Apr 14, 2015
India’s claim over Arunachal doesn’t rest on any historical tradition or cultural affinity. We are there because the British went there. But then the Chinese have no basis to stake a claim, besides the notion of China among some of the hangers-on in the Qing emperor’s court.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will soon be in Beijing following up on the Chumar incident blighted visit by Chinese’s President Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, the Chinese seem to be either testing the waters or ratcheting up the dispute over control of either the whole of Arunachal Pradesh or part of it. They have made a string of pronouncements on the subject, including strongly protesting the recent visit to Itanagar by the Indian Prime Minister.
The Chinese have based their specific claim on the territory on the premise that Tawang was administered from Lhasa, and the contiguous areas owed allegiance to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Then the Chinese must also consider this. Sikkim, till well into the 19th century, was a vassal of Tibet and Darjeeling was forcibly taken from it by the British! By extending this logic could they realistically stake a claim for Sikkim and Darjeeling? Of course not. It would be preposterous. History has moved on. The times have changed. For the 21st century to be stable our borders must be stable, whatever be our yearnings.
At the crux of this issue is the larger question of the national identities of the two nations and when and how they evolved. The Imperial India of the Mughals spanned from Afghanistan to Bengal but did not go very much below the Godavari in the South. The Imperial India of the British incorporated all of today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was the British who, for the first time, brought Assam under Imperial India in 1826, when they defeated Burma and formalised the annexation with the treaty of Yandabo.
It was only in 1886 that the British first forayed out of the Brahmaputra Valley when they sent out a punitive expedition into the Lohit Valley in pursuit of marauding tribesmen who began raiding the new tea gardens. Apparently, the area was neither under Chinese or Tibetan control for there were no protests either from the Dalai Lama or the Chinese Amban in Lhasa.
The next important year was 1913, when the Tibetans declared independence after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a Republic in China under Sun Yat Sen. They attacked and drove the Chinese garrisons in Tibet into India over the Nathu La. Also, in 1913, the British convened the Simla Conference to demarcate the India-Tibet border. The British proposed the 1914 McMahon Line, as we know it. The Tibetans accepted it. The Chinese Amban however initialed the agreement under protest. But his protest seemed mostly about the British negotiating directly with Tibet as a sovereign state and not over the McMahon Line as such.
Things moved on then. In 1935, at the insistence of Sir Olaf Caroe ICS, then deputy secretary in the foreign department, the McMahon Line was notified. In 1944, JP Mills, ICS, established British Indian administration in North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), but excluding Tawang which continued to be administered by the Lhasa appointed head lama at Tawang despite the fact that it lay well below the McMahon Line. This was largely because Henry Twynam, the Governor of Assam lost his nerve and did not want to provoke the Tibetans. In 1947, the Dalai Lama wrote to the newly independent India laying claim to some of the areas around Tawang. The Chinese delight in reminding us of this.
On October 7, 1950, the Chinese attacked the Tibetans at seven places on their frontier and made known their intention of reasserting control over all of Tibet. As if in response on February 16, 1951 Major Relangnao ‘Bob’ Khating of the IFAS raised the Indian tricolor in Tawang and took over the administration of the tract. The point of this narration is to bring home the fact that India’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t rest on any great historical tradition or cultural affinity. We are there because the British went there. But then the Chinese have no basis whatsoever to stake a claim, besides a few dreamy cartographic enlargements of the notion of China among some of the hangers-on in the Qing emperor’s court. The important thing now is that we have been there for over a hundred years and that should settle the issue.
Arunachal Pradesh has a very interesting population mix. Only less than 10 per cent of its population is Tibetan. Indo-Mongoloid tribes account for 68 per cent of the population. The rest are migrants from Nagaland and Assam. As far as religious affinities go Hindus are the biggest group with 37 per cent, followed by 36 per cent animists, 13 per cent Buddhists. Recent census figures suggest a spurt in Christianity, possibly induced by pocketbook proselytising. In all, there are 21 major tribal groups and over 100 ethnically distinct sub-groupings, speaking over 50 distinct languages and dialects. The population of about a million is spread out over 17 towns and 3,649 villages. With the exception of a few villages of Monpas, who live north of the McMahon Line, it is an ethnically compact and contiguous area. In fact, in future boundary negotiations India could make a case for inclusion of the few Monpa villages left behind north of the McMahon Line.
It is true that historically Imperial India never had a direct border with Tibet till the British took Kumaon and Garhwal from Nepal in 1846, and extended its domain over Arunachal in 1886. On the other hand, the formidable Himalayas were always culturally and traditionally a part of India and formed a natural barrier against ingress from the north, whether Tibetan or Chinese. The Himalayas may no longer be the barrier they once were. As China and India emerge as the world’s great economies and powers, can India possibly allow China a strategic trans-Himalayan space just a few miles from the plains?
The view from the Chinese side about what exactly constitutes China is no less confused. Apparently like the British, the Manchu’s who ruled China from the 17th to the early 20th century had a policy of staking claim to the lands that lay ahead of their frontiers in order to provide themselves with military buffers. In a recent article in the China Review magazine, Professor Ge Jianxiong, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai writes: “to claim that Tibet has always been a part of China since the Tang dynasty; the fact that the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau subsequently became a part of the Chinese dynasties does not substantiate such a claim.”
Prof. Ge also notes that prior to 1912 when the Republic of China was established, the idea of China was not clearly conceptualised. Even during the late Qing period (Manchu) the term China would on occasion refer to the Qing state including all the territory that fell within the boundaries of the Qing Empire. At other times it would be taken to refer to only the 18 interior provinces excluding Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Sinkiang.
Prof. Ge further adds that the notions of “Greater China” were based entirely on the “one-sided views of Qing court records that were written for the courts self-aggrandisement.” Prof. Ge criticises those who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical China the more “patriotic” they are. The mandarins in the Beijing would do well to take heed to Prof. Ge’s advice: “If China really wishes to rise peacefully and be on solid footing in the future, we must understand the sum of our history and learn from our experiences.” It makes equally good sense to us.
The writer held senior positions in government and industry, and is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.