India’s ignorance of its boundary dispute with China is colossal. The ignorance comes from hurt national pride. India fought and lost a border war with China way back in 1962, and though the conflict was less of a war and more of a skirmish, with only 1,383 Indian soldiers losing their lives, the defeat not only scarred our psyche, it has shaped our view of China for five decades. When in doubt, read the old newspapers.
If you look up Indian newspapers of those 21 days of war, they are full of government-supplied misinformation. The same misinformation about China clouds Indian thinking even today. In 1962, Indian papers were reporting that Indian soldiers were fighting valiantly.
In reality, they were surrendering, because the Chinese captured 3,968 of them. Why haven’t we been able to capture a single Chinese soldier? A Lok Sabha member asked Y.B. Chavan, the defence minister then. Because the Chinese always shoot their wounded, Chavan replied.
The government was describing China as a dragon and the Chinese as fanatical slit-eyed monsters sweeping into India in waves. Jawaharlal Nehru thought that India’s entire north-east was gone since the advancing Chinese army could have cut it off from the rest of India. Nothing of the sort happened. China wanted peace. After bloodying India’s nose, China announced a unilateral ceasefire and its army withdrew 12.5 miles behind. And China returned all the Indian prisoners of war—unharmed. Alas, hurt national pride makes us forget China’s magnanimity as a victor. Today, so-called border incursions apart, an armed conflict between India and China is an impossibility.
Two nations trading with each other don’t go to war, says Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat. He’s right. With the India-China trade touching nearly $40 billion, let our boundary differences remain as they are. They’ve faded over the decades and they’ll vanish with time.
Essentially, the India-China boundary dispute is trivial and it can be summed up in one sentence: The dispute stems from our 3,500-mile boundary never being surveyed or delimited on the ground. This resulted in both sides accusing each other of grabbing the other’s territory. India claims China illegally occupies 38,000 sq. km of Indian territory in Ladakh. China accuses India of illegally occupying 90,000 sq. km of its territory in Arunachal Pradesh. That’s where the official status quo has stuck for the last five decades.
Our dispute first surfaced in the 1950s thanks to the bleak, desolate plateau of Aksai Chin in north-eastern Ladakh. Nothing grows there, not even fodder. Situated at 17,000ft above sea level, Aksai Chin is swept by ice-cold killing winds and it’s snow-bound for 11 months in a year. This barren region was so cut off from India that when the Chinese built a road on it in the mid-1950s, we didn’t know of it till two years later. Though useless to India, Aksai Chin was vital to China because it lies between the two Chinese provinces of Tibet and Sinkiang and a road was the only way to link them together. This Aksai Chin is the area where India says China has taken 38,000km of Indian territory.
In retrospect, if India and China had demarcated the Ladakh border soon after India became independent in 1947 and China got its revolution in 1949, our boundary dispute wouldn’t have festered for decades. It festered because Aksai Chin’s ownership or status was never resolved. And the plateau became the main impasse in India-China relations.
In contrast, the McMahon Line between Bhutan and Myanmar poses no problem even though China says it has no legal validity. China is willing to accept the McMahon Line on one condition. That India accept its ownership of Aksai Chin. It’s in India’s national interest to do so.
Alas, no ruling party in India can do this. It risks being toppled in another election by a political rival who may whip up national passions about sacred Indian territory being given away. The truth is that the India-China status quo on the border is destined to stay —just as it has stayed for 46 years. It doesn’t matter whether the Congress rules or the Bharatiya Janata Party. India and China have moved too far to quibble and fight over portions of desolate mountainsides.
Interestingly, India adopts two different positions in its policy towards China and Pakistan. We have a border dispute with Pakistan, too. We claim that Pakistan illegally occupies 30,200 sq. km of our territory—Azad Kashmir. But we accept Pakistan’s “occupation” provided it recognizes the Line of Control as an international border. But with China we don’t accept the status quo on the border officially.
The reason is the different outcome of our wars with Pakistan and China. We are magnanimous with Pakistan because we were victors. We broke Pakistan into two. But we were crushed by China in the 1962 border war. So, we see our current status quo on the India-China border as a reminder of our humiliating defeat. Nations are like human beings. Their destiny is sometimes shaped by emotion.
(Arvind Kala is a freelance writer which, he says, is a euphemism for being unemployed. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org)