Saturday, February 4, 2017
'So it was all for nothing': The Aksai Chin road
Sydney Wignall is dead. He died on April 4 in London.
But who is Sydney Wignall? Very few have ever heard of him in India!
His obituary in The Telegraph (London) says: "Sydney Wignall, who has died aged 89, was an adventurer who, in 1955, led the first Welsh Himalayan Expedition with the intention of climbing Gurla Mandhata, at 25,355ft the highest peak in Chinese-occupied Tibet; in his book Spy on the Roof of the World, he recounted how he was captured by the Red Army and held in jail accused of being a CIA spy."
He was not a CIA agent; though he worked for the Indian Military Intelligence.
The Economist also remembers him: "Few things annoyed Sydney Wignall more than the thought that the world’s least accessible places were divided up among the great powers. To go where he wanted among the wilds and snows—to cross that pass undetected, to find lakes unmarked on charts, to see what lay on the other side of the hill—was a fever in him.”
Though he died unknown in India, Wignall has done something great for India.
In 1955, Wignall led a Welsh Himalayan expedition to climb the Gurla Mandhata, a peak dominating the Manasarovar and Rakshastal lakes, not far from Mount Kailash, near the tri-junction between Tibet, Nepal and India.
The expedition was officially sponsored by the Liverpool Daily Post and Life magazine.
Unknown to the public, Wingnall had agreed to collect information on the strategic road bordering India’s northern borders.
Already during the mid-fifties, the Indian army strongly suspected the Chinese of wanting to construct a road linking their new acquired provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. Was the road crossing Indian territory?
It is in London that Wignall was first contacted by Lt.-Col. H. W. Tobin, the Vice-president of the Himalayan Club and editor of the Himalayan Journal. Tobin asked Wignall if he would “do some friends a favour”. He was later introduced to an Intelligence officer, code-named ‘Singh’ from the Indian High Commission in London.
Wignall was briefed by ‘Singh’ about the Chinese presence in Western Tibet and the possibility of the existence of a military road.
Different incidents occurred in the early fifties which should have woken the Government of India out of its soporific Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai dream-world.
First, the harassment of the Indian Trade Agent in Gartok which was without doubt linked with the work which had started on the Tibet-Xinjiang highway; in 1953, the Chinese even forced Nehru to close the Indian Agency as the presence of an Indian official was embarrassing for the PLA.
Then Brig S.S. Mallik, the Indian Military Attaché in Beijing made some references to the Chinese road-building activities in a report to the Government around that time; a year later, the Military Attaché would confirm the construction of the strategic highway through Indian territory in Aksai Chin.
The mission given to Wignall by the soon to-be Indian Army Chief, General K.S. Thimayya to Wignall, was to check this information. It was thought that the Chinese would not suspect an innocuous group of foreign mountaineers.
Let us remember that at that time, there was no NTRO with sophisticated satellites able to follow the movement of vehicles in these remote areas; ‘human intelligence’ was still the prime source of information. Wignall was therefore asked to get proof of the existence of the road.
Unfortunately, Wignall and his companions were captured soon after they crossed the border town of Taglakot (known as Purang in Tibetan).
They however had the opportunity to witness the Chinese road-building activities.
Although the Official Report of 1962 War prepared by the Ministry of Defence mentions the famous road, it does not give any detail about Nehru's biggest blunder: ignoring for several years that a road being built on Indian territory.
The Official Report states: “China started constructing motorable road in summer 1955. …On 6 October 1957, the Sinkiang-Tibet road was formally opened with a ceremony in Gartok and twelve trucks on a trial run from Yarkand reached Gartok.”
It was Wignall who had informed the Government of India about the Chinese scheme.
Wignall was eventually caught by the Chinese Army, interrogated and kept prisoner for several weeks.
He was later released in the midst of winter in a high altitude pass. The Chinese thought he would never survive the blizzard or find his way back to India. After an incredible journey, he managed to reach India and was able to report to Lt-Col ‘Baij’ Mehta, his contact in the Military Intelligence.
The army authorities in turn, informed the Prime Minister and V. K. Krishna Menon, the arrogant Defense Minister.
Wignall was later told by his army contact: "Our illustrious Prime Minister Nehru, who is so busy on the world stage telling the rest of mankind how to live, has too little time to attend to the security of his own country. Your material was shown to Nehru by one of our senior officers, who plugged hard. He was criticised by Krishna Menon in Nehru's presence for ‘lapping up American CIA agent-provocateur propaganda.’ Menon has completely suppressed your information.”
'So it was all for nothing?' I [Wignall] asked.
'Perhaps not,' Singh, Wignall's contact, responded. 'We will keep working away at Nehru. Some day he must see the light, and realise the threat communist Chinese occupation of Tibet poses for India.
Nehru saw the Light on October 20, 1962. Unfortunately, it was way too late.
General Thimayya, who became Army Chief in 1957, was forced to retire in 1961. He said in his valedictory address to the Indian Army Officer Corps: “I hope that I am not leaving you as cannon fodder for the Chinese communists.”
The Government of India did not acknowledge that already in 1955, it had information about the Aksai Chin road. The issue was discussed for the first time in the Lok Sabha in August 1959 only.
Wignall later wrote that he was interrogated by General Zhang Guohua, the Commander of the Tibet Military District who later took an active part in the 1962 war with India.
Wignall and his companions were beaten up; they were told: “You intended disguising your illegal armed invasion of China.” Wignall was asked to: “sign the confession that you are a Western Fascist Lackey Imperialist Running Dog of the American CIA and we will be very good to you. Otherwise you will be severely punished.”
It is from General Zhang that Wignall heard that Beijing claimed the Aksai Chin, the NEFA, as well as parts of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
Several years ago, I had the occasion to correspond with Wignall about his master coup, I realized that the Chinese interrogation techniques remained the same. Other prisoners, like Robert Ford, the British radio operator in Chamdo, Eastern Tibet who spent 5 years in Communist jails, reported the same way of interrogating prisoners, the same psychological tactics to break the morale of the ‘imperialist spies’.
Some Indian PoWs’ account, after 1962 Chinese attack are also similar.
One of the most distressing parts of this story is that when Wignall offered his manuscript to Indian publishers, he was politely told they could not publish 'this stuff' in India. He had no other choice but to publish his book in the UK.
The only reward he received was “profuse thanks” from his Indian Army contact and some cricket bats and balls for the children of a Nepalese village school that the expedition team visited before entering Tibet.
That is not much for helping India.