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

We have to mention a personal anecdote. Recently while spending some leisure time in Munsyari, the last town before the Indo-Tibet border in the Kumaon Hills, we located the ‘historian’ of area. Till the 1962 War, this tehsil used to be the main centre for business with Western Tibet. Most of the Bothias, the local tribes lived on trade. Caravans used to depart from Milam, a village in Johar Valley, north of Munsyari and proceed to the trade markets around the Kailash-Mansarovar area.

In the early 1950″™s, Communist China decided to “™strengthen its border and roads were immediately constructed. In India, even though the decision had been made at the highest level, nothing happened for several years.

The old ‘historian’ told us a flabbergasting story. Lakshan Singh Jangpangi, a native to the area, had joined the Foreign Service in the forties as a senior accountant in the Indian Trade Mart of Gartok, east of the Kailash. In 1946, he was promoted to the important post of British Trade Agent. When India became independent, he continued to serve in the same position till he was transferred to Yatung in 1959. We were told that Jangpangi, who from Gartok had a panoramic view on what was going on in Western Tibet, had informed his Minister (Jawaharlal Nehru) that the Chinese had started to build on the arid Aksai Chin plateau. This was in 1951-52.

Crossing the Indian territory, the road only became the object of official correspondence with the Chinese Government seven years later. We shall come back to it.

The most ironic part of the story is that Jangpangi was awarded the first Padma Shri Award given to a Kumaoni ‘for his meritorious services’. Was it for breaking the news or for having kept quiet? We will probably never know.21

In September 1952, the Prime Minister, probably informed by Jangpangi wrote a Note to the Foreign Secretary about some alleged intrusions. He had also received a letter from Dr KM Munshi, the UP Governor, pointing out that the boundary between Tehri and Tibet was not clearly defined.

Nehru answered: “My own impression is that we are clear about the boundary. But Tibetans have regularly come across it here as well as in Assam22 and collected rent or revenue.”23

The fact that revenue was collected in some areas by the Tibetan authorities till 1951-52,24 would have very serious repercussions on the future of the border areas particularly in the Northeast, UP and Ladakh sectors. The Chinese were systematically building roads and a communication network from Lhasa to the borders of India.25 Soon they would claim as part of the People’s Republic of China, all the areas where the Tibetans had once collected (monastic) revenue, whether it was on the Tibetan or the Indian side of the McMahon Line.

Also read: Neglect of India’s frontier areas

In the central and western sectors, the situation was even more complicate, because as pointed out by Dr Munshi the frontier was not physically demarcated. Obviously, as long as there was a friendly and peaceful state on the other side of the border, it was not crucial to have a proper delineation or physical demarcation. Tibet and India had lived for millennia as neighbours and friends with no problems. But in the early fifties the situation had changed drastically.

It should be noted that in 1952 the question was only about Tibetan incursions into Indian territory. A year or two later it would be far more serious; it would be Chinese troops.

In September 1952, Nehru wrote to the Foreign Secretary to reiterate what he had earlier told Sampurnanand: “Definitely and precisely that they should not be allowed to come and they should be pushed back if they cross over.”

He admitted he had not followed up on the matter: “what happened later, I do not know.” The UP Government was ready to keep some armed police on the border provided that the Centre put up some barracks. Nehru added: “it was not fair to expect them to remain in tents or in the open.” Unfortunately for India’s borders, the buck was passed from one ministry to another, further from the State to the Centre and back. Finally, bureaucracy prevailed and nothing happened for one more decade.

It should be noted that in 1952 the question was only about Tibetan incursions into Indian territory. A year or two later it would be far more serious; it would be Chinese troops. Though they had never visited these areas before, their policy was clear: wherever Tibetans had made claims on Indian soil, this territory automatically became Chinese territory.

But the Indian Prime Minister saw things from a different angle. He felt that development was the only way to tackle the situation. The most important task was to ‘develop’ the border areas. He believed that the people of the border areas, if provided better opportunities would be the first to defend India’s borders. He felt that the people living close to the borders had to play an important role in the relations with the neighbour country: “while they can ensure peace in their own country, they can also create troubles”. In the same letter, he added: “Nobody need get upset over the recent developments in Tibet.”26 He repeated that one of India’s foremost interests was the cultivation of friendly relations with China and Tibet.

The manning of the border posts remained under the Ministry of External Affairs. With rumours circulating about border incursions, Nehru had to take a renewed interest in the issue of infiltrations and look at the steps necessary to control them. In March 1953, he informed the Foreign Secretary again about the difficulties experienced on the UP-Tibet border: “Two years ago or so a committee [made] certain recommendations about the steps to be taken on our frontier areas… Since then the UP Government has repeatedly written to us on this subject, but somehow the matter has got hung up between the Home Ministry and the Finance Ministry.”27

A few months later Nehru took up the matter with the Home Minister again: “this matter has been delayed very greatly, although it is of high importance. There is no doubt that it has to be done.”28

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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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