India Today - - UPFRONT - By Ananth Krishnan

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 could­manded 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

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