Troubles in the Mountains

Three Englishmen, all three from the highest circles of privilege, drew three lines and set in motion the boundaries of four vast States to come. Leading the pack was Foreign Secretary Mortimer Durand, whose hastily scrawled one-page note of 1893 gave Afghanistan its southern border with British India, and then, after 1947, with Pakistan. It is still known as the Durand Line. (George W. Bush’s point person in charge of the Afghan war, Meaghan O’Sullivan was not aware of the line and its significance).

The Pakistani government is confident that the Durand line is its border, although, since 1949, the Afghan loya jirga has rejected it. Afghanistan and Pakistan fought several border engagements over the Durand Line in the 1950s.  Only one country voted in September 1947 to deny Pakistan admission into the United Nations – Afghanistan, largely because of the continued dispute over the Durand Line.

Coming after Durand, in 1914, was another Foreign Secretary Sir Henry McMahon, who drew his line to divide Tibet and China from the British Raj. McMahon, a career bootlicker, performed the old “sleight of hand” trick, fudging the words “frontier” and “border” to demarcate the line that divided the British Empire from the Chinese. To be fair, McMahon, the Tibetan delegate Lonchen Shatra and the Manchu representative Chen i-Fen (who was absent for most of the deliberations) agreed only to allow Tibet to be a buffer state; consequentially, the Qing Dynasty’s realm and Curzon’s dominion would not rub shoulders with each other.

The McMahon Line was fixed as the border between the British Raj and Tibet. It also reaffirmed China’s suzerainty over Tibet (nevertheless, the Qing representative refused to sign the document because of article 11, “The Government of China engages not to convert Tibet into a Chinese province. The Government of Great Britain engages not to annex Tibet, or any portion of it”). World War 1 was a hiatus. The Chinese nationalists tried to coax the Tibetans to support Tibet’s unification into China; the British were distracted by the war, and the Indians turned to Home Rule. Tibet isolated itself from the world.

The McMahon line, however, had its rendez-vous with history. In 1950 an earthquake struck eastern Tibet. Not long afterwards, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet. India went with China’s action, and the Dalai Lama reflected bitterly, “the world has grown too small for any people to live in harmless isolation.” The McMahon line was now to be a bone of contention between the two emergent Asian giants, India and China. India recognized it as the international border, but the Chinese disputed its validity. A diplomatic conflict over the border ran between the independent states of India and the People’s Republic of China from 1955 to 1962, when a shooting war began.

A White Paper of notes exchanged between the two countries and published in 1962 demonstrates the absurdity of much of the squabble. One dispute took place over a 1.5 square mile area that the Chinese called Wu Je and the Indians Barahoti. Accusations flew between the two parties about the violation of this land. Then, on June 18, 1955, the Indians wrote to the Chinese, “We are not aware of the exact location of Wu Je.” The Chinese said it was north of Tungun La pass, whereas the Indians said it was south of the pass. So much for the burning urgency of the matter.

In 1958, both sides complained about aerial intrusions, but then admitted, “As the planes were flying at a great height, it was not possible to establish their definite identity.” In 1960, Nehru made it clear that “there was such a variance in the factual state that there was no meeting ground.” And yet, in 1962, India and China went to war, destroying the decade-long attempt to create peace in the Himalayas, and to incubate the Third World platform for planetary peace. The rumpus over the border continues, with no final settlement on the horizon.

The third line ran between the newly formed states of India and Pakistan in 1947. It was drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, chair of the Indian Boundary Commission. Radcliffe himself had no experience of the border regions; his ambit was brief. Stunningly, the Radcliffe Line was drawn in a month, and based largely on Census data and maps. Even these were not sufficient. W. H. Auden smelled the rat:

“He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.”

The Radcliffe award divided India from Pakistan, and now India from Bangladesh. It did not go all the way into Jammu and Kashmir, which was a princely state at the time. Jammu and Kashmir came under a policy known as the “Instrument of Accession,” a device designed to make the royal families chose which side of the border to house their domain. It was a faulty mechanism, for it left no room for popular opinion.

In the midst of a pressure-cooker moment, with Pakistani irregulars inside Jammu and Kashmir, and with the Indian military poised to enter only if the Maharaja signed the Instrument, the monarch decided to let his realm join India. This has been a moment of dispute for the Pakistanis, and one held up as legal by the Indians. Both the Radcliffe line and the Instrument of Accession remain contested. This disagreement led India and Pakistan to fight four wars along these borders (1947-48, 1965, 1971, and 1999). The Line of Control set by the 1972 Simla peace agreement is the de facto border, although the conflict has not abated (and nor has this line been recognized as the de jure border).

Boundaries that divide the states of South Asia are all colonial inheritances. They cover vast terrains, with the most disputed areas being in the Great Ranges of Asia, the Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges, all along the marvelous high Himalayas. Up there in the thin air, the border makes both no sense and absolute sense. The senseless border is best illustrated on the Siachen Glacier, where the Indian and Pakistani troops patrol at 21,000 feet above sea level and at temperatures that can go below 55 degrees Celsius. In 2008, the Delhi High Court accepted the claim of a soldier that frostbite is a war-related injury. Thousands of soldiers have died as a result of high altitude pulmonary edema, acute mountain sickness, frostbite chilblains, hypothermia, snow blindness, avalanches. Seventeen army men died recently in high altitude training, when an avalanche hit an army camp. Last year Norway’s envoy to Islamabad Tor Haug suggested that the glacier be turned into a Peace Park. If the Norwegians didn’t have troops in Afghanistan the suggestion would have more credibility.

And of course, many die by the occasional gunshot or shell. Jawaharlal Nehru once put it quite correctly that nothing grows in Aksai Chin, a large high altitude desert that the Chinese claimed was part of Tibet, and so of China. In response, a Congress Member of Parliament quipped, “No hair grows on my head. Does it mean that the head has no value?” But value for whom, and for what project? There is a difference between the value of a territory for imperial aims, and one for the project of anti-colonial nationalism. Or at least it was on the basis of this distinction that China and Burma were able to settle their border in 1960, five years after a brief border war, and it was on this basis that the Asian and African powers at Bandung (1955) accepted the Principles of Panchsheela, or peaceful co-existence. But the ethic of anti-colonial nationalism was not strong enough to undermine the colonial legacy.

The value of the borders in the mountains is of course easy to see. Different states claimed various tracts because they made their vision of the border more defensible or else allowed for transport between provinces of the state (as Aksai Chin connected Xinjiang with Tibet). Equally, up in the high mountains are the headwaters of the major rivers, and to control the water is to control the possibility of livelihood. South Asia and China are equally feeling the grip of water shortages. China has begun a vast program to harness the Himalayan watershed for its growing needs, a set of projects that has brought open worries from the governments of India and Bangladesh. China plans to divert the Yalong Zangbo, and if so will impound the water bound for the countries south of the Himalayas.

Both India and China, as the largest and fastest growing economies, make demands on the Himalayan water, disagreement over the border will persist. There is no easy equitable way to deal with the tussle. Resource disputes can be dealt with in a manner that is conducive to mutual co-existence, if both parties see the mutual benefit derived from the process of negotiation and settlement. But the burr of the border dispute under the saddle of their mutual antagonisms does not provide a beneficial climate for sober dialogue.

And, apart from everything else, there is the matter of pride. During the India-China standoff over Aksai Chin and the Arunachal borders in the early 1960s, the leader of the conservative Swatantra Party told the Indian Parliament, “Not an inch of Indian soil would be yielded to China.” Things came to such a pass in China that the Communist Party criticized “Han chauvinism” or “Great Hanism.” In a flash, talk of this being a “very minor border problem” (as Nehru put it in 1958) was gone. The parties surrendered to pride and dignity.

The 1962 India-China war had a catastrophic impact on the region, much more than the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war. It began an arms race on the continent, with both India and China increasing their defense budgets, a provocation which then sent Pakistan into a buying spree for itself. India raised the percentage of its arms budget from an average of 2 per cent (between 1951 and 1961) to an average of 4 per cent of India’s gross product (a full quarter of the central government outlay). In China, between 1963 and 1966, the military budget increased on average by about 15 per cent, with just short of 17 per gcent of its national government expenditure on defense. Nothing compared to the US military expenditure, but it remains a drain for economies that are not structured around weaponry (the US is the largest exporter of arms, and India is its largest importer: hence the unevenness of the “military multiplier”).

Of course this diversion of funds starved the social side of state policy. In addition to its diversion of investment capital, the military drew on scarce human and material resources. People bore arms, they did scientific research for military purposes, and raw materials like chromium, cobalt, manganese, steel, uranium and other such materials moved from civilian to military use. By 1982, the United Nations offered the stark choice that either the world can “pursue the arms race,” or else it can “move consciously and with deliberate speed toward a more stable and balanced social and economic development.” But, the UN cautioned, “It cannot do both.” Unfortunately, China had already enhanced its massive military complex, India had followed suit, and so had Pakistan, all three with expensive nuclear programs as well.

Such military orientation had political and intellectual implications. In these states, the military’s draw on the finances raised the stature of the defense minister in state policy. In the Indian cabinet, the Minister of Defense is first among equals, while Pakistan’s government oscillates between direct military rule and civilian rule at the behest of the military. In China, the People’s Liberation Army is the second most powerful wing of the state (after the Communist Party). The military begins to dictate state policy, either directly or else through its control over the purse strings.

The habits of military power are also evident in the dominance of the Realist paradigm followed by the policy framers on all sides of the mountains: concepts such as “national interest” are narrowly framed around the issues of power dynamics that favor the status quo. Hans Morgenthau, the guru of Political Realism, wrote, “Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. In order to improve society it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives.” These “objective laws,” Morgenthau writes, are not social, but governed by “human nature.”

If it is human nature to vie for power — which is Morgenthau’s premise — then it is right to define “national interest” as the goals of one state vis-à-vis the competing goals of another state, and so to disregard the possibility for any fundamental rapprochement. From this come only two outcomes. The first is the old Social Darwinist idea that might makes right, or that only one power can be the Great Power at one time. The second is hardly more encouraging. If a Great Power cannot emerge, then those who vie for that post come to terms with the stalemate and sue for peace (the French gave us the word détente, whose original meaning is now best extracted from the word the Russians used, razryadka, discharge of tension).

A “legitimate order,” as Henry Kissinger wrote in 1957, does “not make conflicts impossible, but limits their scope. Wars may occur, but they will be fought in the name of the existing structure.” In this case, the almost-Great Powers have adopted a status quo relationship to the “existing structures.” The interests and motivations of the various ruling classes in each of the states might be inflected into an adjustment. Sometimes, however, one power will cease to honor the status quo and will try to alter it, to “revise” the equation (these are revisionist powers). It is the goal of the Realists to prevent such revisions (Kissinger, who wrote his major work on the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which created the basis for the “existing structure,” is an example of a Palace Intellectual who opposes revisionism unless it is led by his own King).

For the dominant Realist paradigm, there is no way to change the power play, only to mitigate it. Narrow ruling class demands become human nature. Morgenthau’s disciples are found among the authors of China’s “Independent Foreign Policy of Peace,” in C. Raja Mohan’s Crossing the Rubicon: The Shaping of India’s Foreign Policy (2004) and in Abdul Sattar’s Pakistan’s Foreign Policy (2007). Little imagination left for pathways to peace. This is the intellectual cost of the habits of militarization.

South Asia is no worse a neighborhood than any other. Similar structures bedevil the aspirants for peace elsewhere. The borders are colonial constructions that are now a crucial sediment in the logic of the nation-states. These colonial lines in the snow have produced the bad habits of the warfare state, as military expenditure has sunk the social democratic pretension of the states and as the institutions of war have come to command more political space than is conceivably  healthy. All this has enabled the dominance of the intellectual argument of Political Realism; those who stand for peace are at a loss, chastised for being idealistic, or just plain silly. The habits of the warfare state have even smothered the basic decencies of pledging for peace. The countries of South Asia have failed to detoxify their colonial legacy, and to fully embrace the promise of Bandung. That was a grave error. All is not lost. History is yet to be made, and there are many in the countries of the region who have lost faith in the presumptions of Realism, and who want the pieties of peace to dominate the morality and policy of their states.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:

A shorter version of this essay appears in Limes: Italian Review of Geopolitics for a special issue called Planeta India.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).