Fuzzy boundaries
Reviewed by
Parshotam Mehra

India-China Boundary Problem 1846-1947: History and Diplomacy
By A. G. Noorani
Oxford University Press.
Pages 351. Rs 795.

INDIA's first Prime Minister who led the country for almost two decades after Independence had a great fascination for our major neighbour in the east, the great land of China. He rated India-China ties as easily the most crucial in the by no means uncomplicated web of our relations with the world at large. Jawaharlal Nehru had great regard for the UN, too, to whose birth and early formative years he made no small a contribution. All the same, China and Asia occupied a very special place in the world as the Indian Prime Minister saw it. As political legatees of the Raj, Nehruís India was heir to its varied commitments, both within as well as outside its borders. It was, in many ways, an exciting legacy, albeit not without its difficulties and challenges. By far the most important things among these were the newly independent countryís borders and its relations with neighbouring lands.

Not before long and especially with the emergence of Mao and the Peopleís Republic of China in the early 1950s, there were a number of rude jolts. Beginning especially with Beijing returning somewhat less than courteous if not positively rude responses to Indiaís concern about Tibet which it now occupied by force majeure. Signalling itíd tolerate no interference in what was an internal affair, Beijingís very own, exclusive turf. Time and again the narrative reverts to April 1960 when Zhou Enlai met Nehru in the wake of an "ignited" public opinion enraged by the Longju and Kongka pass incidents (1959), which New Delhi blamed squarely on Chinese incursions into the eastern and western sectors of the boundary.

In the authorís inimitable rhetoric, a divided Cabinet, an irresponsible Opposition, an uninformed Press and a restive Parliament all fed on bad history, held Nehru hostage, not that he had a different view of the past. Had he so willed between January 21 and March 22 (1959), when he replied to Zhou Enlai, a policy based on the historical truth and a sensible diplomacy conducted in private could have charted a route that would assuredly have led to accord. The incontrovertible historical truth could have been recalled to inform the Cabinet, Parliament and the nation, after a settlement had been reached, and events would have taken a different course (emphasis, as in the original).

What comes uppermost in the preceding lines are two expressions, "could have charted" and "assuredly", both highly speculative, the stuff of historyís "ifs and buts" and its "might have beens". Useful exercises in intellectual gymnastics, they are clearly not related to harsh ground realities. Again, despite his oft-repeated, and not exactly subdued rhetoric, Noorani does not adduce any fresh evidence to review the border dispute. Most of the points he has underlined have been scrutinised time and again, and at considerable length. Nor do references to Sathe or Sardar K. M. Panikkar lend any fresh weight to the narrative. The long and short of it would appear to be that the author would have New Delhi accept the Chinese position as adumbrated in their Prime Ministerís note of March 1959 lock, stock and barrel. And if it does, things will be honky dory. Any refusal to toe the line would invite dire consequences.

There is some animated discussion on the 1899 offer to China and the fate it met. Two significant points need to be highlighted. To start with, China was an important factor in any determination of the boundary and was oft-times not easy to handle. More, it had refused to entertain the 1899 offer which was fairly precise. It never defined its own position except an occasional reiteration of a claim to the Karakoram boundary. The British were less than certain. "Lines were proposed again and again. There was no finality." The situation on the eve of the transfer of power (1947) may be easily summed up. In the western sector, Hunza was exclusively under British control; it had become a vassal of Kashmir when the Mir received a sanad from the Maharaja, agreed to bear allegiance to him and pay an annual tribute. In the Aksai Chin, the boundary had remained indeterminate. In the east, the McMahon Line agreed to at the India, China, Tibet Tripartite Conference (1913-14) marked the frontier.

Notwithstanding his rhetorical flourishes and hyperbole, Nooraniís India-China Boundary Problem comes out as a useful contribution to the subject, especially in helping towards a betteróand fulleróunderstanding of how the situation vis-ŗ-vis the boundary evolved over the hundred odd years (1846-1947) before Nehruís India took over.

A journalist-author, Noorani is a columnist for Frontline, an in-house fortnightly publication of the Hindu, and the Dawn.