Border imbroglio
Parshotam Mehra

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.