Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
June 19, 2020
Mr. President: The snowbound winter is a deep freeze. The wind is icy. All work
stops, including the fighting. Everything is compressed into the thawed late spring,
summer and early autumn ... including the fighting. It is here that the Indian and
Chinese armies face each other over a historically uncertain border. The troops are
Such is the situation on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, which itself is high enough to
be known as the roof of the world. The confrontation between the world's two most
populous nations, both nuclear-armed, reached a crisis point recently. Relations
plumbed a nadir when during a heated meeting of officers to resolve immediate
issues a hand-to-hand fight broke out resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers.
The Chinese have yet to announce the figures for their losses.
In this surprising encounter the weapons of choice appear to have been nail-studded
clubs now displayed on Indian news sites. Why the officers were not carrying firearms
goes back to previous attempts to resolve disputes along this 2500 mile long
Known originally as the McMahon Line and agreed upon by British India, China and
Tibet, a line of demarcation was drawn up and accepted by the three parties. Implicit
in the agreement incidentally was Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. So it was that the
Chinese had written backing for their claim when they annexed Tibet in 1951, putting
it under direct control.
After numerous border incidents in the next four decades, Indian prime minister
Narasimha Rao decided to accept the de facto border giving up some territory on the
western half in exchange for peace. Signed September 7, 1993, and called the
Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual
Control in the India-China Border Areas, it was a bold political step for the prime
minister as India had not been able to get over its humiliating defeat by the Chinese in
the month long war of October 20 - November 21, 1962.
The 1993 agreement was followed by others to buttress the original treaty. In 1996,
the two countries drew up further clauses aimed to prevent actual hostilities. Article VI
Section 1 bans the use of firearms against one another. It also bars explosives within
two kilometers of the Line of Actual Control on both sides. While the soldiers have
arms at their border posts, the long standing practise has been for them to be
unarmed during any fact-to-face meetings. Hence the brawl that degenerated into
medieval combat leading to the deaths of the aforementioned 20 Indian soldiers and
so far an unnamed number of Chinese.
To reinforce the previous agreements, the two countries signed another in 2005
expressing their continued willingness to abide by the 1993 and 1996 treaties. But
now Narendra Modi has come into office. His muscular stance on the border has
been of concern to the Chinese. If India has been building new roads and bridges to
facilitate troop movement, the Chinese have moved a substantial force, advertising in
their media its prowess and that of special armoured vehicles designed for use on the
high Tibetan plateau.
Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar have discussed the situation via telephone to lower
temperatures and adhere to the signed agreements. And military representatives
have taken over the task of disengagement. It looks like India's new road (completed
last year) from the Ladakh capital, Leh, all the way to the Karakoram pass has
become a fait accompli.
There it stands. Neither side really wants war for rational economic reasons but then
it seems neither side is truly happy with the current peace. It was to prevent an
accidental flareup that the 1996 agreement restricting the use of firearms and
explosives was signed. We can only hope it holds.