Border management more than just domestic politics

The ‘Vibrant Villages’ project is a response to China’s own xiaokang or ‘well-off’ villages development programme along the LAC.
A file photo of China's paramount leader Xi Jinping with premier Li Qiang and other CCP leaders, used for representative purposes only. (Photo | AFP)
A file photo of China's paramount leader Xi Jinping with premier Li Qiang and other CCP leaders, used for representative purposes only. (Photo | AFP)

During his visit to Arunachal Pradesh earlier this week, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah declared, “Today, we can state with pride, gone are those days when people could encroach into our land. Now, they cannot even take a pin’s tip worth of our land because the ITBP and the Indian Army are now present here.”

The primary audience the statement is intended for is the domestic one.

Shah intended to remind Indians that it was the Congress regime under Jawaharlal Nehru that both failed to stop Chinese encroachments on Indian territory and later lost the 1962 conflict. While these are facts well-known and not easily forgotten, there are, however, two other facts that the minister might wish his audience to forget.

The first is the fact that the BJP-led government, too, failed to anticipate the Chinese encroachments of 2020 in eastern Ladakh. The home minister’s reference specifically to the ITBP and the Army should be interpreted as deflecting attention from this failure, including the lack of an accountability exercise post-Galwan. Ordinary Indians are not expected to challenge the sincerity and work of the country’s armed forces—and by extension, that of the government. What implications does this tendency of one-upmanship in Indian politics have for India’s China policy?

Beijing has certainly exploited the diffidence of the Indian government in fully acknowledging the extent of the Chinese transgressions in the summer of 2020.

On the one hand, the Chinese now frequently declare that the situation on the LAC has returned to normal. On the other hand, they are also playing hardball by dragging out the military-to-military talks in eastern Ladakh and fresh confrontations elsewhere along the LAC, such as at Yangtse in Arunachal Pradesh in December last year.

In between, they have also provoked by twice issuing a list of Chinese names for locations in Arunachal Pradesh—the latest instance came in March—as a way of keeping their claims alive in the region. The larger Chinese objective here is to hold on to their gains since 2020, solidify existing claims, and make new ones.

Meanwhile, occasional moderation in China’s statements—its foreign ministry spokesperson’s response to a question on Shah’s visit was somewhat brief and mild by Chinese standards—must be seen as purely tactical and as responding to domestic imperatives or other global events.

For instance, like ruling political parties anywhere else in the world, China’s communists do not want disruptions or distractions in the middle of key events in their political calendar, such as, for example, the 20th Party Congress in October last year. In the present instance, it might be that Beijing wishes to take pressure off Russia by promoting a trilateral with India that would both confuse the West about New Delhi’s positions and reliability and boost Russian confidence on the world stage with the belief that it is backed by two of Asia’s most significant powers.

The second fact that Shah’s Arunachal statement seeks to elide is that the Congress under former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh contributed significantly to the capacity against China by scaling up infrastructure development in the border regions and expanding India’s diplomatic outreach and military modernisation. That these processes should kick into a higher gear today under the BJP is a natural progression.

Shah’s statement came during the launch of a ‘Vibrant Villages’ project of the Central government in Kibithoo near the LAC in Anjaw district. This scheme involves the development of over 2,900 villages in 46 blocks of 19 districts along the border with China in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

It is part of an attempt to reverse one of the effects of the 1962 conflict—communities and hamlets located too close to the LAC were forced to withdraw further behind as the Indian state followed a defensive logic of stalling the development of physical and communications infrastructure in the region for fear of China making use of these in another conflict. As a result, even as the LAC became securitised, India’s Army, Assam Rifles, the ITBP and other security agencies also suffered from poor access and communication facilities. The ‘Vibrant Villages’ scheme is a culmination of efforts in recent decades to undo this legacy.

It is important to highlight, however, that the ‘Vibrant Villages’ project is itself a response to China’s own xiaokang or ‘well-off’ villages development programme along the LAC. Several hundred of these xiaokang villages are strung all along the LAC in various stages of construction. Even when fully constructed, they have the air of Potemkin villages—it is unclear that the villages have any Tibetans settled in them, and the dominant belief in the Indian security establishment is that these are dual-use villages meant to house PLA soldiers or populate the region with Han immigrants as part of the demographic change the Chinese wish to impose on Tibet. Either way, given the Chinese state’s record in Tibet, it is not the well-being of Tibetans that is its primary concern.

In the Indian context, it is important to note that its border communities have had problems with Central government projects over the decades and across multiple ruling dispensations. Development in the region is focused on national security considerations and often comes at the expense of local interests and environmental considerations.

To conclude, New Delhi must be careful that domestic politics, whether at the centre or the margins, does not undermine the country’s external interests or its constitutional values at home. The sense of competition with China among the elite in India is all for good. However, they must resist the temptation also to ape the Chinese political and economic development model. To do so would only further demean India’s status as a peer competitor to China.

Jabin T Jacob

Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies and Director, Centre for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCRT Jacob

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