This is another tenuous claim from China, with no historical, cartographical or geographical backup. Presently it is a dormant claim, but with Beijing in the mood to claim Tajikistan’s Pamir Region and Vladivostok (and Ladakh), it is worth looking into the facts.
The First IncursionThe first Chinese incursions inside India’s northern border, in Barahoti in June 1954; took place hardly two months after the signature of the Agreement on Tibet. I shall come back to it in a later post.
In a way, Barahoti could be explained by the fact that Indian negotiators omitted to insist on Tunjun-la as a pass notified in the 1954 Tibet Agreement. This gave an opportunity to the Chinese to claim an area south of the border pass.
But what happened two years later, cannot be justified under the same principle. It was plain violation of the Indian territory, without any justifications.
|The Chinese claim the territory between the blue and red lines
On September 8, 1956, India had to deliver a note verbale to the Chinese Charge d’Affaires in India; one week earlier, some Chinese troops had trespassed in an area south of a pass notified in Article IV of the 1954 Agreement.
The note verbale read thus: “The Government of India have received a report that on the 1st September 1956, a party of about 10 Chinese Army personnel entered and took up position about 2 furlongs from Hupsang Khad on the Indian side of Shipki-la pass. The Party withdrew after the Officer-in–Charge of the Indian Border Police pointed out to the captain-in-command of the Chinese military personnel that the Indian territory extends up to the Shipki-la pass.”
This is one of the first notes published by the Ministry of External Affairs in the Volume 1 of the Notes, Memoranda and letters Exchanged and Agreements signed between The Governments of India and China 1954 –1959 (known as the White Papers), the first ones being about Barahoti.
It was observed: “The crossing of the Shipki-la pass by the Chinese Army personnel without visas and passports violates the Sino-Indian Agreement of April 29, 1954, in which the Shipki-la pass has been recognised as the border between India and Tibet region of China at that place.”
There was of course no question of ‘visas’ as the Chinese had deliberately crossed into Indian territory, though Delhi still hoped for a mistake: “[we] presume that the Chinese Army personnel crossed into Indian territory by mistake and not deliberately.”
The note concluded by requesting Beijing “to issue strict instructions to the authorities concerned that no unauthorised persons should cross into Indian territory in this manner in future, as otherwise there is danger of breach of peace.”
Delhi was still living in a dream world; it wanted action be taken against the offenders and to be ‘informed of the action taken’.
More Reports of the Border Incident
Two weeks later, this time it was an aide-mémoire which was given to the Chinese embassy in Delhi. It stated that since the handing over of the note to Fu Hao, the Chinese Chargé d’ Affaires, Delhi had received two more reports about the serious situation that had developed “between the Chinese and Indian border patrols in the region of Shipki-la Pass on the Indo-Tibetan border.”
The first incident occurred on September 10, “a party of Indian border Police on its way to the Shipki-la pass sighted a party of Chinese military personnel on the Indian side of the frontier,” the report stated before continuing: “The Chinese Party was commanded by a captain and consisted of at least ten persons. The Indian Patrol signalled the Chinese Party to withdraw, but the latter did not do so. Thereupon, on the Indian patrol trying to advance, the Chinese personnel threw stones at it and threatened to use their grenades.”
In the evening, the Indian Party approached the Chinese and discussed with them. According to the aide-mémoire, during the encounter, the Chinese commander said that he had “received instructions from the Tibetan Government that the border extended up to Hupsang Khad and that Indian personnel should accordingly not advance beyond Hupsang Khad.”
The Indian Commander argued that the border was at the Shipki-la pass; he further suggested that the Chinese should accordingly withdraw.
However, the Chinese troops refused to listen, “as the following morning, they were again soon on the ridge above the roadway on the Indian side of the pass.” The standoff continued the next day.
The Ministry’s aide-mémoire told the Chinese Government “[you] will no doubt agree that in throwing stones and threatening to use hand grenades, the Chinese patrol offered such provocation as could easily have resulted in serious and regrettable incidents.”
An even more serious development “likely to cause an ugly situation” soon followed, said the mémoire.
It described the facts thus: “on September 20 at 4:45 am, a party of 27 Indians Border Security Force came face to face with a party of 20 Chinese soldiers and officers two miles on the Indian side of the Shipki-la pass. The Indian Commanding Officer asked the Chinese Officer to withdraw his troops.”
The Chinese captain said that he had received no communication from his Government, but he added that his instructions were clear, “namely to patrol right up to Hupsang Khad, and in carrying these out he was prepared to face the consequences. He concluded that if the Indian Party went beyond Hupsang Khad he would oppose it with arms.”
The Indian Ministry stated that it was pained and surprised at the conduct of the Chinese Commanding Officer, adding: “It is not difficult to visualise that the natural and direct result of such attitudes, if continued in, may be one of clash of arms.”
The Border Agreed in 1954
Delhi reiterated that the pass was clearly the border, as acknowledged in the Sino-Indian Agreement of April 1954: “the Government of India consider any crossing of this border pass by armed personnel as aggression which they will resist.”
Beijing was told that India had ordered the Border Security Police Force “not to take any action for the present in repulsing this aggression and to await instructions which they hope the Central People’s Government will issue immediately.”
The State Force was however instructed that on no account they should withdraw from their position or permit Chinese personnel to go “beyond where they are even if this involves a clash”.
Delhi requested immediate action from China: “Otherwise there might be an unfortunate clash on our border which will have undesirable results.”
The situation had become hot.
The Prime Minister on the Chinese Incursions
Once Nehru realized that the Chinese had entered Indian territory, his attitude changed. On September 21, 1956, the Prime Minister wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “This is a serious matter and we cannot accept this position.”
The Prime Minister instructed his officials: “We should, of course, protest in emphatic language both to the Chinese Embassy here and to the Chinese Government through our Ambassador in Peking.”
Moreover, he thought that was not quite enough: “The question arises as to what directions we should give to the Himachal Pradesh Government which they can pass on to their police force at the border. From the telephone account it appears that our party consists of 27 persons of the Border Security Police and the Chinese party consists of 20 officers and men. Thus, the numbers on both sides are small and there is a slight advantage on our side.”
He ordered the Indian troops that: “on no account [they should] withdraw from their present position, which appears to be between the Shipki-la pass and Hupsang Khad.”
The Prime Minister’s stand was rather firm: “They must remain there even at the cost of conflict. For the present, they should not force their way beyond this place, as this would presumably mean a conflict with the Chinese. But it must be made clear that they must remain where they are and if the Chinese advance further, they should be checked.”
India considered the crossing of the Shipki-la without permission as improper and an aggression. He asserted that the Chinese should go back: “We would not permit them to go any further and if they did not go back, we would have to take further steps in the matter. We are not doing so immediately because the matter has been referred to Delhi and Peking and because of our friendly relations we should like to avoid a clash. But if there is any further aggression, a clash is inevitable.”
The Prime Minister suggested that Himachal Pradesh Government should immediately send more troops or the Border Security Police to the pass.
He also mentioned that in the Indian protest to the Chinese Embassy, it should be stated that “in view of the fact that Shipki-la is clearly the border and is acknowledged as such even in our agreement with China, we consider any crossing of armed forces without our permission as aggression and we have to resist it.”
He added: “…we attach great importance to this matter and request immediate action by the Chinese Government. Otherwise there might be an unfortunate clash on our border which will have undesirable results.”
The orders were “on no account to retire from their position or to permit the Chinese forces to go beyond where they are, even if this involves a clash”.
Delhi had started realizing that the good days of eternal friendship with China were over; darker clouds were gathering.
A Meeting at the Ministry of External Affairs
On October 3, 1956, a meeting of representatives of Ministries of External Affairs, Defence and Home, and the Himachal Pradesh Government, was held in Delhi to consider the Chinese activities on the Indo-Tibetan border (mainly in Himachal Pradesh).
TN Kaul, who chaired, gave an account of the recent events in the Shipki-la area; he pointed out that during previous weeks the Chinese had transgressed into Indian territory on three occasions. He informed the participants about the notes handed over to the Chinese Embassy in Delhi on September 8 and 22, while the matter had also been taken up by the Indian embassy with the Chinese Foreign Office in Beijing.
Kaul reiterated the Prime Minister’s concerns; it was a serious issue and it was not enough to lodge a protest with the Chinese: “He had instructed that specific directions should be given to the Government of Himachal Pradesh to be passed on to the border checkposts and that these checkpost personnel should on no account withdraw from their present position.”
The meeting was told that Nehru had decided to let the Chinese know that “any further aggression into Indian territory would lead to unhappy results.”
Kaul noted that this meeting was called “to make specific recommendations to meet the present situation and future eventualities.”
However, according to the representatives from the Himachal Pradesh government, the Chinese had already withdrawn from the posts and they were not likely to return to this area during the present season.
The information was confirmed by SK Roy, the SOFA; Roy had been touring in Western Tibet and he had just crossed back into India via Shipki-la. For the State government, the issue was not immediate, but it was necessary to formulate “a definite line of action to meet eventualities in the spring.”
The meeting made four recommendations:
- Since the Chinese troops had withdrawn it was not necessary at present to send our troops to this area, but a few Army officers may be sent to make a reconnaissance right up to Shipki-la and suggest ways and means of meeting a possible threat from Chinese troops next spring and draw up plans accordingly.
- A permanent police outpost should be established at Namgia village with an increased strength.
- India’s border personnel should be in physical possession of Shipki-la pass before the April 1 next and earlier, if possible. For this purpose, a permanent party, even though of a very small size, should be posted at the pass itself, or, if not possible, as close to the pass as possible. Construction of cave shelters and aluminum huts should be taken up immediately and these should be ready before March 1957.
- Constant patrolling from Namgia up to the pass should be done from now on as often as possible, weather permitting.
These resolutions had little chance to be implemented in view of the apathy of the Indian bureaucracy.
Another Note from the Prime Minister
On October 8, 1956, the Prime Minister sent another note to the Foreign Secretary: “There is no question of sending any troops to the Shipki-la now,” Nehru wrote “even in the spring next year, I do not envisage the necessity of sending troops. The fate of Shipki-la is not going to be decided by fighting or by a large show of force.”
He however agreed that it was desirable, “for some Army officers to reconnoitre and see the place at a suitable time now or early next year.”
He concluded: “The main thing to do is to have a Police outpost there and that our personnel should be in physical possession of the Shipki-la when the snows melt. Also, it is desirable for us to investigate the other passes.”
One problem faced by India from the first years of Independence was, who should be responsible for the border areas. It was eventually delegated to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which unfortunately had neither the capacity nor the training to defend the borders …and lacked the strategic vision to do so.
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Traditional and Customary Basis of the Indian Alignment in the Middle Sector
The Report of the Officials of India and China of 1961 is the best source to understand the different contentions.
In the Report, the Indian stand is described thus: “…The boundary throughout lies along the main watershed in the region between the Spiti River and the Pare chu (river), between the tributaries of the Sutlej and between the Ganges and the Sutlej basins. In this sector the Chinese alignment are conformed for the most part to the traditional Indian alignment. Only in four areas did it diverge from the watershed to include certain pockets of Indian territory in China-the Spiti are (Chuva and Chuje), Shipki pass, the Nilang-Jadhang area (Sang an Tsungsha) and Barahoti (Wu-je), Sangchamalla and Lapthal. In this sector, therefore, it would be sufficient to prove the traditional and customary basis of the Indian alignment in these four areas.”
Regarding Shipki La (pass), it was noted that it part of the Zanskar range, a well-defined watershed frontier, forms the boundary between Tibet and India on which the Shipki la is located: “The Shipki pass had been the traditional and customary boundary between the States of Bashahr (now part of the Himachal Pradesh State of India) and Guge which was incorporated in Tibet in 1720. This fact that Shipki Pass was always a part of Bashahr has been attested by travellers.
In 1821, Alexander Gerard visited the area. He stated in this Account of Koonawar in the Himalaya, London 1841:
"October 12, Marched to Shipki, nine miles. The road ascended a little, and then there was a steep descent into the bed of the Oopsung. Here the rocks were more rugged than any we had yet seen: they were rent in every direction, piled upon one another in wild disorder, in a most extraordinary manner not to be described, overhanging the path and threatening destruction to the traveller. From the Oopsung the road was a tiresome and rocky ascent, to the pass which separates Koonawur from the Chinese dominions, 13,518 feet above the level of the sea."
Oopsung is Hupsang Khud, and Gerard stated that the boundary lay at Shipki Pass, at the top of Hupsang Khud.
He later confirmed: “This is the line of separation between Busahir and Chinese Tartary, and there could scarcely be a better-defined natural boundary. …From hence to Shipki was two and a quarter miles, by an excellent road upon the hill slope at an angle of 15°, on gravel and frangible red granite, like a good turnpike-road."
Twenty years later Dr Ch Gutzlaff, a corresponding member of the Royal Geographical Society, visited Shipki area, and gave a report of his journey to the Royal Geographical Society, in February 1849, he confirmed the location of the border. Other travelers who visited later said the same thing; the pass is the border.
The Report observed: “The Indian side then brought forward, and supplied photostats of, some unofficial maps published in various countries to show that the traditional boundary in this sector lay along Shipki pass.”
All this evidence showed that the traditional and customary alignment in this area lay where Indian maps were now showing it.
As mentioned earlier, the main principle for delineating a border is the terrain, and first and foremost the watershed; in which case, the top of a pass is the best way to have an agreed border.
China did not agree to this basic principle.
|The Namgia Village on the way to the pass
The Report of the Officials explains further: “The traditional boundary from Shipki pass to the tri-junction of India, Nepal and Tibet was also confirmed in the Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between India and the Tibet Region of China signed in April 1954 (also known as Panchsheel Agreement); Article IV stated: "Traders and pilgrims of both countries may travel by the following passes. (1) Shipki La Pass, (2) Mana Pass, (3 Niti Pass, (4) Kungribingri Pass, (5) Darma Pass and (6) Lipu Lekh Pass."
Geographically the Zanskar Range formed the watershed between the eastern and western tributaries of the Sutlej; and the other five passes in the Central Sector lie on the watershed dividing the Sutlej and Ganges basins.
In the original Chinese draft presented on 1 March 1954, Article IV read: “The Chinese Government agrees to open the following mountain passes in the Ari (Ngari) District of the Tibet Region of China for entry by traders and pilgrims of both parties.”
Tibetan traders crossing Shipki la entered India and vice-versa, Indian traders or pilgrims walked into Tibet, on the other side of the pass.
It was also the route used by decades by the Indian Trade Agen in Gartok. It had never been objected by the Tibetans who agreed on the principle.
In 1960, the Indian conclusion was: “The Indian side brought forward clear and conclusive evidence to show that the alignment as shown by them in the Middle Sector had, throughout its length, a traditional and customary basis reaching back through many centuries, and that, in addition, this boundary had been recognised by Chinese Government and been confirmed through diplomatic exchanges, treaties and agreements. The Chinese side had now claimed certain areas south of the watershed boundary - the Spiti "area, Shipki Pass, the Nilang-Jadhang area and Barahoti, Sangchamalla and Lapthal. They were, however, unable either to bring forward any real documentary evidence to substantiate these claims, or to refute the evidence brought forward by the Indian side.”
The Shipki Pass
The Chinese claim to the Shipki Pass area was sustained by only one evidence and even “this solitary item of evidence was found to be irrelevant,” said the Indian Report.
The Chinese claimed that the people of Shipki village had constantly used the pastures west of the Shipki Pass and that these areas belonged to them: “But no proof of such ownership had been brought forward. Even proof of use of these pastures had not been provided, although mere use of pastures, even if the assertion be true, could prove nothing. For the route from India through Shipki La to Tibet was one of the main routes in this area, and as sheep were used in this part as pack animals, people of both countries used the pastures besides the route. ln fact, Indian citizens used the pastures lying between Shipki La and Shipki village, and even beyond.”
It has to be pointed out that sending yaks to graze, cannot be the proof of ownership, as often in the Himalaya lease or other agreements existed between villagers/herders from both side of the border.
Evidence of Indian Administration and Jurisdiction of the Areas claimed by China
In the next section, the Officials studied the ‘administrative’ evidence for Shipki la; the Shipki Pass was part of the village of Namgia, a small village in the Chini Tehsil of Bashahr State (now Himachal Pradesh). The village is, situated above Nako in the upper Kunawar valley; Namgia village has regularly been assessed for land revenue which included forest and grazing dues to the Bashahr authorities. Assessments for land revenue in the area were made at the Settlements of 1853, 1854, 1856, 1859, 1876 and 1894 (shown in the Bashahr State Gazetteer in 1910): “Old records of the erstwhile Rampur (Bashahr State) show that the Tibetans recognised that the frontier lays at Shipki-la. In fact, Shipki villagers migrated from Namgia and were at that time subjects of Bashahr State. That it was well-known that Indian administration extended upto the Shipki Pass is shown by the saying common in Tibet, Pimala Yanchhod Bod-Gialbo, Pimala Ranchhod Khuno Gialbo: "The territory above Pimala belongs to the Raja of Tibet and below to the Raja of Bashahr."
‘Pima-la’ in Tibetan means "common pass".
The area was surveyed during 1882, 1897, and 1904-1905. Very detailed surveys were carried out in 1917 and 1920-1921.
Another evidence was that the famous Hindustan-Tibet Road had been constructed and maintained by the Public Works Department of the Government of India, till the top of the pass; Tibet never objected.
Regarding the Middle Sector, the Indian Officials affirmed that they “brought forward a large amount of representative evidence, relating to different aspects of administration, to show that Indian governments had exercised full, continuous and uninterrupted control over all the areas right upto the traditional alignment. The Chinese side were unable to disprove the conclusive nature of this evidence. As for the material submitted by them with regard to the areas south of the watershed now claimed by them, the Indian side established that they constituted no proof of administration having ever extended to these areas.”
The final word was that the Indian officials “had shown conclusively that Indian administration had throughout extended right upto the Shipki Pass, across which lay the traditional and customary boundary between India and Tibet.”
The Chinese Refused to Agree
As usual, the Chinese officials denied every piece of Indian evidence: “The boundary in the middle sector has also not been formally delimited by any treaty. As to the treaty basis of this sector of the boundary, the Indian side has submitted few new evidences, and its arguments had for the most part been put forward in the past and refuted by the Chinese side. No matter how the Indian side has defended its own stand, it can in no way change this basic fact, that is, as in the case of the western sector, the Indian side cannot advance any treaty basis whatever which could prove that the middle sector of the boundary has been formally delimited.”
But denying an evidence does not create an evidence.
The LAC Claim
In the 1980s, like for Chuva and Chuje, the LAC depicted by the Chinese maps has conceded “the entire territory claimed by India except in the Barahoti area as lying within India’s actual control. In the Barahoti area administrative and army personnel of the two sides are not being permitted,” wrote SN Gopalkrishnan, Senior Research Officer of the Historical Division in August 1980.
It does not mean that Beijing has dropped the territorial claim over the area south of Shipki la.
|The Namgia village
To conclude, I am posting some questions raised by India and China in 1960 during the Meetings of the Officials
Chinese Questions for the Shipki la area (with Indian Answers)
It has to be noted that while the Indian Officials were forthcoming by details and coordinates, it was not the case with their Chinese counterpart who often did not answer the questions.
Q 4: The Indian side stated that their alignment crossed the Siang-chuan (Sutlej) river at its bend. What were the co-ordinates of the crossing? What were the geographical features followed by the Indian alignment from Peak Leo Pargial to Shipki Pass?
A: The Indian alignment crossed the Sutlej at approximately Long 78° 44' E and 32° 52' N. From Peak Leo Pargial, the alignment descended along a spur, crossed the Sutlej and again mounted the spur on the opposite bank of the river to the Shipki Pass.
Q 5: Were there other passes along the Indian alignment from Shipki Pass to Thaga Pass besides Raniso and Shimdang Passes mentioned by the Indian side?
A: Between Shipki Pass and Thaga Pass, apart from the Ramso and the Shimdang Passes mentioned earlier, the Khimokul (Gumrang) Pass (Long. 78° 49' E and Lat. 31° 26'N) also lay on the boundary.
Indian Questions for the Shipki la area (with the Chinese Answers)
Q 17: Would the Chinese side give the co-ordinates of the point at which the alignment crossed the Sutlej river? It was said to be west of Shipki Pass. How for west of Shipki Pass?
A: At a place (there was a small river called the Hupsand Khud there) about 6 to 7 kilometres west of Shipki Pass, the boundary crossed the Siangchuan River. North-east of this point the boundary passed through Peak 6791 (approximately) 78° 45'E. Long, 31° 54'N. Lat.)
Q 18: The Chinese side stated that the alignment crossed the Sutlej at a place 6 to 7 kilometers west of Shipki Pass. The Indian side would like to have the co-ordinates of this point.
A: No Answer
Q 19: The Chinese side stated that west of Shipki there was a small river called the Hupsand Khud. Did the alignment cross the Sutlej west or east of the junction of the Sutlej with the Hupsang Khud?
A: No Answer
The Chinese side stated that north-east of the crossing of the Sutlej the alignment passed through Peak 6791. The Indian side would like to have the heights of other peaks and a description of the natural features followed by the alignment in this segment.
A: No Answer
Q 21: The description given by the Chinese side stated that after the crossing of the Sutlej river the alignment continued southward along the watershed. The Indian side would like to have details of heights of peaks and names of passes on this watershed, as well as the co-ordinates of these points.
A: South of this point, the boundary passed through Peak 5642 (approximately .78°50'E. Long. 31°37 N. Lat.).
Q 22: The Chinese side stated that south of the Sutlej, crossing the alignment passed through peak 5642. The Indian side would like to have the heights of other peaks and a description of the natural features in this segment.
A: From Height 6791, the alignment ran along a spur in a southerly direction, and crossed the junction of the Siangchuan river and the Hupsang Khud river. It then ran along the ridge passing through Height 5642 and Gumrang Pass (approximately 78° 49'E. Long., 31°25' N. Lat).
Q 24: The Indian side would like to have the co-ordinates of Shipki and Puling Sumdo which were marked on the map
A: Shipki was a village in China Puling Sumdo was located at approximately 79° 08' E. Long. 31° 18' N. Lat.)