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Geography of Security Cannot be Ignored in Any Quest for Conflict Resolution

One of the least satisfactorily answered questions in the understanding of the India-China dispute is how and why did Arunachal Pradesh become a contested region between the two countries. China’s claim that the state is South Tibet is probably for the moment a matter of posturing in the belief that in a give and take settlement if ever, there is always something to gain from a maximalist claim. Except for the Tawang-Bomdilla corridor in western districts of the state, the ‘Tibetan Buddhist Church’ as Alastair Lamb illustratively classified the phenomenon as in his 2-volume epic ‘The McMahon Line: A Study in the Relations Between, India, China and Tibet, 1904 to 1914 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966)’, had virtually no influence in the rest of the state, unlike say in Sikkim, Ladakh and Bhutan. The influence of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism otherwise also extended to Mongolia and beyond into eastern Siberia amongst the Buryat community.

Tawang, the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, indeed was under Tibetan control and it was only during the Simla Conference of 1913-14 that Henry McMahon and Charles Bell bargained for its inclusion on the Indian side of the border which was being drawn at the conference, now known as the McMahon Line. The reason was, Tawang was seen as too close to the Assam plains, and it would leave this tea rich province extremely vulnerable if Tawang was left out of India’s control. Tibet in turn was promised British support in case of any external aggression. Tibet’s fear obviously was China, especially after the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty’s extremely aggressive forward policy of 1910, during which Chao Erh-Feng’s entered and occupied Lhasa to become the Chinese Amban and rule the region with an iron hand. Fortunately for the Tibetans, the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912 in the face of a republican revolution under Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Kuomintang party and first president of the government the party led. Tibet got itself rid of the Chinese occupiers. The British also got a jolt from what was believed to be a last burst of energy of the Qing Dynasty, and it was immediately after it fell in 1912 that the Simla Conference was called in 1913 to officially draw the boundary between Tibet and India.

Few observers and scholars of international politics ever doubted China would attempt to take Tibet again, and on the question of Tibet, the Koumintang as well as later Mao’s Chinese Communist Party, had no difference that it was part of China. As anticipated widely, China does invade Tibet in October 1950, the Tibetan took the matter to the United Nations Organisation, but none of its allies, including Britain, USA and India, were willing to sponsor its motion, and ultimately it was El Salvador which did the Tibetan the favour. Expectedly, the motion did not make any headway and had to be adjourned sine die. When this desertion by allies became apparent, Tibet actually asked for the return of Tawang. It should also be noted that even though Tawang was politically made to fall on the Indian side of the McMahon Line, it was still allowed to be under the cultural and religious control of the Potala in Lhasa. However, after China communicated to India of its decision to take over control of Tibet, in early 1950, India decided to take full control of Tawang and end Lhasa’s suzerain influence on the region only a few months before the China’s People’s Liberation Army actually marched into Lhasa. In a plan apparently hatched by Nari Rustomji, obviously with the tacit approval of his higher ups, a Tangkhul officer, Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing of the Assam Rifles, entered Tawang with a small detachment of his unit to oust Lhasa’s representatives in the Tawang Monastery and to hoist the Indian flag there. Rustomji’s book ‘Imperilled Frontiers’ has a description of this episode. China made no protest at India’s move at Tawang, prompting Neville Maxwell assume in his important book ‘India’s China War’ that at that point in time, before India-China relations soured, China was willing to formalise the boundary where the McMahon Line was, although it was not a signatory at its making.

This history of this boundary apart, there is also the legacy of the British frontier administration in the region which complicated the matter. Of these, the most significant is the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, which created an Inner Line along the base of the hills surrounding the plains of Assam. It was in effect a line which divided British revenue from nonrevenue land. While the territory within the Inner Line was to be administered, the “wild” hills beyond this line were to be claimed but not administered. What the British did not do was to draw an Outer Line as well, so that the Inner Line in time came to be mistaken as the international boundary, including by the British media and officials. Lord. Curzon’s Romanes Lecture 1907 titled “Frontiers” gives more insight into the manner British frontier administration became so sophisticated that some of the terms we know today actually came out of their strategies to suit their needs of the time. Hence they added to the political lexicon terms and notions like “suzerainty”, “protectorate states”, “excluded areas”, “partially-excluded” areas etc. All these were frontier territories which the British colonial administration did not think was worthy taking over completely, but also where they did not want other powers to exercise their influence. This frontier management became most sophisticated in Tibet, which the British did not want to take control because they did not see any great revenue potential from it, but were extremely sensitive about other powers, especially Russia, spreading their “sphere of influence” much less “sphere of control” into the region. Much ambiguity about the political status of many of these places in the immediate wake of decolonisation is on account of this colonial approach to frontier management. China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh partly capitalises on this ambiguity.

But there is a more primaeval politics at work here and this would be similar to the subliminal anxieties driving the contest for control of Kashmir between India and Pakistan – water. Just as all the major tributaries of the Indus River, including the five that irrigate the fertile plains of Punjab, either originate or flow through Kashmir, all the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra River also either originate or flow through Arunachal Pradesh. Controlling Arunachal Pradesh would hence become an important handle for controlling the Northeast as well as Bangladesh. The same civilisational threat that the extended Indus valley would feel at losing control of the waters that feed the Indus river, would also be true of the fertile plains that Brahmaputra irrigates. Hence, seen from this vantage, controlling Arunachal would virtually amount to controlling the Northeast and Bangladesh in a major way. Even between friendly countries, the protest by Bangladesh when India proposed to build the Tipaimukh Dam in the mountains of Manipur, over another transnational river the Barak (Surma), is the litmus test to demonstrate the archetypal anxiety that mark the relationship between any river valley and the hills that surround it. We see this dynamic playing out even in the objections to the demand for a state created out of what the Nagas consider as their ancestral homeland, by Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where other communities see great overlaps of their own notions of homelands with the proposed Naga homeland.

This geography of security needs a better focus in efforts to evolve conflict resolution strategies. Halford Mackinder’s 1904 article, which is now a book ‘Geographical Pivot of History’, taken forward by contemporary writers like Robert Kaplan in his book ‘Revenge of Geography’, spelled this out. Rimland and heartland nations have very different perceptions of this geography of security. Island nations are bound by natural boundaries, heartland nations invariably by artificial ones. Heartland nations therefore generally draw their sense of security in a sense of control over territories immediately beyond its national boundaries. An explanation forwarded for Russia’s extreme response to NATO befriending Ukraine referred to this. The vast plains that separate Russia from Western European powers has indeed been a source of its security through history. This sense was buttressed time and again at every invasion of Russia, including by Napoleon and Hitler. This reality is what has been ingrained into the Russian psychology even in the modern era.

It is interesting that this variation in security perception existed even within a single administration while the British Empire lasted. The well-known friction between Lord Morley sitting in London, while he was secretary of state in charge of India, and Lord Curzon while he was viceroy of India sitting in Calcutta say this quite loudly. The heartland outlook to security was evident in Curzon’s Tibet anxiety, which ultimately led him to invade the monastery state in 1904 when he became convinced it was leaning towards Russia. In London, Morley and his likes dismissed this concern and literally ended up whatever Curzon achieved on this front. The Lhasa Convention 1904 which Curzon forced on Tibet was also ultimately undone in 1906, a year after Curzon retired. Morley wrote to Curzon’s successor Lord Minto in October 1906 probably referring to Curzon with condescension, that these “frontier men”, forget “the complex intrigues, rival interests and, if you like, diabolical machinations which make up international politics for a vast sprawling Empire like ours, exposing more vulnerable surface than any Empire the world ever saw.” Obviously, the geography of security from the vantage of London and Calcutta, was poles apart. Ironically, Minto while he was in London in Morley’s office was speaking the same language as the latter, but once in India in Curzon’s shoes, he too began seeing somewhat as Curzon did, and expressed his dissatisfaction at the way the Lhasa Convention 1904 was allowed to be usurped totally by the Peking Convention 1906. It is arguable that if Curzon was allowed to have his way and the Lhasa Convention remained as it was, it is quite likely Tibet’s status would have been like that of Bhutan or Sikkim before 1975.

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