For countless generations the people of India have lived with the belief that the Himalayas, sacred to every Hindu, are an impregnable bastion of their homeland’s Northern borders. With a peaceful and friendly Tibet, only pilgrims and traders have in the past used the passes that pierce the Himalayan wall. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 therefore produced a shock wave in India. There were angry protests throughout the country.
These, however, died down with the dawn of the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai era and Indians came to believe that China was a friend. Prime Minister Nehru went on a goodwill visit to China in 1954. On his return, he was all praise for China, her progress in all fields and the discipline and energy of her people. Two years later, when Chou En-lai returned Nehru’s visit, the Chinese leader was cheered by large crowds wherever he went.
It was only towards the end of August 1959 that the Indian public suddenly realized that all was not well with the country’s relations with China. The Longju incident of 25 August made headlines in newspapers on 28 August. An Assam Rifles’ post at this small village1 in the Subansiri division of NEFA was attacked without provocation by the Chinese and the men were compelled to withdraw after suffering casualties.
…the Indian Government had been informed of the movement of Chinese troops from Sinkiang to Western Tibet by its agent at Gartok. Whether the Indian Government took any action on this report is not known. But the Chinese continued to use this route to supply their troops in Western Tibet.
Three days after the incident, the Lok Sabha and the Indian public were told by the Government that serious disputes existed between China and India regarding the India-Tibet border and that a large chunk of Indian territory in Ladakh, several thousand square kilometres in area, was under Chinese control. While making a statement on the subject, Nehru told the Lok Sabha that the Government had thought it fit not to make the disputes public, as that would have made their settlement more difficult.
We have mentioned earlier that in their invasion of Tibet in 1950 the Chinese attacked from the East and from the North-West. The force that operated from the North-West had come from Sinkiang, and followed an old caravan route through Aksai Chin, which had been in disuse for long. Aksai Chin means ‘desert of white stones’. It is a plateau about 5,180 metres above sea-level, and is a part of Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. On 17 November 1950, a report appeared in The Statesman to the effect that ‘the Indian Government had been informed of the movement of Chinese troops from Sinkiang to Western Tibet’ by its agent at Gartok. Whether the Indian Government took any action on this report is not known. But the Chinese continued to use this route to supply their troops in Western Tibet.
Later they began to improve it and turn it into a highway. Aksai Chin being barren and uninhabited, neither did India have any border checkposts there, nor was the area patrolled. The Indian Government came to know of the building of this road only in September 1957, after the Chinese Press had jubilantly announced its completion. A sketch of the road appeared in a Chinese magazine; but it was on a small scale, and it was not possible to ascertain by looking at it whether it passed through Indian territory. The Indian Government, therefore, decided to send patrols in the summer of 1958 to investigate; the extreme winter of the region forbade an earlier visit.
In due course, when two reconnaissance parties were sent to Aksai Chin, one was captured by the Chinese. Under an officer of the Corps of Engineers, this party was intercepted by the Chinese at Haji Langer, while on a 3.72-metre wide metalled road connecting Yarkand to Gartok. It was imprisoned for 40 days at a small fort and thereafter released at the Karakoram Pass, ‘after receiving a severe warning that the treatment next time would not be so “reasonable”’.2 The second party came back with the report that the Sinkiang-Tibet road did pass through Indian territory. The Indian Government reacted to this discovery and the capture of its men by sending a protest note to Peking. In its reply the Chinese Government charged that it was the Indian armed personnel who had intruded into their territory .
Earlier, while awaiting reports from these parties, the Indian Government sent a note to the Chinese Government regarding the latter’s maps. These ignored the McMahon Line and showed the India-Tibet border in the East as running along the foothills of NEFA. In the West, they showed the whole of Aksai Chin as Chinese territory. The reply to the Indian Government’s note was delivered on the same day as the reply to its protest regarding the patrol’s arrest. It was a cryptic communication, its gist being that the current Chinese maps were based on the pre-liberation maps and that they had not yet undertaken a survey of the boundary. The note also stated that a new way of drawing the boundary would emerge after consultation with the countries concerned. The Chinese stand only confirmed what Patel had foreseen eight years earlier: the People’s Republic of China had thrown into the melting pot all the past frontier settlements that the Indian Government had concluded with Tibet.
A word about the frontier settlements. For the sake of convenience, the India-Tibet border may be divided into three sectors: the Eastern sector, running from Burma to Bhutan (the McMahon Line); the middle sector, running from Nepal to Demchak (on the Indus River); and the Western sector, running from Demchok to the Karakoram Pass. The most recent settlement was in respect of the Eastern sector. It had resulted from a tripartite conference held at Simla in 1913–14, in which the representatives of the Governments of Tibet, China and India participated. China had exercised suzerainty over Tibet till 1911, when the Tibetans compelled Chinese troops and civilians to leave their country. The British aim at this conference was to get the Tibetans to accept Chinese suzerainty and, at the same time, to ensure internal autonomy for Tibet.
The conference also fixed the boundary between Tibet and North-Eastern India, running 1,360 kilometres East of Bhutan. This boundary, which later came to be called the McMahon Line, was shown on a map attached to the convention.
The Indian Government was represented at this conference by its Foreign Secretary, Sir Henry McMahon. He found the going heavy: the Tibetans were as reluctant to accept the reimposition of Chinese suzerainty as the Chinese were to agree to Tibet’s autonomy. A compromise was brought about by dividing Tibet into two zones – Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet; while China’s suzerainty over both was recognized, Outer Tibet was to be completely autonomous. Outer Tibet was to include the region skirting the Indian frontier and Lhasa was to be a part of it. A convention incorporating these provisions was initialled by the representatives of the three countries on 27 April 1914. The conference also fixed the boundary between Tibet and North-Eastern India, running 1,360 kilometres East of Bhutan. This boundary, which later came to be called the McMahon Line, was shown on a map attached to the convention. Besides the McMahon Line, this map showed the boundary between Outer and Inner Tibet and also the Sinkiang-Ladakh boundary. Forming part of the convention, the map was initialled by the three representatives.
The conference later ran into trouble when the Chinese Government objected to the boundaries between Outer and Inner Tibet; it wanted more of Outer Tibet under its control but raised no objection to the boundary between India and Tibet as shown on the map attached to the draft of the tripartite agreement. The Chinese Government’s refusal to ratify the agreement resulted in an impasse and deprived it of the opportunity of being acknowledged as the suzerain of Tibet. The latter was now free to sign an agreement on its own with India and this her representative proceeded to do. He, together with the representatives of the Indian Government, signed the convention, including the agreement on the boundary between India and Tibet, as also a declaration barring the Chinese Government from enjoying the rights under the convention so long as its signature to the document was withheld.3
In so far as the Western sector was concerned, all maps issued by the Government of India since 1868 showed Aksai Chin as a part of Jammu & Kashmir. W.H. Johnson, of the Survey of India, had earlier carried out a survey of the region. The map attached to the Simla Convention also showed Aksai Chin within India. In the middle sector, the frontier was defined by long usage as also various treaties and document; the People’s Republic of China had indirectly recognized it under the 1954 Agreement.
A feature common to the border in all three sectors was that, although delimited, it had not been demarcated, i.e. actually marked on the ground. Due to the nature of the border region, it was, in fact, impossible to put markers or boundary posts all along its 3,200-kilometre length. It could however be recognized for most of its length, as the surveyors, who put it on the map, had generally followed the watershed principle.
The stand taken by the Chinese Government in 1958, when replying to the Indian Government’s query, thus caused a good deal of concern. It was serious enough for Prime Minister Nehru to write personally to Chou En-lal. His tone was friendly, and the purport of his letter was that in their talks in 1956 the Chinese Premier had shown his Government’s willingness to recognize the McMahon Line; therefore, the reference in the Chinese communication to surveys and consultations had puzzled him.
Chou En-lai’s reply was cordial, but firm. He pointed out that the boundary between China and India had never been formally delimited, nor had a treaty or agreement been signed on the subject between the Government of India and the Central Government of China. This fact, he said, was responsible for the discrepancies in the maps published in the two countries and that whilst his Government did not hold that the boundary as shown on the Chinese maps had been drawn on sufficient grounds, it would not be right to make changes without surveying the ground in consultation with the neighbours concerned. However, to avoid incidents of the kind that had already occurred, he suggested that both countries should provisionally maintain the status quo.
The Tibetans did not prove to be docile subjects. There had been a great deal of repression after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and revolts were put down with a heavy hand.
Thereafter, the correspondence between the two Prime Ministers continued, its periodicity depending on the convenience of each party. But it produced no useful results, and its tone gradually became bitter. Neither side was prepared to budge from its stand. In his reply, Nehru reaffirmed the legality of the Indian maps. With regard to the disputes, he agreed to the status quo formula but made the stipulation that in case any possession had been secured recently (meaning the Aksai Chin road), ‘the position should be rectified’. Chou En-lai replied to this communication after six months, on 8 September 1959. By then certain events had worsened the relations between the two countries.
The Tibetans did not prove to be docile subjects. There had been a great deal of repression after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and revolts were put down with a heavy hand. The Khampa rebellion, which began in the spring of 1956 in North-East Tibet, spread to Central and Southern Tibet by early 1959. Thousands of refugees streamed into lndia. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual head, was forced to flee his country. On 31 March 1959, this dignitary entered India and was granted asylum by the Indian Government. He gave out that 90,000 of his countrymen had been killed in the struggle against the Chinese.4 The happenings in Tibet angered the Indian public. The Khampa revolt and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India received world-wide publicity. The Indian people proclaimed their sympathy for Tibet with public demonstrations and there was an outcry in the Indian Press against China. Public indignation reached boiling point after the Longju incident.
The Indian Government had maintained a correct attitude on the revolt in Tibet. Nehru made it clear that what happened in that country was the concern of the Chinese Government. But totalitarian governments are proverbially blind to the freedom of expression enjoyed by the people of democratic countries and the Chinese Government was no exception. The grant of asylum to the Dalai Lama, though in accordance with international practice, displeased the Chinese. Also, the anti-Chinese reaction among the Indian people caused resentment in China. The Chinese even blamed the Indian security forces for the Longju incident. The accumulated bitterness showed in Chou En-lai’s letter of 8 September. He reiterated the Chinese stand and expressed further reservations about the McMahon Line. The Chinese Premier protested against this action. He urged the maintenance of status quo and suggested negotiations for a provisional settlement of disputed areas.
In his reply, Nehru expressed great surprise and distress at Chou En-lai’s change of attitude. He again emphasized the legal and historical basis for the frontiers and suggested that the Chinese must vacate the posts set up by them inside Indian territory before any discussions could take place.
Chou En-lai reiterated the Chinese stand and expressed further reservations about the McMahon Line.
Soon after the Longju incident, the Indian Army was ordered to take over the operational control of the frontier in NEFA, though the Assam Rifles were to continue to man the border posts.5 The Western sector saw a more serious encounter a few weeks later when, on 20 October, the Chinese ambushed a routine police patrol, killing nine and capturing another ten. The incident occurred South of the Kongka Pass, about 64-kilometres inside Indian territory.6 The Chinese later charged that the Indian party had intruded into their area. They returned the captured men but the shooting of the policemen brought a wave of anger throughout India. After the incident, the Western sector was also handed over to the Army.
The Longju and Kongka incidents showed that India and China were on a collision course. In both incidents, the Chinese had used force and inflicted casualties on Indian personnel in Indian territory. The Chinese leadership may have felt a twinge of remorse, for on 7 November, Chou En-lai wrote to Nehru describing the Kongka incident as ‘unfortunate and unexpected,’ further stating that unless the two Governments quickly worked out a solution to the border problem, clashes might occur again. Thereafter, he proceeded to outline a plan for pulling apart the armed forces of the two countries, after which both leaders would meet in the immediate future to discuss the boundary question and Sino-Indian relations generally. But the plan that he put forward was unacceptable to India. According to his formula, the armed forces of both sides would withdraw 20 kilometres from the McMahon Line in the East and from the line up to which each side exercised ‘actual control’ in the Western sector. It would have meant withdrawal by India from her own territory, while the Chinese would have vacated some of the illegally occupied territory.
In his reply, Nehru put forward certain counter-proposals for mutual withdrawals from the borders. These the Chinese leader did not accept but the tone of his letter was now more conciliatory. He repeated his earlier proposal for a summit meeting and at the same time, intimated that after the Kongka incident Chinese troops had suspended forward patrolling in the Western sector. For that matter, India too had stopped forward patrolling in the Eastern and middle sectors and in his earlier letter, Nehru had informed the Chinese Premier of this.
Repeating his earlier proposal for a meeting, Chou En-lai suggested a date only nine days ahead, and China or Burma as the venue. In his reply, Nehru regretted that his ‘very reasonable proposals’ for joint withdrawals in the Western sector had not been accepted. He further said that no agreement would be possible ‘upon principles when there was such complete disagreement about facts’. He further added that it was not possible for him to go out of the country during the next few days.
On his (Chou En-lai) way to India, he signed a boundary agreement with Burma which recognized the McMahon Line alignment principle in so far as the Sino-Burmese border was affected
Although the Indian Government had rejected the Chinese proposal for a summit meeting, the border situation now became less tension-ridden due to the mutual restrictions on patrolling. The Chinese stopped patrolling the McMahon Line and due to the winter, Indian patrol activity in the Western sector also stopped. However, certain developments later led to a change in Nehru’s stand on a meeting with the Chinese Premier. There had been a thaw in the cold war. It was also considered that India’s refusal for a meeting might be taken as a negation of her own stand at world forums that problems between nations should be settled by negotiation. Towards the end of December, the Chinese Government sent a long note which, while supporting the Chinese stand on the border dispute, concluded with an expression of China’s ardent desire that the two countries stop quarrelling, quickly bring about a reasonable settlement of the boundary question and on this basis, consolidate and develop the great friendship of the two peoples in their common cause.7
The tone of the note prompted Nehru to invite Chou En-lai to India. The week-long visit of the Chinese Premier took place in April 1960 and he came with a large delegation. On his way to India, he signed a boundary agreement with Burma which recognized the McMahon Line alignment principle in so far as the Sino-Burmese border was affected. In India, the Chinese Premier’s talks with Nehru and many other Indian leaders produced no worthwhile results, Nehru having made an advance commitment to the Indian public that he would not compromise on any issue. Nevertheless, two important decisions were taken: firstly, that officials of the two Governments would meet to collate all the historical evidence and prepare a report listing the points of agreement and disagreement to enable further consideration of the problems; secondly, that during the period these data were being examined, every effort would be made to avoid friction and clashes.
The ensuing months saw much activity by the officials of the two Governments. They held meetings in Peking, Delhi and Rangoon between June and December 1960. Both sides produced voluminous reports. But as could be expected in the circumstances, these merely elaborated the arguments already employed by the two Governments in their earlier correspondence and discussions. In fact, the Chinese complicated the situation further by producing a map that was at variance with a map that their delegation had produced during Chou En-lai’s visit to Delhi in 1956. The new map claimed more territory as Chinese. All the same, a joint report of the meetings of the officials was published in February 1961. This did not bring the two countries any nearer to a solution of the dispute but, throughout 1960 and till the summer of the following year, the borders remained free from serious incidents.
Having taken the stand that the border as shown on the country’s maps was in accordance with treaties and long usage and that minor adjustments could be considered only after the Chinese had vacated illegally occupied territory, the Indian Government had to choose between two courses. It could sit quietly and do nothing, or take armed action to evict the Chinese from occupied territory.