In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party made sure to attack the ruling Manmohan Singh government’s foreign policy for being too soft. In the case of Pakistan, for example, Narendra Modi even went so far as to propose the use of military might in order to respond to Islamabad’s support of terror.
Tempers, though, cooled down once Modi actually took office in 2014. As analysts has predicted, the BJP pretty much carried on with Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy. In fact, Modi even went that extra mile to make peace. In December 2015, he actually flew down to Pakistan, to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
On China, the Modi government has been even mellower, employing the services of a first-class thesaurus to tone down hostilities with India’s northern neighbour. As Chinese troops entered a border distract of the state of Uttarakhand, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar got up in the Lok Sabha and advised against making too much of it since the Chinese had only committed, he said, a “transgression” and not an “incursion”.
Semantics as defence policy
The difference? In the dictionary, a "transgression" is when someone crosses a boundary and an "incursion" is a hostile invasion. With this subtle play on words, Parrikar was calming tempers, pointing to a fact of life when it comes to the India-China boundary: there is no boundary. “The India-China border is not formally demarcated,” explained the defence minister. “There are areas where both sides have differing perceptions of LAC. Barhoti [in Uttarakhand] is one such area.”
This explanation might seem awkward but it’s actually perfectly accurate. India and China do not have a mutually agreed on border. The actual land that India and China control goes back to the 1962 War. After defeating India militarily, China declared a unilateral ceasefire – and this informs the actual positions India and China control till today.
This might confuse many, given that Indian maps actually have a rather prominent international border with China but that’s only because the Indian government aggressively censors any publication of the real positions the two countries control. Rather than the international border, the line on Indian maps is, more accurately, India’s claim line and has little relation to the situation on the ground.
Maps versus reality
Given that millions of Indians grow up with these maps, the Indo-China situation is ripe for politics centred around misinformation. During the United Progressive Alliance years, the BJP made it a point to attack the government for being soft towards China. Of course, just like today, the difference between an “incursion” and a “transgression” was a matter of perception. Given the way India’s draws its borders with China on its maps, technically, China has been committing incursions/transgressions into Indian territory 24X7 since 1962. How an individual incursion/transgression actually makes the news, however, is a bit of a mystery.
In 2013, for example, the Indian media reported on Chinese troops entering Indian territory in the Daulat Beg Oldi area in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. Like 2016, the Union government at the time was rather sanguine about it and officially denied there was a conflict at all. India even went ahead with a visit of its foreign minister Salman Khurshid to China. Like Parrikar, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh probably understood that this was simply a result of the long undemarcated boundary.
The India-China border might create a lot of noise but practically, it is India’s most peaceful border. What is unfortunate is that the complexities of the situation are often used by political parties to unscrupulously push their agendas. In the 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident, for example, the BJP, then in Opposition, accused the government of capitulating to China – the party would wait to take office to learn the difference between an “incursion” and a “transgression”.
Inter-party conflict is a feature of democratic politics. And it’s mostly a positive one, pushing parties to better each other to try and woo the voter. Of course, the state of India’s borders is one of the exceptions to that rule. With both China as well as Pakistan, India is wedded to a maximalist position as laid out theoretically on its maps seven decades ago. Internal politics means that any government moving an inch away from this position risks certain political death. This, in turn, forces India into situations such as Siachen, which has resulted in not only a fantastic wastage of money but the tragic death of nearly one thousand Indian soldiers since 1984.
Politicking is great – but sometimes parties should let the interests of the Indian people trump their own. The Union government would be far better off paying attention to India’s development rather than getting caught up in pointless tiffs with the neighbours.