Mohan Guruswamy | China & Arunachal: Learn from history, experience

The Asian Age.  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Columnists

At the crux of this issue is the larger question of the national identities of the two nations and when and how they evolved.

The British proposed the 1914 McMahon Line, as we know it. (Photo: Twitter)

The Chinese have never been quite explicit about exactly how much of India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh they seek. I once saw an official map displayed in a travel agent’s office in Lhasa that showed only the Tawang tract as Chinese territory. In other maps, they have their border running along the foothills, which means the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese based their specific claim on the territory on the premise that Tawang was administered from Lhasa, and the contiguous areas owed allegiance to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet.

At the crux of this issue is the larger question of the national identities of the two nations and when and how they evolved. The Imperial India of the Mughals spanned from Afghanistan to Bengal but did not go very much below the Godavari in the South. The Imperial India of the British incorporated all of today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but had no Afghanistan, and not for want of trying. It was the British who for the first time brought Assam into India in 1826 when they defeated Burma and formalised the annexation with the treaty of Yandabo. 

It was only in 1886 that the British first forayed out of the Brahmaputra valley when they sent out a punitive expedition into the Lohit Valley in pursuit of marauding tribesmen who began raiding the new tea gardens. Apparently, the area was neither under Chinese or Tibetan control for there were no protests either from the Dalai Lama or the Chinese Amban in Lhasa. Soon, the British stayed put.

Tibet remained in self-imposed isolation and the race to be first into Lhasa became the greatest challenge for explorers and adventurers in the second half of the 19th century. Not the least among these were the spies of the Survey of India, the legendary pundits.

In 1907 Britain and Russia formally agreed that it was in their interests to leave Tibet “in that state of isolation from which, till recently, she has shown no intention to depart”. It may be of interest to the reader to know that the Great Game nevertheless continued. 

The next important year was 1913, when Tibetans declared independence after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a Republic in China under Sun Yat Sen. They attacked and drove the Chinese garrisons in Tibet into India over the Nathu La Pass.

Also, in 1913, the British convened the Shimla Conference to demarcate the India-Tibet border. The British proposed the 1914 McMahon Line, as we know it. The Tibetans accepted it.

The Chinese Amban, however, initialled the agreement under protest. But his protest seemed mostly about the British negotiating directly with Tibet as a sovereign state and not over the McMahon Line as such. 

Things moved on then. In 1935, at the insistence of Sir Olaf Caroe, ICS, then deputy secretary in the foreign department, the McMahon Line was notified. In 1944, J.P. Mills, ICS, established British Indian administration in NEFA, but excluding Tawang, which continued to be administered by the Lhasa-appointed head lama at Tawang despite the fact that it lay well below the McMahon Line. This was largely because Henry Twynam, then governor of Assam, lost his nerve and did not want to provoke the Tibetans.

On October 7, 1950, the Chinese attacked the Tibetans at seven places on their frontier and made known their intention of reasserting control over all of Tibet. As if in response, on February 16, 1951, Maj. Relangnao “Bob” Khating, IFAS, raised the Indian tricolour in Tawang and took over the administration of the tract.

The point of this narration is to bring home the fact that India’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t rest on any great historical tradition or cultural affinity. We are there because the British went there. 

But then the Chinese have no basis whatsoever to stake a claim, besides a few dreamy cartographic enlargements of the notion of China among some of the hangers-on in the Qing emperor’s court. The important thing now is that we have been there for over a hundred years, and that settles the issue.

Arunachal Pradesh has a very interesting population mix. Only less than 10 per cent of its population is Tibetan. Indo-Mongoloid tribes account for 68 per cent of the population. The rest are migrants from Nagaland and Assam. As far as religious affinities go, Hindus are the biggest group with 37 per cent, followed by 36 per cent animists, 13 per cent Buddhists. Recent census figures suggest a spurt in Christianity, possibly induced by pocketbook proselytising.

In all, there are 21 major tribal groups and over 100 ethnically distinct sub-groupings, speaking over 50 distinct languages and dialects. The population of about a million is spread out over 17 towns and 3,649 villages. With the exception of a few villages of Monpas who live north of the McMahon Line, it is an ethnically compact and contiguous area.

The view from the Chinese side about what exactly constitutes China is no less confused. Apparently like the British, the Manchus who ruled China from the 17th to the early 20th century had a policy of staking claim to the lands that lay ahead of their frontiers in order to provide themselves with military buffers. 

In a recent article in China Review magazine, Professor Ge Jianxiong, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai, writes: “To claim that Tibet has always been a part of China since the Tang dynasty; the fact that the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau subsequently became a part of the Chinese dynasties does not substantiate such a claim.” 

Prof. Ge also notes that prior to 1912 when the Republic of China was established, the idea of China was not clearly conceptualised. Even during the late Qing period (Manchu), the term China would on occasion refer to the Qing state, including all the territory that fell within the boundaries of the Qing Empire. At other times, it would be taken to refer to only the 18 interior provinces excluding Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Sinkiang. 

Prof. Ge further adds that the notions of “Greater China” were based entirely on the “one-sided views of Qing court records that were written for the courts self-aggrandisement”. Prof. Ge also criticises those who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical China the more “patriotic” they are.