|The Indian flag flying over Dekilinka, the Indian Mission Lhasa|
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India must seek to preserve the sanctity of the McMahon line because it not only demarcates its legal border with China but also marks its historical ties with Tibet, which was once an independent nation
While the Indian archives are still jealously kept in the vaults of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Chinese are slowly (and selectively) declassifying their documents. Is declassification on the agenda of Modi Sarkaar? If it is, it will be good for the country because slowly Chinese perceptions are starting to prevail among Indian ‘experts’.
Let us take an example. During the annual KF Rustamji lecture, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval (who is also the Special Representative for border talks with China), said that he was surprised that, while China agreed to the McMahon line being the Sino-Burmese border in 1960, it does not accept the same principle for India. Some Indian ‘experts’ have argued that Mr Doval was wrong to compare the Sino-Burmese and Sino-Indian border issues. The Agreement on the Question of the Boundary between China and Burma signed on January 28, 1960, slightly departed from the McMahon alignment.
Also, Burma did not call its border with China, the ‘McMahon Line’. Why so? Today, like in 1960, Beijing wants to wipe out all proof that Tibet was once an independent nation and signed bilateral treaties with other countries; therefore, China insists we forget about Sir Henry McMahon, the Indian Foreign Secretary, who signed one such agreement with Tibet in 1914. The treaty between China and Burma was based on a principle that the northern boundary would follow the traditional McMahon line, but the imperialist name would be removed. For Burma, it did not matter much if the independent status of Tibet was erased.
For India, it is different; Tibet’s status matters hugely. Not only does the Dalai Lama and many of his countrymen live in India, but for India, its deep cultural, economic and religious contacts with the Roof of the World far pre-dated the arrival of the British in the subcontinent. The border issue is not just a question of ‘demarcating’ a line between China and India; it is also about acknowledging this ancient relation between India and Tibet. For this reason, Mr Doval is absolutely right to call the Sino-Indian border the McMahon Line.
Mr Doval also reminded his audience of the existence of Arunachal Pradesh: “We are particularly concerned about the Eastern sector where [Chinese] claims have been made on Tawang which is totally in contravention of accepted principles.” He was referring to the Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles signed on April 11, 2005, between India and China. Article VII says: “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” Beijing seems to today have forgotten about the 2005 Guidelines!
Soon after, the Chinese Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying affirmed: “The Chinese side holds a consistent and clear position on the eastern section of the China-India boundary: Arunachal Pradesh is a part of Southern Tibet.” Ms Hua explained: “The Chinese Government does not recognise the McMahon Line, which is illegal.”
What does history say? The Wilson Center in Washington, DC, recently released the translation of important documents from the Chinese Foreign Policy Database, an online resource on China’s international relations. According to one of these documents, in early 1952, the Indian Ambassador in China, KM Panikkar, speaking to a Chinese official, gave a report about “the existing conditions [in Tibet], without implying that those conditions should be preserved.” The “existing conditions” meant the existence of a full-fledged Indian mission in Lhasa.
Soon after entering the Tibetan capital in September 1951, Beijing realised that the Indian mission was proof of Tibet’s independence. Zhou Enlai met Panikkar in June 1952 and agreed that “to proceed in this manner was very proper”, ie the “existing conditions” need not to be preserved. Zhou felt that the situation was a scar left by Britain: “For all of this, the new Government of India was not at all responsible.” He went on to say that “to settle the question of Sino-Indian relationship in Tibet, time and proper steps were required. Therefore, the Chinese Government proposed that the Indian mission, previously stationed in Lhasa, be changed into an Indian Consulate General.” Zhou insisted that this “specific problem” should be solved first.
The Government of India readily (and foolishly) agreed and offered a Consulate in Mumbai to the Chinese as ‘bonus’ (though the Indian Head of the Mission in Lhasa, S Sinha, was deeply upset about it, as he understood the far-reaching consequences for the future Indo-Tibet relations). Wanting to please Zhou Enlai, Panikkar added: “The Government of India was very anxious to remove those conditions through negotiations; for example, the 200 Indian troops stationed at Yatung [in fact in Gyantse], and the postal and telegraphic establishments of India in Lhasa.” According to the Chinese declassified documents, the Indian Ambassador continued: “The Government of India would be willing to transfer these to the Chinese Government as soon as the latter was ready to take them over.”
It was Sales Season! India was ready to offer all its Tibetan ‘privileges’ for free to China. During the following months, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was under the impression that the situation was settling down in Tibet and slowly the Tibetans were accepting the invasion of their country by the Peoples Liberation Army as fait accompli. He was wrong; the Chinese had begun interfering actively in the life of the Tibetans whose resentment was boiling.
On October 21, 1953, Beijing’s representative in Tibet, General Zhang Jingwu, sent a cable to Beijing to explain the “existing conditions” which had to be disbanded: “The Indian troops and officials should be withdrawn; postal facilities shall be taken back; Indian radio facilities shall also be withdrawn or transferred to us, all [dak bungalows] relating to posts and telecommunications shall be withdrawn; as a consulate general already exists in Lhasa, the Indian commercial representatives in Yatung and Gyantse shall be cancelled; radio stations should be given to China [in India to ‘balance’] the one of the Consulate General of India in Lhasa.”
He further suggested that trade should continue for some time and “when [the Chinese presence] becomes mature, one or two years later, relevant rules on entry and exit visas may be established.” It is what happened after the signature of the Panchsheel Agreement in April 1954. Import duties were levied on Indian goods and progressively, by the end of the 1950s, the flourishing Indo-Tibet trade and while it became impossible for Indian pilgrims to visit the holy sites in Tibet.
The McMahon Line is more than a line; it symbolises centuries of close contact between India and Tibet, which unfortunately does not exist anymore. Why should India rewrite history, and wipe out a glorious past just for the sake of Beijing’s good conscience? And what about the Indian archives?