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Mainstream, VOL LX No 22, New Delhi, May 21, 2022

Sino-Indian Border Dispute & Arunachal Pradesh | Pranjit Agarwala

Saturday 21 May 2022


by Pranjit Agarwala *

2022 began on an ominous note for Sino-Indian relations. On 1st January China again renamed 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh claiming it as “Zangnan, the southern part of Tibet”. China has been routinely intimidating India with such false claims despite India’s strong protests. India and China share a 3488 km long border. The border is demarcated by the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which is divided into three sectors: the Eastern sector covering Arunachal Pradesh/ Sikkim, the Middle sector Himachal Pradesh/ Uttarakhand and the Western sector the Union Territory of Ladakh. There are no major disagreements about the ground positions in the Middle sector. In the East the Macmohan Line is accepted as the LAC/ Sino-Indian border. The major dispute is over ground positions in the West. However the LAC has no historical basis and is not the traditional border. It is only a notional demarcation line, a de-facto boundary that separates Indian and Chinese controlled territories. It first gained prominence in 1959 when in a letter to Nehru Zhou-en-Lai defined the Line of Actual Control as the Sino-Indian border. Moreover in that letter Zhou-en Lai also acknowledged that in the East the Macmohan Line coincides with the LAC.

Historically the erstwhile princely State of Kashmir then under the British Empire shared a border with China in the Ladakh/Aksai Chin region. The Aksai Chin’s inhospitable terrain though uninhabitable had strategic military importance. The British therefore decided to survey the region to define the border of Kashmir. In 1865 William Johnson of the Survey of India undertook the survey and in 1867 Sir John Ardagh a British military officer recommended it as the official boundary of Kashmir. The Ardagh-Johnson Line is the traditional boundary of Kashmir, the Northeastern part of which abuts the Xinjiang district of China and partly Southwestern Tibet. The Ardagh-Johnson Line put Aksai Chin in Kashmir.

In 1896 as a part of its “great game” with Russia, Britain redrew the boundary ceding the desolate Aksai Chin and areas north of the Laktsang range to China. When the Chinese government remained non-committal about the revised boundary known as the Macartney-Macdonald Line, the British government reverted back to the traditional Ardagh-Johnson Line. Notably, the 1917 Postal Map of China and the 1925 Peking University Atlas were published according to the Ardagh- Johnson Line. After independence, India considered the Ardagh-Johnson Line as the Sino-Indian border.

In 1950 the Sino-Indian border issue surfaced when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) occupied Tibet and started building a military road through Aksai Chin to connect Xinjiang province with Tibet. Ignoring Indian protests China completed the road in 1957 and by 1960 violating both the Ardagh-Johnson and Macartney-Macdonald Lines occupied more Indian territory. Reportedly China then offered a package-deal to India of waiving their claims in the East in lieu of the Aksai Chin plateau. India’s refusal triggered the 1962 Sino-Indian war which ended with China occupying 38,000 sq. kms of Indian territory in Aksai Chin region.

Whereas in 1962, in the East the Chinese troops advanced well into Arunachal Pradesh, then NEFA, almost reaching the plains of Assam. However when China declared a unilateral cease-fire the troops withdrew to their pre-war positions behind the Macmohan Line thus acknowledging its sanctity. In 1914 the representatives of British India, China and Tibet met at Simla to divide Tibet into Outer and Inner Tibet and define the borders between Outer Tibet/Inner Tibet, British India and China. In the east the 890 km long MacMohan Line drawn by British administrator Henry Macmohan became the boundary between India and Outer Tibet. Even though representatives of all three governments initialed the Accord, China later repudiated it. While rejecting the Simla Accord the then Chinese Authorities made it amply clear that their objection was only to Article 9 that defined the boundaries of Inner and Outer Tibet. They had no objections to the other provisions of the Simla Accord including the Macmohan Line.

Thereafter in 1914 the British-Indian government formed the North-east Frontier Tract (NEFT) by separating some tribal majority areas of the erstwhile Darrang and Lakhimpur districts of then Assam province. After independence, in 1951 NEFT was renamed the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) under the administrative control of Assam. On 21st January 1972 NEFA became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh. And on 20th February 1987 Arunachal Pradesh got Statehood and became the 24th State of India. Therefore politically, there are no records of Chinese or Tibetan rule in this area for over a century.

Historically too there are no records of Arunachal Pradesh being a part of China or Tibet. Instead the region is mentioned often in the Kalika Puranas and the Mahabharat as the Prabhu Mountains where the sage Parashuram washed away his sins, sage Vyas meditated, King Bhishmaka founded his kingdom and Lord Krishna married Rukmini. The oral histories of Arunachal Pradesh’s Monpa and Sherdukpen tribes reveal that the Monpa kingdom of Monyul flourished in its north-west from 500 B.C. to 600 A.D. The Ahom chronicles record that from 1228-1826 A.D. except for a few pockets of Tibetan influence in the north-west, the rest of the region came under the titular control of the Ahoms until the advent of the British.

The 400 year old Tawang Monastery in northwestern Arunachal Pradesh is sacred for Tibetan Buddhism because the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born here in the 17th century. The people of Tawang who practiced Tibetan Buddhism were the disciples of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa and till 1951 the monks administered the hinterland surrounding the Tawang monastery. However like the Christian world’s affinity to the Vatican, Tawang’s affiliation to Lhasa was religious and not political.

Arunachal Pradesh’s strategic military location and hydro potential has now made China shift the goal post from Aksai Chin to the Northeastern State. Reportedly the new package deal is forgoing Aksai Chin for Arunachal Pradesh! In the 21st century it would be prudent for China to stop pursuing anachronistic 19th century geo-political goals. Instead it should focus on amicably resolving the long standing Sino-Indian border dispute.

Author: Pranjit Agarwala is an entrepreneur & freelance writer based in Guwahati)

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