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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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June 21, 2020

India and China Agree to Reopen the Nathu La Pass

On and around 21 June, 2006, news agencies in India, China, and across the world began reporting that trade between India and China through the Nathu La Pass would be reopened. Connecting the Indian state of Sikkim to the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the Pass had been closed to civilian and commercial travel since the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. The reopening followed nearly a decade of back-and-forth negotiations between the two neighbors.

The Nathu La Pass was an important conduit of trade and travel between South Asia and East Asia in the early 20th century, used by both the independent Kingdom of Sikkim and later the British colonial government to facilitate commercial relations with Tibet, China, and Central Asia. By the 1950s, however, the situation had changed radically; India had become an independent, non-aligned nation, and Tibet had been de facto annexed by the new People’s Republic of China. Amidst worsening relations, the two countries fought a brief, intense border conflict in 1962, by the end of which China was in control of the disputed region of Aksai Chin in the Indian territory of Ladakh. Though Nathu La Pass was relatively quiet during the conflict, the threat of a Chinese attack highlighted its strategic importance to India’s Eastern borders. After the conflict, the Pass was closed and fortified. It would remain closed for over four decades.

Indian strategic planners were right to be concerned. In September 1967, following a period of tense confrontations over the placement of border trenches, the border garrisons of both sides engaged in a week-long military engagement. With the advantage of fortifications, higher ground, and the lessons learned during the 1962 conflict with China and the 1965 war against Pakistan, the Indian military pushed the Chinese forces back. The decisive victory during this brief engagement made clear to both sides that the balance of power had changed since 1962. The Indian military had been revitalized and bolstered, while China, mired in the chaos of the first years of the Cultural Revolution, was unable to mount a coherent response. For the next decades, the uneasy status quo in Nathu La would remain. A 1975 referendum would lead to India annexing the Kingdom of Sikkim (now the state of Sikkim), and the Indian presence at Nathu La only grew stronger.

By the 1970s, Indian strategy, too, had changed. When the Congress government was replaced by Morarji Desai’s Janata Party in 1977, the fortification and securing of India’s Chinese borders continued. At the same time, however, India began to reach out to China; after a visit by then-Minister of External Affairs Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India and China normalized relations in 1979. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she maintained those relations while ordering significant infrastructure developments all along the Line of Actual Control; Gandhi, like her predecessor, was determined that the territorial loss India suffered in 1962 should not be repeated. By 1987, the Indian military was fairly confident in its capabilities in the Northeast Himalayas and border regions. That year, a Chinese military buildup along the Arunachal Pradesh border was matched by a rapid brigade-strength Indian deployment in opposition. Having taken a firm stand along the border, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brought global attention by sending his Minister of External Affairs, N.D. Tiwari, to Beijing to de-escalate the situation. A year later, the Prime Minister went to China himself to negotiate an agreement to freeze the situation along the Line of Actual Control; it still took mutual visits by Chinese Premier Li Peng and Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao before such an agreement was finally signed in 1993.

Still, Nathu La remained closed. The Indian strategy of firm responses accompanied by high-level diplomacy had maintained a delicate peace along its borders with China, and relations had slowly begun to thaw. Further, the Indian government knew that it was deriving little economic value from Sikkim at all; China had the same problem with Tibet and the surrounding regions far from the Chinese economic centers in the East. Reopening trade was an easy way for both countries to remedy the situation, but both sides dragged their feet for well over a decade. In 1998, India conducted a nuclear test and in 2000 the Karmapa Lama fled to India; neither event helped the negotiation process. As the years passed, Nathu La remained stubbornly closed, with the only commercial traffic involving a Chinese postman periodically exchanging letters to an Indian counterpart between the border posts. It took years of trade talks (including in 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2006) before, around 21 June 2006, both countries finally announced to the world that Nathu La would be reopened. In early July 2006, it was.

Overland trade sprung up quickly; China had been India’s largest trade partner for some time, and a convenient and quick overland route was valuable to both sides. In many ways, the agreement in June 2006 represented a high point in Indo-China relations; for the first time since the 1950s, there existed the prospect of a permanent relaxation of border tensions in the region. The agreements reached, some hoped, would provide a model for a larger resolution of the various border disputes. Trade through Nathu La fell far short of the optimistic projections made by the Nathu La Trade Study Group during the negotiation process, but the accompanying thaw in relations lasted several years and led to various bilateral trade, border, and even defence exchange agreements.

Of course, neither side stopped posturing. The Chinese government continued its policy of refusing to issue visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh, on the grounds that they already counted as residents of China (which continued to claim the entirety of the state). For its part, India loudly asserted its sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Aksai Chin, and the entirety of Kashmir. Various border standoffs, significantly one at Chumar in Ladakh, continued. In 2017, a tense, protracted standoff over the Bhutan-claimed Doklam plateau ended with a mutual withdrawal that left simmering tensions and a media blitz by both nations. Hundreds of border violations were reported by the Indian government in the following years, very few of which were ever noticed by the Indian public; routine violation of the Line of Actual Control was developing into a new normal by the late 2010s. The mutual goodwill of the 2006 Nathu La reopening had long been exhausted.

On 23 April 2020, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, the government of Sikkim closed the Nathu La Pass yet again. In early May, Indian and Chinese forces began yet another standoff, beginning in Ladakh but escalating all over the Line of Actual Control. On 15 June, Indian and Chinese forces in Eastern Ladakh engaged in a brutal melee that left some 20 Indian soldiers dead, along with an indeterminate number of Chinese soldiers. The current tensions represent the first Indian deaths along the Line of Actual Control in well over three decades. As of this writing, the situation continues to deteriorate. According to long tradition, neither side uses firearms in such engagements so as not to escalate the conflict, though it is to be expected that as soon as one side resorts to guns the other will respond in kind. It seems unlikely that the Nathu La pass will be reopened anytime soon given the current low in Indo-China relations.

Sahaj Sankaran

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