National boundaries are often formed through violent processes, supported by revolutionary wars vis-à-vis during the French Revolution carried forward by Napoleon’s imperial wars set up the process of German & Italian unification. It took more than half a century of alliances and popular mobilizations to undermine the papacy of Vatican, the imperial dynasty of France & most importantly of Austria. It allowed numerous states of Italy & Germany to unite, but not without a series of wars. For half a century after the 1870s, vituperative empire building took place when this period is often ironically called as one of peace. This arbitrary attempt at boundary fixing was to finally plunge Europe into World War I, which concluded with several absurd treaties imposed unilaterally by the victorious sides, with glaring contradictions, not just in Europe but also in Asia. When Nazi Germany & fascist Italy attempted to undo the contradictions by rewriting the boundaries, its tentative settlements could only be achieved by the most devastating war in history, World War 2. In Germany, as in Yugoslavia, the contradictions sustained, and it took another half a century to rework them, one with the peaceful demolition of the absurd Berlin Wall, other with the bloody episodes of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. The founding fathers of the United States wiped out millions of indigenous Native Americans for the foundation of a ‘democratic United States of America’. Half of Mexico was taken over by bloody wars. Spanish names like San Diego, Santa Cruz on the southern states are the ruins of the violence that fixed boundaries through force, whose contradictions, even today are precarious. Those who attempt to cement these boundaries by building walls have never learnt from history! In the infinite expanse of space & time, these leaders are, new-age Ozymandias of Egypt, whose thirst for power could never quite get quenched.
In Asia, like elsewhere, the history of national boundaries is a result of colonial as well as post-colonial violence. Treaty of Sevres after World War I, divided the former Ottoman peripheries (modern-day Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Jordan) into the cartography of colonial convenience between France & British. Adding to this we have modern-day Israel, a nation-state, which according to historian Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky, was founded on the 20th century on principles of 17th-19thcentury settler colonialism. Decolonisation led to the hasty drawing of boundaries by both French and British administrators and lawyers, which opened up another protracted era of violence, abetted by the Cold War and US imperialism. One cannot narrate the histories of North Korea without mentioning indiscriminate bombing by US bombers in the Korean War of the 1950s. The dictatorship has survived because people held back their popular resistance due to their memories of the US atrocities of the 1950s. The recent bombing of the inter Korean liaison office by North Korea cannot be evaluated fully without keeping in mind the absurdity of the boundary that divides the Koreans. Similar is the absurdity of the infamous 17th parallel that had long divided the Vietnamese, or the Durand line that divides Afghanistan & Pakistan and has till date not been recognized by the Pashtuns on both sides of the border. The Kurdish question in West Asia can never be understood without recognizing the absurdity of cartography which finally brings us to India.
The history of British cartography is one of the great onslaught of violence on people at frontiers, who are often tribals, whom the British wanted to displace, to bring more land into cultivation which they could tax, as well as to displace people, often to be used as indentured labourers in plantation across its colonies, from Assam to the Caribbean islands. Violence is so intricate to cartography, and more so in colonial cartography, that even when the British withdrew, the creation of the national boundaries was achieved by the slaughtering of more than a million people, with more than 10 million displaced. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. The fight over the boundary in Kashmir has today eclipsed its people. The Line of Control (LoC) is one of the most militarized zones on earth. Many jingoists in India today believe that there should be a final solution of Kashmir that which includes one ‘final & decisive’ victory over Pakistan and also on terrorism. The last time such venture on the final solution was set out for, it was met with failure, and a ‘War on Terror’ was declared.
Pakistan is gradually losing its ‘exceptional’ status vis-à-vis India. The chief of Army openly stated that Nepal is doing things at the behest on someone else, by which he meant China; while popular opinion in Nepal is one of betrayal by China & arm twisting by India. “If India could talk to China, why not to us”, asked Nepal’s Foreign Minister, shortly before Nepalese Parliament ratified the map that included Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as Nepalese territories. In the Indian public opinion, Nepal doesn’t even get a fraction of what China gets because it doesn’t threaten India, unlike China. But that is not true for Nepal, they are threatened by India, especially the villages on borders, more so by India’s jingoist mouthpieces and spokesmen. The relative fluid nature of Indo-Nepal boundaries can only be sustained as long as the two regimes are friendly. The moment the regimes opened their hostilities, the contradictions of national boundaries asserted themselves. The Indo-China developments need no reiteration here. But what we do need to discuss is the underlying causes and the nature of the regimes that ultimately put two armies and indirectly the two largest populations in direct confrontation.
When the Home Minister of India on the floor of Lok Sabha opens his speech with a ‘We’, it is to wonder if it is only inclusive of the privileged, who will never be sacrificed at the Indian borders of PoK & Aksai Chin. Such declarations might go unnoticed in India, but not in the neighbourhood. This is a clear signal of confrontation. Adding to this is the constant warmongering by nationalistic mouthpieces and jingoistic retired military generals. This is similar to the Chinese mouthpieces during Doklam standoff regurgitated achievements of 1962, to remind Indians that it should not forget what the Chinese are capable of. It does not matter how much peace one talks of, what clearly makes a greater impact is the language of threat. If the jingoism of Hindutva needs no retelling, neither do the aggressive actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led the Chinese regime. In a recent op-ed piece, the Global Times, in a cautious tone, wrote:
‘China does not want to clash with India and hopes to peacefully deal with bilateral border disputes. This is China’s goodwill, not weakness. How could China sacrifice its sovereignty in exchange for peace and bow to threats from New Delhi?’
Source: The Global Times
It further stated:
‘The gap between China’s and India’s strength is clear. China does not want to turn border issues with India into a confrontation. This is goodwill and restraint from China. But China is confident in the situation at the border. It does not and will not create conflicts, but it fears no conflicts either. This policy is supported by both morality and strength. We will not trade our bottom line with anyone’.
Source: The Global Times
Can these paragraphs, though much more subdued in tone than Indian jingoistic media-sound peaceful to Indian ears? I don’t think so. “This is China’s goodwill”, what does it imply? That if it is not for their goodwill, we will have to face military consequences(?) Then it asks rhapsodically, how China could sacrifice its sovereignty in exchange for peace. Does this even mean anything? Can India then sacrifice its sovereignty? ‘The gap between China’s and India’s strength is clear”. This is not a message of peace.
In short, what can be summarized is what New York Times mentioned in one of its op-ed pieces,
‘Both countries and their nationalist leaders, President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modiof India, have taken increasingly assertive postures that pose real risks of the conflict spinning out of control’.
Source: The New York Times
No boundary agreement can be permanent, especially when the regimes are hostile to one another. What we need is not jingoism from the two autocratic regimes, but to squash down the rhetoric. Hindutva nationalism is in nobody’s interest, neither is the so-called communist autocracy of China. Unless both the countries do enough to change the nature of its regimes, all these ad hoc measures would only be episodic and temporary. India should abandon Hindutva’s muscle-flexing, give up its vulgar surrender to business interest, allow autonomy in Kashmir and bring down the racist anti-Chinese rhetorics. China should take democracy beyond its party’s Central Committee and local levels, allow more freedom & autonomy throughout the country but more importantly in Tibet in this context, decelerate its military buildup which no longer looks like a communist militia of self-defence, above all it should stop arm twisting its neighbours. Hindutva politics is a blotch on pluralism, as much as Chinese autocracy is a blotch on communism.
India at present needs more lessons of nationalism that someone like Tagore offered when he spoke out against Western materialism and Japanese aggression but at the same time with self retrospection about horrors of caste and Islamophobia today. While China needs lessons from Trotsky where he damned the Stalinist dictatorship of autocracy, militarism and bureaucratism. India needs to implement the spirit of the Chicago Conference, which spoke about acceptance of everyone, while China needs the spirit of the First International, where the French & the German working class, denounced the Franco- Prussian war, as one of dynastic interest, calling for workers on both sides to unite for the cause of socialism. The hierarchical structures on both sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) remain intact unless voluntary self-organization by people remains elusive on both sides, a common planetary cause can strike accord across the planet built not on market interest but on social & ecological well being, national boundaries would continue to remain, and with it would continue its crimes, the victims of which would mostly be innocent individuals on both sides of the boundary.
About the author: Jyotishman Mudiar is currently pursuing an M.A in Modern History from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. He is also a BTech graduate from NIT Rourkela (Civil Engineering). The author has a keen interest in political philosophy, history and current events.
Chomsky, N., & Pappé, I. (2015). On Palestine. Haymarket Books.