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The Tibet Factor in India-China Relations
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Claude Arpi | Date:22 Nov , 2020 2 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

Seventy Years Ago: Tibet Invaded

October 7, 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossing the Upper Yangtze and entering into the territory controlled by Lhasa.

While invading Eastern Tibet, Beijing asserted that it was ‘liberating’ the Land of Snows. Today, seven decades later, the Tibetans, particularly the first ‘liberated’ populations of Eastern Tibet, still disagree with this interpretation. Tragically, in the process, India lost a peaceful border shared with a Buddhist nation.

The Battle of Chamdo, the first and only encounter between the Tibetan and Chinese forces, is interesting to look at for several reasons.

Tibet, a Buddhist nation was not military and tactically ready to oppose the seasoned troops of Mao (and some of China’s brilliant commanders).

From the start, The Land of Snows stood no chance, especially without outside support from India or the West.

Further, many in Tibet still believed that increasing the number of japa (recitation) or parikramas (circumambulations) around the monasteries and stupas of Kham, would be sufficient to make the Truth Prevail. As Robert Ford, the British radio operator posted in Chamdo, remarked ‘The gods are on our side’ was the mantra most oft-repeated in the town, “but it seemed to me that something more Churchilian was needed.”

For the Chinese, it was a well-prepared operation (a ‘police operation’ would have said Marshal Peng Dehuai) in 2 stages: the fall of Chamdo, the capital of Kham province during the Fall of 1950 and then the advance to Lhasa during the next season.

India was fooled into believing that Communist China wanted a ‘negotiated’ settlement with the Tibetans: it was never the case. Marshal Liu Bosheng in a message in August 1950 made it clear that he was going to ‘liberate’ Tibet.

Opposite the Chinese strategists was Ngabo Shape , the Tibetan Commissioner for the Kham province, a weak leader, ready to surrender; he was obviously not the military chef de guerre that Tibet needed at that point in time to coordinate the defence of the different border posts.

It has to be noticed that Mao Zedong entered the Korean campaign on the same day  as the PLA crossed the Yangtze and started its operations in Tibet. It shows the confidence the Communist leadership had in the local PLA commanders.

The PLA summary of the battle and the recommendations distributed by the PLA after the Battle of Chamdo tend to show that it was an excellent preparation for the Chinese troops for another battle 12 years later on the Himalayan slopes. Against India this time!

Emergence of a ‘Liberated’ World

Looking back into the fifteen-year period before the India-China War (1947-1962), one can see that the world witnessed earth-shaking changes: India became independent; China did its own revolution, resulting in the arrival of a new regime, more brutal in its approach, especially towards the periphery of the Middle Kingdom; most of the African and Asian nations were decolonized. However, at the same time, a de facto independent nation came under the yoke of Communist China; hardly two months after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Xinjiang was annexed, opening the door to Western Tibet which would be occupied a few months later, thereby changing the status of India’s Northern frontiers.

An unprepared and peaceful Land of Snows became part of the Chinese ‘Motherland’ in a two-pronged strategic move, i.e. the military fall of Chamdo and Eastern Tibet in October 1950 and then in May 1951, a ‘diplomatic’ coup, forcing a 17-Point Agreement on a weak and disunited Tibetan nation. Mao was indeed a master strategist.

Tibet lost its independence and India’s serene northern frontier vanished. Even though at that time, India had some excellent strategic thinkers, the Government in Delhi decided not to use their competence; their conclusions and recommendations were not accepted by the then Prime Minister.

The tumultuous last six months of 1950 saw the emergence of two factions in India: one led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and KM Panikkar, his ambassador in Beijing, both obsessed with an imaginary friendship with New China and fixated on the ‘larger implications for World Peace’ for any decision concerning Tibet; the other, which immediately saw the strategic implications for India, if Delhi let Tibet down, was led by Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minster with Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, the Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs and Commonwealth Relations as his main adviser, but also comprised President Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari, KM Munshi and others. They were fed with reports ‘from the ground’ by Harishwar Dayal, the Political Officer in Sikkim and Sumul Sinha, the Head of the Indian Mission in Lhasa, two sincere and far-sighted civil servants. At that time, India had a full-fledged Mission in Tibet as well as three Trade Agencies in Gyantse, Yatung and Gartok.

This tragic dichotomy between the officers on the ground with first hand information and the ‘visionaries’ in Delhi continued throughout these fifteen years.

Today China speaks of ‘poverty alleviation’ for the Roof of the World, but what has the Communist regime been doing since they entered Lhasa in September 1951, if the Tibetans have remained poor 70 years later?

The truth is that Mao was only interested in the strategic assets of Tibet; China gained not only a huge landmass, but the access to the ‘water tower of Asia’, large mineral resources and a strategic position dominating the subcontinent. The Tibetan masses were nowhere in China’s periscope.

At that time, the Indian government decided to ignore the Tibetan issue, probably due to a lack of vision and courage, despite the warnings of Sardar Patel and his colleagues. This move would have tremendous consequences; some that continue to be felt even 70 years later, for example, on the Northern borders of India, particularly in Eastern Ladakh.

The Tibetan appeal at the UN

On the same day that the Deputy Prime Minister Patel, wrote his prophetic letter to Nehru , a well-drafted appeal sent from Kalimpong  pointed to the fact that “the Tibetans were racially, culturally and geographically far apart from the Chinese.” It also made a parallel with the situation in the Korean peninsula: “The attention of the world was then riveted on Korea where aggression was being resisted by an international force.

Similar happenings in Tibet were taking place with the world covering its eyes: … [The problem is] largely the outcome of unthwarted Chinese ambitions to bring weaker nations on her periphery within her active domination,” said the Appeal, which continued: “As a people devoted to the tenets of Buddhism, Tibetans had long eschewed the art of warfare, practised peace and tolerance and for the defence of their country, relied on its geographical configuration and on non-involvement in the affairs of other nations.”

It added that the Chinese, in their natural urge for expansion, “have wholly misconstrued the significance of the ties of friendship and interdependence that existed between China and Tibet.”

Some twenty years ago, Claudia Johnston, an independent researcher in International Law at the University of Victoria, Canada, wrote a fascinating paper, Tibet: The International Mistake of the Century.

The outcome of her research was that the Tibetan Appeal was still a pending matter in the UN …waiting to be reopened: “The UN and individual Member States, have been conducting their decisions based on the false assumption that Tibet is not a ‘State’, but ‘an internal affair’ of China. UN official records show this to be a mistake.” Tibet was then a legal State.

As a result, “the issue of Tibetan Statehood remains unconsidered by the United Nations. United Nations mechanisms for ‘States’ to employ peaceful solutions to ‘Disputes’ have not been utilised.”

All this was done …at the request of India.
From the start, Nehru was pessimistic about the outcome of the UN appeal: “We doubt whether a discussion of Tibetan problem in General Assembly or in Security Council will yield any useful result,” wrote the Prime Minister. The friendship with China was already too important to be sacrificed for the fate a weak neighbour like Tibet.

The Prime Minister frankly admitted that though Beijing had repeatedly expressed itself in favour of Tibetan autonomy “but of course we do NOT know what their idea of autonomy is.”

He thought: “We do NOT think that legal argument will be helpful or that [General] Assembly should attempt more than appeal to two parties to come to a peaceful settlement. Condemnation of China will NOT help Tibet; and neither Security Council nor Assembly is in any position to render physical aid to Tibet.”

As a result China was not condemned and could complete its task of entering Lhasa without hindrance; in Sun Tzu’s jargon, ‘liberating Tibet without waging war’.

In the course of the discussions at the UN in New York, most of the representatives indicated that India was the nation most concerned and that they would follow India’s lead. In a note, Nehru sadly asserted: “I think it may be taken for granted that China will take possession, in a political sense at least, of the whole of Tibet.”

He further admitted that for the Tibetan people the “autonomy can obviously not be anything like the autonomy, verging on independence, which Tibet has enjoyed during the last forty years or so.”

His final words were: “We cannot save Tibet, as we should have liked to do so, and our very attempts to save it might bring greater trouble to it. It would be unfair to Tibet for us to bring this trouble upon her without having the capacity to help her effectively.”

The strange argument was: if we do anything to help Tibet, it will upset the Chinese and the fate of Tibet would be worse.

The case was eventually ‘put in abeyance’ at India’s demand.

Let us remember that Sardar Patel was by then a dying man and nobody else could stand up to Nehru.

But today China stubbornly continues to occupy Indian territory in Ladakh; however if the Western Theatre Command generals manage to convince President Xi Jinping that India should be taught more lessons, there are plenty of old issues for India to reopen; the UN appeal is one of them.

The Panchsheel Agreement: a Turning Point

One of the most immoral actions of the Indian Government was to ignore the existence of the Tibetan Government during its dealing with the new masters of the Roof of the World, particularly during the talks for the 1954 Tibet Agreement. It was wrong of the government to be vociferous about the decolonization of Africa or Asia, while at the same time ignoring the occupation by force of Tibet, a gentle neighbor at its gates, which enjoyed what the Indian Prime Minister himself described as ‘verging on Independence’.

The “Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India”, remembered as the Panchsheel Agreement, was signed on April 29, 1954 in Beijing. At the end of 1953, negotiations started for an accord on Tibet, taking into account the new situation, i.e. China’s occupation of the plateau. The talks were to be settled in a couple of weeks; it would take four months to arrive at a settlement …but forgetting the border.

The Panchsheel Agreement resulted in the unhindered advance of the Communist ideology and Mao’s army on the Tibetan plateau. Having received the green light from Nehru, the Communists imposed a new way of life, less compassionate, less enlightened over the Roof of the World.

The Chinese officials in Tibet did not look favorably upon the Dalai Lama’s aspiration to radically change the Tibetan society while still maintaining its 2,000-year old tradition. This would have cast a shadow on the Communist Party.

It is however true that many senior Indian politicians and diplomats, educated in ‘modern’ ideas, thought the ‘old Lama hierarchy’ should go and Tibet become a ‘modern’ country; they believed that the Chinese invasion was a chance to make a clean sweep of the old superstitions, beliefs or rituals.

The Slow Take-over of the Plateau

Soon after the Tibet Agreement was signed, the Chinese leadership took a radical approach towards Tibet, though, for a couple of years, the main emphasis was the building of the infrastructure needed to ‘stabilize the revolution’ on the plateau.

This period was marked by a general deterioration of the situation in Central Tibet and the slow take-over of the institutions by the PLA and the representatives of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

The Tibetans were at a loss, should they collaborate with the Communists or revolt against the Chinese occupation? Interestingly, it was the poorer sections of the society who started to rebel, while the high clergy and the aristocracy were not unhappy with the Chinese ‘largesse’ (which often included collaboration).

Over the years, the situation slowly changed with the Chinese getting bolder and establishing themselves by force, imposing their law on the local Tibetan officials as well as the Indian representatives. The pilgrims to Mt Kailash and the traders from the Himalayan region and Ladakh started to face harassment. It was only a beginning.

As the situation in Lhasa and elsewhere in Tibet continued to deteriorate, strengthening the Indian borders was imperative. For the purpose, an Indian Frontier Administrative Service was created and several ex-Army officers were recruited. This was one of the positive outcomes of the exacerbated tensions on the borders. These remarkable officers performed miracles on the frontiers. One wishes that the government would today recreate such a service.

By 1955, the construction of the Tibet-Sinkiang Highway cutting across Ladakh, had started and the roads heading towards the NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) and Sikkim had already been completed. The significance of these moves was ignored by Delhi; we are seeing the consequences today in Ladakh.

The Nehru-Zhou Talks in 1956

The visit of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama to India in 1956-57 should be seen in this perspective. The former was hesitant to return to Lhasa. He finally decided to return and give a chance to the Communists to ‘reform’ Tibet in a peaceful manner. It was not to be.

In 1956, during bilateral talks with his Indian counterpart , Zhou Enlai gave his rationale for invading Tibet ‘only’ in 1950: “The Ching [Manchu] Emperor appointed Governors to Tibet and troops were also stationed in Lhasa. The British wanted to go into Tibet under the pretext that Russia wanted to get into Sikang . Russia also made the same pretext, namely, that Britain was trying to get into Tibet, to get into Sikang. Exactly because of this rivalry and balance of power, Sikang and Tibet were never taken actually [by China].”

This is a strange argument; the truth was that the Tibetan nation was an independent country with all the attributes of a sovereign State (a government, a language, a script, a flag, a (weak) army, coins, stamps, etc); further, for centuries, the Land of Snow had close relations with India, first and foremost in the cultural and spiritual domains (Tibetan Buddhism originates from Nalanda, let us not forget), but also politically and economically with countless ‘silk’ roads across the Himalaya; in other words, there was a deep kinship.

Zhou continued to explain: “But there are many still who are not acquainted with these facts. Even the Pakistan Prime Minister recently  told me that he always thought Tibet to be independent. Even the Simla Conference admitted Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.”

Zhou did not know about the McMahon Line

The Chinese Premier then tried to justify China’s new claims in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), i.e. the McMahon Line: “People like me never knew about it [the Line] till recently. The then Chinese Government, namely, the warlords in Peking and the KMT naturally knew about it.

Perhaps U Nu might have told Your Excellency [Nehru] that we studied this question and although this Line was never recognised by us, still apparently there was a secret pact between Britain and Tibet and it was announced at the time of the Simla Conference. And now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it. But we have not consulted Tibet so far.”

The clever Chinese statesman then mentioned the Panchsheel Agreement: “In the last agreement which we signed about Tibet , the Tibetans wanted us to reject this Line; but we told them that the question should be temporarily put aside. I believe immediately after India’s independence, the Tibetan Government had also written to the Government of India about this matter. But now we think that we should try to persuade and convince Tibetans to accept it. This question also is connected with Sino-Burmese border and the question will be decided after Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa. So, although the question is still undecided and it is unfair to us, still we feel that there is no better way than to recognise this Line.”

The Indian Prime minister gave a nehruvian answer, with the consequences that India experiences on the border today: “The border is a high mountain border and sparsely populated. Apart from the major question, there are also small questions about two miles here and two miles there. But if we agree on some principle, namely, the principle of previous normal practice or the principle of watershed, we can also settle these other small points. Of course, this has nothing to do with the McMahon Line.”

His Chinese counterpart answered: “Yes, the question can be solved and we think it should be settled early.” That was in 1956.

Nehru then ‘excused’ some Indian mayors who wanted ‘to make out Tibet as an independent country’, he said: “Reference by a Mayor has no significance. He does not know much politically and probably very little about China and Tibet.

They would generally only know about the great religious significance of Tibet to Indians and that is all that they must be stressing.” The Prime Minister concluded: “Our policy has been to deal with the Chinese Government about Tibet …We are naturally interested in what happens in Tibetans one of our near neighbours but we don’t want to interfere. Our main interest is from the point of view of the pilgrims not only Buddhist pilgrims but Hindu pilgrims too for whom Kailash and Manasarovar are sacred places and abodes of God.”

The Indian Prime Minister’s last words were: “Your Excellency [Zhou Enlai] has said that Tibet is backward and cut off. But it cannot remain long that way. They are a deeply religious people and they are naturally afraid that their religion and customs would be upset. I myself personally think that changes are inevitable in Tibet, but I would like Tibetans to feel that they themselves have brought about the changes. As Your Excellency has said, Tibet is a part of China but with full autonomous powers. Then I don’t understand why there should be any trouble in Tibet at all.”

Severe troubles had already started in Eastern Tibet.

The Events of March 1959: the Background

On June 1, 1959, Maj SL Chibber sent his report for the months of March, April and May 1959  to the Political Officer in Gangtok and the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi; he reported about the crucial months in the life of the Tibetan nation which witnessed the uprising of the Tibetan population in Lhasa and the departure of Tibet’s temporal and spiritual leader in exile. This is a unique and remarkable document as it is the only eye-account by a ‘foreigner’.

Before going into the details of those historic months, Maj Chibber gave the background of the events of March 1959 in the Tibetan capital: “The nationalist movement in Tibet, the climax of which was reached on 10th March, 1959, had started sometime in 1955 in Kham, Eastern Tibet and then spread to west in Amdo region and north-east in Golok areas. In 1955 and 1957, it took shape of an open revolt against the Chinese regime in these areas. These people though did not succeed but they were a constant headache to the Chinese who had to resort to aerial bombing and deploy large number of forces to subjugate the local inhabitants.”

Chibber described the happenings in Kham: “During [the] operations, number of monasteries was destroyed and the local people suffered heavy losses. Due to absence of proper means of communication and security measured adopted by Chinese to suppress the information the correct news of happenings in these areas-seldom reached out-side world. However, whatever little news trickled through traders and travelers contained horrible accounts of atrocities committed by the Chinese against the people of these areas, especially against the lamaseries. This naturally had an effect on the minds of Tibetans elsewhere and a stage had reached that some among these Tibetans who had thrown their lot with the Chinese previously, many became apprehensive and doubted Chinese promises of respect for religion and internal autonomy.”

The Consul said that the Khampas finding, it difficult to face frontal attacks from the Chinese troops resorted to guerilla tactics and “moved towards the south where the Chinese garrisons were few and far between and the difficult terrain suited to hit and run type of war.”

He remarked that at the beginning the Chinese did not take any action against these Khampa, “except on one or two occasions but pressed the Tibetan Government to suppress them.”

Under pressure from the Chinese authorities, the Tibetan Government tried to reach a compromise by sending some Peace Missions of monks and lay officials to Kham and Lhoka areas, but this did not help, according to the Consul “most Tibetan Government officials did not like the presence of Chinese in Tibet.”

The rejection of the Chinese occupation by the Tibetan populations was the turning point in the history of Modern Tibet.

The Events of March 1959

The first-hand account of Maj Chibber is important, because the Chinese propaganda would like us to believe that during these dramatic weeks of March 1959, they ‘emancipated’ the serfs. But in fact, the opposite happened; recounting the events that he witnessed in Lhasa, Chibber observed: “In the history of movement for free Tibet the month of March, 1959, will be most historic as during this month Tibetans high and low, in Lhasa, capital of Tibet, openly challenged the Chinese rule in Tibet.

They set up an organisation called ‘Pho Mimang Ranchen Chi Chog’, meaning, ‘Tibetan Peoples Independent Organisation’; renounced the Sino-Tibetan Agreement of 1951; staged demonstrations to give vent to their anti-Chinese feelings and demanded withdrawal of the Chinese from Tibet.”

The Indian Consul General first reported about the Might of Chinese People’s Liberation Army, “who on 20th March, 1959, started an all out offensive against the ill-organised, ill-equipped, untrained-Tibetans with artillery, mortars, machine guns and all types of automatic weapons.”

The revolt was short lived: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama, smelling danger, left Lhasa secretly on the night of the 17th March, 1959, with important members of his personal staff, three Cabinet Ministers and members of his family for Lhoka area (south of Lhasa), where at that time Khampas had full sway and from where it was easier for him to escape to India if need arose. Many other important and un-important-Tibetans followed him when the actual trouble started on the night of 19th March, 1959,” noted Chibber.

On March 28, 1959, the State Council dissolved the ‘local’ Tibet Government; the Kashag was no more and its functions and powers were transferred to the Preparatory Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

A Chinese communiqué announced that the Panchen Lama would be Acting Chairman, “for the period the Dalai Lama was held in duress .”

A Military Control Commission was established in Lhasa on March 23, 1959. Chibber also remarked that the Chinese Transport Department’s passenger service between Yatung, Shigatse, Gyantse and Lhasa had been stopped several months earlier. A dusk to dawn curfew was promulgated, while meetings to criticize the former Tibetan Government, the ‘imperialists’ and the Indian ‘expansionists’ were organized to denounce their interference in the internal affairs of Tibet.
Military Control Commissions were also installed in other areas in Tibet. Soon after the events of March, the Preparatory Committee held two meetings, one under the Chairmanship of the Panchen Lama and the other under General Zhang Guohua as the Panchen Lama had gone to Beijing to attend the Second National People’s Congress Session.

The Consul General commented: “the booms of Chinese guns and fire from their weapons, which destroyed number of buildings including religious places, large scale killing of Tibetans followed by mass arrests, departure of Dalai Lama and high-ranking Tibetan officials from Lhasa completely shattered the morale of Tibetans in general and they were left with no other alternative but to bow before the Chinese.”

Today, the Tibetans in exile still celebrate March 10 as their Uprising Day. Will the Day be commemorated one day in Lhasa by the Tibetans?
It is impossible to answer.

In March 1959, India could only witness the events, without taking an active part.

A couple of weeks later, the Dalai Lama took refuge in India, creating a new narrative in the India-China relations.

What can be done to untie the past knots?

Delhi should officially start a dialogue with the Tibetans in exile. One possibility is to immediately set-up a mechanism with the Dalai Lama’s representative in Delhi , to discuss the issues of mutual interests. It should not be done in a hushed-up way.

Some general principles should dictate the new policy.

First, India should look after her own interests and the security of the people living on the borders; it seems obvious, but it has not always been the case.

Another principle is that India’s policies or actions should not be dictated by what others will think or say, particularly how China will react to a particular decision. This tendency has lasted too long with no tangible gain for the country; for example, the 2018 notice circulated to all ministries/departments ordering that no Indian officials should meet the Dalai Lama, had serious counter-productive effects.

It is unfortunate but it is a fact that India faces a country which still believes that power comes from the barrel of a gun; without emulating China, India needs to quietly and forcefully look after her own interests and be straightforward about it; a closer kinship between Delhi and Dharamsala is in the country’s interests.

Whatever over-all policy is adopted by the Government at a later stage, one element is critical: coordination. In view of the individualistic tendencies of the Indian bureaucracy, this is crucial in order to achieve the targeted aim of the policy between the different shakeholders (Ministries of External Affairs, Defence, Home Affairs, Education, Culture, intelligence agencies, etc).

Without proper coordination, it will be just one more futile new policy.

The creation of a Department, coordinating the different aspects of the Tibet policy would be the first step to strengthen the relations with Tibet; India should use the goodwill of the Tibetans towards India; the rest will follow. But undoing the knots of the past will take time.

It is however necessary if India wants to play a role of leader in the world affairs and have peace and prosperity on her frontiers.


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2 thoughts on “The Tibet Factor in India-China Relations

  1. A much informative, must read article. Follies of the then people in power in India, are costing dearly to India as well to all others in the region. Better late than never; hope now we start confronting the bull by the horns and are able to push him back and take first step to initiate real time cooperation between India and Tibet Govt. in exile and raise Tibet issue forcefully on all intl platforms.

  2. Absolutely superb!
    This article is in the category of ‘must-reading’ in the Indian school history book. This could help some of those brainwashed into believing India’s northern boundary as undecided, for example, along the line expressed in a post in the adjoining column here “Lackluster approach by British on the issue, then ruling over India is now costing us dear”.

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