The problem with Narendra Modi’s overtures to China

Narendra Modi with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Brazil.
PIB
Narendra Modi with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Brazil.
PIB

In his meeting with Xi Jinping in Brazil on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, Narendra Modi last week impressed on the Chinese president the need to “amicably resolve the boundary question.” Yet only the week before, Arun Jaitley had ruled out declassifying the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report (HBBR) on the 1962 war, the memories of which still plague our relations with our giant neighbour. It is difficult to see how the prime minister’s stated end game is compatible with the defence minister’s resistance to talk about the past.

Border settlement is tricky business, a far more ambitious venture than border management, which China and India have almost perfected. With no shot fired across the Line of Actual Control in decades, the border could not have possibly been managed any better. Border management is a largely military matter; border settlement would be a political exercise—and this is where it gets tricky, especially in a democracy as raucous as ours.

Any border settlement will entail give and take. We will have to lose some land, as will China. The most likely scenario, if it ever happens, is India giving up its claim on Aksai Chin and China giving up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh (or South Tibet, as they call it), formalising the current status on the ground. If selling a shrunken map to a nationalistically charged citizenry is a daunting task in one-party China, imagine doing it in India.

Despite his massive mandate, even Modi cannot expect his people—not to mention the opposition—to fall in line quietly and accept parting with Jammu and Kashmir’s eastern protrusion. And this is where the defence minister’s newfound zeal for secrecy jars. To even attempt an enterprise as challenging as border settlement, the government would need to first create conducive public opinion. The refusal to declassify the war report indicates the lack of political will to do so.

The British-Australian journalist and historian Neville Maxwell created a storm when he recently published a chunk of the first volume of the HBBR online. The report only provides a limited account of why we lost the war, not of why we went to war in the first place. But the 126 pages Maxwell outed still offer startling insights that suggest our view of the events of 1962 might be quite wrong.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the Business News Editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

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