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.