India, China, Tibet and the curious case of the missing Sikkim Papers
The present standoff at the trijunction between Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan, on the southern tip of the Chumbi, is a worrying development. While recently addressing the foreign diplomats in Delhi, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar rightly stated that China has been ‘unusually aggressive and articulate’.
Beijing seems to have only one argument, i.e. the 1890 Convention between the British and the Manchus, conveniently forgetting several other agreements, particularly the 1893 Trade Regulations (1890 twin accord) which allowed India to open a trade mart in Yatung in the Chumbi Valley.
There is also general amnesia on the fact that the Tibetans never recognized the 1890 Convention as Lhasa and Paro were not consulted by the ‘Great Imperial Powers’. Tsepon WD Shakabpa, the Tibetan historian explained: “In 1890 a convention was drawn up …without consulting the government of Tibet …and since [Tibet] was not represented at the Convention, those articles were not allowed to be put into practice by the Tibetans. The British were aware that China exercised no real power in Tibet at that time.”
To come back to the present day, Jaishankar told a panel of MPs that India has clearly outlined its position on the border though the Chinese have a differing position, “but they are misinterpreting it and so India was trying to clarify it. He said that India has been maintaining the same position since 1895 as per an Anglo-Chinese agreement.”
One can only hope that reason will prevail in Beijing, but a solution is bound to take time, certainly not before the leadership change in November during the Communist Party’s 19th Congress.
In this context, an anecdote came back to mind. A few years ago, an acquaintance who, as a young diplomat, was posted in Gangtok in the Political Officer’s office told me that in 1975-76, soon after the merger of the Himalayan State with India, he spent months going through all the historical records kept in Gangtok between 1889 to 1975; Delhi’s orders were to dispatch them to Delhi for safe custody. Once his work was over; the diplomat sent six truck-loads of old files to Delhi under CRPF escort. Since then, nobody seems to know where these Sikkim Papers are and if this archival treasure still exists.
It would have an immense historical value today to show that India and Tibet had a different relation than the one portrayed by China; further Beijing would be unable to bluff its way through with incorrect historical information.
The Political Officer (PO) was the Government of India’s eye over the entire Himalayan region. From the seasonal Indian Trade Agency (ITA) in Gartok in Western Tibet, to the ITA in Gyantse and Yatung, the Indian Mission (and later Consulate General) in Lhasa, all correspondence passed through Gangtok. It included the relations with Sikkim and Bhutan; the PO even overlooked the NEFA area in coordination with the Governor of Assam.
Gangtok has seen many remarkable personages serving as POs.
The first was Claude White, a British engineer who was send to Sikkim in 1887 to tackle the tense situation on the Sikkim–Tibet border in the north. A year later, White came back to Sikkim as an Assistant Political Officer of a British Expeditionary Force which defeated the Tibetans a year later; this resulted in the 1890 Convention. In the meantime, a post of Political Officer in Sikkim had been created, making Claude White, the Administrative head of the entire Himalayan region.
In his book Sikkim and Bhutan: 21 Years on the North East Frontier 1887-1908, the first PO wrote, “one of the first things to be done after his arrival in Sikkim was to build a house, the site for which was found in the midst of the jungles around Gangtok”; then called the Residency, it is today’s the Raj Bhavan. White also ordered a survey of the borders with Tibet, including the 1895 one.
Though South Block probably has copies of some of the Sikkim Papers, the entire set is not traceable (it is at least what I was told). It is a tragedy for researchers and it would undoubtedly help strengthen India’s case in the present circumstances.
Interesting officers occupied the Residency in Gangtok.
Amongst them, Sir Charles Bell who had developed a deep friendship with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, when the latter was living in exile in Kalimpong, but also Frederick Bailey who was instrumental in mapping the North-East, what became the McMahon Line in 1914; and Sir Basil Gould, who in the 1930s, travelled to Tibet to establish diplomatic relations with a then Independent Tibet or Arthur Hopkinson, the religious-minded ICS officer, who was asked by the Government of India to continue for a year after Independence as the First ‘Indian’ PO.
Harishwar Dayal took over from Hopkinson and was officiating when Tibet was invaded by the Chinese troops in October 1950.
Once in a cable to the Prime Minister, Dayal dared quoting a dispatch sent from Hugh Richardson, the Scottish-born ‘Indian’ representative in Lhasa; on June 15, 1949, he suggested that India might consider occupying Chumbi Valley up to Phari ‘in an extreme emergency’.
This did not go well with Nehru, but in November 1950, Dayal wrote: “This suggestion was NOT favoured by Government of India at the time. It was however proposed as a purely defensive measure and with NO aggressive intention. An attack on Sikkim or Bhutan would call for defensive military operations by the Government of India.”
Though it is history now, it is what China’s PLA strategists would today call ‘active defence’. Let us hope that the Sikkim Papers could soon be traced, they contain the history of Modern Himalaya.
This article India, China, Tibet and the curious case of the missing Sikkim Papers appeared in The Mail Today, DailyO and Daily Mail (UK)
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