Where the LAC stands depends on China’s capacity to project power, and existing leadership’s willingness to push the envelope rather than long-existing customs

As China bared its fangs yet again last week, asking for the imaginary 1959 Line of Actual Control (LAC) to be accepted as the de facto border, one of the last communications by then Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to mind. The oft-quoted prophetic letter of November 7, 1950, is the stuff of legend for students of India's modern history. Written months after Chinese forces moved into Tibet, and weeks before his death, every prediction made by Patel in that letter has come true - from China's irredentist expansionism to a two-front war scenario to the spread of Left Wing Extremism in the country due to the supply of weapons and ideology from China. 

Before I go into the detail of the issue of LAC, let me quote some lines from the letter. "The Chinese government has tried to delude us with professions of peaceful intentions," is what he wrote calling Chinese actions perfidy. And then: "Even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends". Having gone through the correspondence between the External Affairs Ministry and the Chinese government, Patel concluded that this was enemy speaking: "There was nothing more that could have been done by India to prove its friendliness, and yet the manner in which the Chinese responded, showed they had other plans. It looks as though it is not a friend speaking in that language but a potential enemy".

Patel's rapier-sharp reading of China, ably assisted by bureaucrat Girija Shankar Bajpai, is proof of the prescient mind of the freedom stalwart on matters of national security despite his failing health at the time of writing of the letter. "Chinese irredentism is ten times more dangerous than western imperialism for it has a cloak of ideology...While our western and north-western threat to security is still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the north and north-east. Thus, for the first time after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously." 

The Issue of LAC

During the first bilateral visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China in 2015, as is the MEA practice after each summit, the media contingent was being briefed by the then foreign secretary Dr. S Jaishankar in Beijing. As I went through the list of MoUs signed, my eyes got stuck at one between the official broadcasters of both countries - Doordarshan and CCTV - for joint programming. On a spur I asked what can be called a smart-alec question: As part of the MoU, could the two broadcasters exchange which map to show for each side? A member of the diplomatic team traveling with the PM later explained off-record that the last time the Chinese exchanged any map was 2002! 

Such then is the perfidy of the Chinese on border issue of which Patel warned Nehru. Despite the takeover of Tibet by military action in 1950, the Chinese government wrote to India of their intention to solve the India-Tibet border peacefully. That military action itself tore to smithereens the 1914 border agreement between the British and Tibet in which a Chinese representative was present and did not object, as recorded by Bertrand Russell in his book ‘Unarmed Victory’ on the two 1962 crises – Bay of Pigs and the India-China war. 

China's Surreptitious Intrusions

On April 29, 1954, India and China signed an Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet and India, under which India gave up all territorial claims over Tibet, effectively recognizing Tibet as a region of China. Yet, in a measure of contempt for the paper on which the document was signed, two months later in June, the Chinese intruded into Chamoli district's Barahoti pasture. An explanation was sought about China’s maps showing the wrong alignment of the India-Tibet border. China's PM Zhou En Lai wrote back to Nehru in October 1954, informing that India should not worry as those were old maps of the Kuomintang regime and that the present government had not found time to revisit them. Barahoti marked the beginning of the Chinese policy of territorial chipping at the blocs in the Himalayas that would culminate with the 1962 war. We continue to see what is now called 'salami-slicing' by the strategic community in the present with Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, Doklam in 2017, and Ladakh in 2020. 

As per an MEA white paper on the India-China border dispute brought out in 1963, Zhou wrote to Nehru in November 1956, offering to accept the McMahon line in the East as a boundary between the two nations, essentially admitting to Arunachal Pradesh as part of India. Months after this written assurance, surreptitious intrusions started with China building the Aksai Chin Road. By 1958 China stepped up the aggression and started stopping Indian patrols to Haji Langar. Clearly, there was a plan in the works. In September 1959, China formally claimed its territorial jurisdiction over entire Aksai Chin and NEFA in the eastern sector – having denied it since 1956 in writing! 

I have shown through this piece China’s date-wise cartographic creep, even as, at the diplomatic level, the Chinese continued to obfuscate on the exact boundary. The story has not changed since 1993 when the latest round of border talks began. Basically, where the LAC stands depends on China’s capacity to project power, and existing leadership’s willingness to push the envelope rather than international rule of law, or long-existing customs and traditions on boundary issues. I come back to where I began.

A few days after writing the letter to Nehru – which by the way went unanswered – Patel was addressing a gathering of the Central Aryan Association in Delhi on Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati. “In this Kaliyug we shall return Ahimsa for Ahimsa. But if anybody resorts to force against us, we shall meet it with force,” Patel told the gathering. If Xi Jinping thought he will get a pass in the Himalayan passes this time, it might help to remind him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conceived Sardar’s as the world’s tallest statue in Gujarat, perhaps reflective of the scale of the inspiration. And resolve.