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Indian Media Replaces Pakistan with China Bogey

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The fortnight had been tumultuous. A series of stories by an Indian news agency about Chinese military intrusions into what is claimed to be Indian territory inflamed the news circles. Soon the television news channels began yelping with a threat from China, magnified hundredfold. Official denials from New Delhi fell on ears, long programmed to ignore anything that challenged the make-believe, with expected results.

The situation led to a stinging rebuke to the Indian media by the China Daily in Beijing. But the situation had an inexorable dynamic of its own. If the Indian Minister for External Affairs described the boundary with China as most 'peaceful' and 'incident free,' a leading national daily front-paged a story that two Indian border policemen had been injured in gun battles with the Chinese on the eastern frontier.

All the stories quoted unnamed sources, which meant no one was ready to publicly own up to the sensational headlines. If it did seem that there was a design in this drumming up of war hysteria, the journalists who covered the government agencies dealing with national security (including this writer) were at a loss to find the hidden hands.

For, the official government spokespersons were foaming in their mouths repeating interminably the standard line: that these reported intrusions were normal. They held the Line of Actual Control drawn after the 1962 war was a geographical abstraction at many places, thus enabling both countries to claim same territory as their own. As a result an aggressive border patrol in those areas could be called an intrusion by either country.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs went a step further. Not only did they dub the borders with China most 'peaceful,' but they reminded the country that the two countries have pledged to maintain peace and tranquility on all the border areas, including those that are contested.

This focuses attention on the Sino-Indian border dispute itself. The problem is a throwback of the British colonial times when the latter defeated a Tibetan army early 1900s and accepted Chinese suzerainty over the principality. This worked well when China was ruled by the Qing dynasty. At the end of the dynasty, Tibet threw out its administrative vestiges and declared itself independent.

The British, meanwhile, were busy settling the boundaries of India including that in its north-eastern edges in a territory then called North East Frontier Agency, now known as Arunachal Pradesh. The colonialists called a conference in Simla which was attended by representatives of the three countries. A much weakened China alongwith resurgent Tibet were presented by a British designed boundary authored by an English civil servant, Sir Henry Mcmahon, who was the foreign secretary of British Indian government. The Chinese side demurred, while the Tibetan accepted it.

The first Jawaharlal Nehru government of 1947 claimed that the Mcmahon Line was the official boundary between Tibet -- by extension China -- and India. The Chinese disputed that. A war followed. Then a Line of Actual Control was drawn that included the Mcmahon line.

Finally, when in the 1990s India and China began negotiating on the international boundary, the sticking points were two: the snowy, arid territory of Aksai Chin in India's north and Tawang in the country's north-east. In 1959 it is now known that during intense exchanges between the two countries, Chinese premier Zhou-En Lai had made an offer to the Indian Prime Minister, Nehru that let India keep Tawang but let China have Aksai Chin. For through the latter then passed the only road link between Chinese mainland, Xinkiang province and the Tibetan region.

This offer was again discussed between the Indian side and the Chinese in the 1980s when then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing to meet Deng Xiao Ping. But New Delhi, according to Beijing, took a long time in taking up the offer. So now the Chinese claim the offer has expired.

For the Chinese elite say that the new Tibetans who have accepted Beijing's writ over their territory are keen on having Tawang for themselves as it holds an important Buddhist monastery. Though it might seem surprising to note Beijing's heightened concern about Tibetan sentiments in the face of a festering international dispute.

What seems more likely is Beijing's attempt at resolving the Tibet dispute -- with a Tibetan government-in-exile, led by the Dalai Lama being based in Dharamshala in India -- on the back of the boundary issue.

The past fortnight has highlighted the danger of keeping a border dispute between two big neighbors boiling for too long. May be it is time for both the sides to be realistic and settle the dispute.

After all, China has a record to match. According to the MIT expert, Professor M Taylor Fravel, the country had 23 border disputes with its neighbors. Seventeen of these disputes have been resolved amicably with China making concessions. Border with India remains as one of unresolved few. Showing newfound regard for a jingoistic internet population would not wash for the Chinese regime if it allows the situation to spin out of control. This time the Indian government delivered. Who knows about next time?