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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Book Review: Border imbroglio

April 6, 2009

Parshotam Mehra
The Tribune (India)
April 5, 2009

India-China Relations: the Border Issue and Beyond
by Mohan Guruswamy and Zorawar Daulet Singh.
Viva Books, New Delhi.
Pages viii+217. Rs 795.

OVER a period of six decades, India’s relations
with China have by and large been less than
cordial, or even peaceful. Former Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru, notwithstanding adverse
criticism at home and abroad, embarked on a
course of cultivating "friendly" ties with
Beijing and hoped the two nations together would
blaze a trail for Asia in particular and the
world community in general. However, his
honeymoon with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and
chairman Mao Zedong was short-lived. He was
sorely disappointed and shocked when, in October
1962, the People’s Republic of China mounted a
massive armed assault all along the Indian
frontier. Stoutly questioning, if not completely
repudiating, the borders New Delhi had claimed.

Not that Nehru’s India was not blameworthy; as
political legatees of the Raj, it had accepted
the frontiers it inherited as legal and
sacrosanct and was a little less than willing to
re-negotiate, much less re-draw them. Mao, on the
other hand, and for a variety of domestic
compulsions—the disasters of the Great Leap
Forward (1954-58) and the grim and grisly famine
that followed in its wake—decided to cut Nehru to
size. India and its Prime Minister, he reckoned,
were getting too big for their shoes,
uncomfortably important. What complicated matters
no end was the March (1959) rebellion in Lhasa
and the flight of the Dalai Lama from his seat of
power and authority, followed by hordes of his
people who sought political asylum across the
border into India. Beijing suspected New Delhi
was deeply mixed up in the events leading to and
immediately following the Tibetan revolt which
had embarrassed it no end. As distrust grew and
border incidents multiplied, the Chinese launched
their well-rehearsed frontal attack on an
ill-prepared, unsuspecting neighbour and
inflicted a crushing, humiliating defeat.

The 1962 military debacle is now almost half a
century behind us. And even though the memory is
somewhat blurred, it still rankles, and hurts.
Sadly, the oft-repeated assurances of a peaceful
resolution of the dispute in all the years that
have elapsed have brought it no closer to a
settlement. Meanwhile, the overall setting has
completely changed, almost beyond recognition.
While China today no doubt bestrides the world as
a colossus, an economic and a military
super-power, India, "the emerging giant", as a
recent study calls it, hasn’t done too badly. The
elephant has bestirred itself, shaken off its old
lethargic ways and is an economic power to reckon with.

The merit of this volume is that it places things
in a clear perspective. The authors affirm that
"detached" from the historical baggage, there is
aim to provide an "objective overview" of a
contentious issue. Their summary statement of how
it evolved makes for interesting reading. The
"crux" of the dispute was the western sector
between Xinjiang and the Tibet region of China
and the territories of Jammu and Kashmir. For the
Empire’s larger political compulsions and a
changing scenario, John Bull had been averse to
marking any settled boundaries. Nor was a
moribund post-Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1858-60),
the Manchu dynasty in China (1644-1912) much less
Sun’s, and Chiang’s ramshackle "Republic"
(1912-49) that succeeded it in a position to
resist British encroachments. And more, the Raj,
engaged in a mortal combat with an expanding
Tsarist Russia symbolised by the Great Game
(ended 1907), was keen to solicit Chinese help in
stemming the threat from the north.

The book forswears any important research input
of its own relying instead on a large body of
"published work" on the subject and sets itself
the task of viewing the dispute in the
contemporary "conflict resolution" mode. Its
overall conclusion may be rated broadly
unexceptional: while there was a "disputed
legacy" in the western (viz. Ladakh) sector, the
Chinese activated a "non-existent" dispute in the
eastern (viz. Arunachal Pradesh) sector. A final
settlement would require a great deal of
"flexibility" and abandoning of "extreme" positions by both sides.

A couple of points may be briefly agitated. Do we
still have to draw on Neville Maxwell’s India’s
China War (1971) for our sketches to illustrate
the boundary dispute? More, over-citation from a
single source—this reviewer’s Studies in Frontier
History (2007)—however relevant jars on the ear.
Both tend to detract from the larger merits of a
work which would have gained by an annotated
bibliography in place of a padded one, lumping
the important with the inconsequential.

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