Himalayan Blunder : When India gave up on Tibet and what it needs to do now

10th July 1962. Chinese troops surround an Indian Army post at Chushul, manned by the Gurkhas and have a heated argument. 10th October 1962, an Indian Army patrol is ambushed by the Chinese Army & heavy mortar fire is exchanged between the two armies. There are heavy casualties on either side. Back in New Delhi, Nehru’s ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’, is slowly unravelling. But Krishna Menon & his ‘boys’ are still convinced that China will never wage a war against India. All this is about to change shortly.

20th October 1962. China’s People’s Liberation Army crosses the McMahon Line and invades India. Namka Chu, Aksai Chin, Nathula Pass become the theatre of intense fighting between the Indian & Chinese troops. An ill-prepared, ill-equipped Indian Army suffers huge losses. The Indian 7th Brigade at Rongla is in disarray. 22nd October 1962. Brigadier John Dalvi, the Commanding Officer of the 7th Brigade is taken prisoner of war. The myth of the invincible Himalayas is over. The Indian humiliation is complete and the national psyche is scarred.

Himalayas: The Natural Border

The majestic Himalayan ranges have served as a natural border between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan plateau. The imposing mountain range which hosts some of the highest peaks in the world created a natural geographical buffer between India, Tibet and China and prevented any large scale movement of people across it.

Four different corridors through the Himalayas linked the two regions and constituted the Trans Himalayan Silk Road; one of the oldest trade route in the world. As Buddhism spread to Tibet from India, it influenced Tibetan society and Ladakh became the centre of these trade routes. However, the adverse terrain and hostile weather conditions prevented any military adventure for centuries and an everlasting peace ensued on either side of the Himalayas.

Sino Sikh War: Military battle across the Himalayas

During the early 18th Century, Qing dynasty held control over much of Tibet and had a largely uninterrupted rule till the 19th Century. In India, the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh controlled a large area of North-West India including Srinagar, Attock, Peshawar, Bannu, Rawalpindi, Jammu, Gujrat, Sialkot, Kangra, Amritsar, Lahore and Multan.

Sikh Empire

Maharaja Gulab Singh (1792-1857) was the first Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir and acted as a vassal to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Zorawar Singh (1786-1841) a General of Gulab Singh’s Army planned an invasion of Ladakh. In 1841, he strung together a force of 6000 soldiers and marched into Tibet. The invading force swept across all the resistance and crossed Mansarovar Lake and defeated a Tibetan force at Gartok. From here, Zorawar Singh marched onwards and captured Taklakot. Alarmed by this, Tibetans and the Maharaja of Nepal sent their envoys to Zorawar Singh to negotiate. Zorawar stayed in Tibet and tried to maintain control. However, in December 1841, the Tibetans joined a Han Chinese force and attacked the Sikh Army in the battle of Toyo. In the ensuing battle, Zorawar Singh was killed and the Sikh Army retreated back to Ladakh with the Sino Tibetan force in pursuit. The two armies again faced off each other at Chushul where the Sikhs defeated the Sino Tibetan army. The two sides then signed a peace treaty which forbade any future military transgression from either side.

A quiet peace ensued on both sides of the Himalayas. Until 1962.

Himalayan Blunder: India gives up on Simla Agreement of 1914

During 1913-14, an accord known as the Simla Accord was signed between the representatives of British India, Tibet and China. The Accord divided Tibet into Inner and Outer Tibet. The terms gave China sovereignty over Inner Tibet but suzerainty over Outer Tibet which would continue to be governed by the Tibetan government at Lhasa. China was forbidden into interfering with the affairs of Outer Tibet. British India retained trading and extraterritorial rights in Outer Tibet. As India and China gained independence, the rights under the accord passed onto the Republic of India.

Simla Conference

Declassified documents now reveal that as early as 1950, China was wary of the privileges which India had inherited from the Britishers and noted “India pretends not to have any ambition on Tibetan Policies or land but desires to maintain the privileges that were signed in the treaties signed since 1906”

Post-independence a politically naive Pandit Nehru followed a friendly approach with the newly independent China and in 1954 signed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence known as Panchsheel Treaty: “Non-interference in others internal affairs and respect for each other’s territorial unity integrity and sovereignty”. Despite reservations and objections from his own minister’s, Nehru also recognized the Tibetan Autonomous Region as being a part of China and gave up the rights over Tibet which India had inherited as part of the historical treaties without any quid-pro-quo from the Chinese. Nehru didn’t even press China to recognize McMahon Line as the de facto border between India and China.

However, this treaty was redundant from day one as China had already violated the terms of the Simla Accord in 1950!

Dalai Lama Escapes to India

In 1950, the Chinese Army invaded the Tibetan area of Chamdo and quickly defeated the Tibetan Army. After this, the Chinese sent their representatives to Lhasa to negotiate with the Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama. In 1951, the Tibetan government signed a Seventeen Point Agreement with China which established China’s sovereignty over Tibet. In 1959, Dalai Lama repudiated the Seventeen Point Agreement as having been “thrust upon Tibetan Government and people by the threat of arms”.

PLA Soldiers marching towards Tibet in 1951
PLA Soldiers in Lhasa in 1951

As armed clashes broke out in Tibet, the 14thDalai Lama and his retinue assisted by CIA’s Special Activities Division crossed over into India on 30thMarch 1959. Figure 5,6.

1962 : The Myth of the Himalayas is broken

The escape of the Dalai Lama infuriated the Chinese. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai publicly criticized Nehru and accused him of assisting “Tibetan rebels”and to “prevent China from exercising full sovereignty over its territory of Tibet”

During a meeting with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in October 1959, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai blamed Nehru and India for the unrest in Tibet.

Things were coming to a boil.

Indian military commanders had convinced the political leaders that the Chinese posed no threat and “experience in Ladakh had shown that a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away” Consequently, the border was thinly manned with small arms and munitions. The troops didn’t have proper clothing for an extended stay in the harsh & cold weather.

On 20th October 1962, Chinese troops crossed McMahon Line and launched simultaneous offensives at Ladakh in West and at Tawang in East. The Chinese offensive caught Indian Army unawares and they were overwhelmed and retreated from Namka Chu and even Daulet Beg Oldi. As fierce fighting continued, Indian formations continued to retreat and massed at Se La and Bomdi La. In November, China attacked these positions and isolated 10,000 Indian troops. Some Indian troops even retreated into neighbouring Bhutan. Tezpur in Assam was also under severe Chinese threat.

Newspaper in 1962
Evacuation of Tezpur

However, by now the supply lines of the Chinese were overstretched and the Indian Army had started putting up robust defence and counter-attacks. On 19th November, Zhou Enlai claimed that China had met its objective and announced that they would “withdraw from their present positions to the north of the illegal McMahon Line”. Indian casualties in the war numbered over 3000 killed. Hundreds of troops had died due to the harsh exposure at over 14000 feet than by actual combat.

1962 War

The war effectively busted the Nehruvian myth that China would not be able to traverse high altitude terrain over 5000 km away from Chinese heartland and attack India. For thousands of years, Tibet had acted as a natural buffer between India and China. It would no longer continue to be so.

Tibet: The Water Tank of Asia

Climate Change, Rapid Industrialization, Population surge across the world has led to more stress on natural resources. Water is one of them.

Fresh Water is also known as Blue Gold is scarce across mainland China. With around 20% of the global population, China has access to only 7% of the freshwater supply. Clearly, a fresh source of freshwater was required to support the state. Tibet offered the solution.

Known as the Water Tank of Asia, Tibet is the source of 10 major rivers of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow rivers which feed more than 2 billion people across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Outside of the North & South Poles, Himalayan glaciers in Tibet hold the biggest reservoir of freshwater. River basins formed by Himalayan rivers including the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Indus, and Mekong basins serve a huge population chunk.

Major Rivers originating in Tibet

As noted by a report in 2013 by Asian Development Institute “Improving agricultural water productivity, achieving energy objectives, satisfying growing industrial water requirements, and protecting water quality and vitally important natural ecosystems are challenges we still face. The social, economic, and political consequences of water shortages are real, as are the effects of water-related disasters exacerbated by climate change.”

In 2014 Michael Buckley in his deeply researched book ‘Meltdown in Tibet’ noted “Tibetans have experienced waves of genocide since the 1950s. Now they are facing ecocide. The mighty rivers of Tibet are being dammed by Chinese engineering consortiums to feed the mainland’s thirst for power, and the land is being relentlessly mined in search of minerals to feed China’s industrial complex. On the drawing board are plans for a massive engineering project to divert water from Eastern Tibet to water-starved Northern China. Ruthless Chinese repression leaves Tibetans powerless to stop the reckless destruction of their sacred land, but they are not the only victims of this campaign: the nations downstream from Tibet rely heavily on rivers sourced in Tibet for water supply, and for rich silt used in agriculture. This destruction of the region’s environment has been happening with little scrutiny until now”.

In 2018, the Dalai Lama stated “This involves more than the well-being of six million Tibetans because, as a Chinese ecologist has observed, Tibet’s influence on global climate is equivalent to that of the North and South Poles. That’s why he referred to the Tibetan Plateau as the Third Pole. Almost a billion people across Asia depend on water from rivers such as the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong, all of which rise in Tibet. If the snow on the mountains of Tibet disappears, millions of Indians will suffer the consequences.”

According to China Water Risk, “The Himalayas are also said to be warming more rapidly than anywhere else on the planet. Between 1970 and 2006, permafrost, the permanently frozen layer of earth, shrank by more than 18 percent, and glaciers in China have shrunk more than 10 percent since 2000”

Clearly, who controls Tibet, controls the majority of Asia’s water resources. Chinese strategists realized this and have strengthened their hold over Tibet.

China, which has scant regard for any international law or treaty, has started off on a dam building spree in Tibet. The Three Gorges Dam which opened in 2013 is the largest power generating station in the world. The Zangmu hydropower facility that opened in 2015 is the highest altitude power station in the world. There are reports of China building other major barrages across major rivers in Tibet.

China also remains a non-signatory of “Convention on Law on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses” passed by the UN General Assembly in 1997.

India as a lower riparian state has major reasons to worry. The Himalayas are ecologically fragile and the blasting of mountains can have a severe impact on their stability. Reduced water supply will impact the flow of the river silt and the lives of billions of people.

China fuels the insurgency in North East

A narrow strip of land; 23 kms wide, joins the Seven Sister States (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura) with the rest of India. The strip known as the Siliguri Corridor has enormous strategic importance to India. In an attempt to gain an upper hand in the border dispute with India, China has been trying to move closer to the corridor. The Dokalam standoff in 2018 can be traced back to this. China also calls Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet and claims it as part of its territory.

China has actively aided and abetted insurgency in these areas to bog down the Indian State and keep it in a state of perpetual conflict. Beginning from the 1960’s, when Naga insurgents would freely move between India and China to the formation of ‘United National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia’ (UNLFW) comprising of groups such as United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), the Kamtapur Liberation Organization and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Assam), the Chinese hand can be seen everywhere in fomenting unrest in the region.

North East Insurgency

With a larger aim to gain access to Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, China has also supported unrest in Bangladesh and Myanmar. This fits in with China’s grand ‘two ocean’ plan whereby it plans to control the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. During bilateral talks between the security agencies of India & China, India has provided proofs of insurgent leaders being present in Yunnan in China. Indian agencies also provided proof to their Chinese counterparts that they were inciting insurgent groups during the visit of Dalai Lama to Assam in 2017. China, however, has dismissed such claims. Recent reports indicate that Chinese agencies have tied up with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan to keep the North East on the boil.

Faced with such a threat, India is forced to deploy lakhs of troops, equipment and pump in billions of rupees, to control the situation. This would never be the case, had Tibet, not China had been India’s neighbour in North East.

A settled and peaceful North East would have freed up billions of dollars and resources, which could have been used otherwise for the progress & development of the Indian State.

Giving up on Tibet and Tibetans, in general, has turned out to be a costly mistake beyond the imagination of India’s strategic experts and planners.

Talk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

The historical blunder of giving up on Tibet in 1954 will continue to haunt Indian policy makers. As an increasingly assertive and belligerent China seeks to advance its boundaries and claim the rights of its neighbours, tensions will continue to spike in Asia.

With a GDP that has left India behind by leaps and bounds, China will continue to flex its muscles and do everything in its power to harm India’s interests. From assisting Pakistan to running the One Belt One Road through PoK to not sharing hydrological information during monsoons to propping up Communist Party elected Dalai Lama, China will leave no stone unturned to keep India boxed with regional disputes, conflicts and insurgency. China wants to be the Numero Uno power in Asia and will use all its resources and clout to achieve that goal.

China also brazenly defies international treaties, decisions and agreements. It has refused to honour the Simla Treaty with India and recognize the McMahon Line. In 2016, it also refused to comply with the South China Sea Arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which had ruled that China has “no historical rights” based on the “nine-dash line” map.

Countries affected by South china dispute

India needs to keep the dialogue open with China to peacefully resolve all conflicts. At the same time, it needs to improve infrastructure and augment capacity along its North Eastern borders. It also needs to build bilateral and multilateral groups with a clear aim to deter Chinese bullying and protect its rights. India also needs to effectively use its strongest lever against China i.e. Tibet by supporting the Tibetan cause and community.

During Rajiv Gandhi’s 1989 visit to China, Deng Xiaoping had suggested: “Let both sides forget the unpleasant period in our past relations and let us treat everything with an eye on the future.”30 years have since passed, however, the future is yet to arrive in India, Tibet and China relations.

(This article has been co-authored by Ishita Sen)

This post was last modified on July 22, 2019 5:00 pm

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