Borderline Fuzzy

Published: December 13, 2013 - 15:36 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 00:41

Only political arbitration can resolve the disputes pertaining to the historical, but imprecise, drawing of our boundaries with neighbouring countries

Srinath Raghavan Delhi 

Territorial integrity’ is usually seen as a key objective of national security. Disputes over territory (whether land or maritime) remain a significant feature of contemporary international politics. And India remains hardly an exception. Yet, unsettled boundaries have an unsettling effect on our public discourse. In the past year, we have had a series of violent incidents along the Line of Control with Pakistan and a stand-off along the Line of Actual Control with China. These incidents are a grim reminder of the security challenges thrown up by our unsettled borders. However, these are not merely issues of security. At bottom, all territorial issues are political. And settling them will require some concessions on both sides.

This simple point seems to elude much of our public debate on territorial issues. For a country that has several major and minor territorial disputes, we tend to operate on strange premises: that all our neighbours must accept our claims and we need to make no concessions. During the stand-off with China earlier this year, it was repeatedly argued that India is the only country—apart from Bhutan—with which China has not yet settled its border dispute. It may be more interesting to flip the question around and ask: why is India the only country that is unable to reach an agreement with China? Similarly, we need to ask ourselves if Chinese ‘incursions’ are as one-sided a phenomenon as we seem to assume.

Let’s start with the issue of ‘incursions’. Much of the problem stems from the fact that the two sides have different perceptions of where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies. The LAC is supposed to divide the areas that are under Indian and Chinese control since the end of the 1962 war. The line, however, was not mutually agreed upon by the two sides. This is in contrast to similar lines with Pakistan in Kashmir. Both the Cease Fire Line of 1949 and the Line of Control of 1972 were drawn up by formal agreements between the two countries. There was no such agreement on the LAC, both because the war ended with a unilateral ceasefire by China, and because subsequent efforts by the ‘Colombo countries’ to mediate ended in failure.

In the Ladakh sector, the differences in perception are owing to China’s occupation of additional disputed territory during the war of 1962. The issue of where exactly Chinese forces stood after the war remains contested. The areas where Chinese intrusions occur are claimed by both sides as lying on their side of the LAC.

In the eastern sector–Arunachal Pradesh–the problem is a bit more complicated. The Chinese do not recognize the boundary claimed by India: the McMahon Line. This Line was drawn at the Simla conference of 1914 involving Indian, Chinese and Tibetan representatives. The People’s Republic of China rejected this line as an imperialist creation. Nevertheless, Beijing treats the McMahon Line as the LAC in this sector. The problem is that since 1959, India and China have differed on just where the McMahon Line actually runs. There are ‘grey areas’, which lie north of the McMahon Line as marked in the original maps of 1914, but are actually south of the highest watershed. India’s position–which China does not accept–is that the Line was intended to run along the highest range of mountains dividing Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, and despite discrepancies, the boundary had to be accordingly interpreted.

These grey areas include Namka Chu, Thag La, Sumdurong Chu, Tulung La, Asaphi La, Longju, and Chenju. It bears emphasizing that there have been no reports of Chinese incursions in other parts of the LAC. We may note parenthetically that there is no LAC or boundary dispute in Sikkim. That boundary was formalized in an Anglo-Chinese agreement of 1890. The residual differences pertain to minor issues such as position of boundary pillars.

Against this backdrop, it is evident that neither side will give up their claims till such time a boundary agreement is reached. The ‘incursions’ are simply a way of keeping these claims alive. The larger problem, therefore, is the lack of progress on the negotiations over the boundary. Several rounds of negotiations have been held over the past decade, but no substantial advance has been made. An important problem has been China’s hardening stance with respect to maintaining status quo in areas that have settled populations. Equally, India has shown no inclination to indicate what concessions it is willing to make in order to reach an agreement. The issue here is political. A Supreme Court ruling of 1960 states that the executive could not by itself change the boundaries of India either by ceding or accepting territory. Any boundary agreement with China will need a Constitutional amendment with two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament. New Delhi has never felt confident of achieving this.

It may be more interesting to flip the question around and ask: why is India the only country that is unable to reach an agreement with China?

Let alone China, even our minor territorial dispute with Bangladesh is hostage to such concerns. For some time now, the government has been looking to introduce the Constitution (119th amendment) Bill in Parliament. The Bill is required to implement the land border agreement with Bangladesh. Interestingly, the Supreme Court ruling of 1960 was given on a petition challenging the division of the Berubari enclave with the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The border dividing India and Bangladesh had been problematic since the Radcliffe award of 1947. The outstanding disputes were sought to be resolved by India and Pakistan during the 1950s. An agreement reached between Jawaharlal Nehru and Feroze Khan Noon in 1958 failed to be implemented by India in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on Berubari.


Following the emergence of independent Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman signed an agreement on the land borders in May 1974. As earlier, India failed to proceed further, owing to pressure from West Bengal and Assam. Thirty seven years passed before India signed a protocol to this agreement in September 2011, resolving to implement the 1974 agreement. It took another year and seven months for the government to prepare the Constitution amendment bill.

The agreement and the Bill seek to settle two sets of problems. The first pertains to ‘enclaves’. These are small pockets of one country’s territory surrounded completely by territory of the other. The second relates to ‘adverse possessions’ or land used by Indians and Bangladeshis that are actually located in the other country. The solution arrived at in 2011 is straightforward. The enclaves will be merged with the territory within which they are located. India will give up 111 enclaves (around 69 square kilometres) and will acquire 51 enclaves (about 29 square kilometres). Adverse possessions, amounting to a total of about 28 square kilometres, have also been rationalized. India will get nearly 16 square kilometres of territory.

The Opposition, however, is in no mood to facilitate the passage of the Bill. Their objection to it apparently stems from the fact that India is giving away more territory than it is getting in return. The BJP had initially indicated that they might support the passage of the Bill. But, in response to pressure from their MPs from Assam as well as their ally, the Asom Gana Parishad, they have declared their opposition to the Bill.

What’s more, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha is reported to have submitted a note to the Rajya Sabha secretariat observing that the Bill violated the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution. This is an absurd argument. If this reading of the Constitution were right, India could never have acquired Goa or Sikkim. Nor can it ever enter into any boundary agreement that involves territorial swaps. Then again, the BJP is not alone in its wrong-headed stance. The Protocol of 2011 was drawn up after consultation with the government of West Bengal (among other states), but the Trinamool Congress is apparently no longer forthcoming in its support for the Bill.

A boundary agreement with China will need a Constitutional amendment with two thirds majority in both houses of Parliament

It remains to be seen whether the Bill will be tabled in Parliament in the coming winter session. The entire episode, however, is an object lesson in the need for a political approach to territorial issues and for the need to inform popular opinion on the realities of each dispute. Of course, India has to take the necessary measures to secure its claims. But final settlements will involve political negotiations as well as the ability to sell the agreement in the domestic political marketplace. For the moment, both of these seem to be at a discount.

Only political arbitration can resolve the disputes pertaining to the historical, but imprecise, drawing of our boundaries with neighbouring countries
Srinath Raghavan Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews