The article forming the basis of this story has caused immense amount of debate here, and I guess also in China. It is a realistic scenario, but personally I have reservations about it. The biggest difference between 1962 and today is that both of us have nuclear weapons. While China has the bandwidth to still go ahead and risk a limited nuclear response by India, the provocation will have to be very high. Arunachal has not really been very high on its list of priorities, as it is more interested in the Aksai Chin, from which its land link between Tibet and Xinjinag (spelling?) passes – and it is in control of that territory already. In fact in 1962 China had made an offer that it will give up its claim on Arunachal if India drops its claim to the area in Aksai Chin which was already in Chinese possession and through which it had already built the highway.
My perception and views on the issue may sound a little unpatriotic (and, in fact they are far from that), but I think that we made a very big mistake in not accepting this solution at that time. If you read up on the subject, you discover that the boundary that we very sentimentally defend is actually of rather dubious origin. The areas under dispute were largely uninhabited (like even today) and un-surveyed. The British Indian Government sent some expeditionary and survey missions to mark their territory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was a lot of intrigue and inaccuracy in the delineation, and at that time the main aim of the British was to keep the Russians out of the region. The resultant boundary was changed by the British themselves on numerous occasions over the next 30 years or so. In early 1900s there was a conference at Shimla on the border issue, attended by the representatives of Britain / India, China and Tibet (which was a British protectorate). The British gave out their perception of the boundary at the conference and an agreement (known as the Shimla agreement – NOT to be confused by one with similar name signed between Indira Gandhi and Bhutto after the 1971 war) was signed by all – except China. China’s stance was that the issue of the boundary must be settled by agreement of all the parties, and she found the boundary being professed by the British very arbitrary. This is the boundary that we are still holding on to a hundred years later. As for China, the boundary issue was never settled, because it was unilaterally decided by the British and never agreed to by them. In their view, the issue should be settled between the two sovereign entities, independent India and China based on a mutually agreed settlement without any colonial baggage.
In the run up to 1962, China repeatedly tried to settle the dispute by mutual consultation, but our stance was firm – not an inch of our territory will be ceded. Its another issue that thousands of miles of it remains under occupation of Pakistan and China, with very little scope of us being able to reclaim it – particularly with respect to the latter. At that stage, the opinion of the Indian Intelligence and Foreign ministry was that China is too weak and involved in its internal problems to be able to attack us. We therefore got into a territorial chess with China. The troika of Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon (the defence minister) and Lt Gen BM Kaul (an ambitious general and an old crony of Nehru, who was the Chief of General Staff and generally more powerful than the Chief of Army Staff Gen Thapar) conceived the ‘forward policy’. The gist of this was that we go on setting frontier posts in the disputed territory to bolster our claims – prior to that the troops on both sides were deployed way behind, and the disputed area was by and large unheld. This action was initiated sometime in 1959, and was viewed as hostile by China. Between 1959 and 1962, there were many attempts by China to argue for a settlement based on mutual give and take. But our attitude remained – we can have peace as long as you give up your entire claim – on what’s in our possession as well as what’s in yours. We keep what we have, and also what you presently have – you give it up irrespective.
To make matters worse, the press and the opposition turned the issue into an emotive jingoistic contest, leaving very little room for Nehru to manoeuvre. Nehru did not make matters any better by carrying out diplomacy through the press – his statements of bravado, meant for domestic audiences, were taken as extreme threats and provocation by the Chinese, who took them quite literally. So that is what actually led to the 1962 catastrophe. The Chinese came in from a position of strength owing to the advantage of terrain and road communications on their side of the border in Arunachal, literally overran the unprepared, underequipped and outnumbered Indian troops, and were in a position to threaten the plains of Assam. Then, they unilaterally called a ceasefire and withdrew to their pre war positions. Apparently, the idea was to demonstrate their might, and try and make India come to a negotiated settlement.
The whole point is that we seem to have learnt nothing from history. Why should a neighbour which is definitely stronger negotiate with you from a position of weakness and agree to a settlement which puts it into considerable disadvantage? To India, Aksai Chin is a ‘wasteland where not a blade of grass grows’ in Nehru’s words. To China it is a piece of land providing it a vital link between two of its frontline provinces. Why should they, under any negotiated settlement, give it up to honour our claim over it, a claim which is based on a treaty that they never recognised in the first place? But we are in the Catch 22 situation again. The issue remains emotive, and no government in its right mind could ever dare to suggest the blasphemy of opening our borders to negotiation. In fact even as I type these words I almost feel like a traitor in saying all that I am.
To make matters worse, articles such as these are played up by the media resulting in whipping up more hysteria and jingoism. Probably what is actually required is an exercise by the government to shape the public opinion towards some kind of a negotiated settlement of the boundary dispute with China. In doing so it needs to take the opposition and the media along with it, to avoid the mistakes that were made in 1962. We should not let statements and gestures by both sides aimed at domestic audiences serve to heighten the animosity and drive the two states to into a game of daring each other reach a point of no return once again.