Monday, August 10, 2020

The Nilang/Jadhang 'dispute' with Tibet

This is the third post of a series on the places ‘disputed’ by China in the Central Sector. 

This one is different from the two precedents, Chuva-Chuje (Kaurik sector) and Shipki-la, in the sense that the Nilang-Jadhang area (South of Tsangchok-la) was disputed by the Tibetan government before Independence.
But it was a ‘gentle’ dispute between neighbours sharing the same values.
I had mentioned it on this blog five years ago, when the government opened the road to Nilang.

For the Tibetans, their claim was based on the fact that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama would have said that the border was located at a bridge on the Gumgum nala on the way to Gangotri.
For the British, the principle of the watershed was the prime deciding factor and therefore Tsangchok-la was the border (India has since Independence followed this principle).
Soon after the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1950/51, the situation which had been pending for decades, suddenly became pressing and Delhi had no other options but to send police patrols and take control of the place in 1952.
The issue was discussed at length during the meetings of the Officials of India and China in 1960, but China did not accept the Indian stand.
In a future post, I will come back to the area, as China,  to create confusion, soon started mixing up two places, having a bit similar names (Pulang and Pulam).

In case China decides to open a new front in the Himalaya, it could certainly on the selected place as it would be a way to deny the primacy of the watershed principle.


Here are extracts of my longish paper entitled History of the dispute between Tehri State and Tibet:

One of main historic upshots of the relation between Tibet and the Himalayan region has been the Sino‐Indian border dispute along the 4,000 km mountainous range.
In many cases, the present ‘dispute’ with China has its origin in disagreement between the Lhasa government and the administration of Himalayan princely states (and by extension British India). This is true for NEFA.
Our case study relates to Nilang/Jadhang area in today’s Uttarakhand.
It is particularly interesting due to the large amount of correspondence between Tibet (the Kashag in Lhasa and the Dzongpen (or Dzongpon) in Tsaparang) and the princely states of Tehri‐Garhwal, Bashahr as well as the provincial governments of the United Provinces and the Punjab and of course, the Foreign and Political Department of British India in Delhi.
The ‘negotiations’ lasted some 12 years, at the end of which no mutually acceptable solution could be found (it fact, it lasted till India's Independence).
The entire story is extracted from a couple of files today in the British Archives. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to come across them and I thought it would be interesting to share this unknown aspect of the Himalayan relations. 

Map prepared by HE Richardson (1945)

Location and Description
The area disputed by Tibet and Tehri‐Garhwal State2 lies between longitude 78.53 and 79.25 East and latitude 31 and 31.26 North.
For the sake of the different Commissions which went into the dispute between 1926 and 1935, different colours have been assigned to the respective claims on a map prepared by the British surveyors:
The boundary between the Tehri‐Garhwal state and Garhwal district of the United Provinces is shown in green.

  • The boundary claimed by the Tehri‐Garhwal State is shown in red. It is the watershed between the western sources of the Bhagirathi river and the valley of the Sutlej river, known in Tibet as Langchen Khabab.
  • The boundary claimed by Tibet is shown in yellow; their frontier claim is unclear at several places as the Tibetan representatives often claimed ‘a single point as the boundary’, that is the junction of the Gumgum nala with the Bhagirathi (one mile West of Jangla Forest Bungalow).

The Brief History of the Dispute
The dispute seems to have arisen when the Dzongpen of Tsaparang, the nearby Tibetan district, visited the Gumgum nala in 1914. He publically announced his decision of setting up a boundary pillar near the bridge. When the local villagers objected, the Dzongpen left without any further action.
In 1918, the Tehri State decided to erect 3 pillars on the top of the Tsang Chok‐la (31.30 North and 79.16 East). Some versions claimed that the pillars had already been there in the past and were only ‘repaired’.
Two years later, the Tehri State surveyed the area and, for the first time, prepared cultivation maps of the Nilang region (31.7 North and 79.4 East). The Jadhang valley (31.11 North and 79.6 East) was also included in the maps.
In 1921, the Tsaparang Dzongpen visited Nilang again. This time, he sent a letter to the Raja of Tehri requesting him to send an official to sort out the boundary issue; at that time, it was not yet considered a ‘dispute’; it was more a ‘difference of perceptions’ between neighbours. The Raja answered that the issue had to be raised through the Government of India as it involved a problem with two foreign governments.
During the next warm season, the Dzongpen visited Nilang again and collected a tax of Rs.1 from the local people of Nilang and Jadhang. He thus collected a total of Rs 300.
In 1924, it was finally proposed by British India to appoint a boundary Commission, but due to the poor communications and the fact that these areas could only be visited in summer, the Commission could meet only in the summer of 1926.

The Acton Commission
On June 12, 1926, TJC Acton, an officer of the Indian Civil Service who had been nominated as the British representative, met the Tibetan officials near the Gumgum nala. The Tibetan representatives were Pishi Sunam Kunga, Postmaster General of Tibet and the Dzongpen of the Shekhar, the district near Mount Everest. They met near the small bridge over the nala.
Though the Tibetan representatives had no authority to negotiate any sort of compromise, they had received strict instructions from Lhasa to go to the Gumgum nala and claim the bridge as the frontier of Tibet.
Later Acton wrote in his Report: “I had tea with them and talked the matter over, and offered to go back with them the next day to the Gumgum nala and see the place claimed as the frontier. I did this”.
The Tibetans claimed that the Tehri people had removed their boundary marks after they returned to Tibet. The two parties inspected an inscription in red paint on a cliff face, as well as some marks of an obliterated inscription (also in red paint), and a roughly rectangular crevice (about 9 inches by 6 inches) in the rock. One of the Tibetan witnesses affirmed that it had contained the base of a boundary pillar. However there was no trace of the pillar.
Action explains: “The existing inscription on the cliff was ‘Om na ma si dhang’ in Hindi over a hieroglyphic in the form of a seven‐pointed star”. The British Commissioner commented that this could be an invocation to a deity, ‘it is commonly used by the people of these hills’.
Both inscriptions on the rock were exposed to the weather conditions; “it could not have lasted for more than a few years”, thought the British representative, who added: “Scratches on the four corners of the crevice in the rock seemed to show that a stone had been inserted in the crevice, but there was no sign of the stone and the place was in the middle of the path leading to the bridge and a small stone in such a position could not have been an ancient boundary pillar.”
Acton thought that it was probable that a stone had been fixed during the Dzongpen’s visit in 1914, it was then claimed as the boundary, while the obliterated inscription dated from a year before Acton’s visit, when a junior Tibetan official of Tsaparang district came from Tibet. The Rupen (Junior Commissioner) affirmed that he saw the pillar at that time.
The British Commissioner commented: “Their attitude, I think, was that His Highness [His Holiness] the Dalai Lama had said that the boundary was the Gumgum nala, and that any criticism of that decree would be a dangerous form of blasphemy.”
Acton returned to Lamathatha (31.4 North and 79.1 East) the same day, and on June 14, he went on to Nilang. The Tibetans joined him on June 15.

To continue reading the paper, click here.

Here are some conclusions
The dispute is interesting at several levels.
First, the dispute is typical of a border dispute in the Himalaya for the simple reasons that a number of areas/places belonged to two separate worlds, the Tibetan and the Indian. Though the facts such ethnicity, customs, etc. tend to prove that the villagers of Nilang and Jadhang were Bhotias. For centuries, they moved freely fro and to Tibet; the trade was still unhindered.
Another observation is that during the time of our main study, Tibet was then an independent state dealing with another independent State (Great British) as an equal without referring to the Chinese government. During this period, there was not even a Chinese representative in Lhasa; the Nationalist Government probably never got informed of the ‘dispute’ and the subsequent talks between Lhasa and Delhi.
For the Tibetan government, Nilang was a question of prestige, mostly because the Dalai Lama had stated that the Gumgum bridge was the border. There was therefore no question of compromising on this issue.
Williamson was probably wrong when he believed that the Tibetans were only interested in securing trade. It need not have changed much to the trade between Tehri and Tibet, had the border been one side or another. In fact the status quo, allowed both States to have a convenient place of exchange both for the Indian and the Tibetan traders and both local administrations could have continued to tax the local grazers and traders.

The rapport de force changed after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950/51. India had a new neighbour. Though it took some years for the Communists to get acquainted with the intricacies of the border area, India knew that it had to move fast.
The occupation of Nilang remains shrouded in secrecy. It is probably an outcome of the Himmatsinghji Committee who prepared a report sent in two parts to the Government of India.
The first part consisted of its recommendations regarding Sikkim, Bhutan, NEFA and the Eastern frontier bordering Burma; it was submitted in April, 1951. The second part contained the recommendations on the borders in Ladakh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal and was submitted in September 1951. One of the action suggested by the Committee appears to be that areas such Tawang and Nilang should be immediately occupied by the Indian forces.
Already in May 1950, the Ministry of External Affairs has sent a note to the Ministry of Defence asking the latter to comment on the feasibly to occupy the Nilang/Jadhang area. The Political Officer (PO) in Sikkim had said: “the guiding principle in the new circumstances must however be the Government of India’s ability to vindicate what they would regard as the appropriate frontier, since it would be idle to claim territory which could not be effectively protected or controlled.”
On April 4, 1950, Ministry of Defence answered: “We are required to comment in the proposal with reference to the remark made by the PO… The area under dispute is an extremely difficult country physically and climatically with hardly any communications. It therefore follows that operations in the area will have to be confined to short periods and undertaken by specially trained infantry organized on an ad hoc basis with very scanty artillery support and no support whatsoever from either tanks or aircraft. The administrative problems connected with an operation would be considerable. Even if the defence area were narrowed down to the protection of the villages Nilang and Jadhang, with the present resources of the army, it would be well nigh impossible to guarantee the integrity of the above villages. It will be equally difficult to afford hundred per cent protection to the small inhabited localities lying with the Indian frontier within the Indian frontier in this area.”
The Ministry of Defence’s conclusion was: “Whatever solution the EA [External Affairs] Ministry adopt, it would be subject to the conditions set out above so far as the defence of the frontier will be concerned.”
A few years later, Beijing started to claim five areas in the central sector of the now Sino‐ Indian border.
On May 2, 1956, the Ministry of External Affairs wrote to the Counsellor in the Chinese Embassy in Delhi about a Chinese intrusion in the Nilang area. It protested: “We have learnt with surprise and regret from the Commander of our Border Security Force at Nilang that 12 Chinese soldiers including one officer equipped with tommy and sten guns and telescopes were sent half a mile east of Nilang at 12.30 hours of 28th April [1956].”
The Indian Ministry clarified: “Nilang at the area right up to Tsang Chok‐la pass is clearly within Indian territory and has always been in our possession. We have, therefore instructed the Officer Commanding our Border Security Force in Nilang to inform the Chinese officer to leave Indian territory immediately.”
On September 8, 1959, Zhou Enlai the Chinese Premier took the issue with Jawaharlal Nehru, his Indian counterpart: “Concerning the section of the boundary between the Ari [Ngari] Area of China's Tibet and India. It can be seen from your letter that you also agree that this section of the boundary has not been formally delimited by the two countries. Not only so, there have in fact been historical disputes between the two sides over the right to many places in this area. For example, the area of Sang and Tsungsha [Nilang and Jadhang], southwest of Tsaparang Dzong in Tibet, which had always belonged to China, was thirty to forty years back gradually invaded and occupied by the British. The local authorities of China's Tibet took up this matter several times with Britain, without any results. It has thus become an outstanding issue left over by history.”
During the 1960 talks, the issue of Nilang came back several times on the table, but India stick to its position that Tsang Chok‐la was the border, therefore its occupation of Nilang was fully legal.

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