Book Extract / The Great Game and its impact on the NE


By Pradip Phanjoubam

This is an extract from another chapter of the book I am currently writing as a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, IIAS, Shimla, and on the verge of completion. As earlier, the footnotes and references have been removed, and paragraphs broken up into smaller ones to suit newspaper publishing.

Indeed, the conceptualisation of nation as a cultural container becomes extremely problematic when dealing with peripheral provinces such as the Northeast, an approximate 98 per cent of which physical boundary is international. There therefore can be no other way of studying the place, its histories and peoples without doing so in consonance with the territories beyond these international borders.

In any case, these boundaries are mid twentieth century phenomena, and stories earlier than the period will not have them at all. In many ways, whatever their biases catering to their own views of the world, colonial historian who worked on maps bigger than the confines of national boundaries provide a clearer pictures of the pasts of these peripheral regions. Chroniclers of imperial history such as Alexander Mackenzie, Edward Gait and Robert Reid therefore remain indispensable in any serious study of the Northeast region.

In the earlier chapters we have seen how the history of the Northeast cannot be dissociated from the history of Burma or Bangladesh. In this chapter, we shall see how this is equally true of Tibet and beyond. It should be interesting therefore, to explore and discover for instance how Imperial Russia’s interest in Mongolia would have had an impact on the evolution of the idea of the Northeast. How Britain’s zealous and over protective outlook towards its empire’s frontiers in Afghanistan and Persia too would have had similar influences in the shaping of the Northeast. How the clash of interest between Russia and Britain in Tibet and their decision to agree to a treaty-bound mutual exclusion of each other from the region would ultimately leave the field clear for China’s entry thereby again profoundly impacting the security environment as well as the certainty of boundary of the Northeast.

How in summary, the Great Game, the name given to the undeclared territorial rivalry towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century between Britain and Russia, two great powers of the era, was a big factor in the making of the physical map as well as the psychological makeup of the Northeast. We shall then see how the McMahon Line, with all its flaws and blemishes, is very much a product of this Great Game.

Not many have tried to explore these connections. But of these few, at least one has gone even beyond to suggest the Great Game has a sequel and is still continuing to impact the Northeast in a profound way. In Bertil Lintner’s 2012 book “Great Game East”, the author argues that after the Great Game in Central Asia concluded in the early 20th century with the changes in power alliances in Europe post WWI, another one began unfolding in the South and South East Asia. This time the rivalry was for the control of Asia’s most volatile frontier – the Indo-Burma region. This Great Game East is an extension of the Cold War between the Western and Eastern Blocs in the post WWII period, and is informed by the Western Bloc’s mission of combating the spread of Communism in the world.

The chief protagonist here understandably is the US which through its undercover agency, the CIA, allegedly ran operations supporting Tibetan resistance fighters after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 to undermine Communist China’s control of the region. Prior to the 1962 India-China war, when hostilities between India and China was still not open, this was done without the knowledge of India, and with the assistance of Sikkimese and Nepali sleuths. The operation headquarters were in East Pakistan and Nepal. After the 1962 war, India too became party to this game.

In reciprocation, China too in the 1970s and 80s, openly extended help to Northeast insurgents, beginning with the Nagas. But here too, the power alignments would shift in the years after the 1962 war. China would fall out with the USSR, the archrival of the US, even as India finds itself drifting closer to the USSR. Consequently, the US would warm up to China.

Apart from these realignment of power equations, it is also said the controversial 1970 book by British Australian journalist reporting for a British newspaper from India during the 1960s, Neville Maxwell, “India’s China War”, which the then American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger openly praised, was also a catalyst in this thaw in relation between the US and China. It is significant that Kissinger in 1970 and the then US President, Richard Nixon in 1971, made their historic visits to China flagging off a new era of power alliance, paving the way for China opening up to the Capitalist world.

Maxwell’s book, based almost solely on Indian sources, in particular the still classified Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report 1963 on India’s disastrous 1962 war with China which apparently was leaked to him, is generally considered as brilliantly written and researched book. Reviewers however have noted that he is too enthusiastic to agree with the Chinese views and equally enthusiastic to disagree with the Indian views. The book damns India as the aggressor and portrays China as the aggrieved in the 1962 war.

There were also other seemingly remote developments and turns of events in the diplomacy of the British Imperial Government, sometimes a consequence of the Great Game, and at other times related to other political pressures of the time, which too had a telling effect on the Northeast.

The most important of these is what I call a clash of maps of concerns between the British Empire and its various colonies. In this case, the difference in security perception scenarios as seen from London and Simla and as we shall see, the interest of the Empire almost always prevailed over that of British India. However, quite tragically, when the Empire ultimately dissolves, as it must, burdens of the sacrifices the colonies were made to make in the name of the Empire remains to be borne only by the liberated former colonies. The McMahon Line is one such legacies India is left to bear long after the British Empire has ceased to exist.

This conflict of the large and small maps of concerns in the case of India had very definite dramatis personae. The pitch of this conflict also changed with regime changes in London. As it turned out, in the heat of the Big Game, the Liberals generally were the most hurtful to British India’s interest. There also emerged a broad pattern. Regardless of coming from a Liberal or Conservative background, executives who were posted in India turned to a stance closer to the vantage of the Conservatives on India’s security while those who functioned from London tended to take a more detached and academic assessments of these same security scenarios, much to the frustration of those on the ground.

At one end of this spectrum of political outlooks was Lord John Morley, ‘Secretary of State for India between 1905 and 1910 and again in 1911 and Lord President of the Council between 1910 and 1914. Morley was a distinguished political commentator, and biographer of his hero, William Gladstone. He is best known for his writings and for his “reputation as the last of the great nineteenth-century Liberals”. He opposed imperialism and the Boer War, and his opposition to British entry into the First World War led him to leave government in 1914.’ At the other end was the hardnosed ‘George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, KG, GCSI, GCIE, PC (11 January 1859 – 20 March 1925), known as The Lord Curzon of Kedleston between 1898 and 1911 and as The Earl Curzon of Kedleston between 1911 and 1921’, a British Conservative statesman who was Viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary. Morley remained in office long after Curzon retired and the tussle between these two vantages expectedly became unequal.

Relevant to this discussion are the circumstances that ultimately shaped British India’s policy to towards Tibet. Curzon, who was deeply suspicious of Russian interest in Tibet was certain Tibet either had to be under Indian control or else be made a Protectorate State like Bhutan and Sikkim for India’s future security. Towards the close of the 19th Century, the British India administration from the time of Viceroy Lord Dufferin had come to be of the opinion that the Chinese control of Tibet was a fiction.

This growing opinion was catalysed further by the abject inability of the Chinese  government to have the Tibetans honour two treaties the British signed in 1890 and 1893 with China, the first fixing the boundary of the British protectorate State of Sikkim and Tibet, and the second on regulating trade between Tibet and India. After Curzon took charge as Viceroy, the urgency to deal with the Tibetans became even more urgent, as Curzon believed the 13th Dalai Lama incarnate, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetans, was leaning towards Russia. Curzon then decided Tibetan affairs had to be dealt directly with the Tibetan and not through Chinese mediation.

The Younghusband Mission of 1904, or invasion of Tibet to force the 1904 Lhasa Convention by which Tibet became virtually a Protectorate State of the British, is the first major outcome of this aggressive policy he adopted. If this atrocious invasion can be described as landmark, the drama that followed revealed even more the innards of the British administration, and the various contrary pulls within it. In the years ahead, the India Office in London, with Morley at the helm as Secretary of State, would undo all of what the Lhasa Convention 1904 is supposed to have achieved in securing India’s northern boundary. All this on the plea that foreign policy interests of the Empire are not the same as those of the colonies and that the former is primary.

The logic always is, the concession India seeks in Tibet would encourage other rival European Powers to seek similar concessions in other areas of interest of the British Empire, such as in Persia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China, Indo-China etc. Continuing the duel after Curzon had departed, Morley wrote to Curzon’s successor, Lord Minto in October 1906 that these ‘frontier men’, forget ‘the complex intrigues, rival interests and, if you like, diabolical machinations which make up international politics for a vast sprawling Empire like ours, exposing more vulnerable surface than any Empire the world ever saw.’ Ironically, Minto once in India would also begin to see India’s security from similar lens as Curzon saw it.


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