The story of the Subcontinent’s conflict and wars are a tragedy in bloodshed for over a century; an endless tale of betrayals, British mercantilism, geo-strategic intrigues, and elastic ethics. The existence of a live Line of Control (LoC) could always become a breaking point in relations. The border disputes—India-Pakistan, and India-China—have been constant, long before India’s independence and the fascist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power. With the US making India one of its leading strategic partners, these countries are subjected to a relentless coercive diplomacy. Recently during a violent face-off in Ladakh, on the night of June 15 to 16, the Indian Army claimed to have lost 20 of its soldiers in the biggest clash between India and China in nearly 50 years. Media in both countries is largely reporting state propaganda, as usually happens with such border run-ins, calling the other side the aggressor.

The legacy of the dispute goes further back to 1914 when British-Indian rulers attempted to draw a boundary (the McMahon line) with China. They almost succeeded in persuading China to sign a border treaty at the 1914 conference in the northern Indian town of Shimla, but the delegates walked out, leaving the agreement in limbo. Since then, the 3500-kilometre-long border along the Himalayan ranges between the two countries has been fermenting with its lowest point in 1962, when the dispute degenerated into a full-fledged war. Since then, however, both countries created mechanisms to prevent a repeat of the conflict. It has largely worked except for occasional minor flare-ups. The latest one too was a flare-up that happened even while talks to defuse the situation were taking place between senior government officials on both sides. Unfortunately, in a multi-layered relationship, hostility and friendship co-exist, making it difficult to foresee a solution to the dispute in the immediate future. The reason is, historically, the two countries known for their ancient civilisations, have co-existed peacefully with the Himalayas as a natural boundary between them. The British attempt to draw a boundary failed, as China questioned the locus standi of the “outsider” to do so. The next best chance after 1914 was in the period between 1950 and 1962 when China offered territory to the north-east of India (to the north of Arunachal state) in exchange for areas to the northwest of India (to the north of Ladakh). But this did not work. War followed, and the chances of resolving it peacefully receded.

The ground reality, therefore, is the absence of a clear boundary along the vast stretches of the inhospitable Himalayas. This has resulted in a situation where troops in the forward areas occasionally charge the opposite side with intrusions, causing flare-ups. More often than not, these accusations seem interconnected to the larger geopolitics of the region. The current flare-up, for instance, is happening at a time when India is firmly moving towards the west in an alliance that is inherently adversarial to China. Arguably, India’s closest neighbour in terms of cultural affiliation and a historical connection right from the time of the British, the government in Kathmandu has raked up a dormant unresolved border dispute with India. Nepal, which is wedged between China to the north and India to its south, is raising an issue that most outsiders were not even aware of. This concerns a 372 square kilometre area to the west of Nepal in the Limpiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh triangle that is of strategic importance to India. Lipulekh is the trading corridor between India and China that New Delhi considers part of its territory. The dispute can be traced to the 1816 Sigauli treaty between British India and Nepal according to which a river Kuti was demarcated as the border. To the west of the river was India and to east Nepal. However, in 1860, the British reworked the map with the result that the area came to be part of India. But this modification was not codified into an amended treaty, with the result that from then until the 1990s, it was assumed that the region was India’s. Nepal’s monarch King Mahindra too dropped the territory from the country’s maps. Again, there was no formal agreement between the two countries, a reflection of the friendship between the two, where it was probably never thought it would be necessary at some time in the future. When the monarchy was abolished in Nepal in the 1990s, and replaced by a democratic republic, the elected government claimed the disputed land as theirs, quoting the 1816 Sigauli treaty.

However, the issue again became dormant until recently when India built a road through the territory as part of its forward defences with China and showed the area in India’s official map as belonging to New Delhi. The government in Kathmandu woke up and claimed that India had built its road on Nepali territory. Not just that, it amended the Nepali map to incorporate the disputed Kalapani triangle in it. In the last six years, since the Narendra Modi government, the relationship between the two countries have hit a rough patch. In 2015, India supported a local Nepali agitation of the Madhesi community (who are of Indian origin) and the resulting blockade of essential commodities from India to Nepal by road caused severe shortages in the neighbouring country. The relationship between Nepal and India was scarred and China took advantage by helping Kathmandu with basic goods and services. The latest dispute with Nepal, therefore, is being viewed within India as an opportunistic move by Kathmandu though there is every possibility that the combined flare-up could just be a coincidence.

Indeed, the Ladakh stand-off can be understood through the issue of Kashmir, one of many questions left unresolved by the British after they departed from South Asia. Pakistan and India have fought most of the wars over Kashmir’s status. Parts of the Kashmir region are controlled and administered by China, too, including in Ladakh. Now overlapping claims in Ladakh have brought China and India to a deadly standoff. Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) President Sardar Masood Khan has rightly said that the China-India clash in Ladakh was not the real issue; instead, the Kashmir conflict is the root cause of all problems in the region. The question of Kashmir has stymied relations between India and Pakistan from the very beginning. Now it is undermining ties between China and India. India claims Kashmir in its entirety and does not want any external mediation over the issue—not even from the United States, its ally. Now the Chinese and Indian standoff at Ladakh give credence to Pakistan’s claim that Kashmir is indeed disputed. India must rethink its Kashmir policy, for everything is in favour of the victory of the freedom fighters; the population, the terrain, and the world’s opinion. By continuing to stick to this policy, Delhi is only reinforcing its failures and is risking the future of its teeming millions already living in abysmal poverty. The present standoff between India and China is the potential to escalate and add fuel to the fire.