How McMahon Drew His Line, and Why China Wants It Changed

There is more to China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh than a mere contest to possess this large strip of sparsely populated mountainous territory.


Prime Minister, Narendra Modi was virtually silent on the vexed border issue during his just concluded visit to China, belying the expectations of many in Arunachal Pradesh. While there were 24 bilateral agreements signed, a majority of them business related, both the countries for the moment seem to think the border issue can wait. Hence, in the eastern sector, India will continue to consider the McMahon Line as its undisputed boundary, and China will continue to treat the line as illegal. Arunachal domiciles intending to travel to China will also have to continue be content with stapled visas.

There is more to China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh than a mere contest to possess this large strip of sparsely populated mountainous territory. The state is where almost all of the major tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra originate from, and therefore controlling it would virtually amount to possessing a vital handle in dominating not just the rest of the Indian Northeast, but also Bangladesh. Besides their tremendous hydro-electric potential, these mountains then are also important geo-strategically.

That said, China’s assertive claim to Arunachal Pradesh is relatively recent, and probably influenced by works of Western scholars like Alastair Lamb, who were of the opinion that the Bengal Inner Line Regulation of 1873 — which created what came to be known as the Inner Line — along the foot of the mountains that surrounded the plains of its new territory of Assam acquired in 1826, was actually the extent of British territory. Lamb claims there was also an Outer Line, and it was at most places identical to the Inner Line. This despite the fact that the British were always careful to qualify that the Inner Line was not the international boundary and that it was only a line to demarcate the revenue territories from the non-revenue ones. At the time, the tea industry was beginning to boom and tea planters, always covetous of land, were constantly encroaching into the hills, getting into confrontations with the “wild” hill tribes. The British saw the prospect of perennial punitive expeditions into the hills as wasteful; the purpose of this line was to ensure British subjects went beyond it only with official permits. Others like Neville Maxwell, author of India’s China War, went further, arguing that the Inner Line was the Outer Line, and that this Outer Line was pushed to where the McMahon Line is by the British only in 1913-14 during the Simla Conference. If this argument is allowed to hold, then the contiguous territories of Nagaland which is also beyond the same Inner Line, and further south, Mizoram, should also be outside India.

Little basis to Chinese claims

Beyond this confusion over the Inner Line, created deliberately or otherwise, the claim that Arunachal Pradesh is ‘South Tibet’ has little basis, except perhaps in the narrow Tawang tract, contiguous in the west with Bhutan, Sikkim and Kalimpong-Darjeeling tracts. Tibetan Buddhism’s cultural influence in the rest of Arunachal Pradesh is virtually nil.

At the start of the Simla Conference in 1913, as Parshotam Mehra notes, the Chinese plenipotentiary, I-fan Chen, was unsure where the Indian boundary was when McMahon asked him, and could only come up with an answer the following day and that too using French maps as evidence. The Chinese at the time also had no presence in Tibet, as they had been thrown out by the Tibetans in 1911, immediately after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in the wake of the Republican Revolution in China. The Chinese were at their weakest and it has been argued that they were invited to the Simla Conference only in view of a technical necessity of a treaty the British signed with the Russians in St. Petersburg in 1907. This treaty, literally forced by the British on the Russians, weakened at the time by a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905, prohibited the British or the Russians from entering into any agreement with Tibet, and if any negotiation became absolutely necessary, this was to be done through Chinese mediation.

Russian factor

British Tibet policy at the time was determined not by any fear of the Chinese, but of the Russians, in what was referred to as the Great Game. It is known how the British claimed the barren white dessert of Aksai Chin with the aim of blocking any Russian push into Tibet. Not content with this, the British also signed the 1907 treaty to further ensure Russia was kept at bay, even though Russia, on the eve of the WWI, had become an ally of the British. But, as Lamb notes wryly of the 1907 treaty, as in judo, the Russians used the weight of their opponent to defeat them, and indeed, the British ended up tying themselves up hopelessly with this seeming victory. To their dismay, the British also found out soon enough that the Russians could still exercise their influence in Tibet through Mongolia, which was under its shadow then, and particularly because the trans-border Buddhist Buriat tribe lived both in Siberia and Mongolia. And Mongolia, to quote Lamb again, was then under the “Tibetan Buddhist Church”.

China did briefly become a threat to British complacency towards 1910, during the Qing Dynasty’s last desperate burst of imperial energy which still confounds analysts, pursuing a very aggressive forward policy in Tibet, just before its ultimate fall. After entering Lhasa, the Chinese started probing neighbouring principalities of Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan. Sikkim was a British protectorate, Nepal had a robust army, but it was Bhutan the British were worried of. At the behest of Charles Bell, a civil servant and Tibet expert, the British quickly paid the Bhutan king a visit, and had him agree to renegotiate a 1865 treaty to ensure China could not take the kingdom. The 1865 treaty essentially was an understanding by which the Bhutias were not to raid the Duars plains for which the British would annually compensate them, a system obviously modelled on the Posa in which Ahom kings allowed hill tribes to levy tax (Posa) in kind from certain villages in the foothills on the understanding that there would be no raids. The Ahoms bought their peace in this manner, acknowledging the subsistent economy in the hills would compel the hill tribes to raid the richer plains in the lean seasons regardless of punitive measures. The 1910 Bhutan Treaty merely added one extra paragraph to the 1865 treaty putting Bhutan’s foreign affairs in the hands of India. The British were, however, saved of further anxiety for the Qing Dynasty fell soon thereafter.

The fate of Tawang

These then were the reasons behind the urgency with which Britain called the Simla Conference. The Chinese ultimately did not sign the Simla Agreement, but as it was, I-fan Chen was kept in the dark while the McMahon Line was being drawn. The Chinese were taken into confidence only in the discussions on the proposal for creating an Inner and Outer Tibet, on the Mongolian model. The McMahon Line was drawn through secret exchanges of notes between the Tibetan plenipotentiary, Lonchen Shatra and the British team under Henry McMahon. But the Simla treaty was not published immediately in Aitchison’s Treaties, the Government’s official record book, paving the way for a long, bitter controversy. Some argue this was an acknowledgment by the British of the illegality of this treaty, pending ratification by China. Others say this was again solely for fear of displeasing Russia as the St. Petersburg Treaty made Chinese mediation of any settlement with Tibet mandatory. The treaty was ultimately published in 1938 by Olaf Caroe. By then, Tsarist Russia had fallen and the new Communist regime abrogated most of the treaties concluded by the Tsarist regime. The controversy over the McMahon Linem however, still refuses to go away.

The McMahon Line followed the watershed principle of map making and, to the extent possible, ran along the highest ridges of these eastern Himalayan ranges. The exception was at Tawang, which was on the Tibetan side of the watershed. The British felt that leaving this tract, which comes too close to the Assam plains, would be dangerous for India; they  therefore negotiated to have the McMahon line north of it. The Tibetans agreed, believing this was a bargain and that the British would guarantee a boundary between Tibet and China. However, even though Tawang was put on the Indian side of the border, recognizing the cultural and ethnic affinities of Tawang with Tibet, the border was left open and Lhasa was allowed to collect its traditional levies from Tawang. When Communist China entered Tibet in 1950, the equation altered. In a plan hatched by civil servant Nari Rustomji, and executed by Maj. R. Khathing, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur in 1951, this traditional tributary relationship was put to an abrupt end. India only notified the Tibetan Government at Lhasa and not Peking of its intention to take over Tawang. China nonetheless made no protests, and Neville Maxwell cites this episode in India’s China War as evidence of China’s willingness to settle with the McMahon Line as the international border, given New Delhi’s willingness to negotiate.

(The writer is Editor of the Imphal Free Press, Imphal. His book, written as a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, on the geopolitics that shaped the physical map as well as psychology of the Northeast is due to be published later this year)