South Asia’s Northern Frontier

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(Absorbed as they were, understandably, with building their newly independent States, the leaders of India, Pakistan and Burma gave little thought to their respective northern frontiers until the presence of a resurgent and newly established People’s Republic of China compelled them to think of the problem which an undefined frontier posed… This essay deals with India’s diplomacy which, among other causes, led to the impasse which persists still… The boundary dispute is no nearer a solution in 2015 than it was 55 years ago when Nehru and Zhou met in New Delhi in 1960. India missed a good opportunity then. But there is little realisation of this stark truth and no sign of statesmanlike diplomacy to break the deadlock. – Author)


By a fateful quirk of history, the roots of two of the bitterest disputes which have rocked the subcontinent of South Asia lie in one single transaction in the nineteenth century. Both the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan and the boundary dispute between India and China have their roots in the infamous Treaty of Amritsar concluded on 16 March 1846. In return for the Dogra potentate of Jammu Gulab Singh’s perfidy to his masters, the Lahore Darbar in the first Anglo-Sikh War, the East India Company handed over to him the Valley of Kashmir for the price of Rs.75 lakhs. Sheikh Imamuddin, the Governor of Kashmir, rebelled and had to be subdued by British troops.


The British regretted it deeply. On 23 May 1885, the Secretary of State for India, Lord Kimberley wrote to the Viceroy Lord Ripon “As to the urgent need for reforms in the administration, there is unfortunately no room for doubt. It may indeed, be a question whether, having regard to the circumstances under which the sovereignty of the country was entrusted to the present Hindoo ruling family, the intervention of the British Government on behalf of the Mohammedan population has not already been to long delayed”. There was also a proposal for a European colony “in Cashmere.” (Robert A. Huttenback; Kashmir and the British Raj 1847-1974; Oxford University Press, Karachi; 2004; pp. 62 and 78).


That is the root cause of the Kashmir dispute. Its consequences are very much alive now, even in 2015. If the British had annexed Kashmir as part of directly ruled British India, its fate would have been decided in 1947 in the same way as that of the Provinces of Punjab, the N.W.F.P., Sind and Balochistan.


The Treaty also had an impact on the subcontinents’ northern frontier. Article IX laid down that “the limits of the territories of Maharajah Gulab Singh shall not be at any time changed without the concurrence of the British Government.” Its raison d’etre was Gulab Singh’s general Zorawar Singh’s venture into Tibet in 1841 in pursuit of Ladakh’s territorial claims. He was killed. On 17 September 1842 the Ladakh – Tibet treaty was concluded in a quaint set of documents. It was reinforced by their respective suzerains, the Governor of Kashmir on behalf of the Lahore Darbar and the Lhasa officials on behalf of the Emperor of China. Article 1 said “That the boundaries of Ladakh and Lhasa shall be constituted as formerly, the contracting parties engaging to confine themselves within their respective boundaries, the one to refrain from any act of aggression on the other” (italics mine, throughout).


In 1959, when the boundary dispute with China erupted, the Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru invoked this very provision to contend that Treaty had fixed the boundary and there was therefore no boundary dispute to resolve. This was manifestly wrong for three reasons. By its context and its terms the Treaty of 1842, aptly entitled a “Treaty of Peace and Amity” was a treaty of non-aggression concluded after a war and not a boundary treaty to resolve a boundary dispute. Secondly, it did not define any boundary, only reaffirmed a boundary disturbed by war. Lastly, in 1842 the linear boundary did not exist. There were, instead, frontier zones or ilaqas.


The truth was that under the British Raj the entire northern frontier of India, from the Afghan-India-China trijunction in the west right up to the Nepal-India-China trijunction in the east, was not defined by any treaty. This was particularly true of the northern and eastern frontier of the State of Jammu & Kashmir. Since it had an international dimension, involving relations with China and an expansionist Czarist Russia, the British tied Gulab Singh’s hands completely. He was not to engage with any foreign power; still less define the boundaries of his State by treaty with a foreign power.


Absorbed as they were, understandably, with building their newly independent States, the leaders of India, Pakistan and Burma gave little thought to their respective northern frontiers until the presence of a resurgent and newly established People’s Republic of China compelled them to think of the problem which an undefined frontier posed. The British rulers of India faced three problems – India’s interests vis-à-vis China and Russia; Britain’s imperial interests and Russia’s expansion eastwards after its defeat in the Crimean War (1854-6). Britain encouraged China to expand westward to occupy any gaps in what was perceived to be a no-man’s land and thus contain Russia.


An extensive literature on frontier policy grew up. Shortly after demitting office as Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon delivered the Romanes Lectures of Oxford on 2 November 1907. His subject was Frontiers. He made a powerful plea for the linear boundary. “The idea of a demarcated Frontier is itself an essentially modern conception, and finds little or no place in the ancient world. In Asia, the eldest inhabited continent, there has always been a strong instinctive aversion to the acceptance of fixed boundaries, arising partly from the nomadic habits of the people, partly from the dislike of precise arrangements that is typical of the oriental mind, but more still from the idea that in the vicissitudes of fortune more is to be expected from an unsettled than from a settled Frontier. … In Asiatic countries it would be true to say that demarcation has never taken place except under European pressure and by the intervention of European agents.


“But even in Europe, where fixed boundaries are of much older standing, it is surprising to note the absence or inadequacy till recent times of proper arrangements for calling them into being.”


Curzon saw much advantage in using Frontier Commissions to demarcate defined boundaries. Diplomats define or delimit boundaries in treaties and on maps. The Commissioners carry out surveys and demarcate them on the ground.


“When the Commissioners have discharged their duty, not as a rule without heated moments, but amid a flow of copious hospitality and much champagne, beacons or pillars or posts are set up along the Frontier, duly numbered and recorded on a map. The process of demarcation has in fact become one of expert labour and painstaking exactitude.”


Curzon regretted at the very outset in his Romanes Lectures paucity of studies on frontiers: “though frontier policy is of the first importance and has a more profound effect upon the peace or warfare of nations than any other factors, political or economic … wars of religion, of alliance, of rebellion, of aggrandisement, of dynastic intrigue or ambition … tend to be replaced by Frontier…” (Curzon; Frontiers; Oxford Clarendon Press; 1907; pp. 4-5, 24).


This view was held widely and for long. Sir Thomas H. Holdich, Surveyor-General of India, was one of the greatest to hold the office. He served on the North-West from 1878-98 and mapped Afghanistan in such a way in 1896 that a sliver of Afghan territory in Wakhan was stretched to join Chinese Turkestan on the Tagdumbash Pamir, depriving Russia of a boundary with the newly formed State of Jammu & Kashmir. His opinion was as emphatic as Curzon’s. “In the recent history of the world most of the important wars, and of international quarrels to which war seemed to be inevitable sequel, have arisen over disputed boundaries.”


Holdich had clear notions of boundary-making: “A boundary is but an artificial impress on the surface of the land, as much as a road or the railway, it must adapt itself to the topographical conditions of the country it traverses. If it does not, it is likely to be no barrier at all… The first preliminary to a boundary settlement should be, if possible, a reasonably clear topographical illustration of the country concerned.”


Holdich’s work retains its relevance too (Political Frontiers and Boundary making; Macmillan and Co Ltd., London, 1916). In view of the rarity of the book – the author was lucky to buy it from a rare book-seller in Madras in 1984 – his views are quoted in extenso. “In the recent history of the world most of the important wars, and of international quarrels to which war seemed to be the inevitable sequel, have arisen over disputed boundaries. Wars based on religious differences, or on personal ambition and intrigue, are giving place to those caused by the natural impulse of expansion, which may be directed by individuals and may lead to a role of personal advancement, but which fundamentally are as much a natural cause for explosion as are the gases generated in a confined space. This difficulty of increasing population and the resulting expansion of nations may well give grave cause for anxiety to the civilised world in future, for it shows no signs of diminishing; on the contrary, the necessity for the most careful separation of spheres of national activity will continue to increase until such time as the balance of power shall be so entirely under control that it will be possible to dictate to nationalities the physical limits of their existence.


“Boundaries are the inevitable product of advancing civilisation; they are human inventions not necessarily supported by nature’s dispositions, and as such they are only of solid value so long as they can be made strong enough and secure enough to prevent their violation and infringement.


“Nature knows no boundary lines. Nature has her frontiers truly, but lines, especially straight lines, are abhorrent to her. …

“There is no special interest in the northern sections of the Indian frontier from the Kashmir hinterland to where it passes north of the protected States of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan to the Brahmaputra, beyond one dominant feature: it is the finest natural combination of boundary and barrier that exists in the world. It stands alone. For the greater part of its length only the Himalayan eagle can trace it. It lies amidst the eternal silence of vast snowfields and ice-bound peaks; it gathers around it a soft mantle of cloud by day, and at night it is wrapped in a great stillness, but whether by day or by night it is inviolate, impassable. Could you stand on the summit of one of the lower and outer ranges in Kashmir, or in Garhwal, or Nepal, or at Darjiling, and watch on some clear day the white outline of the distant snowy range, you would realise then that never was there such a God-given boundary set to such a vast, impressive and stupendous frontier.


“Even beyond Bhutan, where, after skirting the Himalayan foothills, it defines the Brahmaputra valley and finally rounds off (very indefinitely) the frontier of Assam, and betakes itself to the Burmese ranges, it again finds a magnificent series of lofty watersheds to support it in the stiff lines of unbroken ridge which hold the Salwin as in a deep mountain ditch. The doubtful point on this north-east frontier is the crossing of the Lohit Brahmaputra, the north-eastern affluent of the great river, where the Chinese have already penetrated and are said to be showing their yellow faces above the fort palisades at Rima. This is a point which still requires attention. The boundary of British Burma now circles round all the Shan States, both “north” and “south”, leaving no material buffer whatever between British and French interests, where it follows the Mekong river. Through Tenasserim it can only be quoted as a useful example of an excellent mountain barrier of which the position is obviously pointed out by Nature.” (pp. 1,2, 280 and 281). Events later in the century belied his trust in Nature preserving the peace on the northern boundary.


Britain’s frontier policy in 1847 was in stark contrast to Nehru’s (1954-1960). It reckoned with the fact that there was a job to be done; namely, defining an undefined boundary. It also accepted that the job cannot be accomplished unilaterally but by agreement with the other side; and, only by agreement with the other side.


Soon after Britain added the State of Jammu & Kashmir to the Empire on 16 March 1846, it approached China for negotiations on defining the undefined boundary as early as 4 August 1846 by a Note from the Governor-General Henry Hardinge to the “Vizir of Lhasa-Gantope”. It was sent to Peking through the Governor of Hong Kong which Britain had acquired in 1842. He nominated Vans Agnew and Alexander Cumingham as members on the proposed Boundary Commission. China’s Imperial Commissioner declined the invitation. “The borders of the territories have been sufficiently and definitely fixed”.


The Second Boundary Commission, set up on 10 July 1847, had no better luck with China. Its hesitation was understandable. It was weak; had a bitter experience in dealing with the West – what with the Opium Wars and the rest – and had Russia breathing down on its neck. Any concession to British India had to be balanced by territorial concessions to Russia as well.


It would be tedious and even unnecessary to trace in detail the internal debate in London and in Calcutta on the line to be pressured in talks with a recalcitrant China (For details vide the writer’s book India-China Boundary Problem 1846-1947; History and Diplomacy, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010).


In the main two lines emerged. On New Year’s Day 1897 Sir John Ardagh, Director of Intelligence in the War office in London, who had served two Viceroys in India, wrote a Memorandum on “The Northern Frontier of India from the Pamirs to Tibet”. He favoured the Kuen-Lan mountain range to the north of Kashmir as a boundary. It was criticised by every concerned official in India for exceeding the known limits of India’s territory.


After a lot of deliberation Britain’s Ambassador to China Sir Claude MacDonald presented a Note to Tsungli Yamen (the Foreign Office) proposing, for the first time, a precise boundary line in this crucial sector in the west. It explained: “It is now proposed by the Indian Government that, for the sake of avoiding any dispute or uncertainty in the future, a clear understanding should be come to with the Chinese Government as to the frontier between the two States. To obtain this clear understanding, it is necessary that China should relinquish her shadowy claim to suzerainty over the State of Kanjut (Hunza). The India Government, on the other hand, will on behalf of Kanjut, relinquish her claims to most of the Taghdumbash and Raskam districts.”


He defined the proposed boundary:  “Commencing on the little Pamir from the Peak of which the Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission of 1895 ended their work, it runs south-east, crossing the Karachikar stream at Mintaka Aghazi; thence proceeding in the same direction it joins at the Karchenai Pass the crest of the main ridge of the Mustagh range. It follows this to the South, passing by the Kunjerab Pass, and continuing southwards to the peak just north of the Shimsahl Pass. At this point the boundary leaves the crest and follows a spur running east approximately parallel to the road from the Shimshal to the Hunza post at Darwaza. The line turning south through the Darwaza post crosses the road from the Shimshal Pass at that point, and then ascends the nearest high spur, and regains the main crests which the boundary will again follow, passing the Mustagh, Gusherbrun, and Saltoro Passes by the Karakoram. From the Karakoram Pass the crests of the range run east for about half a degree and then turn south to a little below the thirty-fifth parallel of north latitude. Rounding then what in our maps is shown as the source of the Karakash, the line of hills to be followed runs north-east to a point east of Kizil Gilga, and from there in a south-easterly direction follows the Lak Tsung range until that meets the spur running south from the K’un-lun range, which has hitherto been shown or maps as the eastern boundary of Ladakh. This is a little east of 800 east longitude.” (For the full text vide Noorani; pp. 292-293). It’s main part is reproduced also in the writer’s essay, The Sino-Pak Boundary Agreement; Criterion Quarterly, October-December 2009; p. 59). The Note covered both the sectors in Kashmir; the one under Pakistan’s administration, to the west of the Karakoram Pass which was the subject of the Pakistan-China Boundary Agreement of 2 March 1963, and the one to the east of the east of the Karakoram Pass. That essay dealt with Pakistan’s successful diplomacy in dealing with China. It yielded a gain of 750 square miles which China ceded to Pakistan. This essay deals with India’s diplomacy which, among other causes, led to the impasse which persists still.


MacDonald proposed an alternative line – the Korakoram range. The line conceded to China a large part of the Aksai Chin plateau in the Ladakh Province of Jammu & Kashmir.


Archival record establishes three propositions. (1) The Ladakh-Tibet Treaty of 1842 did not define the boundary between them. (2) The boundary between India and China in this sector was undefined. C. U. Atchison’s authoritative work, ‘A Collection of Treaties, Engagements and Sanads Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries’, stated, in explicit term, in 1929 in Volume XII: “The northern as well as the eastern boundary of the Kashmir State is still undefined”. (3) There could be no unilateral definition of a boundary. India’s Foreign Secretary’s letter to the British Resident in Kashmir on 16 January 1893 said: ‘It will  however  be  clearly  understood that no boundary marks will be required as having any international value unless they have been erected with the concurrence of both powers.’ (Foreign Secret F., January 1893, No.508).


This was the state of India’s northern boundary when it became independent. In the east the McMahon line of 1914 defined the boundary with Tibet. China contested it.


On 17 March 1890 Britain and China concluded a convention defining the Sikkim – Tibet boundary. The present essay deals with the rest of the boundary other than the McMahon Line which is precisely the sector on which differences went out of hand.


What, then, was the legal status of India’s northern frontier on Independence Day, 15 August 1947? The theory of ancient boundaries will not hold good for the western sector of India’s northern frontier anymore than it does for its eastern sector, the McMahon Line of 1914. Discarded in Latin America nearly two centuries ago, it has been given a quietus by the International Court of Justice and by authorities on international law. A.O. Cukwurah’s excellent work, ‘The Settlement of Boundary Disputes in International Law’, considers this aspect carefully. He cites the doctrine UTI Possidetis, Ita Possidetis (as you possess, so you may possess). The boundaries should be those of the Spanish provinces for which they were substituted.


Cukwurah remarks that this principle has much in common with the doctrine of State succession in international law. The States adopted the boundaries which existed at the date when the movement for independence broke out. The “critical date” in the case of South America is generally taken to be 1810, in the case of Central America, it was 1821.


The Cairo Resolution of the Organisation of African Unity of 21 July 1964 declared that all member State pledges themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence. In India’s case the “critical date” is 15 August 1947. In China’s case it is 1 October, 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established.


India was well aware of the existence of a boundary problem with China which, if not properly tackled, could become a boundary dispute. As early as 7 December 1950, The New York Times carried a report by its well-informed correspondent in New Delhi, Robert Trumbull. He reported “By repudiating the McMahon Line established in 1914 by a tripartite agreement that China never ratified, Peking readily put forth a claim to Indian border territory now claimed by New Delhi; but shown as Tibetan on Chinese maps. A classic pattern for a border dispute is present”.

On this, he was perfectly right. But it is not on the McMahon line that the dispute arose but on the Aksai Chin in Ladakh where the boundary was never defined. This was because Nehru’s policy flew in the face of historical truth. He claimed a defined and definite boundary in northern and eastern Kashmir which was authoritatively acknowledged for a century to be “undefined”. The correct position was set out in Indian maps till 1954. The Ministry of States, published two White Papers on Indian States. The first, published in July 1948, contained two maps of India. Appendix I was a map of India prior to 15 August 1947. The McMahon line was clearly shown; not so, the boundary in entire State of Jammu & Kashmir. The northern and eastern boundary as well as the boundary in the middle sector, as it is known, in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, bore no line to depict a boundary. Appendix XX was a map showing the progress of Political Reorganisation of States. It extended the colour wash in yellow to the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir but with an explicit legend “boundary undefined”. It was repeated for Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, the McMahon Line was firmly depicted; but its eastern extremity, in the Tirap Frontier Tract, bore the legend “Undefined”.


The second White Paper was published in February 1950 after the Constitution of India had come into force on 26 January 1950. It carried a map of India showing the position of Indian States under the New Constitution. It was identical in respect of the boundary to the second map (Appendix XX) of the 1948 White Paper. The boundaries of the western and eastern sectors were undefined; a firm McMahon Line ended in an Undefined boundary in the Tirap Frontier Tract.


But, on 1 July 1954, Nehru wrote a 17-para memorandum of breath-taking assertion. Paras 7 to 10 are relevant.


“7. All our old maps dealing with this frontier should be carefully examined and, where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our Northern and North Eastern frontier without any reference to any line. The new maps should also be sent to our embassies abroad and should be introduced to the public generally and be used in our schools, colleges, etc.


“8. Both as flowing from our policy and as consequence of our Agreement with China, (on Tibet in 1954) this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody There may be very minor points of discussion. Even these should not be raised by us. It is necessary that the system of check-posts should be spread along this entire frontier. More especially, we should have check-posts in such places as might be considered.


“9.  Our frontier has been finalised not only by implication in this Agreement but the specific passes mentioned are direct recognition of our frontier there. Check-posts are necessary not only to control traffic, prevent unauthorised infiltration but as symbol of India’s frontier. As Demchok is considered by the Chinese as a disputed territory, we should locate a check-post there. So also at Tsang Chokla.


“10.  In particular, we should have proper check-posts along the U.P. Tibet border and on the passes etc. leading to Joshi Math, Badrinath etc. (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Vol. 26, p. 477).


Para 8 of the memorandum shut the door to negotiation and doomed the negotiations that began in 1960 to certain failure. It all began on 21 August 1958 with an Indian demarche over China’s maps followed by Nehru’s letter to Prime Minister Zhou En-lai on 14 December 1959. Zhou’s reply of 23 January 1959 squarely raised a boundary dispute. “First of all, I wish to point out that the Sino-Indian boundary has never been formerly delimitated. Historically no treaty or agreement on the Sino-Indian boundary has ever been concluded between the Chinese Central government and the Indian Government. So far as the actual situation is concerned, there are certain differences between the two sides over the border question. In the past few years, questions as to which side certain areas on the Sino-Indian border belong were on more than one occasion taken up between the Chinese and the Indian sides through diplomatic channels. The latest case concerns an area in the southern part of China’s Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous region (the Aksai Chin), which has always been under Chinese jurisdiction. Patrol duties have continually been carried out in the area by the border guards of the Chinese Government. And the Sinkiang-Tibet Highway built by our country in 1956.”


In his reply on 22 March 1959, Nehru asserted “A treaty of 1842 between Kashmir on the one hand and the Emperor of China and the Lama Guru of Lhasa on the other, mentions the Indo-China boundary in Ladakh region. In 1847, the Chinese Government admitted that this boundary was sufficiently and distinctly fixed. The area now claimed by China has always been depicted as part of India on official maps, has been surveyed by Indian officials and even a Chinese map of 1893 shows it as Chinese.” Every one of the statements was historically untrue.


Armed clashes at Longju on the McMohan Line, on 25 August, 1959 and at the Kongka Pass in Ladakh, on 21 October, inflamed public opinion. Charged with “appeasement” by the opposition, Nehru tried to ride on the crest of public opinion, inflamed by his own rhetoric. The pattern was set on Kashmir earlier. Exploit an international dispute for political mobilisation at home and next plead lack of manoeuvre because of public opinion.


It was Zhou En-lai who first proposed that Nehru and he meet to agree on the basic principles first and let the diplomats flesh out the details later. This procedure was followed in the boundary accords with Myanmar (26 January 1960); Nepal (21 March 1960); Pakistan (2 March 1963); Mongolia (26 March 1963); Afghanistan (22 November 1963); the Soviet Union (16 May 1991, on the eastern sector); with its successor the Russian Federation (2 June 2005, in respect of the western sector); Kazakhstan (26 April 1994); Vietnam (25 December 2000) and Bhutan (8 December 2008).


Eventually Nehru and Zhou did meet in New Delhi in April 1960. The summit was a failure and as consequential as the Agra summit between President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The reason for the failure was the same – India’s Prime Minister lacked the will, courage and resource to push an accord through and overrule his Cabinet colleagues.


Failed summits make interesting study. Ken Adelman’s book, ‘Reagan at Reykjavik’ (Broadside Books, 2014), is a study of the 1986 failed summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. It is instructive despite an official’s favourable spin on his President. More realistic is ‘Reagan and Gorbachev How the Cold War Ended’ by the brilliant, wise and remarkably objective American Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr. (Random House, 2005).


Fortunately, very recently, in July 2015 the indispensable volume of April 1960 appeared: ‘Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’, Second Series, Vol. 60 (Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi; distributed by Oxford University Press, New Delhi). It contains the full texts of hitherto secret transcripts of Zhou’s seven meetings with Nehru during his stay (19 – 26 April 1960). The seeds of the deadlock, sown in July 1954, were nursed richly with fertilisers in April 1960. The hitherto undisclosed documents provide a clue to the deadlock and also the key to its resolution.


Nehru began by saying (20 April) “We have no doubt about our own frontiers which have been clearly defined on our maps and have been repeatedly described in Parliament and elsewhere and in communications to the Chinese Government. Therefore, as we are concerned, there has been no problem about that, apart from a few minor questions. On the last occasion, when you were here, I mentioned to you that there are no major problems before us but only a few minor ones and which could be discussed and settled by mutual consultations. That was our belief. Therefore, we are greatly surprised to find that steps had been taken on the Chinese side which, according to us, clearly infringed our frontiers. What distressed us most was that, if the Chinese Government did not agree with us, they should have told us so. But, for nine years, nothing was said, despite our stating our views to them in clear terms. These developments, therefore, came as a great shock.”


Zhou rejoined: “The first question is whether the boundary is delimited or not. In this case, probably there is some difference of opinion in the understanding of the definition of the word “delimitation”, but there must have been some historic things which cannot be changed. Areas which are customarily adjoining each other, the boundary line between them may change by custom. This is what we call the “customary line”. But, as a modern nation, the boundaries have to be defined in terms of latitude and longitude; but this was not done and this precisely is the situation. In the past, we had some dispute on eastern sector and this was left to us by Imperialism. But, despite the dispute, since we are newly independent and friendly countries, we exchanged views with a view to settle the question in a friendly manner. I also spoke about the China-Burma border. The one common feature in the boundary between China and Burma and India is the presence of the McMahon line. We stated that we do not recognise the McMahon line but that we were willing to take a realistic view with Burma and India.” The eastern extremity of the McMahon Line formed part of Burma’s northern boundary.


Therefore the main issue was the Aksai Chin in Ladakh. “In the early days, after the foundation of the Republic of China, we sent troops and supplies to Tibet from Sinkiang through Aksai Chin area. It was only last year that the matter was brought up by India and it was a new territorial  claim made by India.”


The Aksai Chin was of vital interest to China as the Xinjiang-Tibet road ran through it. So was the McMahon Line to India. Each side had its own vital, non-negotiable interest securely under its exclusive control; a perfect basis for an accord. This was not accepted by Nehru.


Zhou reminded him: “Your Excellency acknowledged in Parliament that this portion of the boundary was somewhat vague. In Indian maps, different lines and different colours have been used. The area becoming a disputed area is of recent origin and so it was quite unexpected for us, for it was unlike the eastern sector where we knew there was a dispute.


“The views of our two sides still remain the same as in the correspondence exchanged. However, the purpose of making this explanation is to show that we have made no territorial claims but that we want to maintain the status quo with the view to reaching a solution and also to take the military forces away from the border. It is no use repeating what has been already said in our correspondence. I have come here to seek a solution and not to repeat arguments.”


Zhou proposed “a Joint Committee” to look into the evidence each side had. Nehru rightly said that it was “a political issue” which no such Committee could tackle. But he did not adopt a political approach as Zhou did. For the most part the Prime Ministers argued their respective cases like lawyers sticking to a brief.


Zhou tried to break the impasse by formulating five points, the fourth of which accepted the McMahon Line. “I have already mentioned the five points which, I think, form a common ground. These are: (i) our boundaries are not delimited and, therefore, there is a dispute about them; (ii) however, there is a line of actual control both in the eastern as well as the western sector and also in the middle sector; (iii) geographical features should be taken into account in settling the border. One of these principles would be watershed and there would be also other features, like valleys and mountain passes, etc. These principles should be applicable to all sectors, eastern, western and middle; (iv) each side should keep to this line and make no territorial claims. This does not discount individual adjustments along the border later; (v) national sentiments should be respected. For both countries, a lot of sentiments are tried around the Himalayas and the Karakorams.


“If your Excellency agrees with these points, it would facilitate the work of joint committee and also the work for negotiating for a settlement. I would also again suggest that the Forces of both sides should be removed from the border an we should not merely rest satisfied with stoppage of patrolling activity.” Zhou clearly renounced any “territorial claims” to India’s territory south of the McMahon Line.


Nehru was not satisfied. “Regarding these points, I would not say much in detail now except on No. 4 wherein you have said that neither side should put forward territorial claims. This is not quite clear to me. Our accepting things as they are would mean that basically there is no dispute and the question ends there. On Point No. 4, I had pointed out that, if we accepted this, it would mean that practically we have settled our disputes. I did not say anything because I thought that we had made our position sufficiently clear and it is certainly not correct to say that I agree to these points or that we are unanimous on these points. For example, when you said that the dispute existed, it was not a matter for agreement or disagreement on my part, since you were making an assertion about the existence of a dispute. Our claim all along has been that, although the boundary is not marked to the ground, it has all along been well defined through various ways. There may, of course, be difference of opinion on this, but our position is clear.” Nehru was not prepared to concede on the Aksai Chin; a territory of no use to  India.


There were differences even on the Joint Statement. It flatly asserted that the PMs had disagreed. Predictably, the Officials submitted contradictory Reports. Nehru sought to resolve the deadlock by planting penny posts in Ladakh beyond the Chinese lines under the Forward Policy which spelt disaster. China responded with disproportionate use of force by massive attacks in both sectors on 20 October 1962.


It took nearly two decades to resume talks and then at the officials level in one sterile exercise after another; from 10 December 1981 to 2014. Six Agreements were concluded from 1993 to 2013:


  1. On Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity in the Border Areas along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) signed in Beijing on 7 September 1993. The Joint Working Group (JWG), set up in 1988 when Rajiv Gandhi went to China will acquire diplomatic and military experts to “advise” each Group inter alia “on the alignment of the LOAC”.


  1. On confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the Military Field along the LOAC, signed in New Delhi on 29 November 1996.


  1. A Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation was issued in Beijing on 24 June 2003, during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit. They “agreed to each appoint a Special Representative to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement.” The boundary dispute was to be tackled in the context of the overall relationship between India and China and the “framework” of the settlement was to be explored from “the political perspective”.


  1. An Agreement “On the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question” was signed in New Delhi on 11 April 2005, along with a Protocol on the same day.


  1. The agreement for the establishment of a “Working mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs” was signed in New Delhi on 17 January 2012.


  1. The agreement on “Border Defence Cooperation” was signed in Beijing on 23 October 2013.


China never altered the approach which Zhou En-lai had defined way back in November 1959. The leader of the Chinese team, Ma Gong Dafei, said in Beijing on 20 October 1983: “Personally, I feel that it is important to hold talks on the boundary level at ministerial level.” This reflected the Chinese emphasis on a political approach. In 1984, China renewed its suggestion for conducting the talks at the political level. The diplomat Gong said “the important thing is to reach an agreement on the question of principle” and added that the “specific question would have to be left to experts”.


China hardened its stand. Gone was Zhou’s offer in 1960. It now wanted concessions on the McMahon Line first. India asked for demarcation of the Line of Actual Control. China refused for two reasons. It would sanctify the status quo which now China sought to revise. Besides, it refused to accept that the LOAC extended west of the Karakoram Pass which is covered by the Sino-Pakistan Agreement of 1963. It rejected India’s map which covered that area. China will never relent on this and India will find it extremely difficult to yield on this point. It is linked to the Kashmir Dispute.


Significantly throughout this period officials have been deployed in the parleys. India feels that it cannot sell a boundary agreement to a people fed with myths since 1959. No leadership has emerged which can dare to accomplish that. In 1988 India yielded to China’s plea to keep the boundary dispute aside and promote “good relations”. That is what has happened since. The boundary dispute is no nearer a solution in 2015 than it was 55 years ago when Nehru and Zhou met in New Delhi in 1960. India missed a good opportunity then. But there is little realisation of this stark truth and no sign of statesmanlike diplomacy to break the deadlock.

[*] The author is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.