Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint
Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint
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Borders have a habit of becoming sacrosanct. Schoolchildren are made familiar with the shape of their country, with geography usually supported by history, language, religion, and (more broadly) culture. This is so even in India, which has existed as a cultural entity, but not as a nation-state, from pre-historic times. Adi Shankaracharya travelled to all corners of the “country” to establish places of devotional learning in the ninth century. At the time, the Pallavas ruled in much of south India and the Gurjara-Pratiharas (including the Chandelas) in the north, but of course there were no passports or visas.

Even with the nation-state, most people are not conversant with how and when it took shape. What they are more cognisant of is its late 19th-century personification as Bharatmata. Vedic India, for instance, was essentially in the north-western part of the country. The post-Vedic empires stretched from further east, in Bihar. And north-eastern India today is the product of wars fought by the British. Assam came within the national boundary in 1826 after it was acquired by the East India Company from the king of Burma following a bloody war in 1824. Darjeeling was leased from the Sikkim Chogyal in 1835 for setting up a sanatorium. Much of Sikkim itself had been taken over by the Gorkhas of Nepal, and handed back to the Chogyal after the British took it from the Nepalese. Kalimpong and the Dooars became part of Darjeeling district only after a battle with Bhutan, in 1865. Yet, today, they are all inalienable parts of India, as is Sikkim itself after 1975.

In short, borders are more malleable than one usually imagines them to be. Contemporary India’s maps that showed all of Aksai Chin as Indian territory were first printed only in the mid-1950s, after Jawaharlal Nehru ordered that previous maps showing the border as un-demarcated (and marked therefore with a colour wash) be destroyed. Such a border had indeed been proposed by a British official in the 19th century, but the British themselves had subsequently preferred a more modest claim to about half of Aksai Chin. Nehru opted unilaterally for the more ambitious claim. The Chinese have no better historical claim, since Xinjiang (of which Aksai Chin is now an administrative component) was traditionally believed to stop at the Kun Lun mountains to the north.

In the east, the crucial Tawang tract in Arunachal Pradesh fell south of the McMahon Line (to which India holds) only because of a convenient deviation from the watershed principle. In fact, India did not take proper administrative control of Tawang till 1951, four years after Independence, and it did so because Chinese forces had marched into Tibet in 1950.

Also read: To hit China, aim carefully. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot

In Europe, Italy and Germany did not exist as geographical entities till the second half of the 19th century. Europe’s frontiers changed equally dramatically after each of the World Wars, and then again with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the United States would never have stretched “from sea to shining sea” if Napoleon had not sold the territories east of the Mississippi to Thomas Jefferson in 1803, doubling the geographical size of the US in one stroke.

As for West Asia and Africa, it is well known that their borders were drawn up arbitrarily by imperialists — often as straight lines on a map that recognised neither tribal identities and territories nor any other principle. Naturally this set off long-term conflicts between neighbours, and left entire peoples straddling lines on maps (e.g. the Kurds and the Pakhtuns). Borders have continued to change into the 21st century. Russia has taken over the Crimean peninsula, states in the Caucasus fight over enclaves (each country has its own historical “facts”), and China has converted atolls in the South China Sea into military bases.

If this history teaches us anything, it is that borders are derived realities and not autonomous facts. Manmohan Singh’s fond hope of avoiding conflict over territory by “making borders irrelevant” is increasingly difficult to realise in a world where institutional restraints on aggression are weakening and the new game in town is unalloyed power-play. But, come to think of it, when was it really different?

By Special Arrangement with Business Standard.

Also read: China is on LAC to tell India who the ‘big brother’ is, not to gain territory


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  1. The British left broken nations and undemarcated borders in every country they colonised. Their divide and rule policy ensured that even in the future the borders remain hot contestations between a divided and warring people.
    This is seen in so many African and Asian countries who remain underdeveloped because they have too little to spend on their health and education after massive military spending.

    Shouldn’t the colonial powers owe reparations?
    These capitalist countries are enjoying high levels of development today after destroying the colonies.

  2. The entire write up seems pointless. The Prime Ministership was gifted to Mr. Manmohan Singh. He never won a Lok Sabha seat and has virtually no connect to the aam aadmi. We are indeed fortunate that his utopian plans did not materialize. Magnanimous thoughts ‘irrelevant borders’ are not unique. Their untimely implementation can only spell disaster. One Jawahar lal Nehru is enough for us.

  3. It is time for the government or at least some interested NGO ( why not RGF!) to publish 1950 map of India and then show how subsequently we have been losing territory to the control of China and then show the current line of physical control and LAC up to where we believe we can patrol. Juxtapose that with the Chinese claims and we can see where exactly is the issue. Every time we are told India lost its territory to China without telling us why did we lose it if it was ours and had physically control on it. One cant imagine our territory without having our physical control. Let us do the reality check and then find out how much area we physically controlled and lost to Chinese since 2014.

    As Ninan says if our claims on Aksai Chin were not as strong, then why we did not agree to the package deal in 1959 and finished off the matter? Can we agree at least now to make that offer to Chinese ? Will Congress support such a move? We need a debate on this issue to have a clear understanding of what we are fighting for.

    • All of your suggestions are good. The only way to solve the border problems with our neighbors is to sit down at the table with them and make reasonable exchanges. This stupid legacy of the British Raj should come to an end.

      But looking at what Sonia and Rahul have commented these days, the madness is going to continue for a while.

  4. Borders did become irrelevant in the whole continent of Europe. What that needs is the enabling environment.
    Look at the US. Its southern border with Mexico is very much there and active. Its northern border with Canada remains relaxed and is not an issue.
    Of course borders are not autonomous, and are the result of other events. Statesmen attempt to influence events in manners that prevent need for violence and jingoistic nationalism over borders.
    That is what Manmohan Singh was trying. Because he could not complete the process is no reason to give up that thought.

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