Arunachal Pradesh shares a 1129 kilometre long border with China/Tibet. The McMahon Line is a demarcation between Tibet and the Northeast region of India, proposed by British administrator Sir Henry McMahon, and agreed upon through the exchange of notes between him and the Tibetan emissary Lonchen Shatra at the Simla Convention of 1914. The Chinese representative , Ivan Chen, was left in the dark and did not ratify this agreement. China claims portions of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet”, refusing to recognise the 890 kilometre-long McMahon Line, as it was agreed upon by Tibet, whom China has always refused to recognise as a separate nation. India, on the other hand, recognised Tibet’s independence in 1914 and therefore, upholds the McMahon Line as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), refuting China’s claims. In brief, the source of contention regarding the line seems to boil down to whether Tibet should be considered a part of China at the time of its signing, or as an independent country with international treaty-making powers.
As China attacked Indian territory in 1962 —the first in a series of such future invasions—it gained control over areas including Ashafila, Longzu, Bisa & Maza in the state of Arunachal, and continued to retain control even after troops officially withdrew. As local residents point out, Chinese incursions to Arunachal Pradesh are not new. They build structures and write on rocks, simply to send a message that the land belongs to them. Chinese maps today show over 65,000 square kilometres of the total area of Arunachal (about 84,000 square kilometres) as part of Chinese territory. Moreover, China also asserts an aggressive claim to the state in its entirety and beyond, extending the disputed area to over 90,000 square kilometres. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recognised this claim in a Parliament session in September 2020 and rejected it stating “We believe that this alignment (the McMahon Line) is based on well-established geographical principles confirmed by treaties and agreements, as well as historical usage and practice, well-known for centuries to both sides.”
Shyam Saran in his book “How India Sees The World” cites a particularly interesting account that one must keep in mind before evaluating the present dispute. He caught a hold of two letters from PM Nehru to Burmese Premier U Nu from 1957 & 1959 respectively. In the first letter, Pandit Nehru is optimistic about the McMahon altercation and discusses how the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was in fact prepared to accept the line, because of his desire to settle outstanding matters with its “friendly neighbour”. Saran notes that the tone of Nehru’s letter changes in 1959 (written after Dalai Lama’s entry into India & the Tibetan revolt), referring to the border troubles with China as “distressing”, and clearly ascribing it to developments in Tibet. This is remarkable as it sheds light on the fact that the border quarrel was in all probability blown out of proportion by Chinese leadership only after relations with China had suffered a setback owing to India’s unequivocal support for Tibet.
This dispute should however not be seen only as a mere contest to possess this large strip of sparsely populated mountainous territory. Almost all of the major tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra originate from Arunachal, and therefore controlling it would virtually amount to possessing a vital handle in dominating not just the rest of northeast India, but also Bangladesh. Besides the tremendous potential for hydroelectricity, these mountains are of critical geo-strategic importance which is perhaps the real reason behind this never-ending skirmish.
China’s assertive claim to Arunachal Pradesh is perhaps influenced by works of scholars like Alastair Lamb, who were of the opinion that the Inner Line (established by the Bengal Inner Line Regulation of 1873) along the foot of the mountains that surrounded the plains of Assam, was actually the extent of British territory. Here, it is crucial to note the fact that the British were always careful to qualify that the Inner Line was not the international boundary and that it was only a line to demarcate the revenue territories from the non-revenue ones.
Lamb claims there was also an Outer Line, and it was at most places identical to the Inner Line. Others like Neville Maxwell, argued that the Inner Line was the Outer Line, and that this Outer Line was pushed to where the McMahon Line is today by the British only in 1913-14 during the Simla Convention. Unfortunately, this line stills remains a source of contention between the two neighbouring powers today, over a century later. China continues to consolidate military incursions into the official Indian territory while local residents of the region live in a state of neglect and frustration, despite its historic tensions and strategic importance.
As border tensions rose mid-2020 following a violent face-off between the Indian Army and Chinese PLA at Galwan Valley in Ladakh, subsequent reports have shown a rise in incursions on the northeastern border as well. According to reports, the PLA entered Indian territory in July and August 2020 through the Hadigra Pass and Glaitakru Pass, which are on the McMahon Line. Local sources have reported an increase in the frequency of such transgressions in recent months, which only used to take place occasionally earlier. In mid-September a build up by the PLA was noticed close to Indian territory and Indian troops were subsequently put on high alert.
Despite these reports, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai on 16 September, told Parliament there have been no infiltrations reported along the India-China border during the last six months. This is a direct contradiction to the earlier claims by the Defence Minister which recognised Chinese infiltration on both the northern and eastern fronts. This overwhelming ambivalence in the government’s response to these developments is worth questioning, along with the striking lack of coverage given to these events in mass media and popular narratives. Like in every age-old territorial dispute across the globe, it is the local communities who have to invariably bear the brunt of decisions made by belligerent leadership. What makes the case of Arunachal Pradesh unique is the historic neglect by the mainland for the state and the entire region for decades, despite the war and aggression, and despite its indispensable strategic importance.
In my conversations with a young Arunachali student*, she said “To be honest, I don’t have hard feelings for either side because my ancestors would often go to China and exchange stuff- garment and stones for salt and basic stuff. The youth here are becoming increasingly aware about the tensions between the two nations, even in the absence of an overall promising education. As for the older generation, they either show aggression or have given up the hope of a solution by now.”
When asked about how the lives of local citizens are impacted amidst the snowballing tensions, she said “Last month 5 Arunachalis were abducted by the Chinese and then returned after few days. It’s funny how this is such a big issue, and yet the media, politicians and government choose not to speak about this. For locals here, I think they have accepted that neither side would do anything to resolve matters. I personally have felt this dilemma of whether to travel to some parts - especially the north-west of the state, because there are so many army camps there, I don’t know (why but) it just makes me nervous.” She further recounts an incident that she heard from a cousin, “He said that an inspector was posted in this place, very near to the border and my village. One night he suddenly disappeared, & no one had any idea where he went, but the locals had already realised that the Chinese got a hold of him. His family had already declared him dead because they had no proof whether the Chinese had abducted him or he was killed by a wild animal.”
Tapir Gao, member of Lok Sabha from Eastern Arunachal Pradesh claims that the Indian map needs verification and reconstruction. According to Gao, proper border demarcation is the only solution for intrusions and face-offs. Gao also urged during the zero hour of Parliament to constitute a committee under the chairmanship of Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla to assess details regarding the Indian territory captured by China post-1962.
Where this dispute goes from here is something none of us are in a position to predict, as new incidents keep coming to light every few days. It will be interesting to see how both these emerging regional and global superpowers attempt to assert their dominance over each other in a quest to consolidate their hegemony in the subcontinent. However, it is undeniably important to ensure that local communities and citizens are protected amidst accelerating friction and their voices heard—loud and clear— as we hope to find a lasting solution to this seemingly unending territorial imperative.
*Note: The names of persons interviewed have been kept anonymous due to privacy and security concerns.
• “How India Sees The World: Kautilya to the 21st Century” by Shyam Saran
Tushti Kapoor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tushti is a final year student of Political Science at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University.