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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 46, New Delhi, October 31, 2020

India - China border dispute: The 1959 LAC Solution | Praveen Davar

Saturday 31 October 2020

by Praveen Davar *

In an editorial a few days ago a leading daily suggested that India should explore the possibility of 1959 LAC as a permanent solution to the India - China border dispute. That it was taken seriously was amply demonstrated by the fact that many tv channels debated the issue on prime time the same day. Before commenting on this seemingly controversial proposal it is worthwhile to go back to the pre -1959 years and analyse whether this solution will be acceptable to both sides in the changed circumstances of six decades later.

India was the first country in the world to recognize the new People’s Republic of China
in January 1950. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru hoped that the two countries, with their common experience of suffering at the hands of colonial powers, and common problems of poverty and want, would together strive for prosperity and Asia’s place in the world. With a belligerent neighbour in the west, Nehru wanted peace in the east to ensure India spend its scare resources for development rather than divert them for additional military expenditure. The rapid agricultural and industrial growth, dotting the country with " temples of modern India", seen in the first decade after India became a Republic was the consequence of this far-sighted policy. In 1954, India and China signed the historic Panch Sheel agreement under which, besides other clauses, both sides agreed to have mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Relations between the countries remained cordial till early 1959 when there was a revolt in Tibet as a result of which the Dalai Lama fled and sought shelter in India. He was given asylum at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh ( then part of Punjab). Though the Dalai Lama was not allowed to set up a government in exile and refrained from carrying political activities, China obviously was upset with the development and this became the turning point in the thus so far close relations between the two countries. The differences over border delineation kept under wraps for the last few years now came out !in the open. India had sent a protest note to China on the Aksai Chin road in October 1958 followed by a letter from Nehru to Chou Enlai on 14 Dec 1959 when his attention was drawn to maps in China which showed large areas of India as part of Chinese territory. In his reply on 23 January 1959 Chou stated that the Chinese felt as aggrieved about India claiming Chinese territory in the western sector as Indians might have felt about Chinese maps claiming territories in the eastern sector, which Indians thought belonged to them. This was perhaps a hint that China was willing to concede the Indian claim in the eastern sector on the basis of the McMahon line if India accepted the Chinese claim in the western sector over Aksai Chin. Sensibly India had set up many posts along the McMahon line prior to 1958. But after the revolt in Tibet in March 1959, the deterioration in India -China relations began with border clashes in the months of August. and October. A number of letters were exchanged between the two prime ministers and also between officials on both sides.

Ultimately there was a summit meeting of the two prime ministers for six days commencing 20 in New Delhi. Besides meeting Jawaharlal Nehru at least four times, the Chinese premier also had meetings with then Vice President Radhakrishnan, Home Minister Govind Vallabh Pant, Finance Minister Morarji Desai and Defence Minister Krishna Menon.

It was in these meetings that Chou En-Lai broached the subject of demarcating LAC as
it existed in 1959 which meant India could keep NEFA provided it gives up its claim on Aksai Chin which the Chinese insisted was always part of its territory on the basis of old maps with them. Obviously this bargain was not acceptable to India. There was a difference of opinion in the media, Parliament and even within the Cabinet. Barring the Defence Minister Krishna Menon, most of the Ministers, especially Home Minister Pant and Finance Minister Morarji Desai, were strongly opposed to any barter deal with China. Durga Das, a senior journalist covering the event has written in his famous book ’India from Curzon to Nehru and After’ that though the Indian Prime Minister favoured the deal personally, parliament and public opinion had been aroused to such a pitch, by a premature leakage in the press on the negotiations that were going on, that it became difficult for Nehru to convince them to approve the deal. However, it cannot be said for certain what was actually in PM’s mind. Whatever his personal opinion, the official view was what Pt Nehru categorically stated in parliament. The great democrat that he was, Nehru went by the majority opinion and declared in Lok Sabha that ’not an inch of Indian territory would be ceded or battered away without the approval of the House.’ In his regular monthly letter to chief ministers, he informed of them of the sentiments of the House and the line of action of his government. There ended the matter, and the rest, as they say, is history. According to Defence analyst Srinath Raghavan, who in an article in 2015, called the Nehru - Chou meeting of 1960 "A Missed Opportunity", ’a bargain, while theoretically possible, was simply not feasible in 1960 because of pressure on Nehru from his senior cabinet colleagues and parliamentary and public opinion.’ (quoted in A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K Krishna Menon by Jairam Ramesh).

If the 1959 LAC solution was not feasible in 1960, how it can be so sixty years later. But perhaps it is the best solution, whose time has not arrived yet.

* (Author:
Praveen Davar, is an ex-Army officer, is a former member, of the National Commission for Minorities and a political analyst )

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