Anirban Roy: You have recently come into prominence as a result of the theory of “Line of Amity” that you have conceived. It has attracted much attention because of the recent events surrounding Galwan in Eastern Ladakh. How did this all come about?
Jaideep Saikia: I first conceived of the idea of the “Line of Amity” in 2014 when I was invited to be part of the Indian delegation for “Track II Dialogue” with China. I am a student of security—in the traditional sense—and for most parts my research has been about terrorism and insurgency in the Northeast and the region abutting it. I have authored and/or edited ten books and written over two dozen peer reviewed papers for national and international journals.
Apart from a couple, almost all of them are on Islamist militancy, Bangladesh, al-Qaeda/ISIS, counter-terrorism doctrine and, of course, insurgencies in the Northeast. However, around 2001, I found myself changing gears and getting increasingly interested in the India-China boundary issue as it pertains to the eastern sector. I began reading about its history, connecting with India-China boundary experts such as Robert Sutter, Dawa Norbu, Claude Arpi and Neville Maxwell and visiting forward areas in Arunachal Pradesh.
I also got an opportunity to visit China in 2002 on the invitation of the Fudan University in Shanghai. I travelled to Beijing, Zhejiang and Shanghai where I conferred with top Chinese think tank leaders and strategic thinkers such as Ma Jiali, Wang Dehua, Chen Ruisheng (who had been China’s envoy to India), Wang Hongwei, Rong Ying and Wang Nan, the last of who was then the Editor-in-Chief (International Affairs) of the Beijing based People’s Daily.
I soon realized that if there is indeed a “security dilemma” that India is faced it with then it is the boundary problem with China. The rest of the issues are mere exercises in “problem-solving”. The fact that the boundary issue has been festering for so long added to my discomfiture and the sheer complexity of the problem was so overwhelming that I knew that I would be spending almost the rest of my life researching the issue.
AR: Are you suggesting that the problem has not been correctly understood?
JS: Absolutely. I am neither a historian nor a cartographer. But I am convinced of the fact that apart from a very few, the rest of the people who comment, lecture and write about the India-China border issue have little or no idea about the ground reality. Indeed, I, too, know only “half-the-story” and am still grappling with newer insights and aspects that constitute the India-China boundary issue.
In my view, it is all very well to inform a gullible constituency that makes up 99 % of India’s population that there has been an intrusion by the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) of China in a particular sector and accuse Beijing about continually “shifting its stance” about the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and quite another to be able to boldly state that this is the LAC upon which both India and China agree on and, therefore, has been intruded.
In reality there isn’t a well-defined one LAC. In other words, allegations have been made in an ad hoc manner, without even fathoming where the LAC is on the ground. In Bum La, for instance, it is a “heap of stones” which, incidentally, is an unambiguous marker. But there have been instances when patrols of each other’s armies have criss-crossed each other despite the fact that they are generally aware about the “disputed areas” and “claim lines”.
To that end, I would say that there has never been great sanctity about the LAC in certain areas and it is possible that patrols from both sides—at times—have deliberately or otherwise crossed it, leaving tell-tale signs (at least until about a decade or so ago!) in their wake! Now, I am not certain about the motivation for such courses of action: it unquestionably seems to follow an animal like behaviour of “spraying one’s territory” and since there has never been formal exchange of maps (apart from the central sector!) ambiguities have continued to characterise the exact environment of one’s territory.
This is despite the fact there are regular exercises such as Border Personnel Meetings (BPMs) between local commanders of the Indian army and the PLA where such matters are reportedly discussed. But I must inform you that even in such formal meetings (I have witnessed at least one such BPM in Bum La on 30 October 2007) there could be an element of ambiguity and denial.
For instance, the Indian army had erected a statue of the Buddha on the Indian side of the LAC in Bum La on or around 30 October 2007. I saw it when I visited Bum La for the BPM. Someone desecrated the statue on the night before the BPM leading to almost a cancellation of the event.
The Chinese denied having anything to do with the vandalisation of the sculpture and it was only after prolonged consultations with Tenga, Tezpur, Ft. William, New Delhi by the Indian army commander and I should think with Chengdu by the Chinese that the BPM finally took place. So it’s not as if everything is cut and dried even in sectors where the LAC is purportedly well-defined.
AR: But there must be a mechanism right at the top to oversee such issues?
JS: There is a “mysterious” China Study Group in New Delhi headed by the Foreign Secretary of India (I believe the National Security Adviser of India is heading it now after its revival post the Galwan incident), but I can assure you that the members of the Group have not even visited Guwahati in the Northeast not to speak of Chaglohagam in eastern Arunachal Pradesh where a real problem of perception on ground exists.
The problem about non-comprehension about “whose-is-where” is so grave that there was a time when India blissfully gave away two strategically placed expanses—technically known as “Fish Tails”—to the Chinese. It was only later that the cartographic mistake was realised and the “jostle” for space ensued.
Disputes in certain pockets such as Asaphila and Longju in the eastern sector do exist. But these are known areas and it is almost a certitude that there are ambiguities in many other places along the entire 4056 Km long India-China boundary. So there is in effect two LACs, a Chinese one and an Indian one. The hilarity of it all is that there have been agreements in the past about such blurred “Lines of Actual Control”.
AR: Is that so about Ladakh as well?
JS: I have never been to Ladakh and cannot, therefore, comment on the manner in which the present imbroglio came to the fore with great authority, but I suspect that there is more to l’affaire Galwan than meets the eye. The topography of Ladakh is such that there are “major voids” or “gaps” between the patrolling areas. To that end the “perceptional differences” that determine the boundary are very large, a la what I referred to above about the “non-existence” of a clearly demarcated LAC in certain sections. Besides, the Indian army—until the incident—was not as densely deployed in the sector as is the case in say the Kameng sector where new Indian army elements have been deployed.
To that end, the area domination—which sadly (in at least one important sense!) is what the LAC is all about—was not robust, permitting thereby the PLA and the Chinese Border Guards to occupy sections that India considers to be its territory. However, the operative word in this context is “considers”. In the absence of a comprehensive “after action” report which I am not privy to, I have to rely on what has been stated by the Indian army, but like I said there is no clear instance of a map, boundary pillar or even a natural barrier to determine even an approximation of where the LAC was or should have been.
AR: So what according to you was the reason for the intrusion in Galwan?
JS: I have already told you that it is likely that “perceptional differences” graduated into a dispute. But having been said that, I think the Chinese wanted to communicate to India that “offensive overtures” would not be tolerated, especially as the Chinese are serious about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. I am referring to the chest-thumping that some of our experts engage in without forethought!
Incidentally, it’s not as if the Chinese can be absolved of such behaviour. They, too, have been victims of what Manjari Chatterjee Miller of Boston University calls “post imperial ideology” syndrome, a state of disorientation which stems from hurtful recollections of colonialism.
Therefore, I think the episode—quite like 1962 when the PLA reached Misamari near Tezpur only to withdraw to the Thagla ridge atop which they are perched at this point—was a message of sorts for India. The sadness of it all is the fact that the mess could have been avoided if India had embarked upon the sort of endeavours that the Indian army has presently embarked upon in Eastern Ladakh and have achieved.
The nation must not allow the diplomats to fritter away the advantageous position that India is currently entrenched in Eastern Ladakh. But, at the same time one must desist from taking recourse to rhetoric. Indeed, from one’s station the phrases “Revisionist China” or “Pax Sinica” sounds gross. It does not take much effort to raise the decibels of conflict and inform someone in Ernakulum that China has intruded into a place called Spanggur Gap in Indian territory, but the fact of the matter is that there exists—by the same token—phrases such as “Pax Indica” and “Ultra-Nationalist India” as well.
AR: Could you spell out the essence of the concept of “Line of Amity”?
JS: Like I said, the idea came to my mind because of the “Track II Dialogue” in 2014. The status quo, albeit with the usual appendages about maintenance of peace and tranquility along the frontiers, was not progressing and I thought that a “probe” into the Chinese mind was warranted. The “dialogue” was an opportunity and I felt that China might just resurrect its 1960 and 1980 east-west swap proposal, especially as the Chinese side is reportedly not unified on the issue.
I hazarded this aspect despite the fact that Beijing had already shifted the “goalposts” in July 1986 and had clearly re-interpreted the “package deal” by asserting that India provides “meaningful concessions” to China in the east where the swathe of land is large. Indeed, according to Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary of India the “package deal” was dead in the waters once the Chinese raised the issue about compromises in the east. He informed some of us about this about-turn during the course of a webinar—India-China Boundary: Eye to the Eastern Sector—which I had organised on 30 August 2020.
In any event, a solution of sorts—with an eye to circuiting the status quo that prevails—was proposed by me on 26-27 August 2014 during the course of the aforesaid “Dialogue”. Armed with ground based research and even communication with Chinese think tank leaders such as Shen Dingli, I sought to make good of the “as-is-where-is” position in a sub-sector that I had been studying for a number of years.
My field visits and research informed that neither side would surrender ground in a particular sector nor would they covet areas that are being occupied by the other. The sub-sector in question is in the Kameng sector of Arunachal Pradesh and the “markers” are the Thagla Ridge held by the Chinese and the Namka Chu that runs south of the Ridge by the Indians.
There has been no history of intrusion in the sub-sector and my visit to the area entailed that it is the right place for an entente cordiale to be engineered. However, a “Boundary Commission” would have to be constituted to formally study the area that I am referring to. But there is a clear natural barrier by way of the Namka Chu, the southern bank of which the India army is deployed. Indeed, this is one sub-sector that lends itself rather elegantly to a well-defined line which indeed—for all intents and purposes—is also serving as one.
I merely want to take the “as-is-where-is” basis a step further by renaming the “Line of Actual Control” into the “Line of Amity”. This would naturally be an interim measure and given the length of time that even a well-meaning “Boundary Commission” would take before even a semblance of an International Boundary can be conceived; the pacifist in me felt that replacing the phrase “Line of Actual Control” by a name that does not ring of belligerence (which has been the India-China boundary mainstay for decades) would at least usher in a sense of accommodation, heralding thereby an attitude transformation in both the parties.
As a matter of fact the watershed principle that Henry McMahon had decreed in the Simla Conference of 1914 approximates the “holding line” in the Thagla Ridge which the Chinese presently occupies with a modicum of variation by way of what is known as the Thagla Gap.
AR: In cementing political narratives nomenclatures can play a very important role. However, changing the nomenclature “Line of Actual Control” may be misconstrued as a rollover of past failures onto the current establishment? How sure are we about the political will to do something on these lines?
JS: I am a student of India’s national security and not a policy maker. I also—as I have stated many times in other forums—do not need to exhibit my patriotism by installing Sare Jahan Se Acha as my caller tune. I have arrived at the concept of “Line of Amity”—as explained above—after due consideration to every aspects that govern the problem and to move away from what I feel is a loathsome stalemate.
India has many a mile to traverse in a variety of directions before it can reach its objective of becoming a super power. A boundary issue that can be solved without giving away even an inch of land must not hold it back from attaining that status.
Some years ago, on 25 October 2015, the late Neville Maxwell and I wrote a joint “conversation piece” for a newspaper. The piece was titled Between the Border Lines. It ended by suggesting the change of nomenclature that I am referring to. Let me paraphrase the last paragraph of the article. I—after a protracted debate with the nonagenarian author of India’s China War—said that substituting the belligerent sounding “Line of Actual Control” by terming it “Line of Amity” would lessen the rhetoric and allow the leadership to inform their respective peoples that it is détente hour. Do you know how the late Maxwell reacted? He said, “Well, Jaideep, it should ideally be termed the Modi-Xi Line”.