Borders: Lines over wasteland

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on October 01, 2020

Cold facts: In the coming months, thousands of soldiers will shiver in tents and outposts at the border as temperatures plunge in the frosty heights   -  PTI

Passes and valleys in the Himalayas — for centuries routes for trade and pilgrimage — are now implacable frontiers between India and China

Few incidents better condense both the absurdity and deadly reality of the nation-state than the ongoing border stand-off between India and China. The second and fourth most powerful militaries in the world “face off” over barren tracts of the Himalayas. In the coming weeks and months, thousands of men will shiver in tents and outposts as the temperatures plunge in the frosty heights. There may or may not be further bloodshed, but considerable manpower and resources will be expended in upholding abstract notions of territory and sovereignty. Patrols will shadow each other across the Line of Actual Control, scrambling over rock and ice. Diplomats and military officers will spar over lines on a map, ready to sacrifice real lives in the service of claiming wasteland.

Nations come into being at their borders, a truism that is equally tragic and farcical in this case. Sixty years ago, in the lead-up to the disastrous 1962 war, Indian officials had such vague knowledge of the territory they claimed in Aksai Chin that they were surprised to discover — years after the fact — that China had constructed a road through it. Leaders grappled over land they understood only in its foggiest contours. China — always a step ahead of India — has in recent years begun to take far more seriously the responsibility of knowing the terrain that it claims and seeks to defend. Using satellite imagery, researchers in the US discovered in Inner Mongolia the existence of a vast model of the Himalayan border region that the Chinese army uses for military exercises. A power-hungry State such as China has fantastical abilities, conjuring up mountain peaks and glacial ravines in the desert.

The mountain ranges of the Himalayas have fallen to one conqueror or the other over the centuries, but they had never suffered a strict, modern border. Instead, the high passes and valleys were imagined not as barriers but as routes for trade and pilgrimage, linking, for instance, Ladakh to parts of Tibet and to Xinjiang. The Dogra king of Jammu built a fort at Shahidulla (now Xaidulla in China) in the 19th century not to impose a claim to land but to protect from bandits the caravans journeying between Leh and Kashgar. Muslim pilgrims from Kashgar would come through the mountains to Leh and then into India on their way to Mecca and Medina. Modern borders have cut off Ladakh from Yarkand, the region (now in China) with which it shared centuries of close cultural and commercial ties. Those connections are now severed and, in their place, the mountains and valleys have become implacable frontiers, empty arenas in which two countries project their truths upon desolate rock.

The roots of the modern disputes lie in the European colonial attempts to turn these fuzzy, more permissive lines into hard-and-fast borders. China rejects the McMahon line — its eastern border with India — because the demarcation came out of an agreement between British India and Tibet in 1914 that China (then ruled by the Qing dynasty) did not accept. If the gulf between governments was wide, so too was that between governments and ordinary people. British officials found that years after the 1914 agreement, people living in Tawang (now in Arunachal Pradesh) had no idea they had been transferred to British India — they still assumed they lived in Tibet. New Delhi and Beijing now find themselves in the strange position of clashing over the details of a pact arranged between entities — British India and Tibet — that no longer exist.

Of course, modern nations often do consist of the strange inheritances of earlier times. Much of the eastern border, for instance, between what is now Russia and what is now China was established as far back as the 17th century. The Russians had attempted to push into Manchuria, but were trounced by the troops of the Qing emperor. Chastened, the Russians decided to agree to a border in that rugged and vast expanse of territory. Negotiations between the two sides were conducted in Latin, with a pair of Portuguese and French Jesuits translating the Chinese position and a Polish representative translating the Russian one. They agreed to a border that was conjectural; it followed a patchwork of rivers, including one whose course neither Chinese nor Russian officials even knew.

At the end of the declaration that followed this agreement — what would now be called in diplomatic speak a “joint communiqué” — the two sides agreed to erect boundary stones to give some definition to this new border. I think about what it must have been like for the functionaries or contractors handed that task. There, surrounded by forests, marshes, and tumbling rivers, they would draw a tenuous line across space. Did they feel much conviction in their chore — that they were making states, turning land into possessed territory — or did they reckon with the improbable vastness of that Siberian landscape and wonder if any human claim could be lasting?

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction;

Published on October 01, 2020

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