This article is a part of a four-article series, which will be analyzing in detail, the 1962 Indo-China War in the Himalayas, the mistakes India committed, and what we can learn from them. In the previous article, we discussed in detail the historical aspect of the Indo-Chinese conflict, and now let’s see how the conflict unfolded.
At midnight on the fourteenth of August 1947, when India kept tryst with its destiny, in the words of PM Nehru, an invisible and subtle change came to its boundaries. Issues which were earlier the headache of the British – the advancing Russians, Chinese expansionism, etc. were no more there.
As Neville Maxwell, noted British journalist puts it: ‘The boundaries of India became the cell walls of a new national identity. No longer could boundaries be conceived or shifted by men whose concern was not territory but strategic advance; henceforth, they enclosed the sacred soil of the motherland, and politicians could tamper with them only at their peril.’
The Indian government always thought of the British Forward Policy at the borders as a result of their cynical interests – but instead, these measures by the British were actually to secure their jewel in the crown of the Empire. Soon after independence, the Indian government realized the same and pursued the same. But this time, not without opposition.
The Chinese were subjugated by the British and were too weak to challenge them. Earlier, they were either ignoring or showing passive resistance to all the British overtures on their territory. Still, now, after their departure, China found in India, not only a neighbor but a challenger which should be cut to its size.
During the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China built a 1,200 kilometers road connecting Xinjiang (one of their restive provinces) and western Tibet, of which 179 kilometers ran south of the Johnson Line through the Aksai Chin region claimed by India on their maps. Aksai Chin was easily accessible from China, but for the Indians on the south side of the Karakoram, the mountain range proved to be a difficulty in their access to Aksai Chin. In fact, the Indian government did not learn of the existence of a road until 1957, which was confirmed when the way was shown in Chinese maps published in 1958.
The Indian position, as stated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was that the Aksai Chin was “part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries” and that this northern border was a “firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody.“
The Chinese minister, Zhou Enlai argued that the western border had never been delimited, that the Macartney-McDonald Line, which left the Aksai Chin within Chinese borders was the only line ever proposed to a Chinese government, and that the Aksai Chin was already under Chinese jurisdiction, and that negotiations should take into account the status quo.
The new Indian government policy towards the eastern borders did not diverge much from the British. This can be illustrated by its proactive approach in dealing with smaller neighbors. With a local revolt against the ruling Chogyal in Sikkim in 1949, India seized the opportunity and brought it under closer dependence as a protectorate (as it had been under the British). In a separate treaty with Bhutan, India took over the earlier British right to control the foreign affairs of the country. Relations with Nepal, which was already under heavy Indian influence, were bettered further. The new government thus took over and consolidated the ‘chain of protectorates’, as Lord Curzon had described the Himalayan states.
Independent India also at first continued British policy towards Tibet. This continuity was symbolized – and no doubt reinforced – by the retention of the last British representative in Lhasa, H. E. Richardson, to represent India. The British mission in Lhasa formally became the Indian mission on the fifteenth of August, 1947. ‘The transition was almost imperceptible,’ Richardson was to write; ‘the existing staff” was retained in its entirety, and the only noticeable change was the change in the flag ‘.
The Tibetans – who were seeking to give international recognition to their status as their country, on their part hoped that the transfer of power to Indians offered them an opportunity to regain all the territory that was ceded to the British over the past century. In October 1947, they formally asked India to return Tibet a vast swathe of land from Ladakh to Assam, and including Sikkim and Darjeeling district. In reply, India asked for an assurance that Tibet would agree to the continuance of relations based on the previously existing with the British government.
The withdrawal of British power from the subcontinent in 1947 prepared the way for a reversal of the balance that had existed across the Himalayas, the emergence in China of persuasive central authority, with the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, confirmed the shift. Henceforth the advantage would lie north of the Himalayas, not south. This change was demonstrated and validated by China’s reassertion of its authority in Tibet.
After months of failed negotiations, attempts by Tibet to secure foreign support and assistance, PRC and Tibetan troop build-ups, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the Jinsha River on the sixth of October 1950. Two PLA units quickly surrounded the outnumbered Tibetan forces and captured the border town of Qamdo by the nineteenth of October. Active hostilities were limited to a border area northeast of the Gyamo Ngul Chu River and east of the 96th meridian.
For several years the Tibetan Government remained in place in the areas of Tibet where it had ruled before the outbreak of hostilities, except for the area surrounding Qamdo that was occupied by the PLA in 1950, which was placed under the authority of the Qamdo Liberation Committee and outside the Tibetan Government’s control. During this time, areas under the Tibetan Government maintained a significant degree of autonomy from the Central Government and were generally allowed to retain their traditional social structure. In 1956, Tibetan militias in the ethnically Tibetan region of eastern Kham just outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, spurred by PRC government experiments in land reform, started fighting against the government. The militias united to form Chushi Gangdruk Volunteer Force. When the fighting spread to Lhasa in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Both he and the PRC government in Tibet subsequently repudiated the 17 Point Agreement, and the PRC government in Tibet dissolved the Tibetan Local Government. The capture of Tibet was now complete.
Faced with the accomplished return of Chinese power to Tibet in 1950, the Indian government reacted pragmatically. The attempt to foster at least a degree of autonomy for Tibetans, to maintain some element of buffer status for Tibet, had failed. The arrival of Chinese power on the northern borders in 1950 alarmed political opinion in India, especially by the right, who were alarmed by the Communist nature of the Chinese.
Days earlier, Home minister Sardar Patel had written a “prophetic” letter to Nehru, detailing the implications for India of Tibet’s invasion. Patel used a draft done by Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, the secretary-general of the ministry of external affairs and Commonwealth relations. However, Nehru decided to ignore Patel’s letter.
“…while our western and north-western threat to security is still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the north and north-east. Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India’s defense has to concentrate on two fronts simultaneously. Our defense measures have so far been based on the calculations of superiority over Pakistan. In our calculations, we shall now have to reckon with communist China in the north and in the north-east, a communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed towards us.“
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, 7th November 1950
Witnessing the nefarious influence of K.M. Panikkar, the Indian ambassador to China, who ceaselessly defended China’s interests, Bajpai, the most seasoned Indian diplomat, had lost his cool. On the thirty-first of October, in an internal note, he detailed the sequence of events that followed Tibet’s invasion and the role of Panikkar, whose attitude was compared to Sir Neville Chamberlain’s towards Hitler.
Bajpai’s anger demonstrated the frustration of many senior officers; the account starts on the fifteenth of July, when the governor of Assam informed Delhi that, according to the information received by the local intelligence bureau, Chinese troops, “in unknown strength, had been moving towards Tibet from three directions.” Not only was Panikkar unable to get any confirmation, but he virtually justified Beijing’s military action by writing: “In view of frustration in regard to Formosa, the Tibetan move was not unlikely.” During the next three months, the Indian ambassador would systematically take the Chinese side.
But PM Nehru was convinced of the depth of popular support for the Chinese regime and its desire for ‘friendship’ with India. In a 1954 speech on Sino-Indian relations, Nehru articulated his policy of non-alignment, based on the principle of mutual non-aggression and non-interference with (and from) any great powers. But seeds of doubt were sown even in his mind after a series of events which unfolded later on. In July 1958, a map was printed in Beijing, which showed large parts of India as Chinese territory. It also revealed that the Chinese had built a road linking the two troublesome regions – Xinjiang and Tibet – passing through Aksai Chin about which we have already mentioned earlier.
New Delhi – under pressure from the public, as well as political parties – registered strong protests, whereupon Zhou Enlai replied that the McMahon Line was a legacy of British imperialism and hence ‘not legal’. He suggested that both sides retain control of the territory they currently occupied, pending a final settlement.
Meanwhile, in March 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India and was given refuge immediately – owing to his immense respect among common people. This enraged the Chinese – who were suspicious about Indian political parties defending Dalai Lama’s actions.
As the war escalated, the Chinese accused India of plotting to turn Tibet into its vassal state. It was said that the Dalai Lama had been captured by Indians – so as to occupy Tibet. It was accused that the main epicenter of the revolt against the Chinese rule in Tibet was Kalimpong (which is in India). India vehemently rejected all these accusations, and the Indian government instead reiterated its stand that the Dalai Lama was free to enter and leave the country anytime. The tensions between the two countries were what set the foundations for the historical war that would change the dynamics of the Sino-Indian relationship forever.
With this, we conclude the second article of the series, where we have discussed the beginning of a conflict between two neighbors having centuries-old cultural links. In the next part, we’ll see how the actual events unfolded during the war.