DATELINE GUWAHATI/Wasbir Hussain
It has been 50 years since India and China went to war on the dizzy Himalayan heights along Arunachal Pradesh (then the North-East Frontier Agency). Yes, year 2012 is not 1962. Yet history cannot be brushed aside or forgotten. The disaster that was Operation Leghorn - meant to push the Chinese further behind the McMahon Line along the border with Arunachal - is still fresh in the minds of the surviving old guard in the Northeast. After all, in that bloody battle in the winter of 1962 (October-November), the Chinese Frontier Guards virtually overran Arunachal Pradesh, taking even Bomdi La, within reach of the garrison town of Tezpur, in northern Assam.
The fact remains that India had suffered a major defeat. And, whether it was because the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, wanted to go with ‘popular public opinion’ or because of the ill-conceived determination of some generals to push the Chinese back and carry ahead India’s ‘forward policy’ on China is a different matter. Had it not been for Nehru’s stature, the Government would have perhaps fallen. Post-mortems revealed that the country was at a disadvantage, both militarily and logistically, to take on the Chinese at that time. While the Chinese had a road-head within three hours’ trekking distance of Thag La, the main war theatre, the Indian side had its nearest road-head more than 48 hours of foot-march away.
Half a century later, India has advanced by leaps and bounds and has become a nuclear power. We now have a highly modern and, as always, a committed Army. But, geography has not changed. The terrain along the 1,030-km-long heavily-wooded border that Arunachal Pradesh shares with China’s Tibet region continues to be as inhospitable as before. During the monsoon every year, large parts of Arunachal Pradesh remain cut off due to landslips snapping the tenuous road links. But, better late than never – we are now trying to catch up with China by building possible all-weather roads along the border, roads that would also link all those inaccessible parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Remember, people in some of these parts have survived all these years on food dropped from the machines run by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Yes, the flying machines called helicopters!
Today, very few would tend to believe the two great Asian neighbours could go to another war over issues like the boundary. This school of thought feel economic ties or compulsions are far too solid or big for China to embark on another military adventure or misadventure against India. Be that as it may, there is also no scope for complacency because the Chinese continue to be unpredictable. Yes, a war over the border dispute looks remote, but what about escalations of tensions over the securitization of water?
I am among a few, thus far, who feel there is a real possibility of tension between India and China escalating, possibly to unmanageable limits, over water. A ‘water war’ at some point cannot be ruled out. I am sticking my neck out on this because the manner in which Beijing is going about damming the Brahmaputra or the Yarlung Tsangpo, as they call the river, a time may come when the flow of water on our ‘Red River’ could diminish drastically, leading to an ecological disaster on our land and other lower riparian states like Bangladesh.
The Chinese are still blaming India for hosting the Dalai Lama and this despite New Delhi, rightly or wrongly, recognizing Tibet as an integral part of China. Their Army has been making occasional forays into our territory. Yes, at times they repeat their claims on Tawang and also on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. They don’t share enough hydrological data, keeping us guessing if they have already started executing their plan to divert the Brahmaputra to provide water to its arid North. The long and short of the story is that 50 years after the war, China continues to be an enigma!