Foreign dignitaries who come to India almost always fly in to the nation’s capital, New Delhi. In April 2005, however, the Prime Minister of the Peoples’ Republic of China chose first to visit my home town, Bangalore. The Chinese Ambassador to India explained this reversal of procedure by saying that now ‘the “B” of business is more imporant than the “B” of boundary’.
The statement was premature. For while business co-operation between these two great neighbours continues, now and then the unresolved border dispute does rear its less than smiling head. Books continue to be written arguing the Chinese or Indian case. Governments make statements, some subtle, others threatening, staking their claims to this or that slice of land.
This column shall focus on a small, now forgotten, but nonetheless interesting contribution to the literature on the border dispute. This is a eight page, unsigned and undated note entitled ‘Historical Background of the Himalayan Frontiers of India’. However, since it appeared in a White Paper containing materials written between September and November 1959, we can presume that the note was written sometime during those three months. And since it was issued under the stationery of the Historical Division of the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, we may assume that its author was Sarvepalli Gopal, who was then head of that division.
The note’s main purpose was to refute the Chinese claim that the border as it existed was a legacy of British imperialism, that it was forced on a weak and vulnerable China by the white men who then ruled India. The opening sentence of the note made the counter-argument in these words: ‘India’s northern frontier is a traditional one, in the sense that it has lain approximately where it now runs for nearly three thousand years’.
‘The northern frontier of India’, the note continued, ‘is for much of its length the crest of the Himalayan ranges’. And ‘the Himalayas have always dominated Indian life, just as they have dominated the Indian landscape’. The areas along the border were at times independent chiefdoms and at other times part of the Mauryan and Gupta empires, ‘but always the people and the rulers regarded themselves as Indians and remained within the Indian fold’.
So, contra the Chinese claim, the note argued that the border had stayed where it was for at least two thousand eight hundred years before the British chose to conquer India. A verse from an ancient Sanskrit text, the Vishnu Purana, was quoted as saying that the country south of the Himalaya and north of the oceans was called ‘Bharat’, or India. The centrality of the Himalaya to the Indian imagination was then illustrated with reference to the Mahabharata and Ramayana, to the work of the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, and to the 12th century chronicle Rajatarangini, which even bore witness to cultural exchanges between Kashmir and Assam, ‘the two extremities of the northern frontier’.
Thus the literature of ancient and medieval times showed that ‘the Himalayas were part of India, and that the people were familiar with it’. The note then added this significant assertion: ‘Tibetan and Chinese influences, in fact, never gained a permanent footing on the Indian side of the Himalayas throughout the centuries of Hindu rule in India. The Himalayan regions often changed hands, but it was almost always between Indian rulers’. It was claimed that Ladakh came under Tibetan sway only for a very short period. Meanwhile, on the eastern border, ‘Towang inhabited by the Monbas had been part of India for centuries and Tibetan influence had grown in it only since the early years of the nineteenth century’.
This, then, was the note’s unequivocal conclusion: ‘Indeed, this broad survey of the frontier areas from the earliest days down to modern times shows that India’s present norther frontier is along its whole stretch the historic frontier. Few, if any land frontiers in the world can claim as strong a sanction of long and unbroken tradition’.
I find this note interesting for two reasons. The first is political. The Indian nation came into being on 15th August 1947; but here was a historian reading back into the distant past what was arguably a very contemporary idea of India. To be fair, on their part, the Chinese were (and are) also prone to a similar sleight of hand. Whereas the modern Chinese state really dates back to the revolution of 1949, its claims are often advanced on the basis of cultural and civilizational continuities that are said to have persisted for three thousand years or more.
The note is also interesting for its literary flair. This is in keeping with what we know about the author’s other works, as, for example, his three-volume biography of Jawaharlal Nehru. That Sarvepalli Gopal wrote good English is not exactly a new revelation. What is more surprising is his easy and confident use of an ancient tongue. For this note on the border dispute is peppered with verses from Sanskrit texts. It may be that these verses (and their glosses) were supplied by the writer’s father, the distinguished philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishan, who in 1959 was the serving Vice President of the Republic of India.
Published in The Hindu, 17/8/2008