The construction of the road cutting across Indian soil on the Aksai Chin plateau of Ladakh was known to the Indian ministries of Defense and External Affairs long before it was made public.
The Chinese incursions continued in the fifties in Garwal (Barahoti), Himachal Pradesh (Shipkila) and then spread to Ladakh and the NEFA (today Arunachal). Mao’s regime could have only been encouraged by the Government of India’s feeble complaints. Delhi was probably satisfied with its seasonal protests and the immediate denials from Beijing. Hundreds of such complaints have been recorded in the 14 volumes of the White Papers published from 1959 to 1968.
The Aksai Chin case
Soon after the PLA entered Lhasa, the Chinese made plans to improve communications and build new roads on a war-footing.40 The only way to consolidate and ‘unify’ the Empire was to construct a large network of roads. The work began immediately after the arrival of the first young Chinese soldiers in Lhasa. Priority was given to motorable roads: the Chamdo-Lhasa,41 the Qinghai-Lhasa42 and the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway (later known as the Aksai Chin) in western Tibet.
Tibet-Xinjiang Highway is still a bone of contention between India and China and the major hurdle in the ’stabilization of the border’.
The first surveys were done at the end of 1951 and construction probably began in 1952.
The official report of the 1962 China War prepared by the Indian Ministry of Defense43 gives a few examples showing that the construction of the road cutting across Indian soil on the Aksai Chin plateau of Ladakh was known to the Indian ministries of Defense and External Affairs long before it was made public.
The Official report mentions S.S. Khera, a Cabinet Secretary in 1962, who later wrote that “information about activities of the Chinese on the Indo-Tibetan border particularly in the Aksai Chin area had begun to come in by 1952 or earlier.”44
Tibet-Xinjiang Highway is still a bone of contention between India and China and the major hurdle in the “™stabilization of the border.
The Report further quotes the Director of Intelligence Bureau: “B.N. Mullik, who was then Director, Intelligence Bureau, has, however, claimed that he had been reporting about the road building activity of the Chinese in the area since as early as November 1952. According to BN Mullik, the Indian Trade Agent in Gartok also reported about it in July and September 1955, and August 1957.45
The different incidents which occurred in the early fifties should have awakened the Government of India from its soporific Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai dream-like world. It was not to be so.
Instead of alarming Nehru, these disturbing reports reinforced his determination to bolster the friendship with China. The first of these incidents was the harassment of Jangpangi and his colleagues of the Trade Agency in Gartok. Though Nehru wrote to Zhou Enlai about it,46 no following action was taken and no proper analysis of Chinese motivations was made. Nehru barely brought the matter to Zhou’s notice: “Recently, some incidents have taken place when the local authorities in Tibet stopped our Trade Agent in Western Tibet from proceeding on his official tour to Rudok and his staff to Taklakot, both important trade marts for Indian traders and pilgrims. There has been a forcible seizure of his wireless set which is essential for the performance of his duties. We learnt of this incident with surprise and regret, because it did not seem to us in consonance with the friendly relations between our two countries…”47
The harassment of the Indian Trade Agent in Western Tibet was without doubt linked with the work which had started on the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. Rudok, located midway between Lhasa and Kashgar is the last small town before entering the Aksai Chin. The presence of an Indian official there was embarrassing for the Chinese. Did Nehru realise the implications of the incident or did he still believe in Chinese goodwill? It is difficult to say.
A telling incident
In September 1956, 20 Chinese crossed over the Shipki-la pass into Himachal Pradesh. A 27-member Border Security Force party met the Chinese the same day. The BSF were told by a Chinese officer that he was instructed to patrol right up to Hupsang Khad (4 miles south of Shipki-la, the acknowledged border pass under the Panchsheel Agreement). The BSF were however advised “to avoid an armed clash but not yield to the Chinese troops.”
Did Nehru realise the implications of the incident or did he still believe in Chinese goodwill?
Delhi did not know how to react. A few days later, Nehru wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “I agree with [your] suggestion…it would not be desirable for this question to be raised in the Lok Sabha at the present stage.”
The policy of the Indian government was to keep the matter quiet and eventually mention it ‘informally’ to the Chinese officials.
Finally, the MEA informed Beijing, “The Government of India are pained and surprised at this conduct of the Chinese commanding officer.”
This was fifty-five years ago.
Why was it not ‘desirable’ to raise in the Parliament the questions of intrusions ‘at the present stage’? The babus in the Ministry were probably confident that they would be able to solve the issue without informing the Indian public of the seriousness of the situation. We know the result of their confidence.
Is the situation different today?