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Book extract / Rivers, River Valleys, Mountains as integral region

By Pradip Phanjoubam

Here is another extract from another chapter of my forthcoming book written as a fellow of the IIAS, Shimla. Here too the citations and footnotes have been removed to suit newspaper style.

Comprehending conflicts has never been easy. If this was not so, much of the conflicts witnessed in Northeast India today would have been, to use a cliché, history. Here, they have not only lingered, but become progressively much more complex as well. There would obviously be many reasons for this, as indeed all complex human issues would, and the modest object of this chapter, and the book, is to try and size up some of the vitally important ones, particularly those which often have gone unnoticed, largely because of their intangible natures. One of the hurdles in the effort to size up and understand the dynamics behind conflicts has been the tendency to oversimplify, using in most cases only tangible barometers available to assess the issues at hand. Unfortunately, this strategy of conflict resolution, which for the sake of simplicity I refer to as the bureaucratic approach, is not just a bane of the State’s bureaucracy machinery alone, but also of the mindset of a greater section of the intelligentsia. What is forgotten in the process, are the intangible factors which seldom register on the accustomed radars that feed the cognitive faculties of the State as a whole, as also its various official executive apparatuses of governance.

Tangible indexes such as unemployment rates, income, education, GDP growth rate, road connectivity etc, are no doubt very important, but they are by no means everything there is to know or tackle about the problems of conflicts of the nature the Northeast has become stymied by. It is the contention of this study that they may not even be as fundamental as the intangibles which remain unnoticed or else sidelined as secondary and insignificant. This introductory chapter then is meant to sketch the broad conceptual frame within which the rest of the chapters of this book will be located.

The nature of relationships between rivers, river valleys and the mountains where these rivers originate, and the way they shape the psychology of inhabitants of their geographical reaches, is one of these intangibles, and I shall take a survey of some well known cases in the Indian sub-continent, the logics of which will help in understanding some of the internal dynamics of the conflicts in the Northeast too. The proposition then is, river valleys and the surrounding mountains form an integral geography and any effort to disrupt this integrity will cause political and social turmoil.

In a deliberate twist of the familiar piece of trite but insightful observation, English geographer W. Gordon East, said ‘nature imposes and man disposes’ thereby ‘…man’s actions are limited by the physical parameters imposed by geography’. While geography is a given, and politically value neutral, humans who come to settle in any particular geographical region have to come to terms with the interrelatedness of different regions, not just from the ecological point of view, but much more importantly and immediately, from their own primal outlook to security and survival. They therefore attribute their values to geography. Most of the time, these values exist at the level of instinctual understandings, manifesting in myths and legends, religions and beliefs, superstitions and taboos. But very often, they have also manifested as very tangible political issues with tremendous potentials for triggering deadly conflicts. Indeed, such politics predetermined by geography have more often than not been behind many, if not most intractable conflicts all over the world. History is replete with examples, the Nile basin and the Mekong basin to cite just two, but the list can go on. The Mekong example is interesting, for here the Asian Development Bank, ADB, has actually taken cognizance of the significance of viewing the entire river basin as economically, ecologically, psychologically and politically integral, therefore inseparable region. Its ambitious Greater Mekong Sub-region, GMS, project is the articulation of this philosophy and the degree of success this project has met in integrating the economy of the entire region, and with it fostering a new level of cooperation between what in recent history have been five mutually hostile, though culturally related, impoverished nations, is a vindication of this postulate. But even within the same country, these conflicts over river waters and river valleys can get bitter, as India has seen in the Cauvery water dispute.

Without digressing any further from the central focus of this chapter, let me return to a political phenomenon, closer to India and with immediate relevance to its security – the Karakash and Yarkand river basins and their contiguous territory, the Aksai Chin plateau and beyond. This is not any effort to size up the dispute over this territory between India and China, or to be judgmental about it, but to illustrate the original contention of this chapter, that of the integral nature of river valleys and the surrounding mountains. As to the tangible significance of this intangible friction, it is loudly and disastrously evident in the fact that it has resulted in a brief and tragic war between India and China in 1962. The subject has attracted plenty of political rhetoric and posturing whenever skirmishes happen and tensions develop along the India-China border, but not a matching volume of scholarship, for many reasons, not the least of these is the non-accessibility of archival documents related to this dispute at the Indian National Archives from 1913 onwards.

However this is not to say, the issue is totally bereft of quality academic probes. There have been dedicated studies by many authors of renown, who had the resource to access the same archival documents locked up in the Indian National Archives from its counterparts in London and elsewhere. This chapter will be depending a great deal on the data they collected and interpreted, as well as the insights they provided into the problems, not necessarily to draw the same conclusions they did, but to throw light on issues specific to the theme of this book – the Northeast.

The interest of this study then is in another facet of this border issue – the Yarkand river basin, as also the Aksai Chin, which for all practical purposes were no-man’s lands till as late as the advent of the 20th Century, and the manner in which a no-man’s land transformed into a hotly contested political space.

The Yarkand valley is a relatively narrow strip of flatland wedged between the Karakoram ranges in the Indian border and Kuenlun ranges in China’s western province of Sinkiang (now Xinjiang). To its southwest are the Hindu Kush and Pamir ranges. To its east is the Aksai Chin and further on the Tibetan plateau. As in most or all Asiatic societies, there were no definite linear boundaries that demarcated the region, not until the intervention of Western civilisations. Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, an explorer in his own right, a geographer and geopolitical analyst who once undertook a 1200-miles trek across the Pamirs had noted that ‘the idea of a demarcated Frontier is itself an essential modern conception, and finds little or no place in the ancient world. In Asia, the eldest inhabited continent, there has always been a strong instinctive aversion to the acceptance of fixed boundaries, arising partly from the nomadic habits of the people, partly from the dislike of precise arrangements that is typical of the oriental mind, but more still from the idea that in the vicissitudes of fortune more is to be expected from an unsettled than from a settled Frontier… In Asiatic countries it would be true to say that demarcation has never taken place except under European pressure and by the intervention of European agents.’ In this case the Western civilisation is represented by the British. The British inherited the boundary problem in this sector in 1846 after it added to its expanding Indian Empire the State of Jammu & Kashmir with its conquest of the Sikhs.

Ever since this new acquisition was made, the British were uneasy about Kashmir’s un-demarcated boundaries, and began almost immediately thereafter to put in efforts to fix its northern and eastern boundaries. Two boundary commissions followed one another. The first, consisting of two members, was set up in July 1846 and given the mandate of defining the boundary between the British territories in the districts of Lahul and Spiti in the South and those of Ladhak in the north and also Ladakh’s boundary with Tibet. This effort came to nought as China did not cooperate largely by refusing to respond British entreaties to set up corresponding surveys and finally to conclude a treaty on the matter. The Governor General of India at the time, Henry Hardinge did not however give up on its quest for a defined boundary. He appointed a second Boundary Commission on 10 July 1847, this time of three members. This effort also was in vain as the Chinese still did not respond to request for a joint determination of the boundary from Spiti to Pangong Lake. In May 1848 the government abandoned further attempts to secure an agreed frontier with China.

The British however still did not give up the effort and continued to take keen interest in sizing up the frontier and determining how far its territorial interest should extend on this front. Failure of the two boundary commissions halted the efforts to define the boundary with China, but they did not kill the efforts or alter the course.  From the point of view of this study however, more than how far the British effort was successful or at what consequences, the significant question is why the British came to consider the matter so urgent. North of the Karakoram ranges is the Yarkand valley flanked to its north by the Kuenlun ranges. Why and how did this narrow strip of inhospitable, virtually uninhabited land become so important for the British to make it persist in the effort to draw a definite boundary and not leave it as a no-man’s land as it always was, and which it was for all practical purposes at the time? On numerous occasions, in various official correspondences within the British administration as well as those of the British administration with the Chinese authorities, the land was indeed referred to as no-man’s land. All the while, before the advent of the British interventions after their acquisition of Kashmir, China and indeed none of the smaller principalities and their tributaries in and around the region, Tibet, Kashmir, Ladhak, Hunza and more, were certain, or probably cared much where their exact boundaries were.

Seventeen years after they acquired Kashmir in 1846, the British were still groping in the dark. After many surveys subsequent to the two fruitless boundary commissions, the unresolved debate that emerged in their official circle was whether the Karakoram watershed or that of the Kuenlun should be the boundary of India. If the boundary was to be made purely by the application of the internationally accepted boundary making principle of the main mountain watershed of river systems, then as Karunakar Gupta points out, in ‘the Imperial Gazetteer of Iidia (1908) Chamber`s Gazetteer (1962), Columbia Encyclopaedia (1963), the Swedish explorer- Sven Hedin, Owen Lattimore – all agree that the Karakoram Mountains (and not the Kuenluns) are the main water-divide in this region.’ But the answer to this increasingly desperate concern came to be determined not by any standard principles of cartography, but by the appearance of Russia in the political horizon. The Imperial Russia was at the period expanding and pushing south and absorbing all the small khanates and other principalities in the area. Under the circumstance, the exchanges of opinions within the British administrative circles, on which of these imagined boundaries would be most defensible and suitable is interesting.



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