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Himalayan Borderlands and India–China Relations

Paul McGarr ( is associate professor in American Foreign Policy at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas, 1910-62 by Bérénice Guyot-Réchard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017; pp 321; ₹ 550.


The contested Himalayan border between India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has acted as a catalyst for one military confrontation between Asia’s two largest states, in late 1962, and threatened many more. Over the years, commentators have repeatedly speculated that a settlement of the long and enervating border dispute is most likely to emerge from official recognition by both sides of the de facto territorial frontier.

Such a pragmatic accommodation has, however, proved elusive. Indeed, in many respects India and China have more reason than ever to maintain their respective, and conflicting, cartographic claims. The abundant natural resources in India’s north-eastern border state of Arunachal Pradesh, part of which China claims as “South Tibet,” represent a valuable commodity to the booming economies of both countries. Moreover, as Indian and Chinese consumption increases apace, growing water shortages have seen New Delhi and Beijing covet the considerable hydraulic resources in the Himalayas. All of which makes Bérénice Guyot–Réchard’s innovative and compelling examination of the history of Sino–Indian border friction both timely and important.

In Shadow States, Guyot-Réchard interrogates Sino–Indian rivalry from the perspective of state building. More particularly, emphasis is placed upon the attempts made by Indian and Chinese administrations to secure the loyalty and win the support of people straddling the Himalayan borderlands. The book argues that over the course of the 20th-century, as India and China sought to expand and consolidate state power in the Himalayas, the region’s strong tradition of autonomy, and its nebulous border, fostered Sino–Indian competition. In effect, absent any sense of fidelity to New Delhi or Beijing, inhabitants of the borderlands were well-positioned to assess, and potentially to select, between alternative states. The distinct physical; and human geography of the region, Guyot-Réchard asserts, prompted India and China to become each other’s “shadow states.”

Established Narratives

At its heart, Shadow States sets out a case for interpreting competing approaches to nation building in the Himalayas as a necessary adjunct to any comprehensive understanding of Sino–Indian enmity. Existing studies of India’s territorial quarrel with China are framed predominantly in terms of geopolitics, or approach the question in terms of national security, regional power projection, domestic politics, and national prestige. Guyot–Réchard breaks valuable new ground by tracing the processes and consequences of state making at a local level in the Himalayas. Ranging over the period between 1910 and 1962, the impact of Indian and Chinese policymaking on the borderland populations is considered from an early imperial genesis and through numerous postcolonial incarnations.

Under the pressure imposed by two expanding and competing states, the fears and hopes, and the accommodations made and benefits accrued by tribal groups, on both sides of the disputed border, are sketched out in forensic detail. Shadow States moves debates surrounding the roots of Sino–Indian tension beyond naked power politics or crude cartographic claims, and illuminates “the fact that India and the PRC both seek to consolidate their presence in the regions east of Bhutan by achieving exclusive authority and legitimacy over the local people” (p 3). By highlighting the agency exercised by Himalayan populations in shaping Sino–Indian relations and, by extension, the elided influence of border peoples across the globe in state formation and foreign relations, Guyot–Réchard makes a seminal contribution not only to South Asian studies but also to wider international history.

Moreover, Shadow States offers a salient corrective to established narratives on the origins of the Sino–Indian border war of 1962 and its legacies. The book concedes that in purely military terms, or when viewed from a strictly territorial standpoint, China emerged triumphant from its clash with India. Yet, in questioning the extent to which the People’s Republic has subsequently elected to “forget” or ignore the border war, Guyot–Réchard suggests that Beijing may have come to interpret the results of its military entanglement with New Delhi as somewhat bittersweet. It is pointed out that the border war did not produce a workable modus vivendi between China and India. It did not induce Himalayan inhabitants to seek Chinese sovereignty and support, quite the opposite. Resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet continued unbated. In short, when surveyed from a different angle, China’s victory appears less absolute and more contingent.

The book’s efforts to recalibrate orthodox approaches to the border war is welcome, although the qualification applied to Chinese successes and Indian failures in 1962 does underplay some important points. The impact of national politics on the border war is rather glossed over. In this area it is hard to conclude that the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership did not derive anything other than substantial benefit from the clash with India, while the Congress party and Nehru, above all, were severely weakened. Likewise, the broader propaganda and information battle that the war spawned across the developing world largely redounded to India’s disadvantage.

Still, in more local terms, Guyot–Réchard is surely correct in maintaining that once the border fighting had stopped, India fared much better than one might have expected in securing the allegiance of populations on both sides of the line of control. Paradoxically, but entirely convincingly, this outcome is ascribed not to the power or efficiency of the Indian state vis-à-vis China, but to precisely the opposite. The performative dimension of the border war, the book submits, demonstrated to “the people living on either side of the McMahon Line … [the] story … of China’s greater capacity and potential, and of India’s corresponding weakness” (p 240). It was the Indian state’s appearance of vulnerability, above all, that made it more attractive to Himalayan peoples seeking to retain “agency in accepting or manipulating when, how, and how far state penetration could go” (p 249). Or, in other words, the image and substance of efficiency and power projected by China was too convincing and intimidating for its own good.

It is a little churlish to expect more from such an enterprising and compelling study of Sino–Indian interaction, but critical engagement with any work of scholarship demands some reflection on issues of emphasis and omission. Shadow States draws upon an impressive array of Indian archival sources, at national, state and local levels. The coverage of Chinese sources, which, in fairness, are far less accessible, is much more limited. There are a wide range of Chinese published primary sources and newspaper records, however, which could have been consulted, and that would have addressed some imbalance in the narrative. In essence, we learn an awful lot that is new and intriguing about the Indian side of the border issue. The Chinese vantage point, in contrast, remains largely opaque and subject to inference and conjecture.

Still, the fact that Guyot–Réchard’s authoritative and timely examination of competitive state building on the part of India and China illuminates important directions for further scholarship, merely underscores its significance and path-breaking originality. Shadow States is certain to become an indispensable work of reference for academics and a general readership interested in efforts undertaken by New Delhi and Beijing to win the hearts and minds of the Himalayan peoples. In recovering and reimagining fault lines in Sino–Indian relations from the bottom-up, and privileging the hitherto marginalised agency of border constituencies, Shadow States challenges readers to reflect upon and revise accepted interpretations of Sino–Indian relations.


Updated On : 5th Oct, 2018


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