China's Shadow over Sikkim: Sikkim, India and Communist China
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Issue Book Excerpt: China\'s Shadow Over Sikkim | Date : 01 Nov , 2018

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There was nothing of major historical importance taking place along the Sikkim -Tibet border for the next fifty years or so. Meanwhile, India became independent on August 15, 1947.

The British had for long treated Sikkim virtually as an Indian princely state. The Sikkim Darbar was accordingly invited to Delhi for discussion with the new Government of India and the Chamber of Princes in order to determine its future status. The official delegation, led by Maharajkumar Palden Thondup Namgyal, which participated in those discussions did not show any inclination to accede to the Indian Union as other princely states had done. Accordingly, a “Standstill Agreement” between the Sikkim Darbar and the Government of India was signed on Feb. 27, 1948. By this agreement, all administrative arrangements and relations as to the matters of common concern existing between the Crown and the Sikkimese State on August 14, 1947 were to continue between the Government of India and the Sikkim Darbar pending the conclusion of a new treaty. The “matters of common concern” specifically included Currency, Coinage, Customs, Postal and Telegraphic Communications, External Relations and Defence.1

Two years later, negotiations were started again to finalize the shape that the future relationship between India and Sikkim might take. During the course of those negotiations the Government of India held detailed consultations with the Sikkim Darbar as well as representatives of various political parties in Sikkim. A provisional Agreement which was drawn in March 1950 as a result of those negotiations became the nucleus of the treaty signed between India and Sikkim on Dec. 5, 1950. By this treaty, Sikkim was to continue to be a Protectorate of India (Article II), the Government of India was to be responsible for the defence and territorial integrity of Sikkim, and it was empowered to station troops any where within Sikkim for the defence of Sikkim or the security of India (Article III); the Government of Sikkim was forbidden to import any arms, ammunition, military stores or other warlike material without India’s prior consent (Article III-2); all external relations, whether political, economic or financial were to be conducted and regulated solely by the Government of India (Article IV); the Government of India was to have exclusive right of constructing, maintaining and regulating the use of railways, aerodromes and landing grounds, post, telegraph, telephones and wireless installations in Sikkim (Article VI); and the Government of India was empowered to construct and maintain roads in Sikkim for storage purposes and for the purposes of improving communications.

On the economic side, the Government of India agreed not to levy any import or other duties on goods of Sikkimese origin brought into India. The Indian nationals and subjects of Sikkim were also given right of entry into and free movement in Sikkim and India respectively. They were also free to carry on trade and commerce and acquire, hold and dispose of property-movable and immovable.2

The Chinese had already recognized the British Protectorate over Sikkim in 1890. By signing the Convention relating to Sikkim and Tibet on March 17, 1890, they had admitted that “the British Government whose protectorate over Sikkim state is hereby recognized, has direct and exclusive control over the internal administration and foreign relations of that State.”3

The new Government of India, which took over from the British Government in India, had inherited all existing treaty rights including extra territorial rights and obligations with regard to Tibet. Thus it had the right to keep a representative at Lhasa and maintain Trade Agencies at Gyantse, Yatung and Gartok with military escorts, to lease lands for the building of houses and godowns at the marts, maintain a chain of rest houses and telegraph lines between trade marts and the frontier; hold courts at the Trade Agencies to try cases of Indian nationals involved in crimes at the marts or on the trade route, and to hold joint enquiries with the Tibetan authorities into disputes involving Indians and other nationals.4 In a letter to the Tibetan Government, sent in August, 1947, Government of India sought an assurance that the Tibetan Government would continue relations on the existing basis, and the Tibetan Government confirmed their acceptance of the former relationship with the new Government of India5.

It was in this capacity as protector, that the Government of India assumed responsibility for the. defence of the Sikkim-Tibet border. On October 1, 1949, the Central Government of the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, and the Government of India extended its official recognition to it on December 30, 1949. One of the first tasks on the agenda of, Communist China was to “liberate Tibet”. Though Chou En-lai assured K.N. Panikkar, First Ambassador of India to Communist China that “his Government was anxious to secure their ends by negotiations and not by military action”,6 the Chinese Army was soon ordered to advance into Tibet, and on October 25, 1950, Peking Radio announced that the process of liberation of Tibet had already begun. The next day the’ Government of India sent a note to Peking deploring the Chinese invasion and pleading for “slower but more enduring methods of peaceful approach”.7 The Chinese Government immediately retorted: “Tibet is an integral part of Chinese territory. The problem of Tibet is entirely the domestic problem of China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army must enter Tibet, liberate the Tibetan people, and defend the frontiers of China. This is the resolved policy of the Central People’s Government and no foreign interference shall be tolerated”.8 The Government of India assured in reply that they did not intend to interfere in China’s internal affairs and that “they had neither any political or territorial ambitions as to Tibet nor did they seek any novel privileged position for themselves”.9 However, China’s tone remained unchanged. China rudely reiterated that liberating the Tibetan people and defending the frontiers was the “sacred task of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and in doing so, the Chinese Government was only exercising its sovereign rights”.10 To quote Panikkar, “both parties made their point of view clear, and were content to rest there”.

While all this was happening in Tibet, a Tibetan Goodwill Mission was on its way to Peking. It reached there in April, 1951 and on May 23, 1951, a 17 –point Agreement was signed between Tibet and China. By this Agreement, the Tibetan people were to “drive out imperialist forces from Tibet (and) return to the big family of the Motherland – the People’s Republic of China:” Lhasa Government was to actively assist the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to enter Tibet and consolidate the National defences. The Tibetan Army was to be merged with the PLA, and the Chinese Government was to handle all external affairs of Tibet in future.

The Government of India did not fail to realize that the Chinese actions in Tibet were going to change the entire course of Indo-Tibet relations but it seemed absolutely helpless. “Many things happen in this world,” Pt. Nehru said in the Lok Sabha, “which we do not like, and which we would wish were rather different, but we do not go like Don Quixote with lance in hand against everything we dislike. We put up with these things because we would be, without making any difference, merely getting into trouble”.11

In December, 1953, India proposed to China that negotiations might be held to settle some of the outstanding issues. About four months later, the Agreement on Trade and Intercourse was concluded between the two countries on April 29, 1954. The major thing about that Agreement was the preamble which laid down the five principles, namely, recognition of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and peaceful co-existence, which were to govern the mutual relations and approach of the two countries. The Agreement itself dealt with the opening of Trade Agencies by both the countries, the definition of trade marts, routes and passes of entry and facilities to be extended to pilgrims, customary traders, and border inhabitants of India and Tibet, but it was supplemented by an Indian Note which declared that the Government of India would withdraw, within six months, the military escorts of the Trade Agents stationed at Yatung and Gyantse, hand over to the Government of China the Postal, Telegraph and Public Telephone services and all the rest houses built between Gyantse and the Sikkim border. Independent India felt that those extra­ territorial privileges were the relics of imperializm, which India, as a free and non -aligned country, would not like to keep in any country of the world. “By this Agreement”, Pt. Nehru declared “we ensure peace to a very large extent in a certain area of Asia (which) could be spread over to the rest of Asia and indeed over the rest of the world”. 12

However, this monument of friendship on which India had built high hopes, soon proved to be an illusion. Barely had six weeks passed after its ratification on June 3, 1954, when the Chinese troops started intrusion all along the Indo-Tibet border and started using force in assertion of their supposed claims. This was followed by Chou En-100’s letter of September 8, 1959 which claimed, for the first time, vast areas of India, which had so far been vaguely included in some of the Chinese maps and accused Indian troops of trespassing into Chinese territory and provoking Chinese troops. 13

While there existed such a crisis all along the rest of the Indo-Tibet border, the Sikkim sector did not figure in the dispute anywhere. The only reference to Sikkim was in the letter of the Prime Minister of India, dated March 22, 1959 to Chou En-lai in which he clarified that “the boundary of Sikkim, a protectorate of India, with the Tibet region of China was defined in the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 and jointly demarcated on the ground in 1895”14 and there was no dispute whatsoever about that sector. Chou En-100 sent the usual vague reply which bore very unpredictabl implications “Like the boundary between China and Bhutan”, he said, “the question does not fall within the scope of our present discussion China is willing to live together in friendship with Sikkim and Bhutan, without committing aggression against each other, and has always responded to the proper relations between them and India”. 15

The only relations which India had with Sikkim at that time were those which were governed by the 1950 Treaty signed between independent India and Sikkim. Under this Treaty the external relations of Sikkim, whether political, economic or financial, were to’ be conducted solely by the Government of India. Under treaty obligations, the Government of India was the only competent authority to take up with other Government matters concerning Sikkim’s external relations. During his visit to India in April 1960, Chou En-lai had also assured Pt. Nehru that China respected India’s relations with Sikkim.16 Later on April 25, 1960 he repeated in his press conference, “China respects India’s relations with Bhutan and Sikkim”. According to the Indian claim, there were in support of this categorical statement “not only several first hand and independent textual records but also tape recordings of what Chou En-lai (had) stated’”.17 However, the Peking Review which claimed to have carried the text of the interview, made the statement conditional by adding the adjective “proper” before relations.

This was deliberate and became more evident in subsequent years. In one of their protest notes sent to India, the Chinese Government alleged that the “special relations” between India and Sikkim were nothing but the protectorate imposed by India over the people of Sikkim, encroaching upon its independence and sovereignty, and tightening its military control on the pretext of improving the defence of Sikkim.18 The note accused India of trying her utmost to maintain that relationship and implied that it could not approve of it.

After the meeting the two Prime Ministers agreed that officials of the two Governments might meet each other and consider matters “which pertain to certain differences which had arisen between the two Governments relating to the border areas”. Though the Sikkim- Tibet border was clearly defined by the 1890 Convention and a very small portion had even been actually demarcated, some problems had already arisen in the meanwhile. In their note of July 2, 1960, the Chinese Government had accused Indian Military personnel of intruding into the Chinese territory at Nathu La on many occasions. In a subsequent note, dated August 27, 1960, there were again allegations of Indian troops having entered Tibetan territory through Nathu La. Similarly, the Government of India had also protested to the Chinese Government against the intrusion of a Chinese armed patrol into Sikkimese territory near Jelep.La on September 20, 1960. However, when the discussions between the officials of the Government of India and the People’s Republic of China started, the Chinese refused to discuss questions pertaining to the northern boundaries of Sikkim with Tibet on the ground that this did not fall within the scope of those discussions.19

Soon after the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, China started concentrating troops along the Sikkim border. Indian troops also moved forward and started construction of defence structures. The Chinese Government was prompt to protest and on January 10, 1963 it sent a note alleging that the Indian troops had crossed Nathu La and built 39 pill-boxes in an area which was about 300 meters inside Chinese territory.2O Two months later, China accused India of “intensifying the repairs and reinforcement of their pill-boxes and defence work and constructing some additional structures including a pill-box, a shelter, communication trenches and sentry posts, and laying a telephone line” to the southeast, northeast and north of Nathu La”.21 The note demanded that India should dismantle all defence works set up on the Chinese territory.

The same theme was repeated by China in another Note which was given to the Indian Embassy in China on June 4, 1963. In this Note China suggested: “Should the Indian side refuse to withdraw the intruding Indian forces and dismantle the aggressive military structures, then the Chinese Government would request India immediately to despatch officials to conduct with Chinese officials, a joint investigation”.22 The Indian side continued to maintain that its “protective defence works” were on the Sikkimese side of the border and rejected the demand for any joint investigation. 23

Three more Chinese protest Notes followed in quick succession. All of them dealt with the same theme, that “the Indian Government (had) itself admitted that its troops had constructed many military structures around Nathu La, thus interrupting normal traffic across the border between Tibet and Sikkim”.24 To its Note of July 31, 1963, it also attached a Photostat of Nathu La which purported to show the ridge (i.e. watershed) and presence of “several aggressive works” extending to the slope on the Chinese side of the pass. The Note reiterated that India should immediately demolish its alleged structures from Chinese territory and despatch its officials for a joint investigation.25 In reply, India also produced a photostat showing the highest watershed ridge marking the boundary on the Nathu La pass, old and traditional prayer flags placed by travellers at the pass, and the Nehru tableau located 74 feet on the Sikkim side of the border, which commemorated the opening of the Gangtok-Nathu La road on September 18, 1958.26 China again made the same allegations on November 30, 1963, and India refuted them summarily. The demand for joint investigation was repeated by China and rejected by India.

China now decided to enlarge the issue both in terms of content and requirement. On September 18, 1964, it was alleged that “Indian troops had not only entrenched themselves unlawfully across Nathu La”, but had also “crossed Tungch La (i.e. Dongchui La, situated south-east of Nathu La) and…built eighteen aggressive military structures (dug outs, shelters, bulwarks etc.) on the Chinese side of the pass, or on the boundary line (eleven on the Chinese side and seven on the boundary line)”. It urged that India should dismantle not only those structures which were supposed to be on the Chinese side of the border but also “all the military structures…on the China-Sikkim boundary line”. 27

Three months later China included Jelep La and Cho La also, and alleged that twenty seven military structures (dug outs, bulwarks etc.) had been built “on the Chinese side or on the boundary line” at Jelep La and four on the boundary line at Cho La.28 The new demand for the removal of the structures from the Chinese territory, as well as from the China-Sikkim boundary, was repeated. India made enquiries and found that those additional allegations were also “completely false and unfounded”. 29

During this period of two years China made hectic military preparations. A number of new posts were set up and defences improved. At least three Regiments of the Chinese Army were now concentrated in the narrow Chumbi Valley, across Sikkim. These troops became more and more aggressive and started extending their activities even across the border. On August 27, 1964, a Chinese patrol party intruded into Nathu La. On December 25, two armed Chinese again intruded in the area east-south-east of Nathu La. The same day another group of fifteen Chinese was found in the same area, taking up firing positions on seeing Indian troops. The next day, on December 26, 1964, yet another group of armed Chinese intruders was found on the Sikkim side in the area about 2 miles east-south-east of Nathu La. On January 19, 1965, there was an even more serious incident when 30 armed Chinese soldiers intruded into Sikkim almost 3 km. south of Kongra La. Events were taking a strange turn. The Chinese notes and their intrusions were very truculent and menacing. That all his might be a prelude to something serious was only too apparent, but India could only appeal to China to abandon its policy of tension and conflict and it did so.30

Notes and References

  1. Coelho. V.H., Sikkim and Bhutan (New Delhi, 1970), p. 26.
  2. For the full text of the Treaty between India and Sikkim, see Appendix IV.
  3. For the full text of the Convention of March 17, 1890 between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet, see Appendix I.
  4. Agreement between Great Britain, China and Tibet amending the regulations regarding trade, communication and pasturage, dated December 5, 1893, signed at Calcutta on April 20, 1908. Richardson, H.E., Tibet and its History (London, 1962). pp. 260-265.
  5. White Paper No. II, p. 39.
  6. Panikkar, K.N., In the two Chinas, p. 105.
  7. The Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law, (Geneva, 1959), pp. 132-133.
  8. Ibid., p. 133.
  9. Ibid., p. 135.
  10. Ibid., p. 136-137.
  11. India’s Foreign Policy (Delhi, 1961). Speech of the Prime Minister ofIndia during debate on Foreign Affairs in the Lok Sabha on September 30, 1954.
  12. Ibid., Speech of the Prime Minister of India in the Lok Sabha on May 30, 1954.
  13. White Paper No. II, pp. 27-33.
  14. Notes, Memoranda and Letters, etc. (Published by the Government of India), p. 55.
  15. White Paper No. II, p. 30.
  16. Report of the officials of the Government of India and the People’s Republic of China on the boundary question (New Delhi. 1962), p. 270.
  17. Ibid., p. 270.
  18. White Paper No. XIII, p. 13-16.
  19. Ibid., p. 269.
  20. White Paper No. VIII, p. 79.
  21. White Paper No. IX, p. 80.
  22. White Paper No. IX, p. 44-45.
  23. Ibid., pp. 49-51.
  24. White Paper No. X, p. 20.
  25. Ibid., pp. 20-22.
  26. Ibid., p. 19.
  27. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
  28. White Paper No. XI, p. 21.
  29. Ibid., p. 31.
  30. Ibid., p. 32.
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GS Bajpai

is a Distinguished Civil Servant.

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