The McMahon Line: The Contentious Sino-Indian border dispute

The McMahon Line, A century of discord by J J Singh is a brilliantly researched and very analytically written book about the Sino-Indian border dispute.

The main USP of this literature is that it’s written by the former chief of the Indian Army.

Book about the history of the McMahon Line.

The McMahon Line, A Century Of Discord.

Although, this book is only for no-nonsense readers. Those who are living in a ‘La La Land’ can stay away from this because accepting the reality is not everyone’s cup of tea.

India has its border disputes with few of its neighbors. The chief among them are Pakistan and China. Although, majority of us are aware about the boundary dispute with the former nation, unlike the latter country.

In fact, the boundary dispute with Pakistan is given so much of importance and discussed throughout day and night in the debating rooms of our so-called National Media that we’ve seldomly given our thoughts about our Northern neighbour, China.

Like India, China is also an ancient civilization. They are as proud of their heritage and culture as we Indians are.

But, majority of us are unaware or I would say ignorant about the history of China, isn’t it.

In fact, when it comes to China we’ve dearth of scholars related to the middle kingdom (China), unlike Pakistan. This is one of many reasons that we are unable to understand the Psyche of China.

And to understand and tackle China, we need to study its history, culture, traditions and most importantly its Geography.

Here, I’ll try to write about the McMahon Line and how it’s came to its being. And how India can face its toughest challenge of the 21st century, Tackling the rising China.

What is McMahon Line?

The McMahon Line is the international boundary between India and China. Although, China doesn’t recognize the McMahon line.

Albeit, The McMahon line was drawn in 1914 by Sir Arthur Henry McMahon as a boundary between the then British India and The Autonomous Region of Tibet (ARC).

An image showing the McMahon line and the line of actual control (LAC).

The elephant and dragon and the boundary of over 4,057 KMs.

Some of you might get confused between the McMahon line and the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

To simplify this we need to understand that the term LAC gained prominence in 1993 when the then prime minister of India, P. V. Narasimha Rao visited China. At that time an understanding was reached between the two nations.

In a nutshell, the border line in the Western sector (Ladakh) and the Central sector (Uttrakhand) is termed as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the border in the eastern sector (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh) is termed as the McMahon line.

How India and China became neighbors:-

To understand how India and China became neighbors we need to understand the Geography of India, Tibet and China.

India and China are not only the two great ancient civilizations but these two nations are the two most populated countries in the world.

Although, India and China are neighbors but till 1951 these two Asian giants didn’t share any boundary with each other.

Some of you might be thinking why’s that. To understand this you need to look at the map of the Indian subcontinent, especially of the geographical location of Tibet.

Since, ancient times the great Himalayas have remained as the natural barrier between India and China. And Tibet is sandwiched between elephant and dragon.

In fact, Tibet acted as a buffer state between India and China. But, this changed in 1950-51, when China invaded Tibet. And with the occupation of Tibet by China,  India and China became neighbors for the first time.

When British invaded Tibet:-

As you are aware that during the nineteenth and the early twentieth century The Great Britain was the only Super Power and India was a British colony at that time.

In fact, India was a ‘Jewel of the Crown’ of the British Empire. And to safeguard their interests the British played several games in the North-West and The Highlands of Central Asia.

This political and geopolitical endeavours was termed as the ‘Great Game’. It was played between the Tsarist Russia and the British Empire.

Because of the so-called Russianphobia amongst the British officials an expedition was sent to Lhasa (Capital of Tibet) in 1903-4 under the command of Colonel F. E. Younghusband.

This expedition proved to be very successful from the British point of view. Because, not only the British were able to extract a treaty from the Tibetans but in that process they also occupied the Chumbi Valley (in Tibet).

But, it’s a tragedy that the British sold the Chumbi Valley (At the tri junction of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan) to the Chinese for a nominal sum of 25 lakh rupees.

Although, according to the Anglo-Tibetan treaty of 1904, the Chumbi valley was going to be remained with the British for 75 years.

But during the Younghusband expedition the 13th Dalai Lama of Tibet fled to Mongolia. And he was not physically present when the treaty was signed. Although, the treaty had the seal of the Great Lama.

Although, after the expedition the British established their foothold in Tibet but the Chinese realised the gravity of the situation after the Younghusband expedition.

For the Chinese, Tibet was the ‘Back-door’. And they thought that the British were trying to make Tibet their Protectorate.

Although, British never aimed to make Tibet as their protectorate. Their only motive was to make Tibet a benign buffer state between India and China.

In fact, it’s because of the British that the Chinese were able to tighten their grip over Tibet with time.

The Simla Conference and the formation of McMahon line:-

Although, the Great Game was finally ended in 1907 when a convention was signed in St. Petersburg between the Tsarist Russia and the Great Britain.

But, the Chinese decided to grab as much as territory they could in Tibet. So after the Younghusband expedition there were several skirmishes occurred between the Chinese and the Tibetans. And the Chinese also started raiding in the tribal districts of the Northeast Region of India which rang alarm bells amongst the British officials.

So, it was decided that a conference should be called up in Simla which will decide not only the boundary between British India and Tibet but also settle the boundary between China and Tibet.

The key players of his conference were Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the foreign secretary to the Government of India, Lonchen Shatra and Ivan Chen, representing British India, Tibet and China respectively.

We need to understand that an agreement or a treaty is signed between the equals. And Tibet was on the same footing as British India and China during the Simla and Delhi conference.

During the conference the Plenipotentiaries of Tibet and China presented their claims and counterclaims for the boundary between them.

In fact, the Chinese plenipotentiary claimed a large territory of Tibet as theirs without any historical basis. And the conference dragged on for several months without any solution.

And the large portion of the blame should go with the Chinese because throughout the conference they just procrastinated.

After hearing several arguments and counter arguments, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon drew a ‘Red Line’ and a ‘Blue Line’ on a small scale map.

The McMahon’s Red line delineated Tibet’s southern boundary with Northeast India. And this historic boundary later acquired fame as the ‘McMahon Line’.

One important point related to this that during the conference or even after the Chinese never objected or raised any issue with the ‘Red line’.

In fact, Tawang (In Arunachal Pradesh, India) was shown South of the McMahon line within the Indian territory.

The Chinese raised hue and cry because of the lesser known ‘Blue Line’  defining the boundary between Tibet and China, and which divided Tibet into two parts. Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet. It was proposed that the latter will be under the jurisdiction of the Chinese proper and the former will remain as Autonomous with minor Chinese presence.

The only reason because of which the Simla convention was failed to conclude on a tripartite basis is because of the non-acceptance of the blue line by the Chinese.

But, the agreement between British India and Tibet in 1914 established the international boundary known as the McMahon line from Bhutan to Burma and provided it legal sanctity.

The Middle Kingdom and Tibet:-

The Chinese believe their nation is the ‘Middle kingdom’, an ancient and rich civilization of a superior race.

In fact, the Chinese people comprises of the family of the five races – The Han, Manchu, Mongol, Muslim and Tibetan, represented by the stars of their nation flag.

And Chinese has mastered the art of subterfuge. And they are not going to hesitate to use it. In fact, they are already using it.

This is what the 13th Dalai Lama of Tibet of Tibet, Thubten Gyatso said about the traits of Chinese mindset –

The Chinese way is to say or do something mild at first, then to wait a bit, and, if it passes without objection, to say or do something stronger. If this is objected to, they reply that what they said or did has been misinterpreted and really meant nothing.

In most of its history either Tibet remained independent (De facto) or a vassal state of China. In fact, Tibet has close relationship with Mongolia rather than with China.

The tradition of Dalai Lama began in 1578 when the Mongolian King, Altan Khan formally anointed, Sonam Gyatso, The First Dalai Lama. In fact, The fourth Dalai Lama was from Mongolia.

Culturally, historically and ethnically, Tibet is completely different from the Chinese. But, as China wanted to secure their ‘Back door’ that’s why they invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950-51.

Tibet is also the source of major Asian river systems such as those of the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra (Tsangpo), Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang Ho (The yellow river).

I’m sure now you’ve realised the importance of Tibet. 

The folly of Jawahar Lal Nehru:-

The first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru was not only a visionary leader but he was also a too much of an idealist.

This idealism not only costed India heavily in the 1962 war with China but it also proved that one-upmanship is not good for a country as big and as diverse like India.

Nehru was a diehard democrat but he failed to understand the the war-veterans leaders of the Newly formed people’s republic of China in October 1949.

In fact, India was the second non-communist country after Burma (Now Myanmar) to establish diplomatic relations with China on 1st April 1950.

Nehru remained as the Prime Minister for seventeen years and during that entire period he was also the foreign minister of India.

The situation of that time is that whatever Panditji said or did became our foreign policy. In fact, no one had the courage or guts to challenge Nehru when it comes to foreign policy.

The only other person who can challenge Nehru was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But, he also died in 1950. But, he wrote a letter to Nehru in which he warned about the Chinese.

This is what Sardar Patel said to Nehru:-

The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intentions. The final action of the Chinese (invasion of Tibet), in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. We have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we know it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. We seem to have regarded Tibetan autonomy as extending to independent treaty relationship. Presumably all that was required was Chinese countersignature (referring to the Simla convention of 1914 and the McMahon line). The Chinese interpretation of Suzerainty seems to be different. We can therefore safely assume that very soon they will disown all the stipulations that Tibet has entered into with us in the past.

The response of Pandit Nehru to Sardar Patel was very timid. Nehru trusted the Chinese too much that’s why he formed that Panchsheel Agreement with China in 1954. And also during that time the slogan of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai (Indian and Chinese are brothers) was coined only to be buried in the 1962 border war with China.

In fact, within a few years of their independence the Chinese started constructing a highway which passed through Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir.

The India government was aware about this but they showed too much of complacency and incompetency to tackle this issue.

Even before the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Chinese had already occupied the Aksai Chin.

Although, an unofficial ‘East-West’ swap deal was proposed by Zhou Enlai in 1960, he offered to recognize India’s position in the Eastern sector if India accepted China’s sovereignty over Aksai Chin in the west. This offer was repeated later by Deng Xiaoping in 1980, and the McMahon line was to be accepted as the boundary in the east.

India cannot repeat the same mistakes which Pandit Nehru and the bureaucrats of that time made.

It’s the responsibility of the bureaucrats to show courage and speak up their mind when it comes to national interest. Politicians will come and go but this nation will remain forever. 

Tackling the dragon:-

Today, China is the second largest economy of the world and it’s also the technological and a manufacturing powerhouse. No one can ignore the growth of China.

In fact, at present, The Chinese economy is nearly 5-times the size of India’s in US dollar terms and almost two-and-a-half times India’s in purchasing power parity.

To tackle China, India has to shed its chalta hai attitude. Incompetent and lethargic people should not to be allowed to occupy any higher posts in the country.

A multidimensional approach is required. From manufacturing to investment in R&D should be given the priority. And compulsory reading of the history of our neighbors should be included in the Indian education curriculum.

And most importantly People-to-People contact should be encouraged by the government of India and even China should do this. This will be good for the people of both the nations.

We need to understand that once upon a time India and China contributed to almost 40% of the world’s GDP.

Several Pandits have already predicated that the 21st century is going to be the Asian Century. India and China cannot follow the path of confrontation for too long. It’s not good for the humanity.

Cooperation rather than confrontation should be the motto of India and China.

Although, we’ve disputes related to our boundary. But, we can resolve this. The leadership of the both of the nations have to show some statesmanship to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

Sacrifices rather than compromises should be the guide to resolve the Sino-Indian border dispute. A win-win situation has to be made for these two Asian giants.

Because, when India and China, the two great and ancient civilizations come together then the whole world sit up and see us in awe.

I’ll conclude with these words of Mahatma Mahatma Gandhi

‘An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind’.

I hope you like this, Thanks for reading, Jai Hind.

My Ratings: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5) 

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Yash Sharma

Namaste reader, My name is Yash, and books for me are like a medicine, which removes my ignorance and also helps me in behaving more like a human.Though I live in the world’s largest democracy, India, but when I look around, I realized that this democratic nation of mine has turned into a kind of feudal oligarchy or kleptocracy, where people from a particular community or I would say particular surname has hijacked this democracy, and the political parties in India has turned itself into a kind of family enterprises where the family members are the only shareholders. And I want to change this, and books are a weapon which is helping me, so that I can help others and my nation.Shukriya for reading this Thought of mine.

12 Responses

  1. Aishwarya says:

    Good one, too informative and elaborate which proves how hard you would have worked to put it up in such a nice way. The best part according to me is that you have not just highlighted the issue but also suggested a resolution in the end.

  2. Ritika Jain says:

    After reading this I can just say that I won’t be surprised if any day soon I get to read an article by you in a newspaper or a non fiction authored by you.
    Beautifully articulated :The Sino-India Dynamics and the Way Forward👏👏
    Keep doing the good work.
    Thanks for the article.☺

    • Shukriya, Ritika for your kind words. I don’t know about me writing an article for a newspaper or a nonfiction book. But, what I know is that the readers like you who always read my articles and leave their precious feedbacks. And I’ll try to cover more topics related to the Indian subcontinent. I hope this particular article will help you in your upcoming exams.

  3. Tyra says:

    Another wonderful writing from you Yash. I’m hoping the people in the government read this and apply the solutions you suggested to have better and stronger relationship among nations.

  4. Bika says:

    A new lesson for me, knowing the history of the two countries that I just knew. You explain in detail and make me understand it. Thank you for adding new insights for me. Continue to share knowledge, I like it 🙂

  5. Sinthiya Oishi says:

    Really good and informative article.Thanks for this article🙂

  6. Prabal Singh Nain says:

    Another superb article….well written my brother….But why are you decided to write an article on McMahon line…..not on Radcliffe line and any other border line….And according to you in india and china who is more powerful in terms of business….and I think we both have same answer….but waiting for your reply..

    • Thanks, Prabal for your comment. And as you have asked me two questions. So, I’ll try to answer your queries.

      I’ve decided to read and write about the McMahon Line because unlike the infamous, Radcliffe Line, I’m not familiar with this topic that’s why I chosen this interesting and less known topic.

      And when it comes to who is more powerful between India and China, then, according to my viewpoint both the nations are powerful in different fields.

      At present, When it comes to Soft power India is way ahead than China. Although, economically China is ahead of us but as I have said earlier that both the countries are powerful.

      And the interpretation of the term ‘Powerful’ vary from person to person.

      I hope you got the answers of your questions.

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