Context: The deadly clashes at Galwan which resulted in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers and the ongoing standoff between India and China on the ridges or “fingers” around the Pangong Tso are a metaphor for the wider conflict between the two countries.
Five fingers of the Tibetan palm:
- According to the construct, attributed to Mao - Xizang (Tibet) was China’s right palm, and it was its responsibility to “liberate” the fingers, defined as Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, or Arunachal Pradesh).
- Sixty years ago, India began to set about ensuring that all five fingers were more closely attached to India, not China.
- As the government of India grapples with its next steps at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it must cast a similarly grand strategy, to renew its compact with each of those areas today.
- Panchsheel agreement and aftermath: India and China signed the Panchsheel agreement in 1954, but the Nehru government had begun to worry about some of China’s proclamations before the 1962 China-India war.
- Especially after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, China began to demand self-determination in Kashmir and allowing Naga and Mizo dissidents into China for refuge and training.
- India’s countermove: While India’s military miscalculations and defeat in the 1962 war have been studied in great detail, what is perhaps not so well understood is the three-pronged foreign policy New Delhi set into motion at the time, that provided an effective counter to Mao’s five finger policy over the course of the century.
India’s 3 pronged policy to counter Mao’s 5 finger policy:
- Push for building border infrastructure and governance:
- In the mid-1950s the government piloted a project to build the Indian Frontier Administrative Services (IFAS) for overseeing NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) and other areas along the India-China frontier.
- While India’s border infrastructure is only now catching up with the infrastructure China built in the course of the next few decades, its base was made during the brief period the IFAS existed, before it was wound up in 1968.
- The IFAS’s role has since been transferred to the Indian Army and the Border Roads Organisation, but it is an idea worth revisiting, especially as areas along the frontier continue to complain of neglect and a lack of focus from the Centre.
- Series of treaties with neighbours such as Nepal and Bhutan:
- This resulted in the consolidation of control, militarily and administratively, of other territories that acceded to India, including Ladakh as a part of Jammu and Kashmir (1947), and NEFA (1951).
- In 1950, India signed a treaty with Sikkim that made it a “protectorate”, and by 1975 the Indira Gandhi Government had annexed Sikkim and made it the 22nd State of India.
- The Tibet issue:
- For the third prong, India’s policy towards the “palm” or Tibet, itself should be looked at more closely as well.
- While New Delhi’s decision to shelter the Dalai Lama and lakhs of his followers since 1959 is a policy that is lauded, it does not change the need for New Delhi to look into the future of its relationship, both with the Tibetan refugee community in India, which has lived here in limbo for decades, as well as with its future leadership.
- At present, the Dalai Lama has the loyalty of Tibetans worldwide, but in the future, the question over who will take up the political leadership of the community looms large.