Does India need revised frontier policy?

By K.N. Pandit

The fact of the matter is that during the national struggle for freedom led by Congress, our leaders did not give any serious thought to India’s frontier policy once power passed into their hands. Perhaps they were pre-occupied with a host of baffling internal problems and with the framing of the constitutional structure for the independent country.

Within weeks of freedom, the first signals of vulnerability of India’s north-western frontier were in sight. Pakistan-sponsored incursion of Kashmir by NWFP tribesmen in October 1947 should have prompted Indian policy planners to think beyond Kashmir and beyond the tribal invasion.  Alas, they did not.

If there had been a serious thinking on new situation arising on our north-western frontier after the departure of the British, we would not have gone to beg peace at the doors of the United Nations. It was a clear sign of our weakness and lack of vision about our frontier policy. Our adversaries exploited this weakness to the hilt.


One cannot stop ruminating over Nehru’s naiveté of expecting the US to support us on Kashmir case at the Security Council. Outright rejection of the option of going to the Security Council, as had been suggested by Sardar Patel in a cabinet meeting, would have, consequently, forced our policy planners to take up the question of re-drawing our northern and north-western frontier policy on long-term basis.

Sixty-two years down the line, history has shown that we are still kidding with an issue, which is now threatening our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Three wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, one war with China over border dispute, two-decade long armed insurgency in Kashmir, massive intrusion by the Bangladeshis on our eastern border, Pakistan’s subversive tactics in our eastern region to destabilize peace and constitutionally elected governments, using Nepal as a base for anti-India subversion and now the widespread radical Islamic threat within the country resulting in large scale innocent killings, all flow from our unpardonable lack of vision and absence of an effectively deterring  northern and north-western frontier policy.

A frontier policy does not mean only the use of deterring muscle power though that is the basis of any parameters supporting a definite line of action. It is diplomacy in essence, throwing up new ideas and implementing some apparently unsavoury but surely unavoidable steps to secure the country against foreign intrusions and subversion. The first thing to understand in planning a foolproof policy is to understand the neighbours who are sitting on our borders east and west.

Secondly the question of securing vulnerable frontier against intrusion needs to be de-linked from regional politics. It has to be guided by supreme national interest clearly identified on a long-term basis.

Conceptualizing a policy of extraordinary importance to national security will also take into account its ramifications in national and international spheres. All sovereign countries have a right to conceive, plement and stand by a policy that they think ensures their perpetuity and progress.

Indian constitution provides for an elected government and the parliament to take any steps that are considered necessary and feasible to ensure the security of our frontiers. But a government cannot expect to carry the parliament with it if it has neither a vision of renewed foreign policy nor the ability to sell it to the nation and win its support. The Indian Constitution enjoys sanctity which is not to be challenged. But the sanctity has to be subject to the exigencies that stare into the eyes of the nation. In a balancing act between constitutional propriety and national exigency, the latter has precedence over the former.

It has to be reminded that in view of communist shadow looming large over the Central Asian underbelly around 1930s, the British Indian policy planners had carved out Gilgit Agency from the largely mountainous Gilgit district of the Dogra Kingdom of Kashmir. The newly carved Agency was placed under the control of a British Commander designated as Resident, but actually closely connected to security and intelligence agencies of the British government. The purpose of this part of British Indian frontier policy was to have a foothold close to the frontier wherefrom they could maintain efficient surveillance and also devise means and methods of checkmating subversive plans of their rivals. For more than one decade, up to the freedom of India in 1947, the Gilgit Agency administration successfully pursued its objectives and kept the enemy at bay.

This political landscape in the northern frontier of India was totally overlooked by the policy planners in New Delhi with the accession of the J&K State to the Indian Union. They remained fully engaged in only two aspects of Kashmir, namely constitutional, legal and administrative aspects of accession and fighting the Pakistan intruders along the western front. They refused to move beyond these parameters.

Kargil war of 1998 opened the eyes of Indian policy makers for the first time. Though the Chinese incursion of 1971 should have served a catalyst to New Delhi to revising entire spectrum of her northern and north-western frontier policy, it reacted only half-heartedly. Then came the thunderbolt of Kargil attack, which India did succeed in repulsing but at a heavy price and demoralization.

If the on-going armed insurgency in Kashmir, too, is treated a casual happening along the border between two unfriendly countries, which India is fighting with a stick and carrot policy, we shall be heading towards a disaster. The uprising which we are witnessing in the valley for last two months or so, or for that matter for last two decades, is the direct fall out of absence of a deterring frontier policy with New Delhi planners. A clearly defined and well-planned frontier policy, that transcends political and other constraints, may be unwelcome step to sections of people in the beginning, but when its repercussions become visible its angularities will dissolve in thin air.

Geographically re-structuring of sensitive regions and areas, resetting of administrative mechanism that eliminate chances of internal subversion,  involving local population in full support of defence strategies, reducing dependence on political class particularly of proven ambivalence, formulating a civil-military administrative set up for the evacuated strips along the border wherever necessary, and designing a well-thought of development plan for the evacuated strips are among the components of upgraded and re-vitalized frontier policy for the north-western frontier of India.

On military side, many changes are desirable. After all it is the muscle power that lends credibility to any drastic reform especially when local political class is to be given restricted space.  India has to plan for a high mountain security system extended over a vast rugged terrain of the Karakorum, the Pamir ranges and the Pir  Panchal. This asks for the creation of a new Himalayan Command with headquarters somewhere along Madhumati River basin eastward between Tithwal and Guraiz.

This Command has to be different from other three Commands in terms of equipment, armour, communication, strike power both on ground and in air and warfare tactics. It calls for a network of mountain roads and link roads over which heavy armour can be carried. This will be a snow-bound Command and it has to be of a standard to meet the hostile climate and the enemy both at one and the same time. A tunnel at Baltal underneath Zoji La could be considered to establish rail link between Srinagar and Leh. This would feed the entire frontier defence establishment. We should not forget that China has built the Karakorum Highway linking her territory with that of Pakistan over the high altitude ranges of Karakorum. It has the strategic value and we have nothing to counter it.

One could suggest that the defence ministry constitutes a North-Western Frontier Strategy Committee of experts from various ministries and institutions with the terms of reference to devise a revised frontier policy, creation of Himalayan Mountain Command, a new communication system and viable supply line.

We know that any planning of this type will evoke criticism and even opposition from the US because it will be a deterrent to the mischief of Pakistan along our border line. Washington would not like to see balance of power tilting towards India. But New Delhi has a strong argument to disarm the US. The question is of will to do.
(The writer is the former Director of the Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

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