In earlier times, movie buffs could watch two films buying one ticket. This is true of this monumental work of research—you get to read in one book stories of India’s troubled northern borders on which separate books have been written. There are chapters on the ‘Roof of the World’, the Younghusband expedition, the Simla Convention, boundary negotiations and so on, narrated and analysed in one crisp volume. Further, the book’s strength derives from the additional focus on geography—topography, terrain and demography–that the author acquired as army chief and governor, Arunachal Pradesh, coupled with stints in the Military Operations Directorate and on the ground as an Infanteer. Rich accounts of travels by intrepid spymasters and explorers like the redoubtable F.M. Bailey (No Passport to Tibet) are integral to discovering the last Shangri-la, the marches and the mysterious bend in the Tsangpo gorges. JJ’s spotlight, though, is on the McMahon Line.
Ab initio, JJ raises the fundamental question: how far back in history does one go to resolve national boundaries and with it, the Chinese pet peeve of unequal treaties? In 1947, India inherited partly undemarcated, partly delimited and at many places, undefined but traditionally accepted boundaries with Tibet and China. British India’s objectives in the north were circumscribed by imperial geopolitics and economics that were to maintain Tibet as a fully autonomous, if not independent, buffer state under nominal Chinese suzerainty to keep Russia at bay. For China, the assimilation of Tibet had been a long-term mission, as was the allied issue of strategic connectivity: Yunnan with Lhasa and Xinjiang with Lhasa.
J.J. Singh has faith in a future settlement of the boundary question by special representatives, even though he mentions Beijing’s proclivity to changing goalposts.
The Younghusband expedition in 1903 to Gyantse and Lhasa was to consummate British India’s strategic ambition: settle the political status of Tibet, refix the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim, renew Indo-Tibet trade, including use of the Chumbi valley and create conditions for the delineation of the McMahon Line. As poignantly described by JJ, the expedition was a successful politico-military mission which resulted in the Anglo-Tibet Treaty of 1904, which the Chinese Amban Yu Tai refused to sign. The author mentions India surrendering without any quid pro quo the strategic assets created in Tibet, notably in the Chumbi valley, which technically India could have retained, he says till 1975/1990. There is some buoyancy about dates and the legitimacy of this claim, as China paid up the reduced reparation of Rs 8,33,333, five annas and four pice even as Whitehall had curtailed the occupation of Chumbi from 75 years to three years. Some assets were retained till 1951.
It is the narrative of the Simla Conference (October 6, 1913 to August 4, 1914) that is more gripping. It is during the eight sessions of the ten-month-long conference that Col Henry McMahon—earlier associated with demarcation of the Durand Line in 1896—shot into fame with his legendary drawing of red and blue lines across a large-scale map of Tibet. Former army chief Gen. K. Sundarji used to describe McMahon’s map-marking thus: “he did it with a pen that had a thick nib”. The boundary delineated was between Tibet and India from Bhutan to Burma and Outer and Inner Tibets were delimited, which upset the Chinese. While China’s emissary in Simla, Ivan Chen, was not involved directly in negotiations between India and Tibet, he was witness to the proceedings. At no stage did he object to the 11-article agreement, but did not endorse his signature. The differences over the McMahon Line and subsequent construction of a road across Aksai Chin led to the 1962 war. The failure to promulgate the Simla Agreement and to prevent China’s occupation of Tibet led to losing a strategic buffer for India.
The author has invested considerable faith in a future settlement of the boundary question by special representatives, even though he mentions Beijing’s proclivity to changing goalposts. The three-step political process, starting with the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles Agreement of 2005 is comatose. Similarly, the clarification of LAC sought by PM Modi in 2014 was rejected by President Xi Jinping on his visit to India. Yes, the 34 India-China agreements have led to peace and tranquillity on the border without a shot being fired since 1967, as commonly believed, but since 1983. Ranjit Kalha, an IFS officer in his book India-China Boundary Issues: Quest for Settlement writes that status quo on the border is preferred by China as it permits coercive diplomacy. That stand is unlikely to change soon. Still, JJ has provided an insightful and optimistic must-read account of the boundary issue—the ultimate conflict of history and geography.