“If we also agree to minor changes in the Eastern Sector [the McMahon Line], Aksai Chin (especially Eastern Aksai Chin which the British had offered to China in 1899 but they refused). We have a weak case and this was known even to Prime Minister Nehru.”
—T.N. Kaul, former Foreign Secretary, wrote in a report on his visit to China in 1998 (emphasis added throughout).
This is one of the many dark secrets in India’s policy towards China from 1947 to this day, which Avtar Singh Bhasin’s devoted labours expose in this almost explosive collection of documents. Besides China, it reveals much about our relations with the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Nepal and Burma (now Myanmar).
After a stint in the National Archives of India and the Joint Intelligence Organisation of the Ministry of Defence, he joined the Ministry of External Affairs’ Historical Division in 1993. He retired many years later as its Director. He has published a five-volume set of documents each on India’s relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal and a 10-volume set on Pakistan, a splendid contribution to the historical truth. Publication in cooperation with the Ministry of External Affairs’ Policy Planning Division reminds us that rumours of its demise are somewhat exaggerated. Bhasin has drawn largely from the papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and also from other sources. “There are indeed some gaps, but that could not be helped.” The Government of India refuses to open the records of the McMahon Line (1914) to the public even now, a century later, though they have long been available in the United Kingdom. The Zachariah Report entitled “Studies on the Northern Frontier” is still a highly prized secret, lest its publication expose the truth about the Aksai Chin.
No boundary dispute should have been easier to settle than the India-China boundary dispute. Each side has its non-negotiable vital interest securely in its control. India has the McMahon Line. China has the Tibet Xinjiang Highway and more in the Aksai Chin through which a road runs. Then, why was the dispute not settled?
China has resolved its boundary disputes with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam in the years between 1963 and 2008 (see Sana Hashmi, China’s Approach Towards Territorial Disputes , Knowledge World, New Delhi, 2016). Its boundary disputes with India and with Bhutan, largely because of India, still remain unresolved. Why?
Deadlock over Aksai Chin
It is not because of differences over the McMahon Line. Prime Minister Zhou Enlai offered to accept it in his talks with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi on April 22 and 23, 1960. Twenty years later, on June 21, 1980, the offer was repeated by Deng Xiaoping to Krishna Kumar, Editor, Defence News Service . It was a repeat of the offer he had made to A.B. Vajpayee (the then Foreign Minister) on February 14, 1979.
The deadlock was the Aksai Chin. India’s official maps of 1948 and 1950 showed the boundary in this sector to be “undefined”. On July 1, 1954, Nehru asked for a recall of old maps and delineation of a new line in the Aksai Chin “not open to discussion with anybody”. With exemplary forbearance, he did not include Peking (now Beijing) in his new line.
On August 15, 1947, India inherited a northern frontier that demanded a professional approach. The British summed up the position in four propositions: 1. The Ladakh-Tibet Treaty of 1842 did not settle the boundary. 2. It was “undefined”. 3. There was no “traditional, customary line” as both sides asserted in 1960. It was a “no man’s land”. 4. The Karakoram watershed was the preferred boundary, not the Kuen Lun.
Nehru’s stand flouted all four. So did that of S. Gopal, K. Zachariah’s successor as Director, Historical Division. He felt so intensely that he appended a note in his biography of Nehru (volume 3, page 306). India’s boundary was not what it was on August 15, 1947. India existed before the British came and their maps were irrelevant. Which India, Asoka’s or Akbar’s? He did not care to ask. Gopal told Steven A. Hoffman that after a visit to London in late 1959, he had persuaded Nehru that India’s case was “foolproof” ( India and the China Crisis , Oxford University Press, page 82). It was folly to act on the advice of a historian or a lawyer in a case that called for a political approach based on hard basics. 1. The Aksai Chin did not belong to India. 2. In January 1959, the Army chief, General K.S. Thimayya, “quite categorically stated that the he did not consider that the Aksai Chin road was of any strategic importance”. Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt agreed that the “boundary had not been demarcated”, the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) chief, B.N. Mullik, revealed ( The Chinese Betrayal , pages 204-205). 3. The region was of no use. It was uninhabited and uninhabitable. 4. Not a single country in the world accepts the Aksai Chin as Indian even now.
Nehru acted unwisely
Weigh in balance other factors: namely, friendship with China and the impact of a conflict with it or India’s foreign and defence policies. Nehru acted unwisely. He was not alone. Bar the Left, all wanted even stronger measures— Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Ram Manohar Lohia, M.R. Masani, Nath Pai, the lot. Vajpayee had two opportunities to correct the course: in 1979 as External Affairs Minister and during six years as Prime Minister (1999-2004). The press was baying for blood. The McMahon Line was in India’s control. Why did India go for Ladakh and use military force in the quixotic Forward Policy? After war broke out in October 1962, the United States recognised the McMahon Line alone. Its Ambassador to India, J.K. Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal (1969) has a map of India which shows the entire northern and eastern frontier of Kashmir as “undefined frontier area” (page 236). This, in a chapter on the “Border War”.
Bhasin’s five volumes expose the fecklessness surrounding foreign policy and the falsehoods retailed by New Delhi. On August 15, 1947, it knew that it had a boundary dispute with China on its hands ; it was raised by the KMT (Kuomintang) regime, by Tibet, and later, the People’s Republic of China. When on March 31, 1960, the Ambassador to China, G. Parthasarathy, suggested to the Ministry of External Affairs that it should tell the Chinese that “it was a shock to us when China sprung on us a claim for 50,000 square miles of Indian territory in September 1959”, he was uttering a falsehood. Less than a month later, China offered to settle up, getting the Aksai Chin alone. On October 16, 1947, Tibet had claimed far more areas right up to Darjeeling.
As late as October 1948, India and China discussed a draft Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation. Article 29 envisaged talks on “an agreement for delineation of frontiers between China and India”. The KMT regime was assertive on the border. The Ministry of External Affairs asked Ambassador K.M. Panikkar on March 13, 1949, to tell Nanking that “in the present disturbed conditions it is NOT, repeat NOT, possible to demarcate undefined frontier between Kashmir and Sinkiang”. In March 1959, India said the direct opposite, banging the door on negotiations, with terrible results.
As for Vallabhbhai Patel’s famous letter to Nehru on November 7, 1950, it all began with the Ministry of External Affairs’ Secretary General Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai’s note to Patel on November 3 (copy not available). Patel replied the next day accusing China of “perfidy” for invading Tibet. He cited “ the undefined state of frontier ” among the causes for anxiety. He mentioned 10 problems which “require early solution”. The tenth was “the policy in regard to the McMahon Line”. The Aksai Chin was ignored. The letter of November 7 to Bajpai was on these lines. Nehru’s note of November 18 said “the fact remains that our major possible enemy is Pakistan”. This front would be weakened by the suggested policy on China. On February 7, 1951, India evicted the Tibetan administration from Tawang. Tibet protested. China did not . There was, however, ample warning of the undefined state of the frontier in the Aksai Chin.
Nehru received two conflicting bits of advice. Panikkar asked him not to raise the boundary issue but just declare India’s stand. Bajpai urged him to raise it and settle it as part of the Tibet (Panchsheel) Agreement of 1954. Nehru accepted the former advice. Then Governor of Bombay, Bajpai wrote to Panikkar on August 7, 1952: “It was the Chinese themselves who asked for a settlement of all unsettled questions. The Chinese never having accepted the McMahon Line as the frontier between Tibet and us, can hardly regard this frontier question as settled. Naturally, they have no intention of raising it until it suits their convenience. The practical difficulty of telling them that we regard the McMahon Line as our frontier and shall treat it as such, without requesting them to answer or comment upon this point, is not quite apparent to me.”
The Governor of Uttar Pradesh K.M. Munshi pointed out that “the boundary between Tehri and Tibet is not clearly defined”. On Bhutan, Panikkar was a hawk. He wrote to R.K. Nehru, Foreign Secretary, on October 31, 1963, from Cairo: “If the Chinese have any desire to open direct relations with Bhutan, I think it is worth our while to bring them into the open by positively declaring that we will consider it as an unfriendly act. I don’t for one moment think that they would want to challenge our position; especially they would be afraid that in such a case USA and Britain would also be wanting to open relations with Bhutan and that may be totally unwelcome to the Chinese. As I have said in the Note this will give us 4 or 5 years to settle our relations with Bhutan. You know my views on the treaty with Bhutan. I think it does not give us any concrete rights and the old formula behind which we took shelter would not work in the present circumstances. So, within the time available to us, we should endeavour to bring about a change giving us specific rights in regard to the defence of Bhutan.”
The Ministry of External Affairs prepared a comprehensive note on the boundary on December 3, 1953, to guide the negotiators of the 1954 Agreement. The boundary issue must not be raised with China. However, “there are a few other disputed areas like the Aksai plain in Ladakh, Hunza, Dakhpo-Garpo, Gritti, Nilang, Jodang, Towang and Wolang, which are shown as ours in our maps and by the Chinese as theirs in their own maps. Prima facie , it is suggested that we should not be prepared to give up any of these places except in return for an overall acceptance of our frontier by the Chinese. In that case also, we should examine and then give up each area on its merits, taking its strategic importance into consideration. We are examining this question in consultation with the Ministry of Defence and State governments concerned.” The Aksai Chin plateau was accepted as disputed territory.
A note by Nehru around this time said: “Regarding the village of Minsar in western Tibet, which has belonged to the Kashmir State, it is clear that we shall have to give it up if this question is raised. We need not raise it. If it is raised we should say that we recognise the strength of the Chinese contention and we are prepared to consider it and recommend it but the matter will have to be referred to the Kashmir government. It can of course be referred by telegram through us. The point is that we should NOT come to a final agreement without gaining the formal assent of the Kashmir government. There are references in the note to certain disputed areas in Ladakh, Hunza etc. I imagine that some of these are in the Pakistan-occupied territory like Hunza. If so we can hardly discuss these with them and we can point out that all this area is under dispute with Pakistan .” In December 1962, Nehru again took the direct opposite stand, and this is still our policy vis-a-vis China and Pakistan.
China thought differently. T.N. Kaul was told on January 19, 1954: “Chinese said if we were to discuss now questions relating to Ladakh, we cannot but get involved in Kashmir and the question of Kashmir is pending settlement through negotiations between India and Pakistan . Therefore we are not prepared now to discuss question relating to Ladakh. Kaul replied we do not accept this position as it may involve principle of territorial integrity. We reserve our further comments.” Our embassy in Peking reminded the Ministry of External Affairs on January 22, 1954: “Qara Tagh adjoins Sinkiang and is in disputed Aksai Chin area. Lanak La and Domjar La also in same disputed territory.”
The Panchsheel Agreement on Tibet was signed in Peking on April 29, 1954. Nehru wrote his memo on July 1, 1954, discarding old maps to show a defined boundary in the Aksai Chin. His inner thought was candidly bared in a letter of May 9, 1954, to K.K. Chettur, our Ambassador to Burma: “In the final analysis, no country has any deep faith in the policies of another country, more especially in regard to a country which tends to expand. Obviously we cannot be dead sure of what China may do in the future. But whatever its urges might be, we can, by our policy, strengthen our own position and even curb to some extent undesirable urges in the other country. At present the conflict of the two great power blocs exhibits these urges for expansion or fear of each other. China and the Soviet Union hang together, and yet, in some ways, they pull in different directions. There is, for obvious reasons, a strong desire for peace both in the Soviet Union and China. These reasons may be wholly opportunist, but the fact of their avoidance of a major war is universally admitted. If that is so, that gives us plenty of room for action in favour of peace and protecting our respective countries. Unfortunately, in regard to the USA, one cannot say that there is this urge for avoidance of war, whatever the reasons may be. Hence the grave danger.”
Nehru was no romanticist or idealist. He was a born hardliner in his policies to all the neighbours. He directed his Ministry of External Affairs’ Historical Division to prepare a note on “The India-China Frontier”. It noted China’s claim to the Aksai Chin. A Joint Secretary, T.N. Kaul, ventured his comments on May 11, 1956, on the note: “We should issue our new maps without delay showing the most favourable line as our frontier” without “waiting for detailed surveys”. It was this bogus map diversion from which Indian statutes still impose punishment—on Indian citizens. It is of course utterly unconstitutional. A citizen has every right to publish a map to advocate where the line should be drawn.
In 1958, the boundary dispute squarely arose. In 1959, it erupted into the open. Foreign Secretary S. Dutt informed the Indian embassy in Peking on November 10, 1959: “We are prepared to make a concession in respect of the Aksai Chin area where the Chinese have constructed a road and where in the past we have not sought to exercise any active occupation. For example, we are prepared to admit that they can keep civilian personnel in occupation of this road and a stretch west of the road on our side.” The very next day Dutt said the opposite to Indian missions abroad. On November 14, he told the Indian embassy in Peking: “We have exercised jurisdiction in the entire area (in Ladakh) up to the international border specified by us and shown in our official maps. Subimal Dutt was not talking through his hat. He was consciously uttering a brazen falsehood. This is a recurring feature. Nehru demanded that China “vacate” these areas prior to the talks. In April 1960 he wrecked them on this issue alone. These volumes have a full record of Nehru’s talks with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and others. Zhou came with a will to settle with India, as Mao told Khrushchev in Peking on October 2, 1959. He was rebuffed.
India’s embassy reported China’s optimism. Even after the collapse of the Nehru-Zhou talks in April 1950, China offered fresh concessions in July 1961. Was it not “possible to start off by supplementing and revising Premier Zhou’s proposed Six Points of consultation?” The Chinese had conceded the McMahon Line. But G. Parthasarathy was never in favour of conciliation with any neighbour, Sri Lanka, China or Pakistan.
In late 1962, Nehru decided to offer to China a reference to the World Court, an unrealistic proposition. Zhou persisted in offering to talk and taunted Nehru on March 3, 1963. “The Chinese government’s stand for direct Sino-Indian negotiations will not change. But if the Indian government, owing to the needs of its internal and external politics, is not yet prepared to hold such meetings, the Chinese government is willing to wait with patience.”
Resisting U.S. overtures
To his great credit, Nehru stood firm even in the hour of peril and firmly rejected the United States’ sly attempt to bind India into an alliance. Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai told off Chester Bowles on February 26, 1964: “The Secretary General went though the Aide Memoire given by the U.S. Ambassador and stated that the last para of this would not be acceptable. This last para stated that the proposed long-term programme of military assistance assumed that India would continue her effort to improve her relations with Pakistan and would also have a common understanding with the USA in regard to the extent of the Chinese communist threat in South East Asia and the steps required to meet it.
“The Secretary General stated that it would not be possible for the Indian government to accept a military programme which had political strings attached to it. India was always prepared to improve her relations with Pakistan, and the efforts made by them in that direction were known to the U.S. authorities, not only from month to month, but from week to week. In fact India had throughout been striving for a policy of peace with all her neighbours, not only Pakistan but also China, and if that country was prepared to come to a settlement with India which was reasonable and consistent with India’s honour, India would accept this. Indian attitude in this regard and how she viewed relations with China and the threat which China constituted were well known to the U.S. administration.
“It would not however be possible to accept a long-term plan of military assistance from the U.S. which had specific political conditions attached to it. Such a plan of military assistance could only be on the basis of an understanding and appreciation of India’s policies by USA and not on the basis of specific political commitments. If the present plan was to be considered, therefore, it would be necessary for this para to be deleted.
“The Ambassador stated that what had been put into this paragraph was only a reference to India’s actual relationship with Pakistan and China. India’s views about China were well known as also her anxiety to improve relations with Pakistan. He saw, therefore, no harm in these being mentioned in the Aide Memoire. He added that he himself did not think that this paragraph was necessary or had any particular significance. The Secretary General, however, insisted that it would be necessary, before we could proceed further with this matter, to delink the proposal for long term military assistance from the declaration of political intent contained in the Aide Memoire. The U.S. Ambassador said that he would discuss this further with Secretary General separately but wanted our comments on the proposal for a five year assistance programme. Secretary General went on to say that as far as the proposal for having a long term military assistance plan was concerned, this was acceptable.” In far less serious circumstances, the Narendra Modi government has caved in to the U.S.
In February 1979, China offered Vajpayee an “overall deal” based on the status quo in both sectors. On November 13, 1979, it offered talks in “secret”.
This is an historical appraisal from the stand point of India’s interests. China is not blameless. Its claims were never precise; its lines kept changing; it prevaricated on why it did not raise the boundary dispute and, of course, its response to the Forward Policy in the shape of a massive attack on October 20, 1962, was indefensible.
It has now raised the price for a settlement. The offers of 1960 and 1980 are off the table. It now demands Tawang, and Tawang is not negotiable. Even its kids speak Hindi. The Modi government has made matters worse. China expects political detente, and rightly so.
India should follow a policy based on the reality that the U.S. ditches allies. China is a neighbour. India can and must be friendly with the U.S.—as China and Russia are. India must, at the same time, keep a certain convincing distance from the U.S. Above all, India must demonstrate its capability of making concessions for this.
Successive governments have followed Nehru’s line. The boundary dispute acquired a centrality overshadowing other issues in the relations. China needs to be assured that: (a) The government of India is prepared to incur criticism at home if it settles with China; (b) That it has the will to arrive at and carry through a settlement; (c) That it is no part of a U.S. sponsored alliance; (d) It has no desire to embark on a cold war, competing with China on rival influences in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and, sotto voce , in Bhutan. India can stand on its own provided it discards “Great Power habits” of pressures and interference in the internal affairs of neighbours. An India which adopts the Good Neighbour Policy will have a far stronger appeal; (e) India will pursue a policy of close friendship with the U.S., as China does. But it will be master of its course in world affairs.
China will, in its own interests, respond. India’s negotiator must be a politician of stature and intellectual equipment. China has not been enthused to deal with former policemen and spy chiefs— M.K. Narayanan and Ajit Doval. Discard the preliminaries and go straight to the core of the dispute; learn from past mistakes and bid for an overall settlement.