Wednesday, October 3, 2012
1962: The McMahon Line Saga
In 2012, we are ‘celebrating’ the 50th anniversary of a tragic event which has remained a deep scar in the Indian psyche: the border war with China.
What perhaps makes the issue yet more painful is the fact that the Government of India (mostly under the Congress leadership since 1962) has continued to hide the report of the debacle prepared by Lt Gen. Henderson-Brooks and Brig. Prem Bhagat in 1963.
Why is the Indian public not authorized to know what happened on the slopes of the Thagla ridge of the then West Kameng division of the NEFA in October 1962?
It is one of the issues that we have tried to analyze from what is known of the famous Report. We have also gone through the probable reasons for the present establishment keeping the report under wraps for nearly 50 years.
Our conclusion is that the local Army commanders (4 Infantry Division and 7 Infantry Brigade) were not told where the border was. A shameful Himalayan blunder indeed.
Several years ago, we acquired a large collection of British archival documents related to the Tibet-India border. For a long time we sat on it, but with the forthcoming 50 year (let us not call it ‘Golden Jubilee’, though it could accurately be termed ‘Black Jubilee’), we thought that we should do something with these rare documents. This is the genesis of these essays.
The thread between this collection of papers is the Tibet-India (today China-India) frontier in the North-East, as well as other musings linked with the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, for example Mao’s motivations for ‘teaching India a lesson’.
The fact that despite of hundreds of books and articles have been written on the 1962 China’s war and the border issue, there is very little in print on the background of the War. Did not China go to war (though they say that it is India which attacked first)?
The more one digs into this question, the more one discovers that it is deeply, intimately linked with the history of modern Tibet, particularly the status of the Roof of the World as a de facto independent nation.
Nobody can deny that many contemporary issues in the domain of national security and defense are the direct outcome of what happened at the beginning of the 20th century on the Roof of the World and the tumultuous trilateral relations between British India, China and Tibet.
As World War II drew to a close, the position of the British government was clear. In August 1943, a note from Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister to Dr. T. V. Soong, the Chinese Ambassador in Great Britain says: “Since the Chinese Revolution of 1911, when Chinese forces were withdrawn from Tibet, Tibet has enjoyed de facto independence. She has ever since regarded herself as in practice completely autonomous and has opposed Chinese attempts to reassert control.”
The dispute with China only started at the end of the 1950’s as a consequence of China’s occupation of Tibet. Relations between India and China today are closely linked to this event and in reading these essays, one will understand that the border dispute with China will not be solved till the Tibetan issue is settled in a satisfactory way.
What also emerges from of this study is that for centuries, if not millennia, there no border in the Westphalian sense of the term; men and goods always travelled freely from one side of the Himalayan range to the other; this abruptly stopped in 1962.
It does not mean that there were no friction between the Tibetan world and the tribal populations living between the plains of Assam and the ‘snow line’, as older British maps put it.
The border situation was undoubtedly hardened after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, especially after the Dalai Lama took refuge in India in March/April 1959. This also triggered a tougher stance by the Indian officials dealing with the border issue; first amongst them Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister (as well as External Affairs Minister). The direct outcome was a war that India has neither forgotten nor really digested.
But before we go into the more contemporary period, it is necessary to have a look the events of the beginning of the 20th century.
We start this series of studies with a young British Colonel, Francis Younghusband entering Lhasa with his troops in 1904.
In the Tibetan capital, Younghusband made a great discovery: the Chinese presence on the Tibetan plateau was a constitutional fiction.
This had long been suspected by British officials. Had not Lord Curzon written a year before Younghusband left for Tibet: “We regard the so-called suzerainty of China over Tibet as a constitutional fiction, a political affectation which has been maintained because of its convenience to both parties”? But after Younghusband’s journey to Tibet, the British had concrete proof of it.
The Simla Conference in 1914 was the direct outcome of this discovery: if the Tibetan issue was to be solved, the Lhasa Government should be a party to any agreement.
During the Simla Conference in Simla, the Tibetan Plenipotentiary sat on equal footing with Sir Henry McMahon, his British counterpart and Ivan Chen, the Chinese one. The Convention signed by India and Tibet (and only initialed by China) did not solve the vexed Tibet-China frontier issue, but the border between India and Tibet was fixed in the form of a thick red line on a double-page map; that was the McMahon Line.
Before going into the intricacies of the Simla Convention, we will follow the steps of two intrepid British ‘explorers’, Capt. Frederick Bailey and Capt. Henry Morshead of the Survey of India who spent the last months of 1913 scouting for the British Empire on, the other side of the ‘snow line’. Their experience and notes would be invaluable for Henry McMahon and his assistant Charles Bell to draw the famous Red Line.
Bailey’s and Morshead’s escapade was followed by a series of ‘Expeditions, Missions and Promenades’ by British officials, mostly Political Officers or Assistant Political Officers posted in the North-East. This provided the Empire with a greater control and better intelligence on the tribal ‘unadministered’ areas, north of the Inner Line, marking the regions ‘administrated’ by the Government of Assam.
Most of these quasi-military expeditions were triggered by law and order incidents like the Abor Expedition which followed the murder Noel Williamson, Assistant Political Officer at Sadiya and Dr. J. D. Gregorson, a doctor in the tea gardens.
The Chinese ‘threat’ was also a good excuse to advance the British Administration in these remote areas.
The Chinese troops of Zhao Erfeng, the warlord of Sichuan had entered Lhasa in 1910 and tried to capture the Dalai Lama who had to temporarily take refuge in India. Two years later, the remaining Chinese soldiers were thrown out of Tibet and the Dalai Lama could return, declaring the Independence of his country in 1912. But the Chinese presence, particularly in the Siang and Lohit Valley continued to greatly worry Delhi and London.
In March 1914, an agreement was reached between the Governments of Tibet and British India to demarcate their common border. Here again the Chinese menace made it compulsory for Delhi and London to have a fixed boundary.
The accord had some special conditions, particularly about a famous pilgrimage around the Dakpa Sheri, the ‘Pure Crystal Mountain’ in Tsari region, which crossed south of the McMahon Line, into Indian territory. We shall consecrate a chapter to this issue.
We shall also travel on the remote tracks of the valleys of the Subansiri, the Siang or the Lohit in the footsteps of adventurous Assistant Political Officers trying their best to convince Shillong (then the capital of Assam) and Delhi that it was in the interest of British India to consolidate its administration, establish regular contact with the tribal populations and set up the defence of these far-away areas. They were not always heard by their bosses in Delhi and London.
During our peregrinations on the Himalayan border, we will go in detail into some relatively little known issues, such as the history of Tawang located in the north-eastern part of today’s Arunachal Pradesh; but also into the British policy towards Tibet and even the possibility for India to militarily defend the Roof of the World. A detailed plan was prepared by the War Office for the purpose; we shall analyze it. Interestingly, the operations were planned with 7 squadrons of the RAF. Unfortunately 15 years later, the Government of India had forgotten that the Air Force could be used in the Himalayan region.
Particularly interesting will be the long-drawn discussions in Lhasa between the British Political Officers in Sikkim (first Sir Basil Gould and then Arthur Hopkinson) on the confirmation of the McMahon Line and the possibility of ‘returning’ to Lhasa government, some areas south of it.
Interestingly British India had a Tibet Policy. Partly in response to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s offer to give Tibet of ‘a very high degree of autonomy’, Sir Olaf Caroe, then Foreign Secretary of the Government of India drafted a clear Tibet Policy. We shall look at it in some detail.
At the end of World War II, a British Memo noted: “There would seem to be nothing irreconcilable between this offer of ‘a very high degree of autonomy’ and the attitude of His Majesty’s Government. It is clear however, from conversations which took place between British and Chinese representatives in Lhasa in 1944 that with regard to Tibet, there is a considerable difference between the British and the Chinese conceptions of the word autonomy.”
The ‘autonomy’ envisaged by the Government of British India was indeed different from the one mentioned by Chiang Kai-shek in his speech in the Chinese Assembly on August 24, 1945 when the Generalissimo elaborated on the nationalist policy concerning Tibet. After declaring China’s desire to allow the ‘frontier racial groups’ to attain independence if capable of doing so, he asserted: “I solemnly declare that if the Tibetans should at this time express a wish for self-government our Government would, in conformity with our sincere traditions, accord it a very high degree of autonomy. If in the future, they fulfill economic requirement of independence, the nation’s Government will, as in the case of Outer Mongolia, help them to attain this status”.
In London, many believed that Chiang was playing to the gallery and was not really sincere in offering to grant independence to Tibet. The trick, according to British officials, was to show that China was in control of Tibet (it was not the case). Only a sovereign in full control can generously offer ‘autonomy’ to his ‘subjects’. But in the Tibetan case, Lhasa was for all purposes already de facto independent, therefore there was no question of ‘offering’ what Tibet already possessed.
A statement would eventually be issued on November 5, 1945 by the British Cabinet in London. It reiterated the points expounded in the 1943 Memorandum from the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to T. V. Soong.
The Statement stated that ‘in general’, two factors governed the Tibetan question, first “Tibet has in practice regarded herself as autonomous and has maintained her autonomy for over 30 years”; second “our attitude has always been to recognize China’s suzerainty, but on the understanding that Tibet is regarded as autonomous by China”.
The purpose of the Memo was to find a solution in case of “domination of Tibet by a potentially hostile major power [which] would constitute a direct threat to the security of India.”
The security of the border areas was always outmost in the minds of the British administrators dealing with the North-East.
India’s objectives were clearly expressed: “The Government of India are therefore, vitally interested in maintaining friendly relations with Tibet and in preserving for Tibet at least that measure of autonomy she now enjoys.”
The outcome of the discussion was unambiguous, London (and Delhi) did not want to have a new neighbour on its borders, particularly not the Soviet Union or China.
This perception of what is ‘autonomy’ remains the bone of contention between Beijing and Dharamsala today.
The Memo thus defines the British perception: “The basis of Tibetan autonomy must rest in strong diplomatic support by HMG [His Majesty Government] and by India so that the Tibetans will not be subjected to pressure by any potential hostile power.”
The British Government did not think only in terms of an armed invasion (by Russia or China), but also about ‘infiltrations’. As recently witnessed in Nepal, where local elements have encouraged a slow take-over of the country by the People’s Republic of China, infiltrations have been a method recurrently used by successive Chinese leaders.
The Government of India continued to follow the policy outlined in the Memo till the end of 1949.
But everything began changing on January 1, 1950 when Communist China announced its intention to ‘liberate’ Tibet.
It was done on October 7, 1950 and a few weeks later, the ‘liberation of Tibet’ was announced to the world (by the Chinese). It was the turning point in the modern history of the Himalayan region.
Surprisingly, Nehru changed his stance; from being a country ‘verging on independence’, Tibet became an ‘occupied country’, but Delhi did not announce any change of policy, mainly because the Government decided to play the card of ‘friendship’ with China.
Taken by surprise, Delhi had no Tibet Policy to cope with the new situation. The well-known letter written on November 7, 1950 by Sardar Patel to the Indian Prime Minister, which we shall analyze, was the first step in the direction of preparing a proper policy for India’s borders.
The two months of November/December 1950 saw an opportunity to work on this policy. All the ingredients were present in Patel’s letter; unfortunately, they would only be partially implemented (through the Himmatsinghji Committee report in particular).
More than 60 years later, the words of Patel still ring true: “Throughout history, we have seldom been worried about our Northern frontier. The Himalayas haven regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the North. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble.”
The letter goes on analyzing:
- a military and intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India both on the frontier and the internal security.
- An examination of our military position and such redisposition of our forces as might be necessary, particularly with the idea of guarding important routes or area which are likely to be subject to dispute
- An appraisal of the strength of our forces
- A long-term consideration of our defence needs
- The question of Chinese entry into the UNO
- The future of our mission in Lhasa and trade posts at Gyanste and Yatung
- The policy in regard to the Mac Mahon Line
That was a Tibet Plicy.
Nehru did not reply to Patel, but drafted his own defeatist policy on November 18, 1950; 62 years later, the imbroglio created by Nehru’s idealist views remains unresolved. Nehru’s Note had concluded: what “we should seek is some kind of understanding of China” and he adds, “China desires this too for obvious reasons.” It was a wrong assumption.
“We cannot save Tibet”, was Nehru final conclusion.
A few days later Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel passed away; he probably was the one Indian politician who could have balanced Nehru; the destiny of India could have taken a different direction; it was not to be. With the demise of Patel, the Tibet Policy was buried for the sake of the newly-found ‘friendship’ with China.
One of the most fascinating characters in pre-1950 Tibet is the scholar from Amdo, Gedun Choepel. He is one of the first Tibetans to travel from the Roof of the World, study Indian languages and literature and reinterpret Tibetan history in a more holistic way. At the end of his too-short life, he was embroiled in the border issue at a time as British India were trying to reconfirm the McMahon Line through an offer to return Tawang to the Tibetan Government. His inner and outer journey will be an occasion to look at the Nationalist China’s policy towards Tibet and the increase in Chinese activities (mainly intelligence) on the Roof of the World at the end of World War II.
One difficulty faced by researchers wanting to study the intricacies of the border issue and the causes of the 1962 conflict is that, after the escape of the Dalai Lama to India in March 1959, the Chinese have confiscated the Tibetan archives. Though they presented some documents during the 1960 borders talks with India, it was only selected documents which could be used to drive their argument, mainly about Tawang area.
One question remains, had India a Tibet Policy before the 1962 conflict? An in-depth study of Nehru’s works will show that Delhi did not have anything which can be called a ‘policy’ to tackle the situation on its borders. In 1957, Nehru even told Apa Pant, the Political Officer in Sikkim: “We live in a world where national boundaries become more and more anachronistic”; Communist China had just opened a road across Indian territory in the Aksai Chin of Ladakh.
Five years later, the ‘anachronistic’ boundary became the object of a war between India and China.
The fact remains that India had interests in Tibet and badly needed a Patel-like strategic vision to protect these interests as well as the country’s security along the Himalayan borders. This was non-existent; it resulted in the disaster of October 1962.
Finally, we shall look at India’s interests in Tibet today and at the need of a proper policy taking into account the border row, the presence of the Dalai Lama in India and the traditional cultural and trade relations between the Roof of the World and the Indian subcontinent.
We would like to recount a telling anecdote to conclude. We once asked the Dalai Lama if the Tibetan Government had not committed a great blunder, at the time of India’s Independence, when it refused to immediately acknowledge the 1914 border agreement and the Simla Convention.
He answered: “About Mon (Tawang) in NEFA area, I remember that around 1945/45 [it was probably in 1945, during Hopkinson’s visit], at that time I had no responsibility. I heard and noticed that a special Tibetan National Assembly took place and a British [Indian] mission came to see the Kashag [Tibetan Cabinet] in the Potala. I remember some of the people of the Mission who came. (I think Richardson was one of them). Along with them, there were some people dressed in Sikkimese dress. From my window in Potala, I noticed that and I was told that the Tibetan National Assembly was taking place; the session was going on because the Bristish Army had entered in Tawang area. The Tibetan government wanted to protest. So, therefore it was an indication that at that time because Tawang and these areas had been in possession of the Tibetans [in the past], and the [National Assembly] wanted to hold on to these areas. Although in 1914 at the Simla Convention the border was already demarcated and [the Agreement] was signed [by the Tibetan Government]. But most of the Tibetans did know that (laughing). And on the spot when some Bristish officials came, the Tibetan officials said: “This is our land” (laughing) But they did not know that the Government had already decided in 1914 [about the border between Tibet and India]. So they did not know what had been decided [in 1914]. Such a wonderful Government!”
The Dalai Lama could stop laughing.
Had the Tibetans government acted more decisively in the 1940s, during what they call the Minority (of the Dalai Lama), writing this book would have not been necessary.