Chinese incursions, now and then
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Issue Vol 24.4 Oct-Dec2009 | Date : 28 Jan , 2011

The Prime Minister explained that for him the circumstances had changed and from an independent country, Tibet had become a country under the effective suzerainty of China: “China is now exercising its suzerainty.”

In the same month, the clever Zhou Enlai told KM Panikkar, the gullible Indian Ambassador in China that he “presumed that India had no intention of claiming special rights arising from the unequal treaties of the past and was prepared to negotiate a new and permanent relationship safeguarding legitimate interests.”

Nehru explained: “The McMahon Line is the frontier, but on this side of the McMahon Line there have been undeveloped territories-jungles, etc. You take ten days to a fortnight to reach the frontier from any administrative centre.”

Nehru finally told Panikkar that Delhi had no objection to convert the Mission in Lhasa into a Consulate-General. And as a bonus the Communist regime would get a Chinese Consulate in Bombay!

He however added: “We would naturally prefer a general and comprehensive settlement which includes the Frontier.”13 This would not happen.

The Indian Representative was re-designated into a Consul-General under the Indian Embassy in Beijing. By downgrading the Mission, the Indian Government officially accepted that Tibet was a part of China; Tibet’s border was thereafter China’s border. The troubles were to start.

During another press conference in 195214 the Indian Prime Minister declared that he was not aware of “any infiltration of Chinese troops in India.” Rumours had begun about Chinese incursions through the UP-Tibet15 border as well as through the Ladakh-Tibet border. The first Chinese surveys for the Sinkiang-Tibet highway cutting through the Aksai Chin probably occurred during these years.

But Nehru always saw ‘larger perspectives’. Once, when S Sinha, the Indian Representative in Lhasa, asked the Ministry of External Affairs some help for the Tibetans, Nehru wrote to Sinha: “We have to judge these matters from a larger world point of view which probably our Tibetan friends have no means of appreciating.”

Indeed, the Tibetans could not understand what was happening to them.

Border Issues

A few months earlier, the issue of the border had been mentioned for the first time by the Chinese leadership. On September 21, 1951, Panikkar had a meeting with Zhou Enlai who told the Indian Ambassador: “The stabilisation of the Tibetan frontier [which] was a matter of common interest to India, Nepal and China and could best be done by discussions among the three countries.”16

In his biography of Nehru, Dr S Gopal noted: “this shrouded sentence [about the stabilisation of the border] was not an explicit recognition of the frontier.”

Also read: Low Intensity Conflict revisited

Nehru must however have sensed that something was not right, and he wrote to Panikkar: “the new situation made us somewhat apprehensive of this long frontier and we had to take some steps in regard to it. Previously we had completely ignored this frontier. Now we could not do that.”17

In February 1952, during a press conference, Nehru explained: “The McMahon Line is the frontier, but on this side of the McMahon Line there have been undeveloped territories-jungles, etc. You take ten days to a fortnight to reach the frontier from any administrative centre.”

However when the journalist pointed out the north-west sector, the Prime Minister was less assured: “I do not know. The McMahon Line is a definition of that border on the north-east.” But the journalist insisted: “There is a certain tract which is undefined so far – even on the maps it is shown as undefined18 – towards the north-east and north-west, between Nepal and the province of Kashmir: near Lake Manasarovar.” Nehru answered, “I do not know that any question has arisen; it has not come up before me at all at any time.”

And once again when the press pointed out: “But even on the maps it is shown as an undefined border.” Nehru could only say “Maybe. All these are high mountains. Nobody lives there. It is not very necessary to define these things.”

That was it!

Border infiltration in UP and NEFA

Disturbing rumours of Tibetan and Chinese infiltration through the U.P. border continued to circulate in the press and in some government circles.

In October 1951, Sampuranand, a Minister in the U.P. Government, wrote to the Prime Minister pointing out that some areas adjoining Tibet had become vulnerable “because of Tibetan activities supported by China.” He asked the Government to take necessary precautions by laying strategic roads, constructing barracks for soldiers and establishing army outposts on the Indian side. Nehru replied a few days later that India had not been entirely negligent about the Tibetan border. Various agencies had looked into the matter and “some steps have already been taken on the lines of the recommendations made.”19

Also read: India in the neighbourhood

The extent of the enquiries and who had made them20 is not very clear. It is true that a Border Defence Committee under Lt Gen. Kulwant Singh had been set up earlier and some recommendations had been given. However, very little was achieved in term of intelligence gathering and manning the border till the early sixties. Anyhow, Nehru optimistically concluded “I do not think that we need take too gloomy a view of the situation.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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