Recently China’s state run Xinhua news agency highlighted the Chinese Foreign Minister’s statement that the-so called Arunachal Pradesh was established largely on the three areas of China’s Tibet – Moyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul currently under illegal Indian occupation. And that these areas located between the illegal McMohan Line and the traditional customary boundary between China and India have always been Chinese territory. Out of Arunachal Pradesh’s total area of 84,000 sq. kms., China claims 65,000 sq. kms. to be South Tibet and legitimately Chinese territory.
In 1914 some tribal majority areas were separated from the erstwhile Darrang and Lakhimpur districts of Assam province of British India to form the North-East Frontier Tracts (NEFT). After India's Independence in 1947 NEFT became a part of the State of Assam. In 1951 the NEFT was renamed the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA). Till 1972 NEFA was constitutionally a part of Assam and was administered directly by the President of India through the Governor of Assam. On January 21, 1972 NEFA became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh. And on February 20, 1987 Arunachal Pradesh earned full-fledged Statehood and became the 24th State of India. Therefore at least for the last hundred years there is no record of Chinese rule in this area.
There are no clear historical records of the area prior to the start of British rule in Assam in 1826. However the region is mentioned often in the Kalika Puranas and the Mahabharat and is believed to be the Prabhu Mountains where the sage Parashuram washed away his sins, the sage Vyas meditated, King Bhishmaka founded his kingdom and Lord Krishna married Rukmini. According to the oral histories of Arunachal Pradesh’s Monpa and Sherdukpen tribes who inhabit its north-western regions, the Monpa kingdom of Monyul flourished in the north-western parts from 500 B.C. to 600 A.D., after which the northern areas came under the loose control of Tibet and Bhutan. Further the chronicles of the Ahoms who ruled Assam from 1228-1826 A.D. record that except for a few pockets of Tibetan influence in the north-west the rest of the State, particularly those bordering Myanmar in the east, came under the titular control of the Ahoms until the advent of the British in Assam. But most of the Arunachali tribes remained in practice largely autonomous till India independence after which the area came under the formal jurisdiction and administration of the Government of India.
The 400 year old Tawang Monastery located in today’s Tawang district in the State’s north-west provides some historical evidence of being under Tibetan influence. Tawang is sacred for Buddhists because the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born here in the 17th century. As a majority of the people here were Buddhists they owed religious allegiance to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet. It is also a fact that regular Indian administration was established in the area north of the Sela Pass where the Tawang Monastery and town are situated only in 1951. Before that the area was administered by the Tawang Monastery but the people were not regarded as Tibetan citizens.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) became interested in Arunachal Pradesh only after it invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950. Before that it did not question the authenticity of the Indo-Tibetan border as delineated by the McMohan Line. In 1913-14 the representatives of British India, China and Tibet met at the Simla Convention to define the borders between outer Tibet and British India, and outer and inner Tibet. British administrator Sir Henry McMohan drew up the 890 km McMohan Line as the boundary between India and outer Tibet in the east. China accepted the boundary as evident from its representative Ivan Chen initialing the map showing the McMohan Line. But China refused to sign the treaty objecting to the boundary between outer and inner Tibet and questioned Tibet’s sovereignty. However both the British and Tibetan representatives signed the treaty.
Significantly on May 30, 1919 the then Chinese Foreign Minister submitted a memorandum to the British in Peking indicating that at the Simla Convention in 1914 China’s objection was only to the boundary between China and Tibet, precisely Outer and Inner Tibet (which adjoined China), and not to the boundary between India and Tibet. Pertinently, when the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911/12 because of the Xinhua Revolution, the 13th Dalai Lama reiterated Tibet’s sovereignty in 1913 by proclaiming Tibet a small, religious and independent nation with the authority to negotiate directly with foreign powers. Hence in 1914 Tibet signed the treaty at the Simla Convention accepting the McMohan Line and ceding Tawang to India as a sovereign state. Also in a letter dated November 7, 1959 to Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai has acknowledged “ …. that to put it concretely the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eastern sector coincides with the McMohan Line….” Moreover in Sino-Indian bilateral agreements of 1993 and 1996 the LAC has gained legal and official recognition.
In 2008 the British Government released a statement discarding the Simla Convention as a colonial legacy and an anachronism dictated by the geo-politics of the time. If so, then what about the partition of India, is it not a colonial legacy also? Or the numerous boundaries the British have drawn up particularly in the Middle-East, Asia and Africa during the era of the British Empire.
Today, instead of casting doubts about the legality of the McMohan Line or the status of Arunachal Pradesh, it maybe more pertinent to question the legitimacy of China’s occupation and rule in Tibet which is marked by human rights abuses.
(The writer can be contacted at a H/no: 5, Kundil Path, Rukmininagar, Guwahati-781 006.)