In my last column, I had discussed the geostrategic terms frontier, border and international boundary, and highlighted that the Line of Actual Control is a de facto border. The flagging of our northern frontier with Tibet led to the Sino-Indian War in 1962. What India inherited in 1947 as far as Tibet went was concerned was a frontier region shaped by the Himalayan chapter of the Great Game, played over two centuries by Britain, China, Russia and Tibet. The role of Tibet was contingent upon its credibility as a state and the prevailing strategic situation in China. So long as British India, China and Tibet treated Eastern Ladakh and present day Arunachal Pradesh as frontier regions, there were not too many problems barring skirmishes, small-scale offensive forays and surreptitious occupations that were more about tax collection and less for usurping territories. Claims by the Sikh empire (the Dogras), Britain, Ahoms, Tibetans and Chinese were part of the Great Game. It is difficult to apply Westphalian logic to these claims due to their primordial nature as India, China and Tibet are ancient civilisations and memory goes back centuries and is coloured by mythology. All this notwithstanding, the 1842 Treaty between the Sikh/Dogra Empire and Tibet and the Simla Convention of 1914 between Britain, Tibet and China were good starting points to negotiate a settlement of the Himalayan frontier region.
But conventions and treaties are given short shrift by nation states in the frontier regions where physical, political and military control decides the eventual delimitation of the international boundary.
Such was the backdrop when the Sino-Indian frontier dispute began in early 1950s. India, China and Tibet were well-versed in oriental statecraft and India had inherited a first rate foreign office left behind by Britain. However, the legacy of our freedom struggle made us a romantic state with respect to foreign relations as opposed to the hard realpolitik, which China adopted. India understood the need for securing its northern borders, but was initially complacent due to difficulties of the terrain and a false security due to the inherited military outposts in Tibet (at Yatung and Gyantse), a soldier-protected trade mission at Lhasa and a dysfunctional Tibetan state. This was despite knowing that Tibet was in virtual political control of area upto Tawang and some areas of Lohit division. With respect to Aksai Chin, we were completely ignorant due to its remoteness even though the Dogras had patrolled the area and maintained an outpost at Shahidula upto 1947.
Thus, three years were wasted. It was only when China seized Tibet in 1950 that we woke up and, employing the traditional forward policy to flag the frontier, first quickly secured Tawang, Lohit and other areas up to the McMahon Line by 1951. Then we began the same process in the more-inaccessible Ladakh.
China having gone through a prolonged civil war, war with Japan in Manchuria and Burma (and a later war in Korea) was seasoned in concepts of statecraft like deterrence, coercion and compliance. India stuck to liberal beliefs that modern nation states were designed to negotiate and coexist. India did not have any infrastructure in the frontier region. Our military was weak and without border infrastructure, it was virtually impotent except in vicinity of the plains.
Our best bet was to rely upon diplomacy, avoid conflict and plant our flag in the frontier regions at the earliest to be in a better negotiating position for a final settlement. By design or default, this was the strategy adopted till 1959.Contingent to this strategy was the urgent need to create border infrastructure and prepare our armed forces for an inevitable conflict. Alas, there was complete lack of will shown in this regard and very little was done for the 10 years that we gained and this was Jawaharlal Nehru’s biggest failure as Prime Minister.
China adopted a much more aggressive strategy than India. It not only seized Tibet and Xingiang in 1950, but linked the two via Western Highway through disputed frontier region of Aksai Chin, thus establishing de facto control over entire Aksai Chin by mid 1950s. As we woke up and moved forward Assam Rifles in the north east and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Ladakh along with Intelligence Bureau (IB) posts, we came in contact with Chinese Border Guards on the western and southern fringes of Aksai Chin and along the watershed marked by the McMahon Line in 1959. Given our poor infrastructure and weak military, we had done exceptionally well till now with the traditional forward policy to flag major parts of our frontier with Tibet, except for Aksai Chin where the Chinese pre-empted us. The entire frontier region posts were manned by CRPF, Assam Rifles and IB, deliberately avoiding the use of army so as to avoid confronting China. A de facto border ran roughly along the present-day Line of Actual Control was virtually established.
Now was the time for diplomacy to take centerstage and accept the actual ground positions as a mutually acceptable border without giving up our claims for a final settlement. Due to an internal revolt in Tibet, the escape of Dalai Lama and India granting him asylum in March 1959, China hardened its position. It came out with a new claim line, which tactically improved its military control in Ladakh. With changing claim lines, clashes were inevitable. Border clashes took place on August 25, 1959 at Longju in Lohit and on October 26, 1959 at Kongka La in Ladakh. Until now the goings on in the frontier regions had been secretive and were not in the public domain. However, the border clashes and causalities led to immense parliament and public pressure. The PM lost his nerve and he abandoned a fairly successful strategy. All his subsequent actions became knee jerk tactical actions bereft of strategic thought. The North East Frontier Area (NEFA) and Ladakh were placed under the Army control in August and December 1959.A more aggressive forward policy was adopted — not to be confused with the traditional frontier flagging forward policy adopted so far — and actually became ‘forward movement of troops’, to call the Chinese bluff along their claim lines. Less by design and more by default, the PM blundered into a military confrontation on unfavourable terrain and with an Army that was ill-prepared for the task that was thrust upon it despite its vehement protests. Rather than calling the bluff of the Chinese our own bluff was called. The rest is history.
At this stage there was an offer from China of maintaining the status quo with both sides pulling back 20km in Ladakh and non-violation of McMahon Line in NEFA. However, this was rejected by India. The irony is that had we relied upon diplomacy and traditional rules of the frontier to settle for interim borders between 1959 and 1961 and not opted for forward movement of army to call the Chinese bluff. Yet the end result would still have been the same. The border or the Line of Actual Control after the 1962 humiliation is generally where the de facto border was in 1959!
Could Nehru have created the infrastructure and military capacity to challenge China’s People’s Liberation Army by 1960? That’s a matter of conjecture but what is fact is that even today, our border infrastructure is only 30-40 per cent of what we should have or what China has. One only has to drive along the roads to Pangong Tso in Ladakh and Tawang in Arunachal, both tourist destinations, to gauge the state of our border roads. Even a layman will lament with incredulity: Is this the best we could do since 1962? Militarily, our armed forces at best can only keep their heads above water by adopting a dissuasive defensive strategy without any retributive strategic offensive capability.