Author name: 
Jaideep Saikia, Terrorism and Conflict Analyst and author/editor of several books. He has served the Govt. of India as an Expert on North East India in the National Security Council Secretariat and the Govt. of Assam in security advisory capacities.
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The issue of China’s bizarre visa policy towards a section of India’s citizenry had come to the fore almost a decade ago when two sportsmen from Arunachal Pradesh were prevented by Indian immigration authorities from boarding a flight from New Delhi to Beijing in order to attend the Weightlifting Grand Prix that was to be held in China’s Fujian province on 15-17 January 2011. The reason for the prevention—in consonance with the considered Indian stand—was that the sportsmen had stapled Chinese visas on their passports. While concern was expressed by India about such irregular Chinese conduct to none other than the then visiting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao during his visit to India in December 2010, it was reported that the incident not only elicited indifference from the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, but a response from Beijing that its policy on Arunachal Pradesh has not changed. According to a press report, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, “China’s position is consistent and clear about the China-India border issue, including the disputed area of Eastern Sector and the Indian side is aware of it. The position has remained unchanged.” China also made it clear that it will not issue visas to any officials from Arunachal Pradesh and will continue to issue only stapled visas to non-officials from the North Eastern state. Clearly the belligerence is in line with the Chinese “claim” over the entire territory of Arunachal Pradesh, an expanse of about 90,000 Sq Km, which the People’s Republic terms as “Southern Tibet”. The behavior is a demonstration of the position that it considers the people of Arunachal Pradesh to be Chinese.

 

Continuance of such action by China is a matter of not only acute embarrassment for the people of the North East, especially Arunachal Pradesh, but is also an indication of the fact that diplomacy has failed to both forcefully communicate and convince the Chinese that such manner of  conduct is unacceptable and would not be tolerated by India. This is despite the fact that the then Indian Foreign Secretary asked China to demonstrate sensitivity to India’s core interests and stated that Asian countries would judge China’s “peaceful rise” not so much by the intentions of its leadership as by their “actions.” Furthermore, even if reciprocal action and protest is made by New Delhi—as was in the case when India later refused visas to Chinese defence officials following China’s refusal of visa to the Indian Northern Army commander—the episodes seem to trail a weak narrative that the dispute over the concerned territories that China is making claims over has subtle acceptance among a section of policy makers in New Delhi. After all, apart from the standard demarche, the Indian authorities have done little in the matter: indeed, it had even circulated a travel advisory that persons with stapled visas would not be allowed to travel abroad. People from the North East are beginning to perceive both the Chinese practice of stapling visas and the inability of the Indian authorities to redress the problem as affront and lack of concern for their identity as patriotic Indians.

 

Indeed, there has been considerable reaction to the incidents such as stapled visas, with web-sites of the time citing among other responses that Tibetans from China desirous of travel to India should be similarly treated by Indian missions in China. But the issue must not be confined to a mere “tit-for-tat,” but must be perceived in the larger light of continual Chinese provocation, and more importantly the reason for it. The then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had reportedly informed Indian authorities during his visit to India that the matter concerning stapled visas is being “looked into seriously”. Yet the practice continues, with the Chinese mission in New Delhi and the Chinese foreign ministry displaying vehemence when the latest incident involving the sportsmen from Arunachal Pradesh was reportedly taken up. Even if there is a case (which by all reckoning there seems to be) that there are areas in India and China which each other disputes, the almost mute acceptance of insults that are being meted out to people from Arunachal Pradesh by China is unacceptable. This is particularly so as there is a mandated forum to discuss the boundary between India and China by way of Special Representatives, which are reportedly meeting regularly. Be that as it may, the incidents fuelled passions in the North East and could only weaken centre-periphery relationship, especially as l’affaire Galwan continues to simmer, albeit with talk of “disengagement” with a pause.

 

Yet another aspect that seems to be egging on the feeling of alienation among the people of the area is that New Delhi has deliberately not developed the region in the manner it should be, apprehending that full-bodied infrastructure in the borderlands would only hasten the entry and descent of the Chinese war machinery into the flood plains of Assam were a hot-war posture to be adopted by the dragon, especially in the manner in which it came to pass in 1962. But in all fairness, 2021 is not 1962, and if reports are to be believed, the Indian security establishment—despite certain imbalances that continue to characterise it—is in a far better position to meet a Chinese threat. Also, New Delhi has begun to take cognizance of the “anger” among the people of Arunachal Pradesh and “the wrong side of geography” that their state is situated with robust sanctions for a variety of projects. However, the development of the infrastructure has to be expedited, not only because of defence imperatives, but because of the human sentiments that are intertwined alongside such developmental measures: the accent must be to sincerely instill a level of confidence among the border people. The people of the area, with memories of 1962 still fresh in their minds, have to be informed that in the event of another “aggression” by the Chinese there would be no abandonment as was the case almost 59 years ago when a prime minister proclaimed—in the face of the advancing Chinese army—that “my heart goes out to the people of Assam”. Unfortunately, issues such as stapled visa on passports held by people of Arunachal Pradesh have not done much to restore their confidence, but may actually lead many to wonder whether they are “real” Indians, or are they some kind of “in-between people”. Indeed, the matter had come to a head some years ago when a magazine’s cover story headlined, “Why Arunachal is angry with India.” It can be certain that the inability of the Arunachal Pradesh sportsmen to journey to China to represent their country, India, would result in another howl of protest, even if the emanation is from as far as Itanagar, and perhaps even with a possibility that it might fail to resonate in heartland India.

 

Another matter that must be taken into account is the fact that Arunachal Pradesh (indeed, the entire North East) has an important bearing on the nation’s security. With the loss of the Tibetan buffer, it should have been natural to fortify the North East as a defence zone, not by unduly militarising it, but it in a manner that justifies such an imperative. But this has not been done. For instance, an appraisal of the growth that has taken place in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) by way of China’s “Western Development Strategy” shows that the pace of development in TAR has been enormous. Roads and railway lines that come right up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have been constructed. Such infrastructure would allow speedy access of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were war to break out: the Qinghai-Tibet Railway line (with a feeder line to Xigaze, which is close to the LAC), for instance, can reportedly deploy 12 divisions of the PLA in 30 days.

 

In sharp contrast, the Indian side of the border is hardly developed with only one sharp-bends, graceless highway connecting Tawang and the LAC proximate areas such as Lumpo. The road from Lumpo and thereabouts have finally been extended, but much needs still to be achieved. This Author undertook a visit to New Khinzemane by vehicle and crossed the Nyamjang Chu in Foot Suspension Bridge on foot all the way to Old Khinzemane from where one can view the PLA’s Gordong Camp in the vicinity of the Thagla Ridge. An Indian Army Company Operating Base and some Intelligence Bureau and Seema Shashastra Bal elements are deployed in what is known as the Thagla Gap. Indeed, it was these areas that witnessed the murder of the brave jawans of the 2 Rajputana Rifles and the author lowered his head in obeisance even as he laid a floral wreath in the War Memorial. It was a very solemn occasion. Earlier write-ups by the author for this website have described his obsession about the Line of Amity—and here he was standing right on the banks of the Namka Chu which he is hell bent on converting to a Line of Amity. The justification being the Chinese stay atop the Thagla Ridge and the Indians on the southern banks of the Namka Chu. Nowhere else in the Eastern Sector does geography lend its helping had in the manner it does in this sub-sector. The author’s fond wish is that with a thaw of sorts in Eastern Ladakh, a Boundary Commission should be instituted by New Delhi to minutely examine the proposal of Line of Amity. Indeed, it can be said here with some degree of confidence that even senior think tank leaders of China felt that it is doable idea. And the late Neville Maxwell, a friend of many years, who passed away in Australia in 2020, was so enthused that (in the course of a conversation with the author in The Assam Tribune [Dated: 25 October 2015]) said that the after a passage of time the Line of Amity should actually be called the Modi-Xi Line. Even advanced Alzheimer’s could not take away either his sense of right and wrong or his penchant for later day vision.

    

The issue about non-development is true also for places such Kibitu and the northern bank of the Lohit river in Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district, across where only a foot suspension bridge existed in order to ferry the Indian army onto its deployment to Dichu Observation Post. The author, however, has been informed that a concrete bridge has finally come up in a place called Messaih.  However, it is not understood as to why an all-weather bridge over the Lohit river (of the type that has been built near Parashurama Kunda, and one that bridges the Lohit further downstream) cannot be constructed for the Indian army in the forward areas in the east: regions that witnessed sacrifice and debacle in 1962, once again because of the failure of higher command and the need for correct physical and war infrastructure. Indeed, the Indian army’s Operation Falcon is still in place and so is the annual Operation Alert, with the latter testing the Indian army’s forward deployment capabilities. But even during such exercises, the need to decisively develop the front has reportedly been felt. It is imperative that all weather roads all along the LAC must be constructed, and on a war footing.

 

Another aspect that has probably circuited the scanner of the policy planners in New Delhi is the need to build up a well-honed system of human-intelligence system all along the LAC: one which can be trusted during both peace and war. To that end, a task force comprising of personages who are knowledgeable of the vagaries of the frontier must be set up with a mandate to study, formulate and recommend a human-line-of-defence that would make up the LAC. Indeed, it must be appreciated that borders are creations of surveyor-generals and bureaucrats who have probably never physically seen a boundary, as was the case with Sir Henry McMahon when he drew a Line without due recourse to both the size of his pen and ego. To that end, the task of cultivating and correctly employing, for instance, say the Meyor tribesmen in far-off Kahao beyond Kibitu, is important, especially as they may be aware of the going-ons across in Tatu and Rima in Tibet Autonomous Region, areas where social affinities meet. This is not to say that the Indian Army is not seized of the worth of the border people, or “hunters” as they are known: the point that is being sought to be made is that such engineering must take place in an instutionalised manner, and must not only be left to the personal initiative of the Indian Army unit that is deployed in the area.

 

In its bid to defend the borderlands, the Indian Air Force has sought to phase out its outdated system and beef it up with certain latest acquisition, mostly of the Sukhoi series. But, it must be appreciated that the Chinese “strike arc,” with LAC proximate bases like Gongga, Pangta, Kangapalo and Hopping (with over the LAC refueling capability that its Ilyushin series aircrafts provide), can reach up to Kolkata. In contrast, the forward bases on the Indian Air force extend only to Tezpur and Dibrugarh. Advanced Landing Grounds must be constructed to incorporate not only places that must support forward Indian army deployment in areas such as Khenzamane, Taksing and Walong, but ones that would be able to penetrate deep into China’s Western Theatre Command in retaliation if the necessity arises. Indeed, construction and landings have been validated during a massive exercise undertaken by the Indian Air Force some years ago when Exercise Gagan Shakti was operationalised. The existence of bases near the LAC would form the basis of deterrence against Chinese air strikes. The doctrinal pattern of the PLA has changed considerably in recent years, and is presently based on high-tech war that would be short, intensive, multi-layered, and over the periphery.

 

On a different footing it must also be recognized that development of the borderlands is an opportunity to showcase to the people of the North East that their interest is uppermost in the mind of national security planners. It is also an opportunity to resolve internal strife in the region, which has been erupting in regular intervals as a result of lack of development, insensitivity, and of late with an attitude that “you resolve your own problem.” One instance is the letting off of the entire leadership of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) from incarceration, to ordain for the people of Assam, a people that had shed blood, soil and tears for the tricolour during and after the freedom struggle. Only time will ordain whether the actions that the present dispensation are embarking upon—for decidedly electoral considerations—is in line with national security interests.

 

But, continuing with development of the borderlands, a leaf needs to be taken out of the Chinese development initiatives in TAR, even if much of the growth in the region is driven by military considerations as also the need to integrate the region with the rest of China. The difference that must engage the Indian state must be the realisation that while the Chinese strategy is being goose-stepped to overwhelm the Tibetans by “Hanification” and incorporate regimentation of TAR with aspects that are alien to Tibetan culture, the North Easterner clearly considers herself to be Indian and is more than willing to not only be incorporated in the national discourse, but contribute to its healthy growth. Reluctance or inability to do so would push the periphery away from the core.

 

It must also be understood that in the discourse that governs modern day statecraft, development—whether it is in terms of physical or emotional share—is a factor of security. Therefore, timely and correct heed must be paid to both the physical needs and the sensitivities of a people, especially as genuine integration must continue to be the hallmark of Indianness in the North East. The policy planners in New Delhi must be crystal clear about this.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.