Where is the McMahon Line?
In his Fall of Towang, the Commander, 4 Infantry Division describes the setting of the operations thus: “The McMahon Line from just north of Khinzemane, as drawn by Sir Henry McMahon in 1914 with a thick blue9 pencil on an unsurveyed map, was not an accurate projection of the Himalayan watershed line. Much of the territory in those days had not been explored and McMahon was only guessing at geography when he drew a thick blue [red] line from Khinzemane to the Bhutan-Tibet-India tri-junction to its east. In this process the position of Thagla10 Ridge was, to say the least, left ambiguous. The story goes that the officer surveying the area had completed an admirable task of delineating the watershed up to this point when a pretty Monpa girl claimed his attention and the work was left uncompleted. Whatever the reason, the survey authorities, ignoring physical features on the ground, joined Point MM 7914 to the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction by a straight line. Stranger still, the Government of India had not corrected this obvious mistake even in 1962. Clearly someone in External Affairs had not done his home work. This lapse cannot be easily excused or explained away; it was largely responsible for the critical dispute which later developed and eventually led to war.”
Though the Thagla Ridge was the logical border if one follows the watershed principle as well as the ownership of customary pastures’ rights, the fact remains that the old map which was the reference for India’s position on the ‘genuine’11 location of the border, showed the Thagla Ridge and the Namkha Chu12, North of the 1914 line. As Major General Prasad said, it had unfortunately, not been corrected after India’s independence.
The Chinese probably may have known the doubts of the local Army commanders. In his memoirs, Prasad recalls: “From our own Signals channels I had received reports of a pirate radio operating somewhere in our area, but when we referred this to higher authorities the matter was dismissed.” It could explain how Mao was aware of Operation Leghorn to evict the Chinese from the Thagla Ridge in October 1962.13 Another possibility was that some Monpa villages had been ‘bought over’ by the Chinese.
It is necessary to return two years earlier in history to understand the situation on the eve of the tragedy. The Government of India had mooted a new policy; to quote the Official Report of the Ministry of Defence: “In NEFA, ‘Operation Onkar’ was launched in 1960. According to this plan, there was to be a large expansion of the Assam Riffles, and units were to be posted all along the frontier and also in the areas not occupied till then. Those post were to be manned by Assam Riffles personnel under control of the Home Ministry but were to be established under Army supervision. The siting of these posts and their exact location was, however, decided mainly by the Intelligence Bureau and not the Army.” It became the famous ‘Forward Policy’. It was the brainchild of Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister with the full support of the Prime Minister who, however, said that posts should not be established in ‘disputed areas’.
The Official Report continues: “In the wake of this order, efforts were further intensified. In the Eastern Sector, some Assam Rifles platoons were placed under 4 Infantry Division in May 1962 which speeded up the establishment of forward posts ‘as close to the border as possible’ under ‘Operation Onkar’. By July 20, 1962, a total number of thirty four posts (8 in Kameng, 8 in Subansari, 7 in Siang and 11 in Lohit Frontier Divisions) were established in NEFA along the border with Tibet. Those posts included one at Dhola, established a little South of the Namkha Chu on June 04, 1962.” The local Commanders (Corps, Division and Brigade) were not happy and they made it known, but nothing could stop the folly of the ‘authorities’ in Delhi.
Brigadier Dalvi recalled: “It is known that many generals, including General Umrao Singh, opposed the indiscriminate opening up of more posts. Who forced him to open Dhola? Surely India was not landed in the straits of 1962 by an unplanned and thoughtless drift into a disputed area because of an archaic map? The opening up of posts in undisputed areas cannot be questioned. The setting up of posts in disputed territory is a different matter. It is an act of rashness…”
As the local GOC, Major General Niranjan Prasad noted that the local officers had no choice, they could perhaps have resigned but in a near war situation, it is not an easy decision. As mentioned, a post was established at a place known as Tse Dong (Chinese: Che Dong), at the bottom of Dhola peak, on the southern banks of the Namka Chu by Captain Prasad. The post later entered in history as the ‘Dhola Post’.
Though Captain Prasad’s maps showed the McMahon Line as passing to South of the Thagla Ridge, the political representative present in his party, assured him that the ridge was part of the Indian territory; however when the young Captain came back to his base after setting the Post, he reported the matter to Divisional Headquarters, which in turn cabled the Corps and Army Headquarters. By then, it was July 20.
General Prasad was extensively debriefed by Captain Prasad14 and, “became convinced that the Thagla Ridge was indeed the main watershed”. Brigadier Dalvi wrote later that the setting up of the Dhola Post was one crucial factor for the subsequent conflict. In his Himalayan Blunder, he questions how the Dhola Post came into existence: “We seemed to have ventured most casually into a potentially explosive commitment. Instead of working in water-tight compartments, we should have alerted the whole Army and prepared for a clash.” Who was informing the ‘civil supremacy’? The Intelligence Bureau and its Director had probably no clue about the Chinese preparations and even less about the political upheavals15 going on in Beijing.
Visit of the Director of Military Operations
On August 14, 1962, Brigadier DK Palit,16 Director of Military Operations visited the Corps Headquarters in Tezpur. He told the Brigade Commanders and the staff that according to Intelligence inputs, “There is little or no probability of the Chinese resorting to armed hostilities.” About the issue of the Thagla Ridge, he said that though the Divisional Headquarters had sent its report on August 04, the Army Headquarters in Delhi had only received it the day before he left for Tezpur (morning of August 14). He promised to look into this and send an answer ‘as soon as he could’.
Prasad recorded in his memoirs: “I told the Director of Military Operations that the establishment of Dhola Post could lead to very serious consequences if in fact it lay North of our claim line. I asked for a clear cut definition of our claim line and emphasised that our posts should be shed in relation to that line. He promised to examine the case on return to Delhi and to give me an answer as soon as possible.”
In his insider’s assessment of the conflict, War in the High Himalayas, Brigadier Palit recalls the encounter: “On my return to Delhi, I referred the Thagla dilemma to the Director of Military Survey. The latter commented that as the existing maps of the area were ‘sketchy and inaccurate, having been compiled from unreliable sources’, the map co-ordinates of the new post quoted by the patrol leader were of doubtful accuracy. He confirmed that the recognised border was the watershed, but qualified this statement by adding ‘ its exact alignment will depend on accurate survey’. This, he added, would take two to three years to complete.”
As Palit commented, that was ‘not greatly enlightening’. He decided to get the opinion of the Ministry of External Affairs and more particularly, the Historical Section of the Ministry which answered: “We may permit the Army to extend the jurisdiction, if they have not already done so, up to the line suggested by them [Thagla Ridge].”
—Dr. S Gopal, Director, Historical Section, part of the Official Group who met the Chinese on five occasions to discuss the border issue in 1960.
Wanting to clarify the exact position, Palit went to meet Dr S. Gopal,17 the Director of the Historical Section, who had been part of the group of Officials who met the Chinese on five occasions to discuss the border issue in 1960. Palit recalled that he went to see the historian “in order to double-check before I passed on this decision to HQ 4 Division.”
Gopal explained to him that since the boundary talks with the Chinese in 1960, the Government of India had been aware that the actual terrain in the area of the tri-junction was different from that depicted on the quarter-inch scale map Simla sheet. The point given by the Chinese for the tri-junction was 91°40’ East, 27°48’ North.18 Gopal noted on the file: “This point was further North of the tri-junction shown on our maps and nearer the point now suggested by Army Headquarters. Furthermore, the Chinese had been told [during the talks of 1960] that the alignment [of the McMahon Line] followed Thagla Ridge, which is also the ridge shown by Army Headquarters in the sketch.” But Palit adds: “What Gopal had not told me – and I found out only later, was that the Chinese had not accepted our arguments and had counter-claimed Thagla Ridge, as well as the valley at Khinzemane, as Chinese territory.”
The Director of Military Operations wrote that he sent Gopal’s remarks to HQ Eastern Command in Lucknow for onward transmission to 4 Infantry Division: “But by then, it was mid-September and events in that remote region on the border of Bhutan and Tibet had already reached a critical stage.” It was already too late to go back, at least for the egos of the main actors in Delhi (in the Army HQ and the Government).