Once Upon a Time in 1962

This article is a part of a four-article series that will be analyzing in detail, the 1962 Indo-China War in the Himalayas, the mistakes India committed and what can we learn from them. 

Famous Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu once said that – “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Nothing could better describe India’s situation in June 1962. Throughout the summer, minor border incidents or ‘skirmishes’ as they were called, occurred on the volatile Himalayan border. The Nehru years can be said to be the period during which relations between India and China – the two Asian mammoths, to be at their best as well as at their worst.

The Chinese, already devastated by a long and brutal civil war between the Communists and Nationalists, was recuperating from its after-effects, and the last thing they wanted was another war with a neighbor. During the 1950s, its relations with India were at their best – what could be called the “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” era.

When Prime Minister Nehru visited Beijing in 1954, he was accorded a rapturous welcome – as he put it: “the most important foreign mission of my life”. “The six miles between city and airport were walled by unbroken banks of humanity, clapping, cheering and crying the inescapable Chinese slogan, ‘Long live peace’,” the New York Times reported. It was the first visit by a non-communist head of state since the creation of the People’s Republic of China. During the visit, the then Chairman Mao told Nehru, “The United States does not recognize our two countries [China and India] as great powers, let us propose that they hand over their big-power status to us, all right?” This could be seen as warming up of relations between two giants, but behind the scenes, something else was at play.


Since ages, the question of the border between these two Asian civilizations loomed large over their rulers. The Himalayas were – effectively – a natural barrier which served as a boundary for both, but with the changing geopolitical scenario in the continent, it became increasingly important to have well-defined lines on a map, and this is where the situation deteriorated – first in Arunachal Pradesh (erstwhile NEFA), and then Aksai Chin.

Since ancient times, the trading town of Tawang – which can be said as a sort of capital of the region of Arunachal – was under the authority of the holy Dalai Lama who resided in Lhasa, Tibet. Due to the already brewing rivalry between the British and Russians in Europe, the British government was worried about their interests in India. With the Russian annexation of Afghanistan, their fears intensified further, and the only thing they needed was a buffer state between India and Russia which was friendly with them. This is where Tibet came into the picture. But the problem was that the Tibetans were mere vassals of the Chinese Emperor and not a completely independent entity.

In 1914, the British signed the Simla Accord with the Tibetans. It divided Tibet into “Outer Tibet” and “Inner Tibet”. Outer Tibet would “remain in the hands of the Tibetan Government in Lhasa under Chinese suzerainty”, but China would not interfere in its administration. “Inner Tibet” would be under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government. The Accord with its annexes also defined the boundary between Tibet and China proper and between Tibet and British India. What was ironic was that this deal was done without taking China into confidence. By signing the Simla Agreement with Tibet, the British had violated the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, in which both parties were not to negotiate with Tibet, “except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government”, as well as the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906, which bound the British government “not to annex Tibetan territory.”

The British government in London rejected the Simla Accord outright, and it was renounced in 1921. But the British began using the boundaries defined by this Accord – the McMahon Line, in the Survey of India maps in 1937, and the Accord was published officially in 1938. The British records show that the Tibetan government’s acceptance of the new border in 1914 was conditional on China accepting the Simla Convention. Since the British were not able to get an acceptance from China, Tibetans considered the MacMahon line invalid. Tibetan officials continued to administer Tawang and refused to concede territory during negotiations in 1938. The governor of Assam asserted that Tawang was “undoubtedly British” but noted that it was “controlled by Tibet, and none of its inhabitants have any idea that they are not Tibetan.” During World War II, with India’s east threatened by Japanese troops and with the threat of Chinese expansionism, British troops secured Tawang for extra defense.

So all in all, we can conclude that Tawang and its adjoining areas were, culturally speaking, parts of Tibet, but were under the administrative jurisdiction of the British. This (somewhat vague) arrangement continues even today with China assuming the role of Tibet and India that of British.

Another flashpoint between the two countries is the region of Aksai Chin. The Sikh Empire of Punjab had annexed Ladakh and merged it into the state of Jammu in 1834. In 1841, they invaded Tibet with an army. Chinese forces defeated the Sikh army and in turn entered Ladakh and besieged Leh. After being stalemated by the Sikh forces, the Chinese and the Sikhs signed a treaty in September 1842, which stipulated no transgressions in the other country’s frontiers.

The British defeat of the Sikhs in 1846 resulted in the transfer of sovereignty over Ladakh to the British, and British commissioners attempted to meet with Chinese officials to discuss the border they now shared. However, both sides were sufficiently satisfied that a traditional border was recognized and defined by natural elements, and hence the border was not properly demarcated. The boundaries at the two extremities, Pangong Lake and Karakoram Pass, were reasonably well-defined, but the Aksai Chin area in between lay largely undefined. Little did they know, that this would become a major thorn in the future.

A British civil servant, W. H. Johnson belonging to the Survey of India was tasked with surveying the Aksai Chin region. He proposed the “Johnson Line” in 1865, which put Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir. This was the time of Dungan revolt in China when it lost control of the Xinjiang province (which bordered Ladakh), and so this line was never presented to the Chinese. Johnson presented this line to the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, who then claimed the 18,000 square kilometers contained within his territory, and hence this Aksai Chin became a part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In 1899, Britain proposed a revised boundary, initially suggested by McCartney and developed by the Governor-General of India Lord Elgin. This boundary placed the Lingzi Tang plains, which are south of the Laktsang range, in India, and Aksai Chin proper, which is north of the Laktsang range, in China. This border, along the Karakoram Mountains, was proposed and supported by British officials for several reasons. The Karakoram Mountains formed a natural boundary, which would set the British borders up to the Indus River watershed while leaving the Tarim River watershed in Chinese control, and Chinese control of this tract would present a further obstacle to Russian advances in Central Asia. The British presented this line, known as the McCartney-McDonald Line, to the Chinese in 1899 in a note by Sir Claude McDonald. The Qing government did not respond to the note. According to some commentators, China believed that this had been the accepted boundary.

So we can conclude, that due to lack of communication between both the parties – the British Raj and the Qing government, both of them had very different ideas about the identity of the region – Aksai Chin.

Upon independence in 1947, the government of India fixed its official boundary in the west, which included the Aksai Chin, in a manner that resembled the Johnson Line. India’s basis for defining the border was “chiefly by long usage and custom.”.

On 1 July 1954 Prime Minister Nehru wrote a memo directing that the maps of India be revised to show definite boundaries on all frontiers. Up to this point, the boundary in the Aksai Chin sector, based on the Johnson Line, had been described as “undemarcated.” 

With this, we conclude the first article of the series, where we discussed in detail the historical aspect of the Indo-Chinese conflict, and how both the countries defined their borders differently. In the next article, we will be analyzing how the dispute brewed on and led to a war in the world’s highest battleground – the mighty Himalayas.

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