National boundaries are often formed through a very violent process. The revolutionary wars during the French Revolution, carried forward by Napoleon’s imperial wars set up the process of German & Italian unification. It took more than half a century of alliances and popular mobilizations to undermine the papacy of the Vatican, the imperial dynasty of France & most importantly Austria, to allow the numerous states of Italy & Germany to unite, but not without a series of bloody wars. For half a century after the 1870s, not so peaceful empire building in a period often ironically called as one of peace, arbitrary attempted at boundary fixing to finally plunge Europe into the absurd World War 1, concluded with several absurd treaties imposed unilaterally by the victorious sides, with glaring contradictions, not just in Europe but also in Asia. When Nazi Germany & fascist Italy attempted to undo the contradictions by rewriting boundaries, its tentative settlements could only be achieved by the most devastating war in history, World War 2. In Germany, as in Yugoslavia, the contradictions sustained, and it took another half a century to rework them, one with the peaceful demolition of the absurd Berlin Wall, other with the bloody episodes of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. On the other side of the Atlantic, the absurdities & violence are no less. The founding fathers of the USA wiped out millions of indigenous red Indians for the foundation of the ‘democratic USA’. Half of Mexico was taken over by bloody wars. Spanish names like San Diego, Santa Cruz in the southern states are the ruins of violence that fixed boundaries through force, whose contradictions, even today are unfixed. Those who attempt to fix it by building walls have never learnt from history! In the infinite expanse of space & time, these petty-minded leaders are the new age Ozymandias of Egypt or perhaps they are just power thirsty vampires!
In Asia, as much as elsewhere, the history of national boundaries is a direct function of colonial as well as post-colonial violence. Treaty of Sevres after World War 1, divided the former Ottoman peripheries (modern-day Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Jordan etc.) into the cartography of colonial convenience between France & British. Add to that the illegitimate child of anti Semitism and Zionism, we have modern-day Israel, a nation-state, as historian Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky say, founded in the 20th century on principles of 17th - 19th-century settler colonialism. De-colonisation then led to the hasty drawing of boundaries by British & French administrators & lawyers, opening up another protracted era of violence, abetted by the Cold War and US imperialism. Stories of North Korea cannot be told without its indiscriminate bombing by US bombers in the Korean War of 50s. The dictatorship has survived because people hold back their popular resistance on the face of their memories of the US atrocities of the 1950s. The recent bombing of the inter Korean liaison office by North Korea cannot be evaluated fully without keeping in mind the absurdity of the boundary that divides the Koreans. Similar was the absurdity of the infamous 17th parallel that long divided the Vietnamese, through one of history’s most cruel wars. Similarly, the Durand line that divides Afghanistan & Pakistan has to date been not recognized by the Pashtuns on both sides of the line. The Kurdish question in the Middle East can never be understood without recognizing the absurdity of cartography. And this brings us to India.
The history of British cartography is one of great violence on people at frontiers, often tribal and forest people, whom the British wanted to displace, to bring more land into cultivation which they could tax, as well as to displace people, often to be used as indentured labourers in plantation across its colonies, from Assam to the Caribbean islands. Violence is so intricate to cartography, and more so in colonial cartography, that even when the British withdrew, the creation of the national boundaries was done through butchery of more than a million people, with more than 10 million displaced. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. The fight over the boundary in Kashmir has today eclipsed its people. The LOC is kept in force in what is often said as the most militarized zone on earth. Many jingoists in India today say that there should be a ‘final solution of Kashmir that includes one ‘final & decisive’ victory over Pakistan and also on ‘terrorism’.
The last time someone set out for a ‘final solution’, could not quite solve it, and last time a ‘final & decisive’ ‘War on Terror’ was declared, it didn’t quite go well. And they were both ‘superpowers’, so to speak. Anyway, Pakistan is gradually losing its ‘exceptional’ status vis-à-vis India. Now even Nepal has dared to show its colour, as many ‘educated Indians’ writes on social media. The chief of the Army openly says that Nepal is doing it at the behest of someone else, by which he means China; while popular opinion in Nepal is one of betrayal by China & arm twisting by India. ‘If India could talk to China, why not to us’, asked Nepal’s Foreign Minister, shortly before the Nepalese Parliament ratified the map that included Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as Nepali territories. In Indian public opinion, Nepal doesn’t even get a fraction of what China gets. In part, it is because Nepal doesn’t threaten India, unlike China. But that is not true for Nepal. They do get threatened by India, especially the villages on borders, more so by India’s jingoist mouthpieces and spokesmen (sometimes also masculine spokeswomen). The relative fluid nature of Indo-Nepal boundaries could be sustained as long as the two regimes were friendly. The moment the regimes opened their hostilities, the contradictions of national boundaries asserted themselves. The Chino-India developments need no reiteration here. But what we do need to discuss is the underlying causes and the nature of the regimes that ultimately put two armies and indirectly two largest populations at direct confrontation.
When the Home Minister of India on the floor of Lok Sabha says that ‘We’ (who knows if that we include the rich, including himself & his son) will sacrifice lives for PoK & Aksai Chin, it might go unnoticed in India, but not in the neighbourhood. This is a clear signal of confrontation. Add to that the constant warmongering of nationalistic mouthpieces and some jingoistic retired military generals, it doesn’t appear to be a language of peace. This is similar to when Chinese mouthpieces during the Doklam standoff regurgitated achievements of 1962, to remind Indians that they should not forget what the Chinese are capable of. It doesn’t matter how much piece one talks of, what clearly makes a greater impact is the language of threat. If the jingoism of Hindutva needs no retelling, neither do the aggressive actions of the CCP led Chinese regime.
In a recent op-ed piece, the Global Times, in a cautious tone, writes, ‘China does not want to clash with India and hopes to peacefully deal with bilateral border disputes. This is China's goodwill, not weakness. How could China sacrifice its sovereignty in exchange for peace and bow to threats from New Delhi?’
It further writes: ‘The gap between China's and India's strength is clear. China does not want to turn border issues with India into a confrontation. This is goodwill and restraint from China. But China is confident in the situation at the border. It does not and will not create conflicts, but it fears no conflicts either. This policy is supported by both morality and strength. We will not trade our bottom line with anyone’.
Can these paragraphs (even though much more subdued in tone than Indian jingoistic media) sound peaceful to Indian ears? I don’t think so. ‘This is China’s goodwill’, what does it imply? That if it is not for goodwill, do face military consequences. Then it asks rhapsodically, how China could sacrifice its sovereignty in exchange for peace. Does this even mean anything? Can India then sacrifice its sovereignty? ‘The gap between China's and India's strength is clear. Is this a message of peace?
In short, what is apt can be summarized in what NYT wrote in one of its op-ed pieces, when it wrote, ‘Both countries and their nationalist leaders, President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, have taken increasingly assertive postures that pose real risks of the conflict spinning out of control’.
No boundary agreement can be permanent, particularly when the regimes are hostile to one another. What we need is not jingoism from the two autocratic regimes, but bringing down the rhetoric. Hindutva nationalism is in nobody’s interest, neither is the so-called communist autocracy of China. Unless both the countries do enough to change the nature of their regimes, all these ad hoc measures would be only episodic and temporary. India should abandon Hindutva’s muscle-flexing, give up its vulgar surrender to business interest, which also essentially means unfettered US interest, allow freedom or autonomy in Kashmir and bring down the anti-Chinese rhetoric which is very racist. China should take democracy beyond its party’s Central Committee and local levels, allow freedom & autonomy throughout the country but more importantly in Tibet in this context, decelerate its military buildup which no more looks like a communist militia of self-defense and above all stop arm twisting its neighbours. The Hindutva is a blotch on pluralism, as much as Chinese autocracy is a blotch on communism. India needs more lessons of nationalism that someone like Tagore offered when he spoke out against Western materialism and Japanese aggression but at the same time with self retrospection about horrors of caste among others (we can add Islamophobia to it today); while China needs lessons from Trotsky where he damned the Stalinist dictatorship of autocracy, casteist militarism and bureaucratism. India needs to implement the spirit of Chicago, which talked about acceptance of everyone; while China needs the spirit of the 1st International, where the French & the German working class, denounced the Franco- Prussian war, as one of dynastic interest, calling for workers of on both sides to unite for the cause of socialism. Until the hierarchical structures on both sides of the LAC remain intact unless voluntary self organizations by people remain elusive on both sides unless a common planetary cause can strike accord across the planet built not on market interest but on social & ecological well being, national boundaries would continue to remain, and with it, would continue its crimes, the victims of which would mostly be innocent & well-meaning civilians and soldiers, on both sides.
About the writer:
Jyotishman Mudiar is an MA graduate in modern history from CHS, JNU. He is also a BTech graduate from NIT Rourkela in Civil Engineering. The author has a keen interest in political philosophy, history and current events.