THE THICK RED LINE
The McMahon Line is, in many ways, the perfect embodiment of the smoke and mirrors clouding India-China relations. The line, perhaps the most widely known element of the boundary dispute, is often misunderstood in the media and public imagination. Right from where it runs (not along the entire border, but only in the east, from Bhutan to Myanmar), its origins (the 1914 Simla conference), or even its spelling (more often spelled as “McMohan”, invoking some improbable Scottish-Tamil heritage).
There are few people better placed to demystify the McMahon Line, drawn on a map by Sir Henry McMahon in red ink with a thick nib, than General J.J. Singh (retd). Not only is Singh a former chief of army staff (2005-2007) with a five-decade career in the army, he is also a former governor of Arunachal Pradesh (2008-13), an office he held postretirement, giving him both a military and civilian-political experience of the eastern section of the border.
This excellently researched and wellwoven book is about much more than the McMahon Line. It is an extremely readable history of the origins of the boundary dispute, with a focus on the eastern sector, and the dynamic relations between British India, Tibet and China, the complex legacy of which we are still grappling with. Of the McMahon Line itself, Singh writes a gripping narrative of the Simla Conference proceedings, the colourful characters involved and of its acrimonious end and failure.
Some of the most interesting insights are in the lead-up to the 1962 IndiaChina war. Singh doesn’t spare Jawaharlal Nehru and writes how the privileges acquired painstakingly by British India in Tibet were squandered in one stroke in 1954. “It is difficult to comprehend why India did not seek any quid pro quo for this one-sided… largesse. We could
have...demanded or insisted on Chinese acceptance of the Indo-Tibetan boundary of 1914 or the McMahon Line”.
Singh also questions the entrenched narrative of the Chinese road construction through Aksai Chin—which, in some sense, triggered the events leading up to the war—as being a complete surprise, noting that India, which possessed capabilities of aerial photography thanks to Canberra aircraft, could have sent a couple of sorties and seen all. “Was it that the unpalatable truth was being deliberately brushed under the carpet? I believe this to be the case,” he suggests.
In the last three chapters, he assesses the present and future of India-China relations. He sees the various border agreements to keep the peace as a significant achievement, but cautions India to not lower its guard, to continuously modernise its capabilities and build a more robust deterrence to raise the cost of conflict to a prohibitive level. He also makes a case for settling the border and reminds us that “a certain amount of accommodation will have to be made by both sides”. This would require a “bold” and “high level political coup”, he writes, “not retarded by the cautiousness likely to be injected by officials”. Yet to most people in both countries, the idea of redrawing maps, or even the slightest accommodation, remains anathema.
Of the many lessons from 1962 outlined here, from ill-preparedness to misreading China, one has particular relevance today. Singh writes how Nehru’s insistence that there was no dispute at all left him unable to even consider Zhou Enlai’s 1960 offer to settle. “What was not articulated or amplified adequately to the people of India was that Britain had bequeathed unto India no defined political boundary from Shaksgam and Karakoram right up to Nepal .... If only the people of both countries had been told the truth from the beginning, the war could possibly have been averted.” But even 50 years on, the truth about the origins of the boundary dispute eludes the people of both countries. Singh provides us a timely reminder that the borders that India and China both claim with such finality and conviction today were, in 1947 and 1949, far from as settled as both governments would like their people to believe, the imperfect legacies of a long and mostly forgotten history.
The author is visiting fellow at Brookings India and was previously India Today’s China correspondent
Singh sees the border agreements between India and China as significant, but cautions India to not lower its guard
THE McMAHON LINE A Century of Discord by J.J. Singh HARPERCOLLINS `799, 464 pages