|The Indian Consulate in Kashgar, now a restaurant|
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When Beijing today speaks of One Belt One Road, it omits to say there was once a flourishing commerce which it closed.
In the fall of 1950, PN Kaul, a young colonel, was posted in Leh. In his memoirs, he wrote about his life in Ladakh and mentioned a curious incident. He saw thousands of refugees arriving from Xinjiang (then Sinkiang or Eastern Turkestan): “(They) came with what little they could carry on their ponies. Many had lost family members in their journey over Karakoram or neighbouring passes. I had a hard time trying to see that they weren’t fleeced by those connected with their evacuation from Leh.”
They were fleeing Kashgar, which a few months earlier had been taken over by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Kaul recalls, “Our consul general in Kashgar, Captain RD Sathe of the Indian Foreign Service and an ex-army officer, and his wife also arrived in Leh during the winter of 1950, after their difficult journey from Kashgar.”
This small sentence is fascinating, because the closure of the Indian consulate in Kashgar is one of the least-known historical facts, but which had tremendous consequences. Strangely, nothing can be found in the Indian archives about it.
However, I once came across a cable from KM Panikkar, the Indian ambassador in Beijing, to KPS Menon, the foreign secretary. Dated August 14, 1950, a few months before Captain Sathe reached Leh; Panikkar writes, “Re-opening of the consulate in Kashgar may take considerable time. In fact, I have serious doubts whether the Chinese government will agree to a consulate there, as even the Soviet have not so far been given permission to re-establish their consulate general. If we press for it, multiple-month negotiations will be unavoidable.”
Does it mean that in August 1950, the Indian Consulate in Sinkiang was already closed? Incidentally, in Kashgar, India and Pakistan shared the same building, the erstwhile British consulate.
To figure the background of the closure of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar, one has to fish into the Johns Hopkins University’s archives in the US.
On November 14, 1950, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, the former secretary general of the defunct Government of Turkistan, at that time a refugee in Srinagar, wrote to Owen Lattimore, an influential American scholar.
The Uyghur leader explained, “Lue Meng Cheng (Liu Mengqun), who was secretary general of the headquarters for military and political affairs, joined hands unofficially with the Chinese communists in 1949. General Tao Chih Yao (Tao Zhiyue), commander-in-chief of the nationalist army in Turkistan also joined hands with him and became party to his activities. Governor Burhan (Shahidi) also joined them.”
It means that the main nationalist leaders defected to the communists, who were received with open arms in Sinkiang; Alptekin said, “This surrender meant Russian control over our land again, the consequences of which were still fresh in our minds.”
He had no alternative but to escape to India over the most arduous pass, the Karakoram.
The Uyghur leader reached Leh on December 12, 1949. “After reaching Ladakh we came to know that 789 of our countrymen had also reached Ladakh as refugees after surrendering arms, ammunition, valuables and extra clothing to the ruthless Chinese soldiers at the border.”
In the following years, tens of thousands of refugees would flee the communist rule. It’s probably at this time that the new leadership in Sinkiang decided to close the Indian, Pakistani and Soviet missions. The latter would soon be reopened and by 1953, it was thriving with 300 "advisors" directing operations in the New Dominion; India’s consulate, however, would never reopen.
It was only in December 1953 that Nehru declared in Parliament, “Some major changes have taken place there (Kashgar). But when these revolutionary changes took place there, it is also perfectly true that the Chinese government, when they came to Tibet, told us that they intended to treat Sinkiang as a closed area.”
The communists’ decision, accepted by India, had tremendous implications: The entire trade with Central Asia from Srinagar and Leh, the lifeline of these regions, suddenly ended. When Beijing today speaks of the One Belt One Road, or an Economic Corridor, it omits to mention that there was a flourishing commerce which was deliberately closed by China itself.
Construction of the Aksai Chin Road
According to a CIA report of July 15, 1953, the PLA was busy with road construction (across the Indian territory in Aksai Chin area). “In late 1952, the 2 Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Han Tse-min, had its headquarters at Gartok (Western Tibet). This regiment had 800 camels. A unit of this regiment, with 150 men, was garrisoned at Rudok (near the Pangong lake). Han Tse-min said when these roads were completed, the Chinese communists would close the Tibet-Ladakh border to trade. The Chinese communists in Sinkiang were telling the people that Ladakh belongs to Sinkiang.”
It was definitively a premeditated action to close down the Indian consulate in Kashgar and then, the trade between Sinkiang and Kashmir and central Asia.
The conclusion? First, it’s ironic Beijing pretends to be upset about India’s non-participation to its OBOR project when the century-old Silk Road was closed more than 60 years ago and remains so today.
Next, like in 1950, China puts its neighbours in front of fait accomplis and later announces that it’s ready to "talk"; though in that particular case, the Indian consulate in Kashgar never came to the negotiating table. It’s perhaps high time it does.
And finally, why can’t Delhi declassify these old files, which would show the world how China acted and still acts?