Indian democracy and Chinese authoritarianism jostle for position in Arunachal Pradesh

Peter Savodnik travels to Arunachal Pradesh, the Himalayan state whose contested border marks the front lines of the increasingly combative rivalry between India and China.

Indian soldiers walk along the India-China border near Tawang, some 580km from Itanagar, the state capital of Arunachal Pradesh, in 2003.
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There are two ways to get to the village of Tawang, in India's easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh: You can take a helicopter from the city of Guwahati, or you can drive from the lesser-known crossroads of Tezpur.
The helicopter trip begins in the lush and swampy lowlands south of the Himalayas, proceeds due north, bends a few degrees to the east, skirting Bhutan, and then veers left, in a westward direction. The views of yellow-green farmlands morphing into mountains, rivers and forests are said to be spectacular.
Alas, there are rumours, which are all too believable, that the helicopters are not the safest means of travel. Assuming one arrives in Tawang intact, the ride lasts about 45 minutes. The drive from Tezpur, in the neighbouring state of Assam, to Tawang, takes between 12 and 13 hours. It involves gravelly dirt roads, switchbacks, army checkpoints, traffic-clogged mountain passes, small children hawking DVDs and roosters, and numerous hand-painted signs imploring drivers to proceed with caution - "Better to be Mister Late than Late, Mister!" - that inspire little confidence.
This might be the only journey in the world where it's more expensive to travel in a car than a helicopter: a roundtrip drive is about $200, while the chopper costs $140.
When I arrived in Tezpur early one morning last month, I took a car from the airport to the centre of town and set out to find a driver for the trek through the mountains to Tawang.
Everywhere there were soldiers marching or polishing things: boots, rifles, the hoods and doors and side mirrors of their jeeps.
We went to the bus depot, which featured a wooden bench, an empty, one-room building and men washing ancient buses. The trash that had been collecting in a nearby alley had migrated to the strip of gravel where the buses were parked. Whenever the barefoot men lying on the roofs of the buses jumped to the ground, the trash cushioned their landing.
I sat on the wooden bench next to a woman in a sari with a baby fastened to her shoulder, like a brooch. Three-wheeled tuk-tuks pulled in and out of the depot. A man with a clipboard asked me where I wanted to go, and I said Tawang. The man with the clipboard pointed me to a Tata Sumo 4x4, which was boxy and maroon and came with a driver, Razzi, and his mechanic, Kottom. Both appeared to be no older than 18.
I sat in the front passenger seat, on the left, and Kottom sat in the back, and from 11am to just after 11pm, I was ill. My illness, which came in long and violent gusts, may have come from several chicken and onion dumplings that I had eaten for breakfast at the China Café, in Tezpur. But it was the drive to Tawang - the sudden lurches, the stopping and starting, the cigarette fumes, the Nepalese pop music, the overwhelming fatigue fused with sleeplessness - that transformed a momentary downturn into a prolonged misery.
Worse yet was the sense of being trapped in a moving box on a mountain with people with whom I could not communicate: I did not speak Hindi; Razzi did not speak English. Kottom spoke a few words. "You okay, man?" he said, every time I had to roll down the window.
The story of the Western tourist who succumbs to some subcontinental stomach ailment is a tired trope, but this was not exactly an incidental illness. It suggested a larger problem that had nothing to do with me - and may have larger implications for Arunachal Pradesh. Paved roads, bridges, tunnels and places to stop and sleep are good for tourism.
They are also, more importantly, helpful if you want to mobilise large numbers of troops to defend a contested border against a hostile neighbour. This is why China, which believes that the boundary drawn by the British Empire in 1914 is illegitimate and that Arunachal Pradesh, in fact, belongs to Beijing, has spent decades investing in infrastructure just north of that border: highways, rail lines, airfields.
India has not been so quick to counter what appear to be China's preparations for war, and now it is scrambling to make up for lost time, anxious that it may be too late to build the roads and heliports, or an airport capable of handling cargo planes, in time to head off an incursion from its rival Asian superpower.
Tawang sits about 3,000 metres above sea level and is enveloped by sharply etched mountains and crystalline skies. The centre of the village comprises a narrow artery riddled with two- and three-storey hotels offering "fooding and lodging", souvenir stands, barber shops - the Fancy Hair Cut Salon, with room for just one stool, is a big draw - and 4x4s that ferry tourists from Tawang to Jang and Bomdilla, also in Arunachal Pradesh, and Tezpur and Guwahati, in Assam.
The tourists who come to Tawang are mostly young, newly moneyed Indians, according to Bijoy Baruah, a tour guide from Guwahati-based Jungle Travels India, but they also include older people, many with backpacks and ponytails, from Scandinavia, Germany and the United States.
Buddhist monks in red robes from the Tawang Monastery, the largest in India and the second-largest in Asia, are ubiquitous. Old men sit in front of rug shops and miniature cafes cupping honey-ginger tea. An eight-metre gate painted aqua blue, orange, green and yellow frames the frenetic, honking crush of cars and people.
Usually, Tawang hovers just above the cloud line, and the only thing that mars the horizon are army helicopters shuttling troops and materiel to and from the bases that dot the mountains just south of the border with China.
Since 1962, when China briefly invaded northern India, Delhi has maintained a sizeable military presence in these parts. The Indian Defence Ministry's official history of the 1962 war, which was completed 30 years later, states that Indian forces suffered 2,616 casualties against some 700 on the Chinese side. (The exact numbers are difficult to tabulate because many soldiers went missing or died from the cold.)
More importantly, the war revealed that India was helpless to defend itself, particularly in the mountains. Chinese troops had gained valuable, cold-weather experience fighting in Korea in the early 1950s and, more recently, in Tibet. (Tibetan guides, familiar with the intricate mountain passes, gave Chinese soldiers critical help during the 1962 conflict.)
India, meanwhile, maintained a small and ineffective army that, much like today, was focused on Pakistan at the expense of its border with China.
While tensions have persisted, northeastern India has been, for all intents and purposes, a non-issue for decades.
But in March of this year, China tried, unsuccessfully, to block a $2.9 billion loan to India from the Asian Development Bank because $60 million of that loan was meant for anti-flooding efforts in Arunachal Pradesh. Since then, the air patrols and troop deployments have gained much greater urgency.
China's diplomatic manoeuvring prompted senior Indian officials to lash out at Beijing, and in August, China began massing an estimated 50,000 additional soldiers along the Tibetan border, 37 kilometres from Tawang. India is now reinforcing its own armed forces with tens of thousands of troops. New fighter jets and hi-tech, highly portable guns, tanks and missiles made for fighting in snowy, heavily forested mountains are en route.
The new Air Force chief, PV Naik, added to the sense of urgency in October when he disclosed, on national television, that India had one-third fewer fighter jets than China.
Everywhere there are troops, including large numbers of Sikhs and Monpa.
There is talk, in Tawang and elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh, that red Mandarin characters have been spotted on rocks in Ladakh, far away on the Indian-Chinese border west of Tibet. I
ndia's inadequate infrastructure is hampering its mobilisation. There are no trains to Tawang and the only road is a dangerous one-lane rock-strewn path that includes the occasional, very bumpy patch of pavement. The path generally ranges from three to five metres wide and winds through vertiginous mountain passes - the Sela Pass, two hours south of Tawang, is 4,000 metres high - and centuries-old trading outposts teeming with goats, dogs, children and women clustered around clothes lines and large, bubbling pots.
The Chinese, by contrast, can use their network of roads and rail lines in Tibet to deploy whole battalions to the border whenever Beijing feels like sending Delhi a message.
Now the world's two largest countries are reshaping the global economy and vying for influence across Asia, and this competition has, perhaps ineluctably, reignited old tensions. While few Indians, in Arunachal Pradesh or Delhi, expect China to attack - India has been upgrading its Soviet-built defences; it now has a nuclear arsenal; and any conflict between the two countries would be far bloodier this time around - there is consensus that the conflict reflects a new underlying dynamic with implications stretching far beyond the Himalayas or even South Asia.
"The conflict is certainly a leftover from colonial boundary-making," said Gyan Prakash, a historian of modern India at Princeton. "But [this] would not have mattered if the two countries did not see themselves as rising powers. Both are sending signals about their ambitions."
The morning after I arrived in the village, I had a cup of tea at the Tawang Inn, where I was staying, and then caught a five-minute ride to the Tawang Monastery. At the main prayer hall, 200 monks, mostly little boys, were eating rice and cabbage soup for breakfast. When they neared the bottom of their bowls, they scraped and shovelled and mopped up what was left with thick bread. They sat in long rows under ceilings and balconies rising 20 metres high, beneath a huge likeness of the Buddha and a smaller but prominent photograph of the Dalai Lama. The rows were divided by square columns wrapped in red and blue drapes. The hall was filled with shouts and banging spoons. All the clamour and noise masked a prevailing order: the youngest monks, no more than six or seven, ladled out the soup one bowl at a time; those with more bread tore off pieces for those with less; everyone ate and stopped eating in unison. An older monk banged a drum that reverberated through the shadowy interior, enveloping the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, the wall paintings and thangkas, or banners, which were illustrated with other lamas and bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings, who stared at the little boys and the older, balding, potbellied monks speaking softly to each other.
Upstairs, the light from a giant candle made of butter flickered across darkened halls. It is a strange negotiation, wandering through a monastery enveloped by troops and guns, but the contrast is a defining one: Tawang itself is a Buddhist enclave surrounded by confrontation. Soldiers in camouflage march or walk or drive lorries and jeeps up and down switchbacks; conversation, in Tawang, in nearby villages and at the kiosks tucked into mountain crevices, centres on the growing mass of troops on both sides of the border. There are the helicopters and the occasional fighter jet. And there are the Himalayas, which do not make you feel protected - the Chinese are sitting on mountaintops that are a thousand metres higher than those in India - so much as boxed in, vulnerable.
Most people cannot quite fathom the possibility of war: in an age of terrorists, and especially in a country that has known and that fears terrorism, the idea of a conventional war between two nation-states is almost quaint. But they don't trust China.
"Our soldiers will protect us," said Baruah, the tour guide. "They are ready for whatever happens, but I do not think there will be a war." As if to buttress his point, he pointed to a series of brown lines that traversed several of the surrounding peaks. "That's where our troops were in the last war, where they camped out," he said, referring to 1962.
Baruah was in the middle of escorting an American woman named Jean on a week-long tour of Arunachal Pradesh. He said rising tensions had helped business; more people than ever, especially Indians from Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai, want to see the district. This seemed unlikely, but the inns and cafes in the village - and there are many - were overflowing, and the road from Tezpur to Tawang was littered with 4x4s and buses packed with picture-takers. Jean suggested that high numbers of foreign tourists might be giving the Chinese pause. "Wouldn't look so good on CNN if, you know, they got shot," she said.
People in Arunachal Pradesh seem unfazed by what is happening around them. Questions persist about the McMahon Line, the 890-kilometre border that now separates India and China in the eastern Himalayas. But the villagers of Arunachal Pradesh - herders, tradesmen, truckers, carpenters, inn keepers, subsistence farmers, women and teenage girls tending to one- and two-room houses - have no doubt about their nationality.
"This is India," said one woman, as she stuffed dumplings with a sticky red-brown meat just opposite the Fancy Hair Cut Salon in Tawang. "We are Indians."
That doesn't simply underscore a preference for Indian rather than Chinese rule. Lham Tsering, who comes from Tawang and now works in Mumbai, where he is a sous chef at the upscale restaurant Botticino, said that people in Arunachal Pradesh believe they are "from India, made in India". He said they had no other political or national aspirations. "My grandmother is from Tibet," Tsering noted. "I've never been there. I don't know anyone who has or wants to go. It's in China."
We were sitting in the tiny cafe Tsering's family runs just outside the Tawang Monastery. Tsering served ginger tea. He said he had come back to Tawang for a few weeks so he could see the Dalai Lama. Like many in Tawang, Tsering belongs to the Monpa tribe. The Monpa feel at home in India, he said, because Indians do not care what group people belong to.
"That's why they let His Holiness" - the Dalai Lama - "live here. Because Indians don't think like Chinese."
India is not an easy place to live in, he said: it's hard to travel and to make money. His job at Botticino, Tsering said, pays 15,000 rupees (just over $300) per month. "That's very little, even in India."
But, he said, there were new opportunities in Mumbai. "I studied hotel management, and I know how to talk to tourists, from US, from Europe, and I think this is the place for the future. People want to see Mumbai."
That the Chinese are - publicly, at least - trying to forge a territorial and ethnic unity that neither Monpa nor Tibetans appear to want is just one of the ironies at the heart of the Indian-Chinese showdown, all of them borne of the peculiar mix of forces at work along the border: Chinese territorial ambitions, shifting political and cultural identities, and, as always in the subcontinent, echoes of the imperialist past.
The Indians, in principle, accept the McMahon Line - named after the one-time foreign secretary of British India, Sir Henry McMahon - but, ideally, would like to see the border moved farther north. They argue that the line is supposed to trace the highest peaks in the Himalayas, adding that the arc of mountaintops stretching from Mt Everest in a south-easterly direction provide a natural border between India and the rest of Asia.
The Chinese reject the McMahon Line because Britain negotiated the border not with China but with the then-autonomous nation of Tibet, thereby legitimising Tibetan independence. If anything, China contends, the Monpa and other Buddhist peoples in Arunachal Pradesh should be united with their brethren in China. (Jiang Yu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's senior spokeswoman, recently referred to the state as " so-called Arunachal Pradesh". Chinese officials prefer "Southern Tibet".) The simplest way to achieve this ethnic unity, the Chinese contend, would be to adjust the border so that it better reflects the cultural-historical topography.
That neither the Tibetans nor the people of Arunachal Pradesh have voiced, publicly or collectively, a desire to live together, under a single, political-jurisdictional roof, is irrelevant to Beijing. After all, China's stated and unstated goals vis-à-vis its border with India are very different. Nobody believes that China actually cares about ethnic sensitivities, or Tibetan or Buddhist political aspirations. What China desires is the more strategically valuable Aksai Chin plateau, west of Tibet and next door to Pakistan, said Arvind Panagariya, an economist at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs who specialises in Indian politics. Panagariya suggested that China may be hoping to extract the plateau from India in exchange for laying off of Arunachal Pradesh.
"But I do not expect India to make that trade," he said in an e-mail, "since it considers both Aksai Chin plateau and Tawang as integral parts [of India]." Ian Barrow, a historian of modern India at Middlebury College, added that India is "worried about China's encroachment into the Indian Ocean and its growing and powerful influence over India's neighbours, whom it has traditionally seen as coming under its sphere of influence - Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. So I think India is worried about being encircled."
The Chinese are not wrong: Tibetans and Monpa are tied to each other in many ways. They share a faith; they live in similar environments; they look the same; they have jobs and take part in local economies that are probably not very different. And in at least one case, they live together - as refugees from China in Delhi.
A few weeks after returning from the Himalayas, I visited the Tibetan Refugee Colony, a few miles north of Old Delhi, in the neighbourhood of Majnu Ka Tilla. The colony, home to roughly 3,500 Tibetan refugees (or descendants of refugees) and their families, as well as a smattering of Monpa, looked like a piece of Tibet circumscribed by India: the interior of the colony consisted of a series of tightly packed, neatly arranged streets and alleys that resembled the sort of hutongs you might see in Beijing. Tiny shops, one-room cafes, and two- and three-storey hotels were everywhere. Chickens hung from windowsills. Women sold DVDs. A mesh of complicated odours - cooking oil, incense, geraniums, sewage - seeped through the old passageways.
A wall of photographs of Buddhist monks who had been severely beaten or killed by Chinese soldiers made clear that this was a place where Tibetans live and work.
Just outside the mesh of streets and alleys, disarray prevailed: rubbish, mutts, the occasional cow, long streams of cabs, motorcycles, trucks and, of course, tuk-tuks.
While I was at the refugee colony, I met Tenzin Thardoe, a 31-year-old restaurateur, at one of his four restaurants. The Coffee House is in a small underground complex at the colony. It has an urban-chic feel to it, and, oddly, it's known for its apple pie among Western backpackers. Thardoe said the Chinese had inadvertently pushed the Monpa and other people in Arunachal Pradesh closer to India, just as they had long ago driven away the Tibetans. But he said the conflict had also exposed weaknesses in India's approach toward China.
"I always think, 'Why is the Indian government so soft on the Chinese?' Maybe it's poor leadership at the top," he said. Thardoe said he voted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party in this year's parliamentary elections, but he also voiced support for a more robust foreign policy along the lines of that of former Defence Minister George Fernandes, a hero among Tibetan refugees for supporting Lhasa's independence from Beijing.
Tibetan refugees, Thardoe said, know something about Chinese repression - Thardoe's father, a Buddhist monk, spent five years in a Chinese prison, where he witnessed guards beat one of his friends to death.
But Thardoe wondered if Singh and other senior officials in the Congress-led government shared their concern. There were rumours at the colony, Thardoe said, that elements in India's military leadership were lobbying for Delhi to take a tougher line against China.
"Why should we let them interfere with Arunachal Pradesh but say nothing about their own problems?" he said. "I think there is some chance of this now. I keep hearing about important people in the Indian armed forces who say we should raise the issue of Tibet."
Lobsand Pauntsop, 26, who runs Tawang Tour and Travel out of a cramped, second-floor office a short walk from the Coffee House, said he'd heard the same thing. Pauntsop, a Monpa, said he never goes back to Arunachal Pradesh. "I'm very happy being an Indian. I don't want to go near China."
This might sound like a strange thing to say for a man who makes a living charging tourists $105 a pop to spend a day and a night in northeastern India, not far from the Chinese border. But for the likes of Pauntsop and Tsering, the sous chef, destiny is no longer inextricably bound to geography. They have been sprung from the ancient bonds of community and civilisation - by the economic boom, new modes of transportation and communication, and, most important, an altered consciousness that places a premium on acquired knowledge and ability. Their ties to the homeland have become attenuated. It's easy to imagine that, in times past, Arunachal Pradesh - and the idea of people who look like Tibetans taking part in a functioning democracy - would have left Communist Party leaders in Beijing uneasy. Better to make sure that Tibetans were unaware that they, too, could vote in real elections and worship freely.
But now the stakes are much higher. Now it's no longer simply a matter of quashing internal dissent, and there is a more global calculus at work. China and India are no longer impoverished and largely self-contained. What happens in these places has ramifications far beyond their borders.
The question typically posed is about which future will prevail: Indian democracy or Chinese authoritarianism?
Just as the first half of the Cold War was dominated by a debate about the relative merits of the American and Soviet systems, the early stages of the China-India rivalry have centred around the question of economic development, with less attention to issues of governance, democracy or human rights. But as the two rising superpowers take their competition to the world stage, attempting to flex their "soft power", the economic debate is evolving, or sharpening, into a moral one.
China remains the unrivalled regional economic powerhouse, and its military and diplomatic sway reflect that. But India, with its vibrant (if chaotic) democracy, its booming tech and culture industries, its educated and wealthy diaspora, has succeeded in portraying itself as the more suitable partner for the West.
This is how the international media has framed the India-China showdown - in the Himalayas and, more broadly, in the global marketplace of goods and ideas. The Times of London refers to the "brewing cold war" between India and China. Time magazine calls the Arunachal Pradesh tug-of-war a proxy battle typical of cold wars. The Christian Science Monitor portrays the conflict as part of the "traditional rivalry" between "the two Asian giants." Newsweek warns of nuclear war.
It appears that the next US-Soviet-style confrontation will star Delhi and Beijing, thereby confirming predictions of American decline, and Chinese and Indian resurgence.
In May of this year, Indian voters re-elected prime pinister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party and its coalition partners, making Singh the first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to be returned to power after having served a full, five-year term. The Congress Party's foreign policy can be described as practical-minded. No Hindu-nationalist chest-thumping, no sabre-rattling. What matters is security in the service of economic growth.
This makes sense: Singh is a Cambridge- and Oxford-educated economist who played a key role in India's privatisation efforts in the early 1990s. He cares about what works, not what feels good or appeals to some deep and primal urge. But Singh is therefore a strange candidate to lead a country into Cold War, vulnerable to the increasingly loud calls for a more belligerent posture towards the Chinese. Singh is not prone to moral crusades. He is cautious. He pushes, but for strategic, not ideological, reasons. (Singh did visit Arunachal Pradesh this autumn, thereby communicating to China that India will defend its turf.)
It's not just Singh. His party is very much a reflection of the prime minister. As Ian Barrow put it, "I don't think the Congress Party is a war party." Nor is it just this government. "It's very important to note," Barrow added, "that successive Indian governments have been very restrained."
That restraint would seem to reflect a common and prudent desire among India's leaders to avoid waging war, whether hot or cold. But it also reflects something of the nature of the simmering conflict between India and China, which appears to the world as a titanic clash of future superpowers but looks rather less dramatic on the ground, where the supposedly Manichean confrontation is hard to see.
While the Cold War, a contest of ideas in the form of a nuclear showdown, could not be resolved without a "winner", the Chinese-Indian rivalry appears otherwise: not a zero-sum standoff, but simply the friction generated by the rubbing-together of two newly empowered states.

* Peter Savodnik, a regular contributor to The Review, has written for GQ, Harper's Magazine, The New York Review of Books and Time.