Arunachal Pradesh: India, Tibet, or China?

Ishaan Busireddy

Arunachal Pradesh, meaning “The Province of Dawn-Lit Mountains” in Sanskrit, is – politically-speaking, a state in northeast India. However, this status is not that simple. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh is politically and culturally at the cross-roads of several civilizations.

In today’s terms, these nations are mainly India, Tibet, and more recently China. In ancient times, the region was inhabited by many diverse people groups, mostly Tibeto-Burman. As organized civilization came to the region, the Tibetic Monpa Kingdom established its control over the northern portion of what is now called Arunachal Pradesh. This more Tibeto-Burman portion is dominated by the magnificent cultural site of Tawang, which houses the second-largest Buddhist monastery in the world behind the fellow-Tibetan Buddhist Potala Palace. However, the southern plains and hilly areas came under the rule of the neighboring Hindu Chutia Dynasty of Assam and later other dynasties of Indian origin as evidenced by ruins of temples.

For centuries, this Tibeto-Indian division remained with the north inhabited by culturally Tibetic groups and states and the south populated by Indic groups and states related to Assam. Ultimately, the Tibetic-regions of Arunachal Pradesh came under the control of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan state, which was then absorbed by Qing China. The British, in their conquest of India, committed to controlling the region. Thus, after tough negotiations at Shimla, Henry McMahon of Britain forced China and Tibet under it to recognize all of the region as British Indian. Thus, the culturally Tibetic portions of Arunachal Pradesh, at that time the “North-East Frontier Agency” or NEFA, were made part of British India. These concessions were not viewed favorably by the Tibetans or Chinese, and Indians were neutral under British rule.

However, when British rule ended, India inherited NEFA as part of its territory. Although Tibet did not fully recognize NEFA as part of India, they had cordial relations and did not conflict. However, China, with its general irredentist zeal, used its supposed right to NEFA, or “South Tibet,” to claim NEFA as its territory after terminating Tibet. Thus, the Sino-Indian War started in 1962, in which China took control of parts of NEFA. However, in the face of the US, USSR, and Britain’s support for India, China retreated from its gains, still maintaining to this day that Tibet is part of China, Arunachal Pradesh is part of Tibet, and that thus it is part of China. However, China’s claims only rely on political and military reasoning, not cultural reasons. In fact, in the cultural sense, northern Arunachal Pradesh is Tibetan, and the southern portion is Indian. Even as late as 2003, the Dalai Lama asserted that Arunachal Pradesh was actually Tibetan, a point that he later retracted; still, his prior opinions are valid among Tibetans and rely on concrete and widely-agreed upon historical and cultural facts, unlike the fabricated and imperialist Communist Chinese argument. Yet, even the Indian claims, particularly over the northern part of Arunachal Pradesh containing the Tawang Monastery – which is central to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, are lacking in cultural evidence, and thus India relies more on treaties and politics to justify its control.

Still, as Tibet has ceased to exist as a functioning political entity in light of the Chinese colonization of Tibet, it seems that many Tibetans and related groups both inside Arunachal Pradesh and other parts of India prefer Indian control rather than Chinese oppression as evidenced by the migration of more than 100,000 Tibetans to India after the Chinese invasion. Moreover, there has been very little active separatism and peace has reigned for the most part. However, at the end of the day when the sun’s light fades from the peaks of Arunachal, it remains a historically, culturally, and politically complicated region that has been in the past and must be in the future a point of peaceful ambiguity solely between India and Tibet undisturbed by a nosy neighbor.