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Indo-China border row far from over

November 17, 2008

Kudip Nayar
The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
November 16, 2008

We are back to square one as far as the border dispute with China is
concerned. Some 12 meetings held on the border issue since the two
countries agreed to talk about it have been futile.

China's foreign affairs spokesman, Qin Gang, has said: "We deeply
regret the Indian side's remarks that Arunachal Pradesh is a part of
India…New Delhi has not taken into account the historical facts."

Beijing, Gang says, never recognized the "illegal" McMahon Line and
that the status of the border state was "never officially demarcated."

My complaint is why the Indian government has not been frank with the
nation. At the end of every meeting, the Indian spokesman has said
that the "progress" made on the talks was "positive." Probably,
Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee who has been rebuffed by China
thought he would get away with the speech he was making during his
visit to Arunachal Pradesh. He said that "Arunachal is an integral
part of India and that China knows about it."

This gave the impression as if the matter regarding Arunachal had
already been settled. Apparently, it is not so. China must have told
India that Beijing did not accept New Delhi's stand. The manner in
which China has been blocking the visit of MLAs or the Speaker from
Arunachal Pradesh to its country should have been a clear indication
that Beijing was sticking to its old stand. I do not know why we go
on indulging in wishful thinking. This is precisely what happened
before the 1962 war between China and India.

I remember the first time I heard of the Sino-Indian border dispute
was in the Union Home Ministry in early 1957. I was complaining to a
senior official about the East Pakistan border bristling with
dangers. He feigned ignorance. But his one remark, even though
cryptic, was significant. He said: "Why Pakistan alone? You will have
trouble with China very soon."

He did not elucidate but in reply to my insistent queries he did add
that there were vague reports of China building a road through
Sinkiang. The Foreign Ministry had been informed of the reports many
times. Lakshman Singh from UP was the first person in 1954 to inform
the government about the building of Aksai Chin Road. As our Trade
Representative, he used to visit Tibet every year. His contacts were
wide, and he met some labourers who had worked on building the road.

A couple of weeks later I was sitting with the same officer when he
told his private secretary to put certain papers in the 'Border
File'. I asked what 'border file' meant. He explained that since the
Ministry of External Affairs refused to entertain information about
China's inroads into Indian territory, this was straightaway filed.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru got enraged even at the mention of a
border dispute with China. Laughingly, he remarked that "in our
ministry when somebody does not want to deal with a subject for a
long time, he says: 'Put it in the border file'."

I was to hear this euphemistic description of inactivity often after
that. Another time I heard the border problem being discussed
threadbare was when Chou En-Lai called on then Home Minister G.B.
Pant. I remember as Information Officer to the Home Minister at that
time Pant had the habit of writing down his main speeches and briefs
and then delivering them "extempore." That time also there were
scores of papers typed and re-typed, meetings with the foreign
secretary and much poring over maps till Pant could remember the
names of even remote rivulets.

The Pant-Chou meeting, arranged at short notice, was meant to remove
the impression then spread by the pro-Beijing Communists that Nehru
felt personally hurt by Chou En-Lai's actions and was therefore
somewhat adamant about the terms for any settlement.

The Prime Minister also wanted to show that he was not alone in
taking decisions on the border issue. His cabinet colleagues had to
be carried along, and all of them felt rather strongly on the issue.

Probably there was also some pressure from the party which wanted
somebody other than then Defence Minister Krishna Menon to be
associated with the discussions.

The reputation of Pant was that of a shrewd person, a hard nut to
crack. I recall that before hostilities had broken out, a "solution"
of the border was suggested by Menon, but he was overruled by Pant.
Menon had told then Chinese foreign minister Chen Yi that India might
accept Beijing's suzerainty over the area in Aksai Chin where it had
built the road to link Sinkiang and Tibet as well as over a 10-mile
strip to serve as a "buffer" to the road. In exchange, China must
officially accept the McMahon Line and India's rights to the rest of Ladakh.

China had reportedly accepted this and so had Menon who apparently
had talked to Nehru. But Pant stood in the way and had the government
withdraw its offer through an informal resolution in the cabinet.
Even leasing out the Aksai Chin area was not acceptable to the
ministers. "We can never trust the Chinese again," said Sardar Patel.

There was also controversy over the border shown in Chinese maps.
Nehru raised this point with Chou En-Lai many a time but every time
the latter would say that they were Kuomintang Government's maps
which his government had no time to correct. However, he was always
general in his replies and never even once said that he accepted
boundaries shown in the Indian maps.

New Delhi's case was that from the six century onwards it was known
that the southern limits of Sinkiang lay along the Kuen Lun ranges
and, therefore, the Aksai Chin Plateau and the Lingzi Tang plains
were never a part of China or Sinkiang. India has produced 600 pieces
of documentary evidence to establish that these areas were utilized
by the people of Ladakh and administered by the governments of Ladakh
and Jammu and Kashmir. And therefore they are India's.

Subsequently, China attacked India. But that is part of history. The
new relationship between the two countries grew when Beijing agreed
to have talks on the border. Both had agreed to honour the status quo
till there was a firm settlement. But Qin Gang has violated that
understanding by his outburst. The two countries are too big to push
each other. Beijing, more than New Delhi, should realise this.

The writer is a veteran Indian journlist and civil servant. He was
also an ex-diplomat and one-time Rajya Sabha member.
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