The incidents in the Depsang Plain, near the Karakoram Pass in April or more recently, in Chumar in South Ladakh, are the continuance of Nehru’s blind spot for China. There is today a huge difference of ‘perception’ on the location of the Line of Actual Control which over the years has been moving towards the South and the West. The 1959 LAC was indeed far more advantageous for India than the present LAC.
The Aksai Chin was definitely Indian territory though the area was “very remote and uninhabited”.
At the end of August 1959, a serious border incident occurred in the Subansiri sector of the then NEFA. According to a Note sent by the Indian government to its Chinese counterpart, “On August 25, 1959, a strong Chinese detachment crossed into Indian territory (in Lonju) south of Migyitun on the NEFA border and fired without notice on an Indian forward picket. They arrested the entire picket which was twelve strong but eight Indian personnel somehow managed to escape.”1
A few days later, the issue came to the Parliament. As the Migyitun/Longju skirmish was being discussed, Nehru’s Government was also asked about a road supposedly cutting through Aksai Chin in Ladakh. For the first time, Nehru conceded that China had built a road. However, he explained that although Indian maps showed the area within India’s territory, the boundary in Ladakh was not ‘defined’. He stated, “Nobody had marked it.” The Prime Minister added that Delhi was prepared to discuss specific areas ‘in dispute or as yet unsettled’, though not the ‘considerable regions’ claimed by Chinese maps.
The Aksai Chin was definitely Indian territory though the area was “Very remote and uninhabited”, said the Prime Minister who, on March 22 that year, had written to Premier Zhou En-lai on the subject. Nehru could not escape and remain vague as he had done in the past. He had to make a detailed statement; he even agreed to release a White Paper on the border issue. Nehru admitted that the boundary in Ladakh was not sufficiently defined and that Aksai Chin was a “barren uninhabited region without a vestige of grass”. He further confessed the road was, “an important connection” for the Chinese though in any case, in comparison with the NEFA, the dispute over Aksai Chin was a “minor” thing. India was, however, prepared to discuss the issue on the basis of treaties, maps, usage and geography.
Nehru admitted that the boundary in Ladakh was not sufficiently defined…
It was a real bombshell for India. The cat was out of the bag!
The New Roads
It is necessary to go back eight years since the border incident. Soon after the PLA entered Lhasa in September 1951, the Chinese decided to improve communications on The Roof of the World and built new roads on a war-footing.2 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 Chinese soldiers in Lhasa. Priority was given to motorable roads – the Chamdo-Lhasa3, the Qinghai-Lhasa4 and the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway (later known as the Aksai Chin) linking Western Tibet to former Eastern Turkestan. For the latter, the first surveys were done in 1952 and construction commenced soon after5.
The official report of the 1962 China War prepared by the Indian Ministry of Defence6 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 Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of External Affairs long before it was made public.
The Report quotes B.N Mullick, the then Director of the Intelligence Bureau, who claimed that he had been reporting about the road building activity of the Chinese in the area as early as November 1952. According to Mullick, the Indian Trade Agent in Gartok also reported about it in July and September 1955 as well as in August 1957.7 The different incidents which occurred in the early 1950s should have awakened the Government of India from its soporific ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ illusion. Alas! It was not to be so.
The different incidents occurring in the early 1950s should have awakened the Government of India from its soporific ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ illusion…
Instead of alarming Nehru, these disturbing reports reinforced his determination to bolster friendship with China. The first of these incidents was the harassment of the Indian Trade Agent posted in Gartok in Western Tibet. Although Nehru wrote to Zhou Enlai about it8, no follow-up action was taken and no proper analysis of Chinese motivations was made. Nehru barely brought the matter to Zhou’s notice.9
The problem of the Indian Trade Agent in Gartok, Western Tibet was without doubt linked to the work which had started on the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. Rudok, located midway between Lhasa and Kashgar, is the last small Tibetan town before entering the Aksai Chin. The presence of an Indian official nearby was embarrassing for the Chinese as they had started building a road on Indian soil. Did Nehru realize the implications of the incident over the Trade Agent or did he still believe in Chinese goodwill? It is difficult to say.
The Official report also mentions S.S Khera, the Cabinet Secretary who wrote “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.”10 But that was not all.
Closure of the Consulate in Kashgar
If the Indian government had been willing to read beyond the Chinese rhetoric and Zhou’s assurance of friendship, it would have seen many ominous signs. One of them was the closure of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar.
Nehru justified the Chinese actions without taking any retaliatory measures or even protesting….
Here again, as in several other cases, Nehru justified the Chinese actions without taking any retaliatory measures or even protesting. India’s interests were lost to the ‘revolutionary changes’ happening in China. He declared in the Parliament, “Some major changes have taken place there. Kashgar is important to us as a trade route. The trade went over the Karakoram, passed though Ladakh and Leh on to Kashmir. Various factors, including developments in Kashmir led to the stoppage of that trade… The result was, our Consul remained there for some time, till recently… but there is now no work to be done. So we advised him to come away and he did come away.”11
India had been trading with Central Asia and more particularly Kashgar and Yarkand for millennia. Just because ‘revolutionary changes’ had occurred in Xinjiang, the Government of India accepted the closure of its trade with Central Asia as a fait accompli. The reference to Kashmir is totally irrelevant. Since the winter of 1948, India controlled the Zoji-la Pass12 as well as Ladakh. At that time, the Karakoram Pass was still open to the caravans.
More Reports Come in
Another indication came during the negotiations for the Panchsheel Agreement. Instead of the planned three or four weeks, the talks went on for four months. One of the objections by the Chinese was the mention of Demchok as the border pass for traders between Ladakh and Western Tibet. Very cleverly, Chen, the main Chinese negotiator ‘privately’ told T.N. Kaul, his Indian counterpart, that he was objecting because they were not keen to mention the name ‘Kashmir’ as they did not wish to take sides between India and Pakistan. This argument is very odd and though Kaul could see through the game, the Indian side gave in once again.
The fact that the border post was not specified was indeed a great victory for Beijing while they were building the road in the Aksai Chin. It seems as though the Indian side was just not aware of the reality on the ground.
Chinese workers who were building the road did not have proper visas issued by Delhi on their travel documents!
Several other authors have mentioned the building of the Aksai Chin road and the fact that it was known during the mid-fifties to the Ministries of Defence and External Affairs. In his book, The Saga of Ladakh,13 Maj. Gen. Jagjit Singh said that in 1956, the Indian Military Attaché in Beijing, Brigadier S.S Mallik received information that China had started building a highway through Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area. Mallik reported the matter to Army Headquarters in New Delhi and a similar report was sent by the Indian Embassy to the Foreign Ministry.
D.R Mankekar14 provided similar information. He said that Brig. Mallik made a first reference to the road-building activities of the Chinese in a routine report to the Government as early as November 1955. Five months later, in a special report to Delhi, the Military Attaché drew pointed attention to the construction of the strategic highway through Indian territory in Aksai Chin. He also sent a copy of the report to the Army HQ.
The Official Report of the 1962 War states, “The Preliminary survey work on the planned Tibet-Sinkiang road having been completed by the mid-1950s, China started constructing a motorable road in the summer of 1955. The highway ran over 160 km across the Aksai Chin region of North-East Ladakh. It was completed in the second half of 1957. Arterial roads connecting the highway with Tibet were also laid.”
It was, therefore, known that China was building a road in the area but the government chose ‘not to upset’ Beijing.
Opening of the Aksai Chin Road
Once it was opened, the Chinese did not try to keep the new road a secret. On October 06, 1957, a Chinese newspaper Kuang-ming Jih-pao reported, “The Sinkiang-Tibet, the highest highway in the world, has been completed. During the past few days, a number of trucks running on the highway on a trial basis have arrived in Ko-ta-k’e in Tibet from Yehch’eng in Sinkiang. The Sinkiang-Tibet Highway… is 1,179 km long, of which 915 km are more than 4,000 metres above sea level; 130 km of it over 5,000 metres above sea level, with the highest point being 5,500 metres.”
It was known that China was building a road in the area but the government chose ‘not to upset’ Beijing…
Giving more details, the Chinese publication continued: “Thirty (‘liberation’ model and Chissu 150) heavy-duty trucks, fully loaded with road builders, maintenance equipment and fuels, running on the highway on a trial basis, headed for Ko-ta-k’e from Yehch’eng. In addition, two trucks fully loaded with Hami melons, apples and pomegranates, all native products of Sinkiang, headed in the same direction. These fruits were gifts brought specially by the road builders of Sinkiang for the people of various nationalities.”
The last straw is that it took a further two years for Nehru to make it public. The Prime Minster was aware of the facts but preferred to keep the information to himself and his close confidantes, hoping for the best. On February 03, 1958, five months after the road was opened, Subimal Dutt, the Indian Foreign Secretary wrote to Nehru, “There seemed little doubt that the newly constructed 1,200-kilometre road connecting Gartok in Western Tibet with Yeh in Sinkiang passes through Aksai Chin.”15
Dutt informed the Prime Minister that he agreed with Joint Secretary B.K Acharya’s suggestion of sending a reconnoitering party in the coming spring to find out if the road passed through Aksai Chin. Dutt added, “However, if the Chinese opposed, the party could come back and the matter could be taken up diplomatically.” Unfortunately, for the South Block babus, the reconnoitering party was captured and several Indian jawans were killed. Dutt requested for a meeting to discuss the matter with Nehru, Acharya and K. Gopalachari, the Deputy Director of the Historical Division of the Ministry.
Magnanimous India was ready to ‘settle these petty frontier disputes so that the friendly relations between the two countries may not suffer’…
On February 04, 1958, Nehru replied, “I shall gladly discuss this matter with you, J.S (Joint Secretary) and Gopalachari. Meanwhile, my reaction is that we should send a reconnoitering party there in the spring with clear instructions that they should not come into conflict with the Chinese. I do not think it is desirable to have air reconnaissance. In fact, I do not see what good this can do us. Even a land reconnaissance will not perhaps be very helpful. However, it may bring some further facts to our notice.”16
The Prime Minister continued, “I do not see how we can possibly protest about the alignment of the road without being much surer than we are. What we might perhaps do is that in some communication with the Chinese Government in regard to the points of dispute which have to be decided, we should mention the Aksai Chin area.” Finally, he suggested that, “Our maps should be sent to the Chinese. But I think it would be better to do this rather informally.” Even at this point, the Prime Minister preferred to remain informal!
But with the pressure mounting, on October 18, 1958, the Indian Foreign Secretary (Dutt) had to hand over an ‘Informal Note’ to the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi. In fact, the immediate reason for protesting to Beijing was that the team sent for ‘land reconnaissance’ had been captured by the Chinese in the Aksai Chin.
It is only at the end of the letter that the issue is mentioned. Dutt wrote, “In this connection, the Government of India would also like to draw the attention of the Chinese Government to another fact. An Indian party consisting of three Military Officers and four soldiers together with one guide, one porter, six pony–owners and thirty-four ponies, were out on a normal patrol in this area near Shinglung in Indian territory. This patrol had been given strict instructions not to cross the border into Chinese territory. Since the end of August, however, no news of their whereabouts has been received in spite of search by air. Since there are now Chinese personnel in this part of Indian territory, the Government of India would be grateful for any information that the Chinese Government may have about the party and for any assistance that they may find it possible to give to the party to return to their headquarters.” The Chinese must have had a jolly good laugh!
How does one retrieve the situation today when the battle was lost in the 1950s without a fight?
The Foreign Secretary’s letter had earlier noted, “The attention of the Government of India has recently been drawn to the fact that a motor road has been constructed by the Government of the People’s Republic of China across the eastern part of the Ladakh region of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, which is part of India. This road seems to form part of the Chinese road known as Yehchang–Gartok or Sikiang Tibet highway, the completion of which was announced in September, 1957.” A description of the Indian alignment was given.
Dutt insisted that, “The India-China boundary in the Ladakh sector as in others, is traditionally well-known and follows well-marked geographical features.” His conclusion was “It is matter of surprise and regret that the Chinese Government should have constructed a road through what is indisputably Indian territory without first obtaining the permission of the Government of India and without even informing the Government of India.” It was indeed a matter of ‘surprise and regret’ that a road was constructed on Indian territory without India’s permission and knowledge!
In the eyes of the Indian babus, what was irksome was the fact that the Chinese workers who were building the road did not have proper visas issued by Delhi on their travel documents! As Dutt pointed out according to diplomatic conventions, “Diplomatic personnel, officials and nationals of the two countries shall hold passports issued by their own respective countries and visas by the other party.”
But magnanimous India was ready to ‘settle these petty frontier disputes so that the friendly relations between the two countries may not suffer’. And to make matters worse, Prime Minister Nehru still did not tell the truth in the Parliament when the issue came up in April 1959.
It was indeed a matter of ‘surprise and regret’ that a road was constructed on Indian territory without her permission and knowledge!
A ‘Reply to Questions’ session was held in the Lok Sabha on April 22, 1959.17 The questions were, “Will the Prime Minister be pleased to state (a) whether the Government is aware of the fact that maps recently published in China and Russia show large chunks of our territory as part of their territories (b) if so, the action taken by the Government of India in the matter?”
Lakshmi Menon, the Deputy Minister of External Affairs answered, “Yes Sir, instances of maps, published in China and Russia, depicting certain parts of Indian territory as parts of China, have come to our notice. The attention of these two Governments has already been drawn to the discrepancies.” The debate continued for some time on the maps and then, a Congress MP, D.C Sharma asked, “May I know if there is any dispute about any border territory or any kind of territory between China and India and, if not, why is it that some parts of India which are obviously in India have been shown as parts of China?”
The Prime Minister answered, “It is rather difficult for me to answer that question. We have discussed one or two minor frontier disputes which comprise tiny tracts of territory, maybe a mile this way or that way, in the high mountains where nobody lives and those are pending. We have discussed them and for the present no settlement has been arrived at.”
Later, C.D Pande, the Congress MP from Nainital, UP (now Uttarakhand) brought up the subject again, “Apart from the maps, because after all, the question of the maps is academic, may I know whether there are certain portions of land between India and Tibet where they are encroaching on the basis of these maps — encroaching into our territory -particularly in Taklakot which is near the border of Almora? At Taklakot they have come six miles this way, according to their map. It is not a question of maps alone. They have actually encroached on our territory – six miles in one pass.”
The incidents in the Depsang Plain, near the Karakoram Pass in April or more recently, in Chumar in South Ladakh, are the continuance of Nehru’s blind spot for China.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “I should like to give a precise answer to such questions. I would not like to venture to give an imprecise answer. Taklakot (tri-junction Nepal-Tibet-India in Pithoragarh district of today’s Uttarakhand) and another place – Hoti (Barahoti in Uttarakhand) – have been places under argument and sometimes, according to the reports we have received, some Chinese have advanced a mile or two, maybe in the high mountains. It is true. We have been enquiring into it. The difficulty is that in the winter months, most of these places are almost inaccessible, and more inaccessible from our side than from the other side.”
Later another MP, Braj Raj Singh queried, “May I know whether the Government’s attention has been drawn to the news item published in several papers alleging that the Chinese have claimed some 30,000 sq.km. of our territory and they have also disputed the McMahon line?” This was clearly related to the Aksai Chin as the MP said, “and also the McMahon line” (Eastern Sector).
Nehru’s answer was, “No Sir, I would suggest to Hon. Members not to pay much attention to news items emanating sometimes from Hong Kong and sometimes from other odd places. We have had no such claim directly or indirectly made on us.” Again, the Prime Minister deliberately omitted to mention the Aksai Chin.
Did Nehru sincerely believe that he would settle the issue in a friendly manner with Mao or Zhou Enlai? It is difficult to understand his reasoning. On September 07, 1959, a few weeks after the Parliament was informed about the road, the Ministry of External Affairs published its first White Paper in which the issue of the Aksai Chin figures prominently.
The 1959 LAC was indeed far more advantageous for India than the present LAC.
The same day, Nehru received a long letter from Zhou Enlai who by this time, had hardened his position, especially on the McMahon Line, and now claimed the entire NEFA. In these conditions and despite the visit of Zhou Enlai in April 1960 during which he offered a swap between NEFA and Aksai Chin and the subsequent rounds of talks between officials from India and China, no solution could be found.
The incidents in the Depsang Plain, near the Karakoram Pass in April or more recently, in Chumar in South Ladakh, are the continuance of Nehru’s blind spot for China. There is today a huge difference of ‘perception’ on the location of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which over the years has been moving towards the South and the West. The 1959 LAC was indeed far more advantageous for India than the present LAC.
The question remains, “How does one retrieve the situation today when the battle was lost in the 1950s without a fight? That is a problem to which no one has as yet proposed a viable solution.
- Notes, Memoranda and letters Exchanged and Agreements signed between The Governments of India and China 1954 – 1959 (known as While Paper no 1), Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, 1959; see http://www.claudearpi.net/maintenance/uploaded_pics/White_Paper1_1959.pdf
- One should not forget that in 1950 (when Eastern Tibet was invaded), a caravan took two months from the Chinese border to reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.
- The Sikang-Tibet Highway of the Chinese.
- Or Tsinghai-Tibet Highway.
- It is interesting to note that the construction of one of the feeder roads leading to Nathu-la, the border pass between Sikkim and Tibet had strange consequences. India began feeding the Chinese road workers in Tibet, sending tons of rice through this route. John Lall, posted in Gangtok, witnessed long caravans of mules leaving for Tibet.
- A document still marked ‘restricted’ today, but fortunately available on Internet. See, http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/LAND-FORCES/Army/History/1962War/PDF/index.html
- Mullik B.N., My Years with Nehru — The Chinese Betrayal (Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1971), pp. 196-97.
- On September 1, 1953, Nehru began his letter to the Chinese Premier thus: “It has been a matter of deep satisfaction to me to note the growing cooperation between our great countries in international affairs. I am convinced that this cooperation and friendship will not only be to our mutual advantage, but will also be a strong pillar for peace in Asia and the world”.
- Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (SWJN), Series II (New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, Vol. 23), Cable to Zhou Enlai, September 1, 1953, p. 485.
- Khera, S.S. India’s Defence Problem, p. 157.
- SWJN, op. cit., Vol. 24,. p. 579. Also the reply to a debate in the Council of States, 24 December 1953, Parliamentary Debates (Council of States), Official Report, Vol. V, Nos. 18-25, 16 to 24 December 1953, cols. 3590-3599.
- Between Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley.
- Jagjit Singh, Maj. Gen., The Saga of Ladakh, (New Delhi: Vanity Books, 1983), p. 37.
- Mankekar, D.R., The Guilty Men of 1962 (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1968), p. 27
- SWJN, Series II (New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund), Vol. 41.
- SWJN, Series II, Volume 41
- Lok Sabha Debates, Second Series, Vol. XXX, cols 12715-12721. The topic was ‘Maps Published in China and Russia’.