Three decades ago, when my team was tasked with aerial survey of the Macmahon Line (ML), I was asked whether I knew the Chinese version of the ML. Even though a veteran of the 1962 war, I had never before heard of a Chinese version. Surprised, I went into the matter a little more deeply and made some startling discoveries. Not the least among them is that both sides have been talking at each other, rather than to each other.
The moot point is “Where is the ML?”
Macmahon (Mac) was the Foreign Secretary in British India. A former army engineer, he was a specialist in survey and had worked on demarcating the Durand Line. He convened the 1913 – 1914 Shimla conference to delineate a Tibet-China border. During the conference, Mac and Lonchen Shatra Dorje, the Tibetan representative, negotiated an agreement to delineate a boundary between Tibet and India in the Eastern sector. It did not cover the middle and western sectors. Mac put his seal and Lonchen Shatra signed (because Tibetans do not initial). It was, therefore, subject to ratification by the respective governments. The Chinese representative, Ivan Chen, initialed one of the maps but not all. On 03 Jul 1914 he declared serious differences over the proposed China – Tibet border and went home. Subsequently, both Tibet and India did not ratify the agreement. An agreement that is initialed but not ratified has no validity. This is very elementary.
We claim that the intent of the treaty was to follow the highest ridges of the Himalayas. We claim that south of the high ridges should be Indian territory and North of the high ridges should be Chinese territory. Starting from the 1950s, when India began patrolling this area, we found that at multiple locations, the highest ridges fell north of the McMahon Line as shown in the treaty map. We modified our maps to extend the ML northwards to include features such as Thag La, Longju, and Khinzemane as Indian Territory. The actual treaty map itself is topographically vague and the treaty includes neither verbal description of geographic features nor description of the highest ridges. Defining the boundary is a bilateral issue and it was a mistake to do it unilaterally. The Central sector has only minor issues and is not a bone of contention. The Northern sector (Ladakh) is more tricky. A boundary between Ladakh and Ari (Western Tibet) was verbally defined circa 930 AD and was re-affirmed in 1684 and 1842. The Chinese and we have different interpretations of this border at Demchok, Chushul, and Khurnak Fort etc. But these differences are minor and can be reconciled, given the political will. The problem lies in Aksai Chin which was not part of the 930, 1684 or 1842 agreements. Till 1960 our maps showed the eastern boundary of Aksai Chin as “Undefined.” A dotted line was printed to depict our claim line. When the dispute with China hotted up, we printed new maps depicting the Aksai Chin boundary as a regular international boundary. Yet another instance of unilateral action where bilateral negotiations were called for. In 1960 Chou En Lai visited New Delhi and offered to accept the Mac Line in exchange for our accepting Aksai Chin as theirs. It was a fair offer, considering that our early maps showed the whole of Arunachal as being outside India. Indeed, our administration moved into Tawang only in 1951. Not that it was Chinese at that time. It was neither in India nor in Tibet. But Chou En Lai was rebuffed.
Viewed from the Chinese side, Indians claimed the Mac Line as the border but repeatedly occupied land beyond it. Also, from their point of view, Aksai Chin was “No Man’s Land” and they were the first to occupy it. In 1962 things hotted up. In July there was the Galwan incident. The Thag La action started on 08 Sept. In October there was a 2nd Galwan incident. Now, Thag La lies on the Tibetan side of the Mac Line. We unilaterally altered the Mac Line to include it on our side. 7 Infantry Brigade was ordered to hold this disputed territory. Chinese government paused and Chou sent another letter to Nehru. This letter from Chou in early November was conciliatory but shows how the Chinese could never understand the rationale behind our actions. The letter starts with the usual greetings and goes on to say “Mr. Prime Minister, India is a greatcountry with an ancient civilization China is also a great country with anancient civilization… Then he says “Your claim is the Mac Line. Your government will, no doubt, have an original copy of the Mac Line. Please look at the original map and you will see that the Mac Line moves eastward from the tri-junction with Bhutan at (xxx lat and long) to (xxx lat and long) to (xxx lat and long). Why then are your troops beyond this line? Why do you claim territory beyond the line?” (Or words to that effect.) Chou proposed a cease fire and a pullback to 20 km on either side of the 08 Sep 62 positions. We rejected this offer too and fighting resumed with disastrous results for us. The unilateral cease fire and pull back by China has to be seen in the context of the time. We altered the Mac Line unilaterally and then declared it our sacred territory. Similarly, there was no defined boundary in the Aksai Chin area. Our own official maps said so. We were instructed to replace the dotted line with a thick black line and make it the international border. Again an unilateral action when bilateral negotiations were called for. For the life of me, I have not able to find out who initiated the idea of unilaterally fixing our boundaries. Let us be glad that the Chinese withdrew. They could have ceased fire and held on to whatever they had gained.
From War to Dialogue
In 1988 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China, the first PM to visit China in 34 years. Both countries agreed to set up a joint working group to settle the boundary issue. In 1991 Chinese Premier Li Peng visited India and pledged to resolve the boundary question through friendly consultations. 1993 was a landmark year when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao visited China and signed an agreement on Border Peace and Tranquility. This essentially signaled an intent to freeze the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as the international border. Since 1993 India and China have moved forward on various fronts. Trade has expanded to the point where China has become one of our largest trade partners and vice versa. However, the border issue remains an irritant. It is time to settle our borders on the basis of the 1993 agreement and then to demarcate it on the ground. As this article has shown, it would be recognition of ground realities and will be fair to both sides. It is high time we move on.