier. The Congress’s friends among India’s official Communists and fellow-travelers never had much original indigenous grassroots support and always looked abroad for guidance. Non-alignment needed to be made of sterner stuff.
Nehru’s flawed management of the relationship with Communist China included not merely choosing a favourite like Krishna Menon to head India’s military, but also imagining himself a competent world diplomatist. Girja Shankar Bajpai would have been far superior as India’s first Foreign Minister. In 1952, Bajpai, then Governor of Bombay, wrote to Nehru saying India should inform Zhou Enlai the McMahon Line was firm in law and non-negotiable.
Was the McMahon Line firm and just? Nehru was no Curzon but it was as a Curzonian imperialist that Mao and Zhou saw him. All Chinese, whether Communist or Nationalist, chafed at the way the Manchu-dynasty’s Empire had been carved up. “China is our India” was Czarist Russia’s intent towards China itself. China had an awful political and military history from when foreign depredations began in the 1840s all the way until the Mao-Zhou era ended in the 1970s. Indeed China’s polity between the 1840s and 1940s suffered far greater chaos and anarchy than India’s in the same period.
From a Chinese standpoint, Younghusband’s diplomatic and military invasion of Gyantze and Lhasa in 1903-1904 was an insult they had been unable to militarily confront. Curzon sent Younghusband’s expedition because there appeared to be Russian intrigues with the Dalai Lama via the Russian/Mongolian agent Dorjiev who had transmitted Russian ideas of extending its new Siberian railway to Lhasa and posting Cossack soldiers there. The Russians seemed to want to adopt the Dalai Lama given his religious influence over Mongolia. The British were alarmed and determined to annihilate the influence of Dorjiev which they did. Thence came the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907 which specified British and Russian spheres of influence in Iran and Afghanistan, and stated Tibet would be dealt with internationally only through the Chinese Empire. The McMahon Line, as a recognition of the traditional boundary, flowed naturally from the legitimacy of the Anglo-Russian Treaty. As for Sinkiang, though a Chinese province since 1884 it came to be ruled by warlords under Russian influence.
The Mao-Zhou war machine was determined to take over and militarily hold both Sinkiang and Tibet as an assertion of new China’s self-definition against Russia and Britain; hence their denunciation of Nehru as a pawn first of Britain and then of Russia. China building a road surreptitiously between Sinkiang and Tibet through Aksai Chin was reminiscent of Russia’s coercive behaviour against China in building the Trans-Siberian Railway through Chinese territory to Vladivostok. At worst, the Indians would have to admit that erstwhile J&K State since October 1947 had become an ownerless entity whose unclaimed territory had been carved up by force by the new Pakistan, new India and new China.
From an Indian standpoint, the traditional recognised boundary placed Aksai Chin clearly in Ladakh and not Tibet. Aksai Chain is a salt pit without “a blade of grass” but for all anyone knows, it could be rich in minerals. Karakorum Pass is also newly valuable to the Chinese as they seek to develop a land-route from Baluchistan’s Gwadar Port through Pakistan to China. If India has lost Aksai Chin and Karakorum Pass by force of arms without compensation, force of arms may be the only means of retrieval. Due compensation from China could be Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan, and China seems once to have mentioned mutual perpetual lease of Aksai Chin and Chumbi Valley.
From a Tibetan point of view, the Amban representing the Chinese Emperor was driven out of Lhasa in 1912 and Tibet was independent of China for 38 years. Tibet has as much of a claim to be independent of China as Poland or Ukraine have had to be of Russia. As for the McMahon Line, it is indeed legally non-negotiable between China and India as it flowed directly out of the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907, and it was under that Treaty that China received international recognition of its formal suzerainty over Tibet since 1720 until that time. Mao once likened Tibet to the palm of a hand with Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Assam as five fingers. Modern China must decide between such a metaphor of Maoist expansionism (which India would have to militarily resist) and joining the world of international law created since Grotius. Democratic conditions in Tibet would also have to be insisted upon so the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans may return home from India in peace and freedom.
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