Understanding nationalism and the drivers of nationalism in the context of arbitrarily drawn border lines have been a preoccupation with a host of post-independence Indian writers.
The Radcliffe line, often cutting through villages and sometimes homes (so says the legend), gave us Manto’s famed lunatic Bishan Singh, a.k.a. Toba Tek Sigh, ‘Who now lay on the ground, prostrate. Beyond some barbed wire on one side of him lay India, and beyond some more barbed wire on the other side lay Pakistan. In the middle, on a stretch of land that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh’.
The partition and its aftermath, the largest and bloodiest transfer of population in known history, gave rise to the genre of partition literature, which seeped through Indian sensibilities and has translated into virile displays at Wagha border and sloganeering crowds on either side of it. And thus, our long-standing border disputes with China have become tough for us to fathom.
No official boundary has ever been negotiated between the governments of India and China, for the simple reason that neither holds territorial ambitions over the other’s lands. The Himalayas are a natural barrier and any military expedition that involves crossing them is, at best, foolish.
What lies to the windward side of the highest and sixth longest mountain range in the world is India and what lies on the leeward side is China, and there the argument must end; but alas, the Himalayas are not a line that can be drawn with a single stroke of a pen.
Going back to the legend of Radcliffe: He is alleged to have not even used a pen and instead, in a moment of frustration, divided India and Pakistan with two swipes of his rapier, thereby giving the people of the newly de-colonised Indian sub-continent a discernible line to fight across.
But this privilege is not afforded to us in our rivalry with China. Historians have noted that during our previous skirmishes with China, which Defence Minister Arun Jaitley is so keen to shrug off, one of the causes for disorientation in Indian forces, other than being poorly supplied for the harsh terrain, was that they no longer knew if the ground they were fighting on did in fact belong to India!
How then, when one stands on the Himalayas, is he to know if he remains in India or has in fact crossed over into Chinese territory? To press the argument further, why should two nations, with large armies and larger populations and large tracts of land conducive to human habitation, fight over chunks of hostile terrain that is largely uninhabitable?
(Aksai Chin has huge gas reserves, but the current dispute is not even over Aksai Chin).
The dispute arises perhaps because India, a large republic with a heterogeneous population, cannot afford to be seen compromising its sovereignty, and China, united under its Han leadership after the annexation of Tibet, is keen to ensure that it has complete control over the routes leading to Tibet.
Or perhaps the dispute is about something else altogether.
Two regional superpowers keen to exert and extend their influence, trying desperately to play the ‘I-will-make-you-blink’ game.
It’s all in good sport; a little jostling between soldiers. One may contend that the recent provocations are a result of US interest in the region.
An unreliable president of the world’s largest superpower showing warmth to a neighbour is enough to make anyone jittery. But how far do you take your retaliation? Not beyond destroying a few bunkers with a JCB and a fist fight, logic would dictate.
Besides, United States of America interest in South America, Vietnam, Korea and the Middle East has turned up fairly disastrous results; the Indian and Chinese civilisations are known for their wisdom.
Take into perspective that Jaitley, this time in his capacity as Finance Minister, saying that trade and commerce with China will face no impact of the latest Dokalam dispute; and this after a statement, this time as Defence Minister, that proved terrific for headlines: Narendra Modi’s India is not Nehru’s India of 1962.
Clearly then, economic growth cannot be jeopardised for principles such as sovereignty! But talk of war is romantic, it fuels the imagination, especially when a large portion of your electorate consists of warm young blood. And no harm comes of talk, as long as the soldiers stay in non-combat mode; i.e. guns pointing downwards.
Both sides have played the game well, India says, ‘We will not be bullied by China’, China says, ‘We will not let India’s military presence near our borders go untouched’. Good arguments to convince the general public with.
But life is no longer cheap. The Indian and Pakistan governments both claimed a victory at Kargil; both governments were soon out of power. Blinking is not a way out in this situation, but neither is a knee-jerk reaction. Keep the tension at breaking point; but take it no further.