A fine line – An Irishman’s Diary on Sir Henry McMahon, China and India

Sir Henry McMahon: His demarcation line between Tibet and British India has long been a source of dispute between China and India.

Sir Henry McMahon: His demarcation line between Tibet and British India has long been a source of dispute between China and India. Photographer unknown

By Ronan McGreevy | The Irish Times

ON THE WEB, 29 August 2020

The recent dispute between the world’s most populous countries, China and India, has its roots in an agreement drawn up by the son of an Irish general. The McMahon Line marks the disputed frontier between not only two great nations but two great civilisations. It is named after Sir Henry McMahon, the third generation of his family who acted as colonial administrators in India.

The family traced its ancestry back to the Mac Mathghamhnas who ruled the medieval Irish kingdom of Oriel which straddles another contentious border closer to home. Henry McMahon’s great-grandfather, the Rev Arthur McMahon, was a Presbyterian minister who was involved with the United Irishmen in the 1798 rebellion and later fled to the continent, where he joined Napoleon Bonaparte’s Irish legion.

Thereafter the McMahons turned from rebels into stalwarts of the British Empire. McMahon’s father, Lieut Gen Charles Alexander McMahon, was born in Kilrea, Co Derry, in 1791 and gained prominence in the East India Company as an officer. His son followed him into the British-Indian army.

It was in his position as colonial administrator that Henry McMahon convened a conference at Simla, the summer capital of British India, in 1914 with a view to determining once and for all India’s northern frontiers. Three countries were involved, British India, China, and Tibet. Tibet had become a de facto independent state following the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in China in 1912. This was supported by the British, who wanted Tibet to act as a buffer state between China and India. The Chinese repudiated the agreement, as it did not recognise Tibetan independence, so McMahon turned a trilateral agreement into a secret bilateral one with Tibet.

The 860-km border covers the north-eastern extremity of the Indian-Chinese border between Bhutan and Myanmar. The line roughly follows the Himalayas ranges in the area.

The disputed area is Tawang in the northeast corner of the McMahon Line close to Bhutan. The town of Tawang is regarded as sacred by the Tibetan people as the sixth Dalai Lama was born there. It is also home to the second biggest Tibetan monastery. The Tibetans thought the line meant they controlled it. The British assumed it belonged to them. When a British botanist entered the town in 1935, he was arrested by the Tibetans and detained.

The British were furious but discovered the line was not an actual international border because nobody had defined it as other than a rough line on a map. The line was finally defined in the Survey of India in 1937 and it was only a year later before the Simla Accord, which McMahon had brokered, was published 24 years after it was first agreed.

The accord was immediately rejected by the Chinese, who rejected Tibet’s right to sign international treaties.

When China annexed Tibet in 1950 the McMahon Line became the frontier between China and India.

As Tawang was regarded as part of ancient Tibet, the Chinese maintain that it is now part of China. India rejects this and Tawang is administered by the mountainous state of Arunachal Pradesh.

The conflict erupted in all-out war in 1962 when China invaded and temporarily annexed much of the state.

Previously, China had agreed to recognise the McMahon Line in return for Indian recognition of the area of Aksai Chin further east, but this was rejected by India.

India got much of the territory back in 1967 and 1975, but the two countries remain at loggerheads as to the actual line of control.

Tensions along the border further east led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in June this year.

To the Chinese, McMahon is regarded as the personification of the foreign colonial functionary who humiliated the country in the days before the country reasserted itself after the communist revolution of 1949.

“In Beijing, McMahon’s name is mud. In short they don’t recognise lines that colonial cartographers draw on maps,” Channel 4’s foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Miller recently stated.

After the Simla Accord, McMahon became British high commissioner in Egypt, in which he was an innocent party to another agreement which has caused disputes to this day. McMahon had negotiated in good faith with Hussein bin Ali, the de facto leader of the Arab world at the time and the emir of Mecca. In return for the support of the Arabs to overthrow the Ottoman Empire during the first World War, McMahon promised an independent Arab state after the war. Lawrence of Arabia led the Arabs in revolt. Behind McMahon’s back, though, the British and French drew up the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1917, carving up the Middle East into zones of influence with no independent Arab state.

This was followed by the Balfour Declaration promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine. When the details were leaked by the Russian government, McMahon resigned.

The McMahon Line is not McMahon’s only legacy. In a back-handed compliment, a species of snake was named after him. Eristicophis macmahonii, found in the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan, is known as McMahon’s Viper.

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