The geographical factor behind deeply inherent perceptions of security among different people is known but seldom given the importance it should get in efforts to understand and evolve resolutions to endemic conflicts. Seen from this vantage, many of the conflict theatres would begin to appear different, calling for different approaches to settlements.
The India-China boundary dispute in Arunachal Pradesh will illustrate this. China’s claim is that the state is South Tibet, but this is probably maximalist posturing. Except for the Tawang-Bomdila corridor in Arunachal’s western districts, the Tibetan Buddhist Church—as Alastair Lamb called it in The McMahon Line: A Study in the Relations Between, India, China and Tibet, 1904 to 1914—had virtually no influence in the rest of the state, unlike say in Sikkim, Ladakh and Bhutan.
Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, indeed was under Tibetan control back then and it was only during the Simla Conference of 1913-14 that Henry McMahon and Charles Bell bargained for its inclusion with India. The reason was, Tawang was too close to the Assam plains. Tibet in turn was promised British support in case of Chinese aggression.
When China invaded Tibet in October 1950, Lhasa took the matter to the UN. Its allies Britain, the US and India were unwilling to sponsor its motion and it was ultimately El Salvador that did the favour. This prompted Tibet to actually ask for the return of Tawang. After the Simla Conference, even though Tawang was politically made a part of India, it was still allowed to be under the cultural and religious control of Lhasa. However, after China communicated to India of its decision to take over Tibet, New Delhi decided to end Lhasa’s suzerain influence on Tawang in early 1950.
There is also the legacy of the British frontier administration that complicated the matter. The most significant is the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, which created an Inner Line along the base of the hills surrounding the plains of Assam. This line divided British revenue land from the non-revenue ones. While the former were to be administered, the latter were to be claimed but not administered.
Lord Curzon’s Romanes Lecture 1907 titled “Frontiers” gives more insights into how notions like “suzerainty”, “protectorate states”, “excluded” and “partially-excluded” resulted from this approach to frontier management. These were territories where the British involved themselves in a calibrated way in indirect administration. The Tibet case stood out in this. The British did not want to take control of it but did not want other powers extending their “sphere of influence” there. This legacy of boundary ambiguity is now being capitalised by China.
But there is a more primal politics shaped by subliminal anxieties. As in Kashmir, the anxiety here is also water. Just as all major tributaries of the Indus River, including the five that irrigate the fertile plains of Punjab, either originate or flow through Kashmir, all the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra River also flow out of Arunachal. Controlling the state can hence be an important handle in controlling the Northeast as well as Bangladesh.
The same civilisational threat Indus valley would feel at losing control of the waters that feed it would also be true of the fertile plains Brahmaputra irrigates. Even between friendly countries, the protest by Bangladesh regarding India’s proposed Tipaimukh Dam over the Barak is the litmus test to demonstrate this archetypal anxiety in the relationship between any river valley and the hills that surround it. This dynamic can also be seen in the objections from Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to the demand for a Greater Nagaland.
Halford Mackinder’s influential Geographical Pivot of History in 1904, taken forward by Robert Kaplan in Revenge of Geography, elaborates on this further. Rimland and heartland nations have very different perceptions of security. Island nations are bound by natural boundaries, heartland nations invariably by artificial ones. It is important for heartland nations to have a sense of control over territories immediately beyond their national boundaries. Russia’s extreme response to NATO befriending Ukraine was explained thus. The vast plains that separate Russia from Western European powers have always been a source of Russia’s security through history.
The futile invasions by Napoleon and Hitler demonstrated this. The British Empire had a curious mix of both psychologies. The friction between Lord Morley in London at the India secretariat and Lord Curzon as viceroy in Calcutta say this loudly. The heartland outlook to security was evident in Curzon’s Tibet anxiety, which led him to invade the monastery state in 1904 when he became convinced it was leaning towards Russia. In London, Morley and his likes dismissed this concern and eventually ended up undoing whatever Curzon achieved.
Morley’s letter to Curzon’s successor Lord Minto in October 1906 is revealing: These “frontier men”,forget “the complex intrigues, rival interests and, if you like, diabolical machinations which make up international politics for a vast sprawling Empire like ours...” Ironically, Minto, while in London in Morley’s office, spoke the same language, but once in India, he too began seeing as Curzon did and expressed his dissatisfaction at the way the Lhasa Convention 1904 was allowed to be usurped by the Peking Convention 1906. It is arguable that if Curzon had his way, the British would probably have left Tibet like Bhutan, or Sikkim before 1975.
Pradip Phanjoubam (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics