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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Troubles in the Mountains

February 12, 2010

Colonial Lines in the South Asian Snow
Febryary 9, 2010

Three Englishmen, all three from the highest
circles of privilege, drew three lines and set in
motion the boundaries of four vast States to
come. Leading the pack was Foreign Secretary
Mortimer Durand, whose hastily scrawled one-page
note of 1893 gave Afghanistan its southern border
with British India, and then, after 1947, with
Pakistan. It is still known as the Durand Line.
(George W. Bush’s point person in charge of the
Afghan war, Meaghan O’Sullivan was not aware of the line and its significance).

The Pakistani government is confident that the
Durand line is its border, although, since 1949,
the Afghan loya jirga has rejected it.
Afghanistan and Pakistan fought several border
engagements over the Durand Line in the
1950s.  Only one country voted in September 1947
to deny Pakistan admission into the United
Nations – Afghanistan, largely because of the
continued dispute over the Durand Line.

Coming after Durand, in 1914, was another Foreign
Secretary Sir Henry McMahon, who drew his line to
divide Tibet and China from the British Raj.
McMahon, a career bootlicker, performed the old
"sleight of hand" trick, fudging the words
"frontier" and "border" to demarcate the line
that divided the British Empire from the Chinese.
To be fair, McMahon, the Tibetan delegate Lonchen
Shatra and the Manchu representative Chen i-Fen
(who was absent for most of the deliberations)
agreed only to allow Tibet to be a buffer state;
consequentially, the Qing Dynasty’s realm and
Curzon’s dominion would not rub shoulders with each other.

The McMahon Line was fixed as the border between
the British Raj and Tibet. It also reaffirmed
China’s suzerainty over Tibet (nevertheless, the
Qing representative refused to sign the document
because of article 11, "The Government of China
engages not to convert Tibet into a Chinese
province. The Government of Great Britain engages
not to annex Tibet, or any portion of it”). World
War 1 was a hiatus. The Chinese nationalists
tried to coax the Tibetans to support Tibet’s
unification into China; the British were
distracted by the war, and the Indians turned to
Home Rule. Tibet isolated itself from the world.

The McMahon line, however, had its rendez-vous
with history. In 1950 an earthquake struck
eastern Tibet. Not long afterwards, the People’s
Liberation Army entered Tibet. India went with
China’s action, and the Dalai Lama reflected
bitterly, "the world has grown too small for any
people to live in harmless isolation." The
McMahon line was now to be a bone of contention
between the two emergent Asian giants, India and
China. India recognized it as the international
border, but the Chinese disputed its validity. A
diplomatic conflict over the border ran between
the independent states of India and the People’s
Republic of China from 1955 to 1962, when a shooting war began.

A White Paper of notes exchanged between the two
countries and published in 1962 demonstrates the
absurdity of much of the squabble. One dispute
took place over a 1.5 square mile area that the
Chinese called Wu Je and the Indians Barahoti.
Accusations flew between the two parties about
the violation of this land. Then, on June 18,
1955, the Indians wrote to the Chinese, “We are
not aware of the exact location of Wu Je." The
Chinese said it was north of Tungun La pass,
whereas the Indians said it was south of the
pass. So much for the burning urgency of the matter.

In 1958, both sides complained about aerial
intrusions, but then admitted, "As the planes
were flying at a great height, it was not
possible to establish their definite identity."
In 1960, Nehru made it clear that "there was such
a variance in the factual state that there was no
meeting ground." And yet, in 1962, India and
China went to war, destroying the decade-long
attempt to create peace in the Himalayas, and to
incubate the Third World platform for planetary
peace. The rumpus over the border continues, with
no final settlement on the horizon.

The third line ran between the newly formed
states of India and Pakistan in 1947. It was
drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, chair of the Indian
Boundary Commission. Radcliffe himself had no
experience of the border regions; his ambit was
brief. Stunningly, the Radcliffe Line was drawn
in a month, and based largely on Census data and
maps. Even these were not sufficient. W. H. Auden smelled the rat:

"He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate of millions.
The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them,
no time to inspect Contested areas.
The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided."

The Radcliffe award divided India from Pakistan,
and now India from Bangladesh. It did not go all
the way into Jammu and Kashmir, which was a
princely state at the time. Jammu and Kashmir
came under a policy known as the "Instrument of
Accession," a device designed to make the royal
families chose which side of the border to house
their domain. It was a faulty mechanism, for it
left no room for popular opinion.

In the midst of a pressure-cooker moment, with
Pakistani irregulars inside Jammu and Kashmir,
and with the Indian military poised to enter only
if the Maharaja signed the Instrument, the
monarch decided to let his realm join India. This
has been a moment of dispute for the Pakistanis,
and one held up as legal by the Indians. Both the
Radcliffe line and the Instrument of Accession
remain contested. This disagreement led India and
Pakistan to fight four wars along these borders
(1947-48, 1965, 1971, and 1999). The Line of
Control set by the 1972 Simla peace agreement is
the de facto border, although the conflict has
not abated (and nor has this line been recognized as the de jure border).

Boundaries that divide the states of South Asia
are all colonial inheritances. They cover vast
terrains, with the most disputed areas being in
the Great Ranges of Asia, the Karakoram and Hindu
Kush ranges, all along the marvelous high
Himalayas. Up there in the thin air, the border
makes both no sense and absolute sense. The
senseless border is best illustrated on the
Siachen Glacier, where the Indian and Pakistani
troops patrol at 21,000 feet above sea level and
at temperatures that can go below 55 degrees
Celsius. In 2008, the Delhi High Court accepted
the claim of a soldier that frostbite is a
war-related injury. Thousands of soldiers have
died as a result of high altitude pulmonary
edema, acute mountain sickness, frostbite
chilblains, hypothermia, snow blindness,
avalanches. Seventeen army men died recently in
high altitude training, when an avalanche hit an
army camp. Last year Norway’s envoy to Islamabad
Tor Haug suggested that the glacier be turned
into a Peace Park. If the Norwegians didn’t have
troops in Afghanistan the suggestion would have more credibility.

And of course, many die by the occasional gunshot
or shell. Jawaharlal Nehru once put it quite
correctly that nothing grows in Aksai Chin, a
large high altitude desert that the Chinese
claimed was part of Tibet, and so of China. In
response, a Congress Member of Parliament
quipped, "No hair grows on my head. Does it mean
that the head has no value?” But value for whom,
and for what project? There is a difference
between the value of a territory for imperial
aims, and one for the project of anti-colonial
nationalism. Or at least it was on the basis of
this distinction that China and Burma were able
to settle their border in 1960, five years after
a brief border war, and it was on this basis that
the Asian and African powers at Bandung (1955)
accepted the Principles of Panchsheela, or
peaceful co-existence. But the ethic of
anti-colonial nationalism was not strong enough
to undermine the colonial legacy.

The value of the borders in the mountains is of
course easy to see. Different states claimed
various tracts because they made their vision of
the border more defensible or else allowed for
transport between provinces of the state (as
Aksai Chin connected Xinjiang with Tibet).
Equally, up in the high mountains are the
headwaters of the major rivers, and to control
the water is to control the possibility of
livelihood. South Asia and China are equally
feeling the grip of water shortages. China has
begun a vast program to harness the Himalayan
watershed for its growing needs, a set of
projects that has brought open worries from the
governments of India and Bangladesh. China plans
to divert the Yalong Zangbo, and if so will
impound the water bound for the countries south of the Himalayas.

Both India and China, as the largest and fastest
growing economies, make demands on the Himalayan
water, disagreement over the border will persist.
There is no easy equitable way to deal with the
tussle. Resource disputes can be dealt with in a
manner that is conducive to mutual co-existence,
if both parties see the mutual benefit derived
from the process of negotiation and settlement.
But the burr of the border dispute under the
saddle of their mutual antagonisms does not
provide a beneficial climate for sober dialogue.

And, apart from everything else, there is the
matter of pride. During the India-China standoff
over Aksai Chin and the Arunachal borders in the
early 1960s, the leader of the conservative
Swatantra Party told the Indian Parliament, "Not
an inch of Indian soil would be yielded to
China." Things came to such a pass in China that
the Communist Party criticized “Han chauvinism”
or “Great Hanism.” In a flash, talk of this being
a "very minor border problem" (as Nehru put it in
1958) was gone. The parties surrendered to pride and dignity.

The 1962 India-China war had a catastrophic
impact on the region, much more than the 1947-48
India-Pakistan war. It began an arms race on the
continent, with both India and China increasing
their defense budgets, a provocation which then
sent Pakistan into a buying spree for itself.
India raised the percentage of its arms budget
from an average of 2 per cent (between 1951 and
1961) to an average of 4 per cent of India’s
gross product (a full quarter of the central
government outlay). In China, between 1963 and
1966, the military budget increased on average by
about 15 per cent, with just short of 17 per
gcent of its national government expenditure on
defense. Nothing compared to the US military
expenditure, but it remains a drain for economies
that are not structured around weaponry (the US
is the largest exporter of arms, and India is its
largest importer: hence the unevenness of the "military multiplier").

Of course this diversion of funds starved the
social side of state policy. In addition to its
diversion of investment capital, the military
drew on scarce human and material resources.
People bore arms, they did scientific research
for military purposes, and raw materials like
chromium, cobalt, manganese, steel, uranium and
other such materials moved from civilian to
military use. By 1982, the United Nations offered
the stark choice that either the world can
"pursue the arms race," or else it can "move
consciously and with deliberate speed toward a
more stable and balanced social and economic
development." But, the UN cautioned, "It cannot
do both.” Unfortunately, China had already
enhanced its massive military complex, India had
followed suit, and so had Pakistan, all three
with expensive nuclear programs as well.

Such military orientation had political and
intellectual implications. In these states, the
military’s draw on the finances raised the
stature of the defense minister in state policy.
In the Indian cabinet, the Minister of Defense is
first among equals, while Pakistan’s government
oscillates between direct military rule and
civilian rule at the behest of the military. In
China, the People’s Liberation Army is the second
most powerful wing of the state (after the
Communist Party). The military begins to dictate
state policy, either directly or else through its
control over the purse strings.

The habits of military power are also evident in
the dominance of the Realist paradigm followed by
the policy framers on all sides of the mountains:
concepts such as "national interest" are narrowly
framed around the issues of power dynamics that
favor the status quo. Hans Morgenthau, the guru
of Political Realism, wrote, "Political realism
believes that politics, like society in general,
is governed by objective laws that have their
roots in human nature. In order to improve
society it is first necessary to understand the
laws by which society lives." These "objective
laws," Morgenthau writes, are not social, but governed by "human nature.”

If it is human nature to vie for power -- which
is Morgenthau’s premise -- then it is right to
define "national interest" as the goals of one
state vis-à-vis the competing goals of another
state, and so to disregard the possibility for
any fundamental rapprochement. From this come
only two outcomes. The first is the old Social
Darwinist idea that might makes right, or that
only one power can be the Great Power at one
time. The second is hardly more encouraging. If a
Great Power cannot emerge, then those who vie for
that post come to terms with the stalemate and
sue for peace (the French gave us the word
détente, whose original meaning is now best
extracted from the word the Russians used, razryadka, discharge of tension).

A "legitimate order," as Henry Kissinger wrote in
1957, does "not make conflicts impossible, but
limits their scope. Wars may occur, but they will
be fought in the name of the existing structure."
In this case, the almost-Great Powers have
adopted a status quo relationship to the
"existing structures." The interests and
motivations of the various ruling classes in each
of the states might be inflected into an
adjustment. Sometimes, however, one power will
cease to honor the status quo and will try to
alter it, to "revise" the equation (these are
revisionist powers). It is the goal of the
Realists to prevent such revisions (Kissinger,
who wrote his major work on the 1648 Peace of
Westphalia which created the basis for the
“existing structure," is an example of a Palace
Intellectual who opposes revisionism unless it is led by his own King).

For the dominant Realist paradigm, there is no
way to change the power play, only to mitigate
it. Narrow ruling class demands become human
nature. Morgenthau’s disciples are found among
the authors of China’s "Independent Foreign
Policy of Peace," in C. Raja Mohan’s Crossing the
Rubicon: The Shaping of India’s Foreign Policy
(2004) and in Abdul Sattar’s Pakistan’s Foreign
Policy (2007). Little imagination left for
pathways to peace. This is the intellectual cost
of the habits of militarization.

South Asia is no worse a neighborhood than any
other. Similar structures bedevil the aspirants
for peace elsewhere. The borders are colonial
constructions that are now a crucial sediment in
the logic of the nation-states. These colonial
lines in the snow have produced the bad habits of
the warfare state, as military expenditure has
sunk the social democratic pretension of the
states and as the institutions of war have come
to command more political space than is
conceivably  healthy. All this has enabled the
dominance of the intellectual argument of
Political Realism; those who stand for peace are
at a loss, chastised for being idealistic, or
just plain silly. The habits of the warfare state
have even smothered the basic decencies of
pledging for peace. The countries of South Asia
have failed to detoxify their colonial legacy,
and to fully embrace the promise of Bandung. That
was a grave error. All is not lost. History is
yet to be made, and there are many in the
countries of the region who have lost faith in
the presumptions of Realism, and who want the
pieties of peace to dominate the morality and policy of their states.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner
Chair of South Asian History and Director of
International Studies at Trinity College,
Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations:
A People's History of the Third World, New York:
The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:

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