Around 50 to 55 million years ago, the Indian tectonic plate began colliding with the Eurasian plate. This plate had originally been part of the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland, and drifted across the Indian ocean towards Eurasia. The two plates deformed where they met thus leading to the rise of the Himalayan mountain range, which continue to grow to this day. As the Eurasian plate moves north at the rate of 2cm per year, the Indian plate presses on it at the rate of 5cm per year, getting compressed in the process.
Present day countries of South Asia all owe their present location and shapes to this tectonic event that occurred millions of years ago, and which still continues – thus potentially shaping the destiny of the peoples of this region millions of years in the future as well. The apparent randomness of the location of the collision of the Indian plate with Eurasia was determined by the underlying processes of the Earth. It would be interesting to think about where India would have been located today had the trajectory of the Indian plate as it moved north across the Indian Ocean slightly north west, or slightly north east? Over the millions of years that it took to reach the Eurasian plate, had it moved more north-west India could have been closer to Saudi Arabia, and thus part of the present day Middle East. Or, had it moved in a more north-easterly direction, it would have slammed into where present day Burma is. How either of these scenarios could have shaped India’s destiny differently can be useful in the context of the reality of present day India locked between two principal neighbors – Pakistan & China.
But first we must understand how the reality of India’s location has played out over the past thousands of years. Though the tectonic processes that drive India’s geographic realities span millions of years, the impact of humans on India’s destiny has only been driven in the past few thousands of years. This is because human civilizations in any recognizable forms have only become apparent in the recent past, as compared to the geological and tectonic processes of the Earth. Since geography does not change over thousands of years to the extent that it does over millions of years, we must judge the impact of human civilizations on South Asia with the safe assumption of the geography of the sub-continent remaining more or less the same thousands of years ago compared to as it is today.
So lets take a look at the geography of this region starting with perhaps the most prominent feature that resulted from the tectonic collision in the first place – the Himalayan mountain range. The Himalayas run west to east, from the Indus river valley in the west, to the Brahmaputra valley in the east. This range is around 2400 km long and varies in width between 400 km in the Kashmir-Xinjiang region and around 150 km in the Tibet-Arunachal Pradesh region. They thus formed a natural barrier between the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia to the extent that the subcontinent has it’s own climate, distinct from what lies north of the Himalayas. The Himalayas trap moisture laden monsoon winds on the Indian side, apart from being the source of 3 major river basins on the subcontinent – the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra. These river basins, along with the monsoons sustain perhaps nearly 2 billion people between all the people in the countries of South Asia.
The Himalayas also acted as a physical barrier that prevented large-scale north-south migrations between people on both sides. The Indian civilization evolved over a period of thousands of years without any need of defending against an invasion from the North. India’s border to the north was abutting Tibet which was the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people and which was a unified empire in the 7th century, but which soon broke up into various territories. These territories though nominally still unified, were at various times under Mongol or Chinese overlordship. This history is important, for while Tibet was not directly under Chinese rule, it formed an effective buffer between the bulk of the Indian subcontinent and China. But following a military conflict with China in 1951, Tibet fell directly under Chinese rule. Newly independent India suddenly had the Chinese dragon right at it’s doorstep.
Until this point of time, India and China had never been directly facing each other as true nation states. This has significance in that the two civilizations while having made contact much earlier, had never been in competition over contested geographic boundaries before. Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh were now the spark in the tinderbox between these two nations as the unfinished business of history. The burden of history is ever present in geopolitical tensions between nation states. The histories of India and China lay testament to the fact of how two peoples who previously had little friction, got enmeshed in geopolitical rivalries due a mix of reasons such as the rise of nationalist sentiment coupled with a Communist authoritarian regime in China, and a sense of victimhood arising from historical wrongs committed by outside powers in the region.
The treaties enacted by the British, Russians, and Tibetan rulers to mark the boundaries of Aksai Chin in Kashmir, and Arunachal Pradesh (or South Tibet as the Chinese call it) were never accepted by China’s rulers. China through it’s history has been united and divided numerous times although it’s sense of itself as one cohesive state has remained steadfast. Indeed the Chinese consider the state to be paramount, and any threat to it’s integrity to be a core issue. That is why the Tibetan struggle and Taiwan’s renegade status have always been such thorny issues in it’s dealings with the world. This sense of identifying with the state as a permanent entity also is one of the reasons why the Chinese people accept the rule of the Communist Party in perpetuity. The Party represents the State, and the State itself is eternal. Therefore, how can the Government or in Chinese eyes, the State, keep changing every few years like it does in democracies?
China also considers itself incomplete without consolidating what it has always considered to be historically to be part of China. Regions such as Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh that were ‘lost’ due to treaties signed by the British with the Tibetans are not considered to be legal agreements accepted by China. Since the British and the Russians are no longer there, it is India that bears the burden of this historical baggage. India continues to assert sovereignty over Aksai Chin which was part of the princely state of Kashmir. This region has effectively been under Chinese control since 1957, when the Indians discovered that the Chinese had built a road through the region.
Going by historical accounts prior to 1947 however, it becomes clear that the region had never been a definitive part of British India . The British had asserted control over it only through boundaries on maps starting with the Johnson line that is effectively the extent of India’s claim. This boundary was demarcated in 1865 by a British Civil servant, WH Jonhson, working with the Survey of India. This boundary had never been physically demarcated. and more importantly, never been legalized in any agreement with the Chinese. Moreover, it had many inaccuracies which led to a lot of criticism of WH Johnson leading to his eventual resignation.
In 1897 a British military officer, Sir John Ardagh, proposed a boundary line along the crest of the Kun Lun Mountains which was deemed to be more defensible. This line was basically a modification of the Johnson line and came to be known as the Johnson-Ardagh line.
The very question of Aksai Chin being geographically part of the South Asian region comes under a cloud when you consider that the extent of the Karakoram mountain range forms the natural physical extent of the Indus River watershed. The presence of these natural elements to act as physical demarcation was used by the British to propose the Macartney-Macdonald Line in 1899. This line effectively had Aksai Chin under Chinese control. The British interest in handing over this piece of territory was that it was difficult to access and control from the Indian side, and the Chinese would be able to better defend it against Russian intrusions.
The British used both the Johnson-Ardagh and the Macartney-Macdonald Lines in their maps, and considered the latter to be the boundary at least until 1908. However, the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 resulted in a collapse of Central Power in China. By the end of World War 1, the British were using the Johnson as the formal boundary. Still, there were no attempts to establish any physical outposts to formally mark it.
Newly independent India inherited the boundaries with present day Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, along with that defined for East and West Pakistan. The boundary with Tibet and China however, remained ‘un-demarcated’. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951 started the process where China and India began asserting their conflicting claims on Aksai Chin in the North West and Arunachal Pradesh in the North East. It was the discovery of the Chinese road in 1957 by the Indians that led to a series of acrimonious exchanges between India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Nehru had stated that Aksai Chin had been part of the Ladakh region ‘for centuries’, and therefore, Kashmir’s accession to India meant that Aksai Chin was Indian territory.
The wisdom of taking such an uncompromising position can be debated either ways. Critics can say that this position ignored the history of the region and overlooked Chinese claims that were not without basis. Others can counter that compromising on this position would have effectively weakened India’s claim over the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir about which India already had a dispute with Pakistan, with a third of the territory under Pakistani occupation. The United Nations, at Nehru’s instance, was already involved in the dispute, and Nehru had belatedly realized to his horror that Western nations were more sympathetic to the Pakistani position despite it’s illegal aggression and occupation. The UN proposal for a plebiscite mandated that both India and Pakistan withdraw their troops from the state, before such a plebiscite could take place. India and Pakistan both did not withdraw their troops for obvious reasons. The result is basically a stalemate between the three countries.
India, in theory, could reasonably consider the possibility of giving up it’s claim on Aksai Chin, given the history of the region, and the fact that it is militarily difficult to access and defend. Aksai Chin is effectiviely an uninhibited salt plain at 17000 feet. The Indian Army should it have been physically present here, would have found itself caught in a pincer by Chinese territory on three sides, besides having a very tenuous supply chain stretching very long back into habitable parts of Ladakh. This is basically what happened in the 1962 war, coupled with ineffectual command and control issues with India’s political and military leadership. The Karakoram Pass is India’s access point to Aksai Chin. Controlling this pass and the Siachen Glacier effectively allows India to prevent Pakistani and Chinese forces from linking up right over India’s head and posing a threat to the Kashmir and Ladakh regions. In practical terms however, India will hold on to it’s claim over Aksai Chin as a bargaining chip over other the other contested region – Arunachal Pradesh.
The history of India’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh is not as tenuous as in the case of Aksai Chin. Physically, it’s lower regions abut the Brahmaputra plains in Assam. As you move north you get dense coniferous forests at higher elevations, and finally rock and ice at the highest peaks. The higher parts have been part of historical Tibet and the Tibetan monastery at Tawang lays testimony to this fact. Ethnically speaking, the people of the region are said to be of Tibeto-Burman stock, with cultural influences from both Burma and Tibet. Historically, there are references in the Vedic legends – the Mahabharata & Ramayana, to characters such as King Bhismaka, who was supposed to represent people from this region. However, there is no real evidence of this name Bhismaka being associated with any of the Arunachali tribes.
India’s legal claim to Arunachal Pradesh is again contested by China based on it’s rejection of the McMahon Line. In 1913-1914, representatives of China, Tibet, and Britain met in Shimla in British India to define the borders between Inner & Outer Tibet, and that between Outer Tibet and British India. The British Administrator Sir Henry McMahon drew the 550 miles long McMahon Line between Outer Tibet and British India. Tawang, along with other Tibetan areas were ceded to British India as part of this arrangement. This was agreed to by the Tibetan and British representatives agreed to the line, but the Chinese rejected it and walked out. The Chinese position was that the Tibetans were not an independent entity, and hence could not separately be part of any boundary agreement. The Tibetans did indeed consider themselves independent based on the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 which broke Chinese central power.
This then, is the historical narrative of the legacy of contested borders that India inherited from the British, which continue to haunt it to the present day. The 1962 border war concluded with China inflicting a crushing defeat on India. Nearly the entire territory of Arunachal Pradesh was overrun by the Chinese, and the Indian Prime Minister feared losing even Assam. The Indian leadership under Nehru and the Foreign Minister Krishna Menon had totally miscalculated the Chinese will to assert it’s historical claims. Adopting an uncompromising position on contested territory with such dubious legal backing not recognized by the Chinese, India was harming it’s own interests by needlessly provoking a militarily better placed adversary on hostile terrain. The art of Geopolitics demands that leaders tread carefully when making statements that ignore past history and present day realities. The Indian Army was overrun, the political leadership was paralyzed to the point of being in panic. Perhaps the low point came when the Indian Prime Minister appealed to the American President Kennedy for military aircraft flown by Americans to come to the aid of the Indian Army to strafe enemy positions. This intervention did not happen, probably due to the Americans being preoccupied with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why India never used its own air force is not clear, perhaps due to the fear that the Chinese would overwhelm the Indian Air Force and obtain air superiority as well over India.
The Chinese did however, withdraw their forces from Arunachal Pradesh and settled back into their positions behind the McMahon Line. Why they did this, is not clearly understood. They could have held on to the captured territory, and there is little that India could have done beyond regrouping it’s forces to protect Assam. Perhaps pressure from the Soviet Union and the logistics of maintaining the long supply chain influenced this decision.
Since 1962, India has lived with the fear of another repeat. This is coupled with the real possibility of China and Pakistan mounting a two front attack on India. While a two front attack is in the realms of possibility, in reality the situation in Pakistan today merits it to keep it’s Eastern border with India peaceful. While Pakistan is under pressure on it’s Western border with Afghanistan, it will not dare to open another front with India. That is what logic dictates. However, in Pakistan’s case, even the unthinkable is possible. India’s border with China today is largely peaceful, with occasional reports of intrusions. As India’s military leaders have correctly stated – ‘intrusion’ is not the right term to use if you do not know where the border is. The Chinese interpret the border in their own way, and the Indians in their own way. While this may sound like a recipe for confrontation, in reality, both countries have managed to keep a lid on things getting beyond a point. Mechanisms in place for border meetings to resolve such misunderstandings allow both sides to achieve a controlled peace.
This present situation is not reason though for India to be complacent. India needs to convince the Chinese that a repeat of 1962 is not possible. The defense infrastructure of Arunachal Pradesh was neglected after the ’62 war for fear of giving easy access to the mainland to invading Chinese armies. This paradoxically, kept the Indian Army at a permanent disadvantage in terms of being able to move troops and weaponry quickly to the border. Deterrence achieved through nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles is limited, at best, since using them carries the certainty of nuclear war resulting in unacceptable levels of devastation in both countries. The experience of ’62 basically underlines the need to have measures to repel invading hordes of Chinese troops. This calls for significant numbers of field guns like the 155mm Bofors Howitzers, reinforced border posts with heavy machine guns, and a good road transport network to keep these posts adequately manned and supplied. The main motive must be to able to stop the advance of invading troops through heavy bombardment and shelling, with the machine gun outposts and troops forming the last line of defense, instead of the first line of defense. India will also need to use land-attack aircraft to strafe enemy troops and their outposts, and command and control facilities, apart from their supply infrastructure. The workhorse Jaguar fighter-bomber has been at the vanguard of performing this role, though not explicitly on the Arunachal border. Currently, in an effort to bolster its air presence, the IAF has reportedly stationed four SU-30 aircraft, and also upgraded several unused and defunct air fields. While this is welcome, it falls severely short of the actual requirements. Snail paced improvements in India’s defense and infrastructure is not going to convince it’s enemies that an invasion is not worth it. With it’s proximity to Burma and Bangladesh the North-East region is strategically vital for India and needs more than a couple of fighter squadrons and a mountain division of 30000 troops. It needs at least triple that number dedicated to the Arunachal border to act as a credible deterrent for the Chinese dragon.
Part 3 of this series will focus on ‘Looking West and Beyond’.