Arunachal: One Step Back, Two Steps Forward?

In July 2011, China issued stapled visas to Arunachali members of an Indian karate team to China, who were later duly stopped from proceeding by Indian immigration authorities. This Chinese action is the latest in a long list of moves designed to highlight their claim over Arunachal Pradesh.

Yet, it would be a mistake to call this a provocation. There is a difference between stapled visas being issued for Kashmiris and those for Arunachalis. In the former case, stapled visas began to be issued some years ago against the previous practice of issuing regular stamped visas. In case of the latter, no visas were issued at all originally, using the rationale that Arunachalis being Chinese citizens did not need visas to enter China.

While Beijing certainly has the right to reconsider its neutrality on the disputed status of Kashmir, issuing stapled visas for Indian Kashmiris was provocative, since there were no known instances of China also issuing stapled visas for Kashmiris from the Pakistani side. Thus, the Chinese action suggested that Beijing was calling into question only India’s claim over Kashmir.

By contrast, the issuing of stapled visas to Arunachalis is possibly, a step forward, an acknowledgement that the area in question is disputed, and by implication, amenable to resolution by negotiations. This in turn indicates that China has taken a step back from its previous position of no visas being required. Further, unlike in the case of stapled visas for its Kashmiris, there has been very little reaction from New Delhi to stapled visas for Arunachalis, except the usual reiterations of Arunachal Pradesh being an integral part of India.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has remained unable to provide any explanation for these changes of Chinese policy and nor have the Chinese themselves been forthcoming. However, given the sequencing of events – stapled visas began to be issued to Kashmiris first before they began to be issued to Arunachalis – one may well ask if this was part of an elaborate plan by the Chinese to make necessary and inevitable changes to their negotiating positions on the Sino-Indian boundary dispute. Since domestic interest groups such as the Chinese PLA would interpret the change in policy towards Arunachal as a concession to India, perhaps it was necessary to draw Kashmir into the mix and annoy India at least temporarily, before beginning to issue any visas at all to Arunachalis.

Thus, stapled visas to Kashmiris appear to have stopped sometime last year after some two years of the practice while they continue for Arunachalis. And one might expect more such incidents to take place as long as the boundary dispute remains alive.

As far as China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh goes, it is important to remember that the Chinese had twice offered a ‘package deal’ in which they would have recognized the state as part of India in return for New Delhi accepting Chinese authority over Aksai Chin. However, when India after twice rejecting the ‘package deal’ insisted on a sector-by-sector approach to resolving the boundary dispute, the Chinese naturally insisted on a maximalist approach in each sector. Thus, in the mid-1980s, China began insisting that India had to make territorial concessions in the eastern sector, and especially in the Tawang area.

Tawang certainly had historical ties to Lhasa even if these, like Tibet’s historical linkages to China, cannot be interpreted using modern political terminology to suggest that the latter had sovereignty over the former. Similarly, Tawang is also the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama and it is this combination of historical and religious linkages with Tibet that Beijing is using as the basis of its claim to Arunachal – or ‘Southern Tibet’, as China calls it. And in this reasoning lies the larger issue – China’s claim over Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh is intimately tied to the legitimacy of its control of Tibet.

Chinese authority over Tibet continues to be challenged both by Tibetan exiles led by the Dalai Lama and more importantly, by Tibetans inside China, despite over half a century under communist China. The pre-Olympics riots in March 2008 were especially disturbing for Beijing, which had begun to believe that the extension of rapid economic growth to Tibet and other minority provinces had begun to weaken resistance to its political rule. Tibetans however, continue to feel under religious and cultural siege in China, for a number of reasons including the large-scale migration of Han Chinese into Tibet.

Against such a backdrop, China has no option but to continue to stake a claim to Arunachal Pradesh for fear of being seen as being unable to protect Tibet’s ‘historical’ boundaries and interests, even as it has to acknowledge India’s global rise and accordingly moderate its position on the boundary dispute.

Meanwhile, China’s problems with extending the fruits of development to Tibet in an equitable and environment-friendly manner should also give India pause when it comes to its own plans for developing Arunachal Pradesh. Following the 1962 conflict, India had deliberately left many of its border areas underdeveloped and with poor infrastructure believing that in the case of another Chinese attack this would slow their advance. Having given up this blinkered policy, New Delhi is now on overdrive trying to build up road and communications infrastructure in the state. Also as part of the effort to bring in economic development – and to strengthen India’s claims in international law – India has embarked on a massive dam-building exercise in the state – some 170-odd large and small hydroelectric dams with a production target of about 50,000MW.

However, these efforts have not gone unchallenged by local groups in Arunachal who fear massive environmental damage and the loss of historical and cultural sites from such large-scale construction. While India’s record on this score is certainly better than China’s, it will need to remain vigilant and sensitive to local concerns. Arunachal Pradesh with some 20 major ethnic groups is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the entire country but Arunachalis of all hues often proudly state that they are the most Indian of all Indians and the ‘first line of defence against China.’ This is in marked contrast to the situation of Tibetans across the border. It is therefore important, that India and Indians work harder at sustaining such sentiments as massive changes get underway in Arunachal Pradesh.

Read the original article here: Jabin T. Jacob, “Focusing on Arunachal,” New Indian Express, 26 July 2011,

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