60 Years Later

Revisiting India-China Border Conflict


It has been 60 years since the India-China War began on October 20, 1962, and ended on November 21, 1962. Since the flames of that time have not yet been completely extinguished, it is necessary to review the past and start a new chapter in the relations between the two countries. It is essential to create a positive environment to solve the problem by removing many of the misconceptions that have been widely circulated since then.

An authentic book titled Nehru, Tibet and China on the subject was published in June 2021. It was written by Shri Avtar Singh Bhasin, who had served for 30 years in the History Wing of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India, and retired as its Director. The 403-page book contains many details collected from archives and repositories of historical documents. This article is based mainly on that book.

The long border between the two countries was never clearly defined, Bhasin says. In the western sector, where the Ladakh border adjoins Aksai Chin, in the Survey of India maps, it was shown as “undefined”. Nehru had said it was “defined chiefly by long usage and custom”. Later, he ordered replacement of old maps with new maps showing this part of the international border as “defined” with a new line drawn unilaterally and made it non-negotiable. The Galwan Valley in the western sector, one of the disputed [hotspot] areas between 1959-62, remained so and violence erupted again in 2020, after four decades of relative calm. So it was in the Eastern sector. "China has never recognised the line drawn by McMahon between British India and Tibet in the eastern sector and the Shimla Convention", he said.

In April 1960, a summit was held in Delhi between Nehru and Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to find a permanent solution. Zhou agreed to "reconsider India's claim on the McMahon Line and come to an agreement" with a spirit of give-and-take to resolve the issue amicably. In lieu, he urged India to recognise their claims on the western sector-Aksai Chin. "Survey maps show that the border here was not defined until 1954", the Chinese team pointed out. Aksai Chin is essential to China because it is a territory that connects western Tibet with the Province of Xinjiang. Nehru squarely rejected the Chinese offer. Those negotiations, which did not resolve a single dispute, failed. Bhasin cited many sources that India’s arguments at that time were not factual, and had no basis.

"After that, Nehru made two important mistakes. They are: determining the McMahon Line as the international boundary and taking unilateral assertions in support of it; changing the status of the border in the western sector [by publishing new maps] and initiating a forward-policy to occupy the claimed lands. Nehru sought the privileges and territories inherited to protect even if these were gains of the imperialist policies of the British and were the result of autocratic and deceitful imperialist policies”. He adopted a stubborn attitude about the boundaries and declared “maps or no maps, the areas are ours by use”. "The 15,000 square miles of area known as Aksai Chin is an uninhabited area where not a blade of grass grows, and in fact India has no access to that mountainous region", Nehru had repeatedly said earlier. It was also ignored that in fact those areas were not in India’s possession or control. For example, in the 1950s, the Chinese constructed a 750-mile connector road of which 110 kms pass through Aksai Chin. India did not even notice it for seven-years—when it was under construction—a situation that Bhasin referred to as "a mystery". In 1957, even when it was known, India’s protest was just a formal one and not serious, A G Noorani had said.

The narrative in the sixties that led to the conflict in 1962, which the successive Indian governments followed meticulously, was that China had stabbed India in the back. It has, since then, got firmly implanted in the minds of the people of India. Resolution of any dispute requires give and take. Zhou had proposed it, Deng repeated it when he met Rajiv Gandhi, and the post-Deng leadership too was committed to it. Bhasin insists India should reciprocate. But India was keen only on take, and hated give. Hence the stalemate.

Independent India negotiated with People’s Republic of China regarding Tibet and its trade relations in 1954. It was an opportunity for India to raise the border issue, but India never did. Nehru even rejected the advice given by the then Foreign Secretary General Girija Shanker Bajpai that it was better to discuss the borders as China had never accepted the Mc Mahon line.

Bhasin analyses the events that took place from 1949 to the war in 1962, and its consequences, and states: “The position taken by India in the past was not a rational one and China was not altogether perfidious as it was made out to be”. So he urged: ‘‘Fully expose all the archive records relating to the border dispute with China”. That would facilitate give and take.

It should be noted that despite the Chinese military's victories in the war, it came to an end when the Chinese government called for a unilateral cease-fire and withdrew its troops...the ceasefire declaration stated:

“Beginning from 21 November 1962, the Chinese frontier guards will cease-fire along the entire Sino-Indian border. Beginning from 1 December 1962, the Chinese frontier guards will withdraw to positions 20 kilometres behind the line of actual control which existed between China and India on 7 November 1959. In the eastern sector, although the Chinese frontier guards have so far been fighting on Chinese territory north of the traditional customary line, they are prepared to withdraw from their present positions to the north of the illegal McMahon Line, and to withdraw twenty kilometres back from that line. In the middle and western sectors, the Chinese frontier guards will withdraw twenty kilometres from the line of actual control…”

Thus China decided that it would not retain any gains of the war it had in its hands. In fact, it was a political decision, not a military contingency, taken by the CPC led by Mao, with the intention of resolving the issue amicably with India, as other sources mentioned (John W Garver).

"No one has either captured any Indian territory nor crossed the borders", Modi categorically said in an all party meeting on June 19, 2020, soon after Galwan. On June 2, 2020, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had announced that "there were differences of opinion on the alignment of the LAC due to which there was a clash between the two sides patrolling along the LAC and there was no infiltration". General V K Singh, who was the Army Chief in the UPA-II regime and now a minister in the NDA, said: "There are some transgressions but they are not infiltrations. The LAC has not been marked on the land and there is no agreement on it". M K Narayanan, India's former National Security Adviser (of UPA times), had said: "The key issue with the India-China border is that it is undetermined and undefined." But still China is being depicted as an aggressor and backstabbing country.

Whatever be their political views, most of the writers on the subject like AG Noorani, Brigadier J P Dalvi, and Lt. Gen. B M Kaul, not to speak of Neville Maxwell, noted Nehru's ‘forward policy’; India had lost a good opportunity by stubbornly rejecting China’s proposals to resolve the boundary question. They felt Nehru had false assumptions on China. The then US government, and later the Soviet leaders played their own roles in promoting India- China conflict in the backdrop of their differences with China. Some writers have pointed out and explained the role of external factors in perpetuating the war.

Thus the reality is: “China has borders with 14 nations, and except for India, it has resolved its disputes with all, including Russia. India has borders with six countries, and excluding Bhutan, it has disputes with all five”. (Subramanian Swamy, Sinologist, Ex-Union Minister, and BJP MP (Frontline 2000 Sep 2: Sino-Indian Relations Through the Tibet Prism). That was more than 20 years ago.

The present Government, despite the above facts, in tune with its agenda of accusing Nehru and the Congress for all the country's problems including the border question, is indulging in national chauvinism. Instead of exposing that, some forces in India, more so an opportunist Congress, make jingoist statements, call it PM’s surrender to China. Much of the Big Media, known to be manufacturing news and Consent for imperialism, keeps harping on it, with double-tongued ruling classes, including BJP and Delhi, prodding it all. They seek to paint any idea or move towards a solution as an act of treason. Even during the 1962 war, the then opposition, including the Jan Sangh [BJP's parent organisation], behaved likewise, and blamed the Congress. Hundreds of ‘Left communists’ who however were for a negotiated settlement were imprisoned branding them as anti-nationals, under sections of sedition. The recent talks at military and government levels conducted at borders, to create peace and harmony are being denigrated today too. These parties feel that their political interests are more important than a peaceful settlement. Each party is raking up anti-China, anti-Pak frenzy whenever an election is at the door.

Modi-led India is following its own version of Forward Policy. It is not out of genuine nationalist interest but to establish India as a regional hegemonistic force by acting as a junior partner and a pawn of America's hegemonistic Indo-Pacific strategy, in the quest to contain China.

A few key factors are factors today in the un-resolved border: International influences, especially India’s subservience to US hegemonism; participating in Quad, extending the NATO as part of the Asia Pacific strategy of USA, not formulating its own sincere strategic autonomy delinked with imperialist forces.

The growing economic, commercial and political inequalities between the two countries and the prejudices between the two countries are a factor too: India-China trade surged despite Galwan and despite calls by Delhi to Boycott China goods. Last one year marked a peak in bilateral trade of 125 billion dollars, reported PTI. India’s imports, i.e. China’s exports, grew by 46.2 % and India’s exports grew by 34.2%. It was $ 31 billion in Q1 of 2022. Jingoism may get some votes but won’t fetch dollars, except to merchants of death. This surge was not accidental: It was a result of efforts and agreements made earlier, but now under a cloud due to western pressures.

There are Establishment ‘experts’ and ‘advisors’, including Brahma Chellany and Sheshadri Chari (former editor of ORGANISER, RSS mouth-piece) who advocate to play what they call Tibet card. They blame Nehru for his allegedly stupid and misplaced trust in China. They however conceal the fact that Tibet itself did not accept India’s border claims. Some are suggesting to play the ‘Taiwan’ card, concealing that Taiwan too does not accept India’s claims. Both the cards are at the behests of USA and NATO.

In fact it was Tibet and the Dalai Lama who were played up by USA in late 1960s, leading to an armed insurrection led by the Buddhists, funded and armed by USA. So brazen were violations of international law that a Government in Exile led by the Lama was seated in Himachal Pradesh, and it continues till date. It is all being replayed again.

Apart from the USA and NATO, the then Soviet Union, in its super-power phase, played its own negative role, aided by the Indo- Soviet Treaty 1971, that came in the way of any resolution of the dispute.

Even while there have been negotiations and attempts to de-escalate and demilitarise the borders, India continues its anti-China campaign by promoting anti-China forces in Taiwan, and Tibet through the Dalai Lama. Then the 18th edition of the India-US joint military exercise Yudh Abhyas is currently under way in Uttarakhand, not far from the LAC. At a time when there is so much confusion and trouble along the LAC, why invite or allow USA there? USA through NGOs is being allowed to do ‘welfare’ activity in scores of villages of Arunachal Pradesh. Is it not third party meddling there?

Earlier on August 30, Foreign Minister Jaishankar said “much of Asia’s future depends on how the ties between the two countries develop in the foreseeable future, and for the ties to return to a positive trajectory, they must be based on mutual sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interest”. The above acts are just opposite of what he advocated.

[The author is a media person and a political observer. The above is an abridged version of a more detailed article, published in dated 01-12-2022]

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Vol 55, No. 26, Dec 25 - 31, 2022