“A good fence helps to keep peace between neighbours.” This proverb is often associated with famous American poet Robert Frost, who used it in his poem “Mending Wall”. Notwithstanding the metaphor’s intended meaning in the poem, it sounds so apt for India’s border issues with its neighbours Pakistan and China. India’s rivalry with Pakistan is as old as the birth of the two nations, which among other things is often reflected in the border skirmishes. Similarly, India’s boundary relations with China are also far from normal. Making matters worse for India, Islamabad and Beijing share strong bilateral ties.
In the recent past, the political and media discourse in India has been dominated by “violations of ceasefire” by Pakistani troops along Line of Control and Chinese “incursions” in Ladakh. Though exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistani soldiers along the LoC is not new, the frequency has certainly increased this year. Similarly, border tensions between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh have escalated.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir serves as the battlefront on both sides. For many political and media warmongers in India, the increase in ‘acts of provocation and belligerence’ by Pakistan and China are part of the Sino-Pak conspiracy to ‘contain or corner India’, but the fact remains that the constant confrontations stem from the longstanding border disputes rather than any evil plot.
According to Indian Army, there have been 70 ceasefire violations by the Pakistani troops this year so far, which is 85 per cent more than the last year during the same period. They are seen as a means to facilitate cross-border infiltration of militants into J&K. So it did not come as a surprise when Defence Minister A.K. Antony said the number of infiltration attempts from the Pakistani side of Kashmir has also doubled.
India’s response to Pakistani “provocation” has been markedly different from its relatively restrained reaction to Chinese “aggression”. Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah questioned this inconsistency. Comparing the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh and the look-alike situation from Pakistani side, Omar asked: "Had Pakistan intruded into the Indian territory 10-15 km, the whole nation would have been staging protests and expressing outrage. We would have snapped our trade and travel talks, discontinued our cricketing ties and so on, but when it came to Chinese intrusions, there is calm as if nothing has happened."
Meanwhile, the Indo-China border row has witnessed interesting developments off late. There have been frequent reports about “unidentified flying objects (UFOs)” in the Ladakh sector. These mysterious objects have been a source of major embarrassment as the Indian military spent several months investigating what it thought were ‘Chinese spy drones’ violating its air space – only to discover they were in fact Jupiter and Venus.
The Indians were misled by these yellowish spheres that appeared to lift off from the horizon on the Chinese side and slowly traverse the sky for three to five hours before disappearing. There have been over 100 sightings of UFOs in eastern Ladakh this year. After the ‘mistaken identity’ and the accompanying embarrassment, Army officials have now confirmed that these UFOs were not Chinese drones or satellites. In July, there were reports that around 50 Chinese soldiers riding on horses had intruded into the Indian Territory. Earlier in April, relations were strained following a three-week stand-off after Chinese troops erected some tents, “too close for comfort” for India.
An article published in The Hindu titled “Lesson from an unsettled boundary” (dated April 27, 2013), author Manoj Joshi argued that Line of Actual Control between India and China is notional and has not been put down on any mutually agreed map. He refers to the unilateral act of Government of India in 1954 which triggered the worsening of Indo-China border ties. In 1950, the Survey of India issued a map of India showing the political divisions of the new republic. While the border with Pakistan was defined as it is now, including the Pakistan-administered Kashmir area, the borders with China were depicted differently. In the east, the McMahon Line was shown as the border, except in its eastern extremity, the Tirap subdivision, where the border was shown as “undefined.” In the Central sector of what is now Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir, including Aksai Chin, the boundary was depicted merely by a colour wash and denoted as “boundary undefined.” In March 1954, the Union Cabinet met and decided to unilaterally define the border of India with China. The colour wash was replaced by a hard line, and the Survey of India issued a new map, which depicts the borders as we know them today. All the old maps were withdrawn and the depiction of Indian boundaries in the old way became illegal.
In his article critical of the Indian border policy, Joshi questions: “What was the government up to? Did it seriously think it could get away with such a sleight of hand? Or was there a design that will become apparent when the papers of the period are declassified?” China was not amused by the Indian move to unilaterally define the boundaries rather than through negotiation and discussions.
Advocating discretion, the writer concluded: “2013 is not 1962 and the Indian media and politicians should not behave as though it was, by needlessly raising the decibel level and trying to push the government to adopt a hawkish course on the border.”
The continuing border confrontations with China and Pakistan underline the fact that unsettled borders are not good for India’s relations with its two nuclear-armed neighbours.
A section of Indian media and political parties like BJP have been clamouring for a “tough” response from the UPA government to the Pakistani and Chinese “aggression”. No matter how they portray the skirmishes and incursions, it is a fact that India cannot afford to settle the matters by military means. The border tensions will persist as long as the territorial disputes are not settled. It is for India’s own benefit to mend its fences with the neighbours.