By Randeep Ramesh
Border meeting to focus on region to which Indian nationalists are staking an increasingly loud claim
When India's top security official, M K Narayanan, and his Chinese counterpart, Dai Bing Guo, sit down today for boundary talks in Beijing there will be little hope of a breakthrough. Since 1981 there have been more than 30 rounds of talks – mostly about agreeing to disagree.
China claims the Indian-held state of Arunachal Pradesh and India claims portions of Chinese-held Kashmir. The contested zones amount to almost 58,000 sq miles (150,000 sq km) – an area a little larger than Greece. What is really at stake is the most sensitive of issues: Tibet.
India has been home to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, since he fled in 1959 after China sent in troops to suppress a revolt against its rule. Arunachal Pradesh is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and home to one of the largest Buddhist monasteries outside the traditional capital of Tibet, Lhasa. Lamas from Tawang are revered in southern Tibet. China says the portions of Kashmir it occupies are vital to ensure access to sensitive parts of the Tibetan plateau.
Alarming for Beijing is how Tibet has become part of Hindu nationalism, a potent continuing force in India.
The head of this nationalist ideology is the Rashtryia Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or Organisation of National Volunteers. With an estimated membership of 5 million, it is the second-largest political movement in the world – after the Chinese Communist party. The RSS spawned the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which led India's government from 1998 to 2004.
When I sit down with Indresh Kumar, head of the Himalaya cell for the RSS, he is quick to point out "the diplomatic, political and humanitarian crime" of accepting Tibet as part of China. "Tibet was never part of China, which is an imperialistic nation."
Kumar, who formulates strategy for the RSS on Tibet, bases his assessment on two doctrines: one is India's national security, the other is race. The former is easy to explain: India's security can be threatened by China's army from the Tibetan plateau. It was a blitzkrieg across the Himalayas that saw India lose the 1962 war with China in a matter of days.
But what jars is the racial component of the RSS argument. "(Tibetan) genes must be saved," says Kumar. "The first responsibility for Tibet's independence is India's … because the two nations are culturally, religiously intertwined. [The] Dalai Lama says India is guru (teacher), Tibet is shishya (disciple)."
This thinking harks back to the RSS's central assertion that India is populated by a race, of Aryans, and a religion, Hinduism, which are both somehow special. It is also energising rightwing Hindu attitudes to China.
To see why this can lead to dangerous rhetoric, look back at the height of China's crackdown in Tibet in April. At this time India's former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha told reporters "if there was conflict (over Tibet) we should be ready to meet the challenge".
Narayanan is not part of the RSS, but his government cannot ignore nationalist sentiment. Little wonder that today's talks in Beijing are unlikely to lead to much – but more talks.