The contest over the political identity of Tibet has led to a protracted conflict between Tibet and China and India and China. The Sino-Indian border issue is intrinsically linked with the question of Tibet’s political identity. In India, scholarship on this issue has tended to focus more on the Sino-Indian dimension of the Tibet issue. This book peels back the layers of history to delve into Tibet’s strategic importance in British, Chinese and Indian thinking and their attendant implications for the Sino-Indian border dispute. The book is a collection of earlier published articles of the author on various aspects of the Sino-Indian border dispute. It is comprehensive in scope and rich in historical detail providing the reader with integrated snapshots of the historical progression of the dispute from colonial times to the recent past. The book is also timely in that current relations between India and China, while on an upward curve, continue to simmer on the border question.
The book grounds the border issue in its historical context, examines the implications of past actions on present ground realities and provides an opportunity to debate the possible solutions to the dispute. Mehra has meticulously documented the wrangling over the frontier between the Chinese, British, and the princely Indian state of Kashmir. He does this through an impressive reconstruction of official communication between high-ranking representatives of the Crown in India and Hong Kong and between Maharaja Gulab Singh of Kashmir and the British. The period covered leads up to and after the fateful Shimla Conference of 1914. The crucial Younghusband expedition also figures here. The pieces put together reveal the British attempts to counter the growing Russian influence in the region as a prime objective of the Raj in Tibet. Mehra concludes that the Dogra ruler’s claims to Kashmir’s frontiers in the Tibetan plateau were compromised by the British in favour of the Chinese to stem Russian interests in the region. It is, of course, crucial to remember here that both India and China held the view that India had inherited its Tibet policy from the British. It would then appear that the Chinese while criticizing the British policy on imperialist grounds preserved the advantages of it!
Mehra has mastery over his archival material and presents a lucid and riveting picture of political shenanigans on all sides leading upto the Shimla Conference. This includes interesting details such as the Chinese interlocutor’s attempt to buy over the members of the Tibetan delegation to the Conference! The author has tackled the issue of the political validity of the decisions reached at the Shimla Conference. It has been argued in Indian writing and elsewhere that the plenipotentiaries who negotiated the agreement either went beyond their brief or were sent into disgrace after the Conference thus posing a question mark over the political acceptance of the Shimla Conference. Mehra establishes that there was no intentional falsification of records to shore up the Indian position with regard to the MacMahon Line. The book argues convincingly that the British did not publish the boundaries negotiated at the Shimla Conference as it did not serve much purpose. ‘China was a moribund state’ and not a threat to the British in India. However, the issue of the boundary did come up repeatedly in the context of trade relations.
Each sector of the border, the western, middle, and the eastern sector are separately dealt with facilitating an in-depth understanding of issue. Many of the strategic issues that impinged upon the decisions at the Shimla Conference continue to be relevant today. This section would have gained much by inclusion of maps that could help the reader visualize the frontier and the conflicting claims of the different parties.
Referring to the inheritance of the British policy by independent India, the author defends the Indian government’s ‘soft’ stand on Tibet in the early fifties, by arguing that the mighty British empire too had taken a conciliatory approach towards the dying Qing Empire in this matter. Mehra criticizes Nehru’s refusal to upgrade India’s defence preparedness on the grounds of his idealistic belief that China would not attack India. In this Mehra has gone beyond the official line of ‘Chinese betrayal’ that has dominated much of the Indian writing on the issue of the 1962 conflict. He rightly points out that the Chinese considered India as inheritors not only of imperialist boundaries but also imperialist ambitions. In the light of this, the forward policy was interpreted by the Chinese as an offensive rather than a defensive strategy. This of course is not meant as a defence of the Chinese action but is an attempt to document the difference in perceptions between the two sides.
The book also provides a useful sketch of the parliamentary debate in India during and after the 1962 crisis encapsulating the crisis of faith among the Indian communists leading to the split of the CPI. This section also provides a brief account of the major players in policy making at the time of the crisis. Mehra has lamented the lack of access to archival sources as well as the lack of credibility of many personal accounts on the subject. This point cannot be emphasized enough. It is high time that India instituted and followed standards of transparency in policy making especially in its foreign policy. It is a telling fact that of the extensive archival material consulted for this book, bar newspaper reports, the author has had to rely mainly on records available outside India.
The book also provides a very useful bibliographical survey of literature on the boundary issue and Sino-India relations. This will be of interest both to researchers and analysts in providing the range of opinion on the border issue in a concise manner. Given that the book is rich in historical detail, an index would have further enhanced the utility of the book.
Mehra’s attempt is to reconstruct ‘objective historical knowledge’ relying on available documentary evidence. He does an excellent job of reconstructing the past as it ‘really happened’. True to his method, Mehra does scrupulously reproduce documented history; however his claim of ‘objective historical knowledge being both desirable and attain- able’ is open to contention. While docu-mentary evidence may provide a firm ground to reconstruct history, it is hardly definitive in terms of interpretation. Again his claim that the ‘scholar/academic can afford to make an objective, unbiased assessment’ challenges the inherent subjectivity in social science analysis.
However, Mehra’s assertion about the purpose of the book and the debatable theoretical claims do not in any manner detract from the valuable contribution that this book makes towards a deeper understanding of the Sino-Indian boundary issue.
Sonika Gupta is a Post Doctoral Fellow, Inter-national Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.