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’.