An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 26 October 2002

This is the second part of our three part series of the IndiaChina Border dispute. (Click here for Part I and Part III.)

Does India Have A Case?

By Mohan Guruswamy

The next major development with China and Tibet was when the British called for a conference at Simla in October 1913. The Chinese attended reluctantly, but the Tibetan authorities came quite eagerly as they were now engaged in conflict with their Chinese suzerains. Henry McMahon, Foreign Secretary to the “Government of India”, led the British delegation. McMahon was some sort of an expert at drawing boundary lines, having spent two years demarcating the Durand Line as the North-west frontier.

The boundary that followed was the now famous McMahon Line. This boundary now extended British India up to the edge of the Tibetan plateau. It was not really a cartographers delight as it violated several rules of boundary demarcation. But it was an ethnic boundary in the sense that the area, except for the Tawang tract, was non-Tibetan in character

The Chinese, however, soon repudiated the Simla Convention and thus the McMahon Line. All through this period the British never challenged Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The new boundary was not made effective till Olaf Caroe, an ICS officer, in 1935 urged the British authorities to do so. Thus in 1937, the Survey of India for the first time showed the McMahon Line as the official boundary. But confusion still abounded.

In 1938, the Survey of India published a map of Tibet, which showed the Tawang tract as part of that country. Even the first edition of Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Discovery of India” showed the Indo-Tibetan boundary as running at the foot of the hills. The Tibetans however, did not accept this “annexation” of the Tawang Tract and challenged the British attempts to expand their government into this area. They, however, tacitly accepted the rest of the McMahon demarcation. It is, however, clear that but for the Tawang tract there is little basis for the Chinese claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Even the claim they might have on the Tawang tract is rendered invalid in the sense that it becomes a geographical anachronism and incompatible with India’s security interests.

The Japanese thrust towards India in World War II gave urgency to the British need to fix this boundary firmly and securely. Thus in 1944, J.P. Mills, the government’s advisor on tribal affairs established a British administration in the entire belt from Walong in the east to Dirang Dzong in the west. Several posts of Assam Rifles were established and soon Tibetan govenment officials were packed off from the Tawang tract also.


Figure 1

This was the state of the Great Game when the British left India. In 1949, the communists came to power in China and shortly thereafter the Peoples Republic announced that its Army would be moving into Tibet. India reacted by sending the Chinese a diplomatic note. Soon after receiving this angry protest note the Chinese occupied Tibet. The Chinese said: “Tibet is an integral part of China and the problem of Tibet is a domestic problem of China. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army must enter Tibet, liberate the Tibetan people, and defend the frontiers of China”. India had hoped to persuade the Chinese to desist by offering to take up their case for membership in the UN in place of the Kuomintang Chinese left on Formosa! The Chinese rejected this absurd quid pro quo and said these two issues were unconnected.

The purpose of this laborious recitation of the events of nearly a century and a half of the Great Game is only to show that the borders were either never clearly demarcated or established. Lines kept shifting on maps as political contingencies arose. The Indian people were, for this entire period, passive spectators to these cartographic games.

But in 1947, the British finally left India. Our choice then was to either call an end to the Great Game or continue playing it with all the intensity and commitment it called for. We did neither. When the Chinese Communists occupied Tibet, we acquiesced. And neither did we firmly move into the areas claimed by the British as Indian Territory, particularly in the western sector. How well we looked after territory we claimed as our own is seen by the fact that in the early 1950’s the Chinese had built a road connecting Tibet to Sinkiang across the Aksai Chin, and we did not have a clue about it for several years.

The Indian government, however, did move into the Tawang tract in force in 1951, overriding Chinese/Tibetan protests. In this sector, at least, it was clear that the Indian government was firm about its control of all the territory claimed by the British. The Chinese also seemed to have now accepted the McMahon Line as the boundary in this sector as there are several indications of this effect.

The situation in the western sector, however, was entirely different. Here no definite British Indian boundary line existed. The only two points accepted by both sides were that the Karakorum Pass and Demchok, the western and eastern ends of this sector, were in Indian Territory. Opinion on how the line traversed between the two points differed.

India’s boundary was inclined towards the Johnson claim line whereas the Chinese, having built their road through the Aksai Chin naturally preferred an alignment closer to the McCartney/ MacDonald line of 1899. The Chinese claim line however went further west and included the Chip Chap valley, Samzungling, Kongka La, Khurnak Fort and Jara La. More importantly, as far as the Great Game was concerned, the Chinese were in occupation of all this territory by the early 1950s.

This is how matters were by the end of 1952 and by and large how things are today. The Chinese hold all territory, give or take some, within their claim line in Ladakh and in the east India holds most of the territory below the McMahon line give or take some. These de facto boundaries could have been a basis for a permanent settlement of our boundaries. But we did not pursue it though from time to time there were indications that the Chinese might want to settle on this basis.

Now the question that arises is: Why did the Government of India not extend its control to the boundaries it claimed in the western sector as it did in the east? This was mostly due to the terrain. The boundary claimed lies beyond two high mountain ranges and is logistically impossible and militarily indefensible. Besides the Chinese were already in control of much of the area by 1951. The question then is: Why did the Government of India not make serious diplomatic or military efforts to assert control over territories, it believed was ours?

The answer obviously lies in the fact that legally there was not a very good case and the military price this barren uninhabited windswept desolation would demand did not make it a worthwhile cause. Yet in spite of all this there abounded the zealous spirit with which recently freed nations regarded their inherited boundaries that often were without regard to geography, ethnicity and history. Even in 1954, the most advanced Indian post was at Chushul and barring a couple of patrols to Lanak La no attempt was made to show the new flag. Even Lanak La was well south of Aksai Chin and short of the Sinkiang–Tibet highway, which passed east of it at that point.

The main rule of the Game for the previous 150 years was that it be played quietly and as surreptitiously as possible. In the 1950’s these rules still seemed to prevail and the two contesting governments decided to keep the lid on the problems while jockeying around for local advantages. On the surface it was all Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai and the practice of the Panchsheela philosophy, but underneath was the realisation that the titles to large tracts of territory under the control of both parties were under dispute. The lid blew away when in March 1959 the Dalai Lama fled to India and was given political asylum.

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