I don’t know if it was the short deadline or my already hectic day, but Shishir Gupta’s The Himalayan Face-Off was not an easy read. Let’s put it this way — if you are not interested in the details (and by that, I mean minute details) of the Indo- China relations past, present and future, then this book is not for you.
Each page is littered with examples, attributions, reference and quotes, somewhat like a dissertation. You lose yourself in the sea of dates and names and keep waiting for the larger picture to emerge, only to be hit by another excerpt. Given that he is heavily quoted, it even feels like it would be simpler to just read John W Garver’s work.
But, survive the first 60 pages, and the book does get interesting. What Gupta lacks in flow he makes up for it in information. The magnitude of research is evident as the author caveats incidents and explanations with anecdotal evidence. For example, he uses text from the letter sent by former prime minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the then US President Bill Clinton, citing the rising of a hostile China as justification of India’s 1998 Pokhran nuclear teats, something that was new to me.
The breakdown of the infrastructural and military might on either side of the disputed border is an eye-opener. Gupta adroitly captures how the Chinese juggernaut, with a single-minded focus, built roads and railway networks across the Tibetan Plateau and developed their military prowess, overtaking India, which was slowed down by land acquisition, environmental clearances and bureaucracy.
At regular intervals, he uses former foreign secretary Shayam Saran as a crutch, often to express the political class’ lack of understanding of the middle kingdom. “Saran noted that deception and shifting stances was a legitimate diplomatic tool in the Chinese armory… (which) poses unusual challenges to any interlocutor or negotiator.”
Given the pains that Gupta has gone into, he could have given a few pages to explain the fundamental lack of understanding of China in the Indian subcontinent and why we continue to see China through the Indian prism.
Gupta follows the conventional narrative of history, where China was the aggressor in 1962 and the overall bad guy. He questions the singling out of Nehru and his flawed Forward Policy as the catalyst for the debacle. Rather, he points to the asylum offered to the Dalai Lama and China’s insecurity on the Tibet issue, citing that “China will always look at India through the Tibet prism”. Though he explores India’s changing tone on the Tibet issue, it is his interaction with the fourteenth Dalai Lama that makes for an interesting and rare insight: “The very purpose of reincarnation, male or female, is to carry out the unfinished task of the pervious life.” The unfinished task, as he elaborates, disis seeking “meaningful autonomy from the communist Chinese government for the Tibetan people… He (the Dalai Lama), however, made it very clear that his successor, boy or girl, would be chosen from outside Tibet”.
In the 278 pages of his book, Gupta has examined the past, given a good account of the somewhat decent present day military and policy preparedness, India’s battle in her immediate neighbourhood for dominance and has also looked to the future.
However, one can’t shake off the feeling that the author has been somewhat soft on the Indian State. More stress could have been laid, for instance, on the fact that at the time of Independence, India adopted her borders and never attempted to settle them. Nor has he highlighted the fact that Aksai Chin was never actually administered by the British or Indian authorities, but was a result of cartographic aggression.
Most importantly, while China comes across as the bad guy, the fact that India’s political environment does not allow for the two-thirds majority vote required to pass any deal offered by China, other than them returning all the land they have “occupied”, is not brought to the forefront.
Gupta’s book is well read in patches but only if you are interested in foreign policy.