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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 8

Promising Prospect

Saturday 9 February 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The Prime Minister’s visit to China has falsified the wishful forecasts of his critics and adversaries at home who had pronounced in advance that it was going to be a non-event. If anything, it has turned out to be an event of positive significance.

The agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas has been justly characterised as a “landmark” along the long and tortuous road of India-China relations. It is certainly not going to be an easy job to delineate the Line of Actual Control, considering the terrain and the nature of garrisoning it on both sides since the armed conflict of 1962. Two aspects of the present accord, however, mark it out from the situation prevailing so long.

First, both sides have agreed to abjure the use of force in settling any dispute over the Line of Actual Control. Which means that the brinkmanship displayed in the summer of 1986 would be strictly avoided. Secondly, the present accord specifies concrete steps for ensuring peace and tranquillity along the entire two-thousand mile border, along with the provision for settling any point of dispute by the process of peaceful negotiations.

The importance of such an accord will unfold itself with the passage of time. Once the Line of Actual Control along the frontier is settled and both sides strive to maintain it, the necessary climate would be created for a serious but dispassionate examination of the claims and counter-claims on the border that will ultimately ensure the settlement of the vexed boundary dispute. This is indeed a long-range perspective. One has only to add the caveat that a peaceful and tranquil line of actual control maintained for a considerable length of time might equally generate the tendency to acknowledge it as the boundary itself, avoiding the raking up of the conflicting claims.

What has now been accomplished is the logical corollary of the breakthrough achieved during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in December 1988. Prior to Rajiv’s visit, the Indian position was that the border dispute being central to the Sino-Indian misunderstanding, even to the point of armed conflict, that thorny issue should be resolved first before one could take up other issues of mutual interest. There followed eight rounds of official level talks on the boundary claims without any breakthrough. It was during Rajiv’s visit that the focus was shifted—as the Chinese had originally wanted—from the boundary dispute to the immediate task of evolving confidence-building measures for ensuring peace and tranquillity along the existing Line of Actual Control. This is what has now been achieved under Narasimha Rao after three years of labour for which Indian diplomacy deserves credit.

However, the harvest of Sino-Indian cooperation that is expected to follow Narasimha Rao’s visit to Beijing, can be reaped only if the Prime Minister can succeed in bringing about stability at home. The near-anarchy that prevails in the political life of this country is compounded by the spectacular slump of the ruling Congress party’s standing in the public eye. The dismal prospect that stares the Congress in the coming Assembly elections in the four States of the Hindi belt will only reinforce political uncertainties in the country—and that will threaten to negate whatever is achieved abroad.

On his return, this is the challenge that confronts the Prime Minister right now.

(Mainstream September 11, 1993)

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