|Formerly the Indian Consulate|
I personally believe that the 'original sin'' was the closure of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar in 1953.
This Indian mission was looking after the trade between India and Central Asia, mainly through the Karakoram pass; by its closure the only observing post which could have checked on the Chinese advances in the Aksai Chin and the construction of a road, which was about to start across the Indian territory, was no more.
In a debate in Rajya Sabha on December 24, 1953 on the 'Indo-Tibetan Frontier Issue', the issue was discussed. The transcript of the debate is available in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (Series II, Volume 24, page 579).
Nehru, as often, answered by making fun of his colleagues who had raised the question, he said:
Mr. Chairman, I shall only endeavour to say a few words in regard to some of the points raised in the course of the debate. An honourable Member, Mr. C.G.K. Reddy, said many things which to some extent answer themselves, because he has the habit, in the course of a few sentences, of contradicting himself many times. It is not really necessary for me to add anything in reply to that bundle of contradictions, but I do wish to understand what is meant by the phrase 'national foreign policy' which is being bandied about. I am all for a national foreign policy. I would gladly consult as many people and as many groups as possible and also the leaders of groups, whenever an opportunity arises. But first of all a national foreign policy must necessarily mean some measure of agreement on that policy, on the broad principles of that policy. Of course, consultations there may be. I find in the honourable Mr. Reddy’s speech a very great gap between his way of thinking and mine on this question. Does a nation lie somewhere in between the honourable Mr. Reddy and myself, and where does it lie? Do we go half way or if I give up something… [C.G.K. Reddy interjected: “I do not ask him to consult me and I don’t think he will condescend to do so.”]The Prime Minster continued: "He also said, I mean the honourable Mr. Reddy, I did not quite get his words – something about our Consul is Sinkiang being withdrawn. I don’t quite know if the honourable Mr. Reddy knows anything about recent history."
The Indian government and particularly Nehru were not ready to look beyond the Chinese rhetoric and Zhou’s assurance of friendship, though many ominous signs could already be seen on the horizon. The most serious of them was the closure of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar.
Here again, as in several other cases, Nehru justified the Chinese aggressive actions without taking any retaliatory measures or even protesting. India’s interests were lost to the ‘revolutionary changes’ happening in China. He declared in the Parliament:
Some major changes have taken place there [Kashgar]. As a result of those changes, which have nothing to do with India at the moment… our Consul went there – I speak from memory – probably in 1948, maybe even later, in 1949. But when these changes, revolutionary changes took place there, it is perfectly true that the Chinese Government, when they came to Tibet, told us that they intended that they wanted to treat Sinkiang as a closed area. They told other State Government, too. Well, nothing happened. Our Consul remained there. But because of those changes, because of many factors – among them being what happened in Kashmir – the trade ceased... Kashgar is important to us as a trade route. The trade went over the Karakoram, passed though Ladakh and Leh on to Kashmir. Various factors, including developments in Kashmir led to the stoppage of that trade... The result was, our Consul remained there for some time, till recently… but there is now no work to be done. So we advised him to come away and he did come away.China had played the trick well by first stopping the traditional trade with India, rendering the Consulate 'inactive'.
India had been trading with Central Asia and more particularly Kashgar and Yarkand for millennia. Just because ‘revolutionary changes’ had occurred, the Government of India accepted the closure of its trade with Sinkiang as a fait accompli. The reference to Kashmir is not relevant. Since the winter of 1948, India controlled the Zoji-la pass as well as Ladakh. At that time, the Karakoram Pass was still open to the caravans.
I quote here from by book 'Born in Sin: The Panchsheel Agreement':
Another indication came during the negotiations for the Panchsheel Agreement (or Agreement between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Trade and Intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India). Instead of the planned three or four weeks, the talks went on for four months. One of the objections by the Chinese was the mention of Demchok as the border pass for traders between Ladakh and Western Tibet. Very cleverly, Chen, the main Chinese negotiator ‘privately’ told T.N. Kaul, his Indian counterpart, that he was objecting because they were not keen to mention the name ‘Kashmir’ as they did not wish to take sides between India and Pakistan. This argument is very strange and though Kaul could see through the game, the Indian side gave in once again. Later Kaul wrote:
However, their real objection was, I believe, to strengthening [their] claim to Aksai Chin (in the Ladakh province of Kashmir) which they needed for linking Sinkiang with Western Tibet. An agreed formula "the customary route leading to Tashigong along the valley of the Indus river may continue to be traversed in accordance with custom was worked out and Delhi approved it.This formulation would have very serious consequences, instead of using the opportunity to clarify the already contentious border issue, the Chinese were allowed to walk away with a vague statement which was open to future dispute. It was indeed a great victory for Beijing while they were building the road in the Aksai Chin. It seems as though the Indian side was just not aware of the reality on the ground.
More authors have mentioned the building of the Aksai Chin road and the fact that it was known during the mid-fifties to the Ministries of Defense and External Affairs. In his book The Saga of Ladakh, Maj. Gen Jagjit Singh mentions that in 1956, the Indian Military Attaché in Beijing, Brig Mallik received information that China had started building a highway through Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area. Mallik had reported the matter to Army Headquarters in New Delhi and a similar report was sent by the Indian Embassy to the Foreign Ministry.
D.R. Mankekar gave similar information. He said that Brig S.S. Mallik, the Indian Military Attaché in Beijing made a first reference to the road-building activities of the Chinese in a routine report to the Government as early as November 1955. Five months later, in a special report to Delhi, the Military Attaché drew pointed attention to the construction of the strategic highway through Indian territory in Aksai Chin. Simultaneously, he also sent a copy of the report to the Army HQ.
The Official Report of 1962 War states: “The Preliminary survey work on the planned Tibet-Sinkiang road having been completed by the mid-1950’s, China started constructing motorable road in summer 1955. The highway ran over 160 km across the Aksai Chin region of north-east Ladakh. It was completed in the second half of 1957. Arterial roads connecting the highway with Tibet were also laid. 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. In January 1958, the China News Agency reported that the Sinkiang-Tibet highway had been opened two months earlier and the road was being fully utilised.”
Another interesting account about how the Indian army already knew in 1955 that the Chinese were building a road across Indian territory, has recently been published in the UK. In 1955, Wignall, a British mountaineer went on an expedition inside Tibet with the knowledge of Indian Military Intelligence. The Army Chief, General K.S. Thimayya seriously suspected that the Chinese were building a road on Indian territory. Wignall was asked to get proof of it.
He was eventually caught by the Chinese Army, interrogated and kept as 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 about the road to the army authorities who, in turn, informed the Prime Minister and V. K. Krishna Menon, the 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 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.
The Government of India has never acknowledged that it had information about the Aksai Chin road as early as 1954-55. It will be discussed for the first time in the Lok Sabha only in August 1959.
General Thimayya, the Indian army chief who was forced to retire in 1961, one year before the Chinese attacked India, is supposed to have 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 Opening of the Road
On October 6, 1957, a Chinese newspaper Kuang-ming Jih-pao reported:
The Sinkiang-Tibet – the highest highway in the world – has been completed. During the past few days, a number of trucks running on the highway on a trial basis have arrived in Ko-ta-k’e in Tibet from Yehch’eng in Sinkiang. The Sinkiang-Tibet Highway… is 1179 km long, of which 915 km are more than 4,000 meters above sea level; 130 km of it over 5,000 meters above sea level, with the highest point being 5,500 meters.The loop was closed. The two newly-acquired western provinces of Communist China were linked. It took nearly two more years for the news to become public. In August 1959 Nehru dropped the bombshell in Parliament: what the Chinese called the ‘Tibet-Sinkiang highway’ was built through the Indian territory.
Thirty (“liberation” model and Chissu 150) heavy-duty trucks, fully loaded with road builders, maintenance equipment and fuels, running on the highway on a trial basis, headed for Ko-ta-k’e from Yehch’eng. In addition two trucks fully loaded with Hami melons, apples and pomegranates, all native products of Sinkiang, headed in the same direction. These fruits were gifts brought specially by the road builders of Sinkiang for the people of various nationalities.”
It appears that one cause for the delay to make the news public was that for a few years, New Delhi had doubts on how to react. Already in 1957, when the Indian Ambassador to China and his Military Attaché had been invited to a special function to celebrate the opening of the road, they politely refused. They had refused to fall into the Chinese trap and give the stamp of the Indian Embassy to the event.
It took another year for the Nehru Government to officially complain to Beijing about the ‘intrusion’. In an Informal Note given by the Foreign Secretary to the Chinese Ambassador on 18 October 1958, New Delhi finally decided to take some action:
The attention of the Government of India has recently been drawn to the fact that a motor road has been constructed by the Government of the People’s Republic of China across the eastern part of the Ladakh region of the Jammu Kashmir States, which is part of India. This road seems to form part of the Chinese road known as Yehchang-Gartok or Sikiang-Tibet highway, the completion of which was announced in September, 1957.
The road enters Indian territory just east of Sarigh Jilgnang, runs north-west to Amtogar and striking the western bank of the Amtogar lake runs north-west through Yangpa, Khitai Dawan and Haji Langer which are all in indisputable Indian territory. Near the Amtogar Lake several branch tracks have also been made motorable.
2. The India-China boundary in the Ladakh sector as in others is traditionally well-known and follows well marked geographical features. The territory which the road traverses has been part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries and the “old established frontiers” have been accepted by the Chinese in the treaty of 1842 as the International boundary...The Note continued, raising a strange point: it accused the Chinese officials, workers and travelers using the road to “enter India territory without proper travel documents and visas.” It stated: “No applications for visas from Chinese personnel working on the road or from Chinese travelers traversing this road have ever been received by the Government of India.”
The Indian Government here refers to the Treaty signed between the Jammu and Kashmir State of Gulab Singh and Ladakh. The contradiction is that Tibet, forgotten in the Panchsheel, is used in this case when it is convenient for the Indian argument. The Note concluded that it was a matter of ‘surprise and regret’ that the Chinese Government had built a road through “indisputably Indian territory without first obtaining the permission of the Government of India and without even informing the Government of India”.
In conclusion, the Note stated: “the Government of India are anxious to settle these petty frontier disputes so that the friendly relations between the two countries may not suffer. The Government of India would therefore be glad for an early reply from the Chinese Government.”
The ‘petty dispute’ is still not solved today and the issue has become even knottier.
At the end of the letter, another issue was raised: for some time an Indian patrol had been reported missing. Delhi wanted to know if the Chinese had seen “an Indian party consisting of three Military Officers and four soldiers together with one guide, one porter, six pony owners and thirty-four ponies … out on a normal patrol in this area near Shinglung in Indian territory.”
Indeed, they had been seen and captured by the Chinese border guards on Indian soil. Beijing admitted immediately that they were in their custody, but according to the local Chinese commanders the Indian jawans had trespassed on Chinese side of the frontier at the time of their arrest .
This was the first of a long series of incidents. Hundred of letters and notes would be exchanged on the subject.