Book Excerpt: How Nehru navigated conflict between China and Tibet

AS Bhasin's book 'Nehru, Tibet and China' has been published by Penguin.
Book cover of Nehru, Tibet and China showing Dalai Lama and Nehru
Book cover of Nehru, Tibet and China showing Dalai Lama and Nehru
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China’s main objection in not signing the Simla Convention was Article 9, which laid down the borders between India and Tibet and Tibet and China...The British, after declaring the McMahon Line as the border with Tibet, left a vacuum by not occupying the areas between the then existing north-eastern border of India and the new McMahon Line and allowed the Tibetans to stay in its occupation, who also collected the civil revenues. This area is known to the name Tawang to the Tibetans.

Tawang is a town that got its name from the famous Tawang monastery, attached to one of the three main Tibetan monasteries, Drepung, the other two being Sera and Gaden. In Chinese perception, it is south Tibet which comprised much of the erstwhile NEFA, which is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh in India. The cartographic liberties that China took in its maps since the 1930s continued even after the British withdrawal from the subcontinent.

However, given the Tibetan sensitivities, the British Government of India, after due consultations with India Office and the Foreign Office in London, had conveyed the following to Lhasa through the political officer, Sir Basil Gould:

The British Government of India would be willing to alter the frontier ‘to run from the Se La not to north of Tawang but to the south of Tawang.

This sought to put Tawang back into Tibetan territory. However, the adjustment of the borders had not been formally carried out by August 1947 and Tibet remained in occupation of Tawang, though by the Simla Convention still part of India.

Soon after the British withdrawal, Tibet declaring itself to be an ‘independent’ country told Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that it had in the past discussed with the British the return of the ‘indisputable Tibetan territories that had been gradually included into India’. It was also claimed that the Tibetan representatives to the Asian Relations Conference in March 1947 had also discussed this question with the Indian leaders. Their claims included Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling, Ladakh and many more territories in India. India ignored the Tibetan demand but, in responding to their request for an assurance of Article 2 of the Simla Convention, which had sought to assure Tibet of its territorial integrity, said that it would not annex any Tibetan territory and would be prepared to the ‘adjustment on the Indo-Tibetan frontier particularly in the Tawang area’. Earlier, the Tibetan foreign bureau had told the Indian representative, H.E. Richardson (who had been retained as India’s representative, after the British withdrawal from India), that ‘the frontier question was the only point in dispute between Tibet and India, which it ought to try to settle it’. Richardson, reporting to Delhi, said:

It was a senseless attitude for the Tibetan Government simply to complain about the activities of the Government of India—sometimes using very questionable language—and yet to take no advantage of the Government of India’s offer to negotiate adjustment of the frontier.

India found Tibet a difficult customer. India thanked Lhasa for its assurance to continue their relations with India ‘without change’ and mentioned that it would continue to abide by the existing treaties ‘until either party should wish to enter into fresh arrangements’. Subsequently, the political office in Gangtok asked the Ministry of External Affairs on 28 October 1948:

We must also be prepared to make an early gesture to the Tibetans in the matter of implementing our undertaking to consider an adjustment of the boundary in the Tawang area.

The prime minister welcomed quick communist victories in the civil war against the Kuomintang. However, India’s expression of sympathy for Tibet at a time when China was threatening to occupy Tibet invited strong reaction from the Chinese. Declaring Tibet its internal affair, China said Indian establishments in Tibet were unacceptable.

As the China–Tibet negotiations for their new relationship commenced in Beijing in April 1951, the question of Tawang started bothering Delhi, particularly in view of its commitment to adjust the border in the Tawang area in favour of Tibet. China, in the meantime, had already given Delhi a taste of its aggressiveness while occupying Tibet and on the question of providing asylum to Dalai Lama in 1951. Delhi feared that if Tawang was restored to Tibet with China threatening to occupy it, Tibet’s (read China’s) borders would come down to the plains of Assam, and the geographic and climatic factors which Nehru believed would ensure India’s security from the north, would vanish forever. Tawang had become important both for India’s and Bhutan’s security.

As an Indian officer with a sixty-man escort occupied Tawang in March 1951, the Tibetan officials protested and asked for its withdrawal. They refused to acknowledge Indian occupation unless instructed by Lhasa. In deciding to take control of Tawang, Delhi felt it was not necessary to justify its action to Lhasa since it was only assertion of its right under the 1914 Simla Convention. If Tawang had been left alone in the past, it was because of Tibet’s special interest in that area and of its association with the Tawang Monastery. The Tibetans were informed that ‘if the position was left fluid, the area would be lost to the Chinese, and therefore it had become necessary to vindicate what is rightly ours’. The political officer reporting to Delhi on the mentioned developments said that the Tibetans were informed that recent changes had made it necessary to forestall any possible encroachment on the frontier by a more aggressive neighbour and also to guard approaches to Bhutan.

Given the sensitivity of the matter, Delhi instructed the political officer that ‘nothing should be said to create impression in Chinese or Tibetan minds that our action is directed against China’. Dissatisfied and unhappy, the Tibetans accused India of taking ‘undue advantage of the situation to establish their claim over Tibetan territory’, which the Tibetan government regretted and they also claimed that they would ‘definitely [be] unable to accept the occupation’. Sumal Sinha, the mission-in-charge in Lhasa, reading the ground situation and in his wisdom, cautioned Delhi that while the Tibetans had made no further representation, they would ‘neither forget nor condone our armed occupation of territory under their established control for so long’. He added:

Tawang will in future cause uneasiness on our frontier (Tibetans) not only refused to reconcile themselves to loss of this territory which they seem to have absentmindedly ceded and never surrendered possession of but also regard present Indian action as both improper and unfair.

The peeved Tibetans asked Sinha ‘whether GoI would be generous enough to act on previous assurances to amend the frontier in favour of Tibet?’ An embarrassed Sinha, unable to answer, asked them to discuss that with the political officer in Gangtok.

In view of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, this move had indeed become necessary for strategic considerations. Later developments did cause problems, but they also established the prudence of this decision. India allowed its moral compunctions to be sacrificed at the altar of strategic necessity. All this happened in March–April 1951, just before the 17-Point Agreement between China and Tibet was signed on 23 May 1951.

Excerpted with permission from Nehru, Tibet and China, published by Penguin. You can buy the book here.

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