India’s Strategic Geography Culture and India-China Geography

India’s Strategic Geography Culture and India-China Geography

While geography is the study of the physical environment, its centrality is to discover in what ways and to what extent this environment affected history. Geographical analysis can offer more towards the understanding of international politics than just an appreciation of the facts of location.8 Borders define nationhood and sovereignty. India never had borders till Independence. Essentially, its boundaries over the centuries can best be termed as ‘frontiers’ i.e. a demarcation between territories with independent sovereignties. A frontier constitutes “an area of separation” between two regions of “more or less homogeneous, and usually denser, population.” It is of such frontiers that Lord Curzon spoke when, in his classic essay bearing that name, he described them as “the razor’s edge” on which hang the modern issues of war and peace and of life or death to nations. Warfare has always occurred for the defenses of frontiers.

In the making of frontiers, international law has a significant role to play. The recognition of the existence, sanctity and permanence of frontiers is one of the foundations on which the law of nations has been built. Frontiers once negotiated and demarcated cannot be altered unilaterally. They are inviolate and unalterable save through negotiation, for any use of force majeure in such cases would be a denial of international law itself. Vital as the element of power politics is, human geography plays an equally important part. What makes for frontiers, and frontier problems, are such factors as race, population, language, geography and access to the sea. Religion also plays an important role in varying degrees, e.g. the birth of Pakistan (1947) and Israel (1948). Also, self determination has been a powerful weapon in creating new frontiers by disrupting ancient ones.

There is a further distinction between a boundary and a frontier. Geographical and historical boundaries, shown as lines on a map, represent the edges of frontiers. Aboundary does not merely demarcate geographical regions or divide human societies but represents the optimum limits of growth of a particular society. In an address to the Royal Society of Arts in 1935, Sir Henry McMahon maintained that a frontier meant a wide tract of border land which, because of its ruggedness or other difficulties, served as a buffer between two states. Aboundary, on the other hand, was a clearly defined line expressed either as a verbal distinction (delimited) or as a series of physical marks on the ground (demarcated); the former thus roughly signified a region, while the latter was a positive and precise statement of the limits of sovereignty.

The Great Wall of China connoted the domain that it was thought proper to include in the tien h’sia, marking it from the outer darkness of the barbarians. So too did the Roman Empire’s frontiers along the Danube, which separated it from the uncivilised tribes beyond its pale. Much the same holds true of the northern mountain ranges in Indian history. The issue here was not only one of keeping the barbarians out, but also of setting limits to the imperial rule.

The long and sprawling land frontier between India and China is now the subject of a bitterly raging conflict between the two countries. The Himalayas were always considered as a natural barrier ‘forbidding’ or ‘preventing’ passage. Amountain system – and the extent to which it is a barrier is inversely proportional to the ease with which it can be crossed – tends to mark a separation between economic and strategic regions. While mountains were a barrier to older societies, they do not pose insurmountable problems to an industrialised society that is equipped with airplanes or the frightening armoury of thermo-nuclear weapons; here it is not nature that has changed, but man.

Today, the sea, the desert, the mountain and the river no longer guarantee natural security as they once did. Even artificial contrivances as a neutral territory, state or zone, or a buffer state, e.g. Afghanistan and Tibet during the British period, do not inspire in the guarantors, much less among those so guaranteed, any measure of confidence. Frontiers today have evolved from being mere geographical barriers into human bulwarks against political ideologies and systems of government, each of them claiming ultimate perfection and allowing at best a modicum of peaceful, if highly competitive, coexistence.

The frontier, in both geo-political, as well as the human geography contexts, has played a significant role in India’s long and sprawling and frontier to the northeast which, for most of its length, is co-terminous with Tibet. For further understanding of its intricacies, it is imperative to analyse its historical geography under its obvious sub-divisions of northwest and northeast segments. From the very inception of its recorded history and the fight of Chandragupta Maurya against the Greeks, India’s northwest frontier has been a subject of considerable concern to her rulers. It was to protect the Khyber and other passes from the northwest against these onslaughts from ‘barbaric hordes’ that every powerful Indian Empire evolved a ‘frontier’ policy. Thus, the policy of Chandragupta Maurya against the post-Alexander Greeks, of Anangpal vis-à-vis the Ghaznavids, of Balban against the Mongols, or of Akbar or Aurangzeb when faced with threats from Central Asia was essentially the same.  Ranjit Singh’s acumen in the handling of the frontier in the post-Nadir Shah /Ahmad Shah Abdali period, earned him a well-merited tribute from his British successors. The latter, whose span has been the most recent in Indian history, deserves close examination, if only to understand the present situation in that region.

For India, the Himalayas comprised a frontier of both ingress and egress. With Tibet in the north, the intercourse was largely one of religious doctrines and their practice, the mountain barrier being far too formidable to mount any large-scale invasion. But on the western side, the Khyber did provide a route for any hostile power to challenge the northern Indian polity, unless the latter was in a position to defend itself. As to the southern frontier, the peninsular barrier did not constitute any major obstacle; though both Ashoka (273-237 BC) and the Mughals (1565-1820) did hold sway over lands south of the Vindhyas.

It is difficult to sum up the British epoch in a nutshell, but it may suffice to suggest that during the colonial period, the theory and practice of the frontier, as also the foreign and defence policy of a united India, rested on the evolution of a buffer state. Both Afghanistan and Tibet fulfilled this role.

 When a state is enclosed by three other states, its territory is focal. He who first gets control of it will gain the support of All-Under-Heaven. This Sun Tzu’s dictum speaks directly of one of the most important geographic factors—location—and why some countries or regions have long histories of recurring warfare. There are many other aspects of geography that bear directly on the power that a nation develops and the strategies it employs in seeking to secure its national interests.

India-China Geography

India came to Independence within a particular and accepted territorial framework, the source of its legitimacy being within the framework of international law in the territorialist conception, whereby it is entitled to the boundaries established by the colonial power, i.e. Britain. Today, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is the effective border between India and the People’s Republic of China. It lies along the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Tibet had been one of the most important buffer states with a 3,520-km border with India. India felt safe behind the buffer until the Chinese occupied Tibet in the early 1950s. The Sino-Indian border dispute is a legacy of the British Raj, though the problem of demarcation/delineation of the India-China border actually started shortly after Independence. The Chinese military invasion into India in 1962 shattered the myth of India’s impregnable Himalayas.

Geographically, the India-Tibet border can be divided into three sectors; the eastern sector consisting of the erstwhile Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA) and the present Arunachal Pradesh, the central sector comprising Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and the western or the Ladakh sector from Demchok to the Karakoram Pass. The dispute between India and China lies mainly over sovereignty over two separated pieces of territory. One is Aksai Chin, located either in the Indian province of Kashmir or the Chinese province of Xinjiang in the west. It is demarcated by what is known as the “Johnson Line”. It is a virtually uninhabited high-altitude wasteland crossed by the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. In Ladakh, the LAC is actually ambiguous because of several “claim lines” and due to the paucity of easily recognisable terrain features on the Aksai Chin plateau.

The other disputed area lies to the east over the territory referred to as Arunachal Pradesh by India and South Tibet by China. It is demarcated by what is known as the “McMahon Line” established in a 3 July 1914 agreement by Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the British plenipotentiary, to a conference of Indian, British, and Chinese representatives at Simla, which was initialled by British, Tibetan, and Chinese representatives.24 It is a sparsely inhabited area with numerous local tribes. The eastern sector was neglected by the British Raj and independent India, and remains a geographical problem that has not been appropriately resolved. The line agreed to by Britain and Tibet generally follows the crest of the eastern Himalayas from Bhutan to Burma. It serves as a legal boundary, although the Chinese have never formally accepted it. China continues to claim roughly the entire area of Arunachal Pradesh south of the McMahon Line.

In the Kameng sector of Arunachal Pradesh, the McMahon line runs along the crest of the Greater Himalayas from the eastern boundary till it reaches the Thagla ridge in the west. The actual demarcation was not easy as the watershed principle does not hold good in this sector, leading to different interpretations by India and China, both claiming Thagla, the highest ridge in this area. The Thagla-Bumla-Tulungla routes converge on Tawang, but it is also possible to bypass this township and proceed directly to Sela. This route lies along the foothills of Chaku-Eagle’s Nest—Tenga Valley-Bomdila-Dirang-Udalgiri-Kalaktang-Mandala ranges from 14,000 to 17,000 ft. The most significant of these tracks is from Tawang-Mago-Poshingla-Changla-Thembang-Bomdila, also known as Bailey’s Trail, which played a vital role in the1962 border war with China.

China and India have yet to address the fundamental and very large land boundary disputes. Moreover, their bilateral relations are complicated by the issues of Tibet and Kashmir. China has actually made an overreach in Tibet against the dictates of geography. The Beijing-Lhasa rail link is 4,064 km. Moscow is 4,358 km from Delhi. Geographically and culturally, Tibet and China are poles apart.

Some aspects of the India-China boundary do need emphasis. To start with, it is by no means easy to translate an undemarcated traditional boundary into map lines. The Chinese have persisted with their rhetoric of mutually acceptable borders and charged New Delhi with being a little too rigid, legalistic, and even unwilling to negotiate. The British had tried hard not only to identify traditional or customary boundaries, but also helped evolve strategic boundaries. In the event, McMahon’s thick line drawn on a small scale map is hard to transpose on the ground and stick to natural features or such dicta as the highest crest in very high mountains.




A game of ping-pong has been playing between India and China since the first half of 20th century, in which the state of Arunachal is being used as a ball. The British, being a judge to this game, made a mess by crushing the ball and rushed out of this game in haste, leaving behind two ambivalent countries to play with deformed ball. The so-called border talks are being held at the expense of Arunachal. The debate on border issue seems incredibly long and the outcome is not on the horizon. And if today the Arunachal is being treated as a whore, the British and Tibetan must share a part of blame. The Tibetan, who had some sway over certain part, didn’t took care of the maiden, the British broke its virginity and passed it to India, and then the India kept the state like a mistress and now China wants to have it. Let’s take a look at the historical records to unravel if Arunachal really were a territory of China or an integral part of India. The starting place of border dispute extends back into the 19th Century, when both China and British India asserted claims to remote mountain areas between China and India. But the people of Arunachal unknown to the doom, existed as a sovereign state. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the tide of development was lapping into the foot-hills. So the British drew a line along the foot of the hills which was to be called the “Inner Line” and the “Outer Line” under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873. The Inner Line was an administrative line, in the Assam tribal areas, to keep hunters and traders out of the Assam tribal areas; no taxes were collected beyond the Inner Line. The Outer Line was the international boundary of British India. However, little publicity was given to the demarcation of the Outer Line. On March 30, 1911, Noel Williamson, Assistant Political Officer of Sadiya, and a tea estate doctor were attacked and killed by Adi tribesmen in Komsing. Williamson was formally warned not to cross the Inner Line without expressed permission. Williamson’s death provided for the revision of the tribal policy for which Williamson himself had argued for years. A British expedition, headed by Major General Hamilton Bower, was mounted in late 1911; the mission continued until 1913. The alleged purpose of the expedition was punitive; indeed, the Adis were punished for slaying Williamson. However, the ultimate objective of the expedition was to define a new border and to inform the Chinese of the new limits of British sovereignty. While the British were exploring Assam, the 1911 Chinese Revolution erupted. By 1912, Chinese influence in Tibet had fallen drastically. As Chinese power in Tibet waned, Chinese pressure on the Assam border ceased to exist. The British now endeavored to secure the Assam Himalayas from any future Chinese intervention.


 The fall of Chinese power in Tibet led to negotiations between British Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan delegates to the Simla Conference of 1913-14. The British had decided to make Tibet a genuine buffer state. The British chief delegate, Sir Henry McMahon, introduced the idea of a second buffer into the long Sino-Tibetan debates over the boundary between Chinese control and the Tibetan buffer. The Chinese government immediately repudiated the agreement. The Chinese rejection was a blow to McMahon’s buffer scheme. However, McMahon had meanwhile negotiated another buffer and zone of defense for the Himalayas. He had made a separate agreement with the chief Tibetan delegate; this agreement defined the frontier line along the crest of the Assam Himalayas, based on the 1911-13 Abor Expedition. The line was marked on a large-scale (eight miles to the inch) map; however, this map and the details of the McMahon-Tibetan agreement were not communicated to the Chinese. The task of making good the McMahon Line was given to J.P.Mills, the government’s adviser on tribal affairs, who was to say that: “the tribes to be incorporated (in India) belong naturally more to Tibet than to India. In race and in language they are mongoloid. They all speak Tibeto-Burmese languages which have nothing in common with the Assamesse of the Aryans of the plains. It follows therefore that what one might call the cultural and social pull is towards Tibet …. The McMahon Line therefore suffers from the disability that though it may look well on the map … it is in fact not the natural boundary, whereas the frontier along the plains is the natural one.” The Indian government also recognized that the population along the north-east frontier was ethnically and culturally closer to Tibet than to India, but due to the strategic and geopolitical considerations that had formed Britain’s approach to the north-east border applied with equal force for the new (Indian) government. One of the last acts of the Chinese nationalist ambassador in New Delhi was to remind the Indian government in February 1947 that china did not recognize the McMahon Line, and held the simla convention invalid.

 In the early1950s, a strong Assam Rifles patrol moving up the Subansiri River was warmly welcomed by one of the tribes, feasted and given shelter – and then massacred almost to a man. Under Nehru’s order, no punitive action had been taken. In 1952, G.S. Bajpai, then the governor of Bombay urges that India should take the initiative in raising the question of McMahon Line with the Chinese government, only to be told by K.M.Panikkar that the Prime Minister (Nehru) had decided that it was not in India’s interest to raise the question of the McMahon Line. By 1958, the Indians had completed the work left unfinished by the British and made good the McMahon Line. In December 26th 1959, the china implied that the Indian maps are ‘cutting deep into Chinese territory’ in the western sector, while of the eastern sector it is said that ‘the whole boundary line is pushed northward, including an area of about 90,000 sq km which originally belonged to China. In 1986, differences raise again over the McMahon line in the Sumdorung Chu area of Arunachal. After Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to china in 1988, a Joint Working Group (JWG) forum was formed to find a real solution to boundary problems and thence, the delegates from both side debated on this issue from time to time. Ironically, the JWG forum has focused more on peace along the border than on a real solution to the boundary problem. And so far umpteen JWG meeting was conducted without making much headway, and so far not even a single representative of Arunachal was invited to participate in the border talk.

The natives of Arunachal not only resisted Indian occupation when Indian officials moved into inner line, but were equally intimidated by Chinese troops when they entered in Arunachal during 1962 war. The peoples of this region never had a direct contact with China nor with India which makes the state more or less a sovereign state. But from the day Arunachal Pradesh was lifted up into the category of ‘Indian states’ from Union Territory in 1986, she has worked diligently with Indian constitution. And in these 60 years, from the Independence Day till today, the development of infrastructure is not worth mentioning which leads to grave doubt that India’s incapability to develop physical infrastructure in Arunachal lays in the reason that India cannot hold on to Arunachal for a long time. On the contrary, the Chinese has developed Tibet beyond recognition, even laid a rail tracks up to Lhasa which is situated 3,600 meters above sea level, and which, I anticipate, will bind Tibet more close to the mainland. Apart from development of infrastructure issue; if we analyze the statement made by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee during his visit to Chandigarh last year and in a recent parliament session- 1. “Some adjustments will take place here and there on Arunachal Pradesh and J&K at the conclusion of the ongoing talks with China and Pakistan respectively.” 2. “India and china are exploring the framework of a final package settlement covering all sectors of the India-China boundary (May 10, 2007 Arunachal Times),” it corroborate the doubts enormously. On the other hand, China left no stone unturned to remind the people of Arunachal that they are Chinese citizen. For instance, lately, Chinese embassy refused to grant visa to an IAS officer, Ganesh Koyu who hails from Arunachal, because he comes from a disputed area and which didn’t come as a shock to me as this kind of denial had happened in late 1990’s to then the chief minister, Gegong Apang, when he sought a visa to visit China but was told by Chinese embassy that he doesn’t need a visa to visit his own country.

However, most of the people of Arunachal are of the opinion that the Arunachal would do better under Indian constitution. But the question still refused to subdue is: does the Indian Government and Indians are ready to assimilate the state within its republic. The ‘flip-flop’ attitude of federal government and their vague opinion on Arunachal not only perplex us but also steer us into dark alley. Besides, We (Arunachal along with Mizoram and Nagaland) were accused of being a parasite state by substantial section of the populations that claims that we survives on the flesh of Indians who allegedly labours night and day at IT industry et al to make Indian economy bullish. And we have been blamed for the lack of infrastructure in their state, for the potholes, etc. as well because their money has been pumped into these three states. Perhaps, they may be right in pointing out this. And if this view is defended by Indian government and Indians, then the privilege to call Arunachal an integral part of India is wholly invalid. And the Arunachal should have been given back their earlier status of sovereign state. Furthermore, the Indians are not happy with reservation (reservation in job and educational institution for scheduled tribe and caste), and we (the youth who have been to metropolis and influenced by it) are not happy about being ‘scheduled’ tribe (ST) for so long and to be called ST makes us a part of highly caste ridden and feudal society of Aryans.

At long last, considering the dealings of the centre with our state, it does indicate that the federal government of India, who is directly responsible for corrupting our state government by fattening the wallets of our politician and their enforcement arm, will never be able to oversee our state efficiently. The failure of Indian government to administer competently must not suggest that the whole of Arunachal is for bargain. And the Arunachal and its people shouldn’t be used as pawn in order to strengthen the bilateral ties between India and China. The talk show of two giant goliaths must go on and, but, let the Arunachal be a buffer state – free from Indian and Chinese influence.



This Article taken from written by Roto Chobin


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