Turning point in ties with China

Print edition : August 09, 2013

November 28, 1956: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru receiving Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (fourth from left), at Palam Airport, New Delhi, on his arrival for a 12-day tour of India. Also in the picture are (left to right) Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama, Chinese Vice-Premier Ho Lung, Indira Gandhi and Mrs R.K. Nehru, wife of the Indian Ambassador to China. Nehru took up the issue of the McMohan Line with Zhou during this visit, having raised the issue of China's maps in 1954 in Beijing. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

At the Jaswantgarh War Memorial in Arunachal Pradesh near the border between India and China, bunkers used during the 1962 Indo-China war. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

This volume, like its predecessors, contains instructive material on a host of matters. No student of history can afford to neglect it.

VOLUME 47 of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Papers, as selected by the editor, contains a document that explains why India’s relations with China deteriorated, never fully to recover to the fatuous phase of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai”. It was fatuous because each side eyed the other with reservations even at the best of times. Nehru’s “idealism”, “romanticism” and the rest are best left to retired diplomats and chauvinists to laud and the Sangh Parivar to mould into a stick with which to beat his political heirs. The truth is the very opposite of these claims or charges. But, then, who cares for the truth which incontrovertible historical record reveals with crystal clarity.

That single document, Nehru’s letter of March 22, 1959, to Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (pages 451-454), which has been long neglected, not only marked a turning point in India-China relations but locked the two countries in an adversarial position with fateful consequences to this day. It is not a revelation. It figures in the very first White Paper published by the Government of India on September 7, 1959, itself an act of poor judgment. It is a measure of the editor Prof. Madhavan K. Palat’s ineptness that the volume itself is not cited in the footnote but the pages are, an error repeated in the footnote to Zhou’s letter of January 23, 1959, which he creditably includes as an appendix.

To appreciate the significance of Nehru’s letter of March 22, the background must be borne in mind. India attained independence from British rule in 1947 with a boundary problem on its hands. It need not have assumed the character of a dispute, still less led to a war in 1962. The true state of India’s northern boundary was accurately depicted in the official maps by the Surveyor General of India, which were annexed to the two White Papers on Indian States published by Vallabhbhai Patel’s Ministry of States. There was a clear line in the eastern sector to depict the McMahon Line, but the entire boundary, from the Sino-Indo-Afghan trijunction in the west right up to the Sino-Indo-Nepal trijunction in the east, was depicted clearly as “boundary undefined”. In one of the maps, the colour wash covered only half the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Nehru’s and Vallabhbhai Patel’s attention (vide this letter of November 7, 1950) was focussed on the McMahon Line. In 1951, the Director of the Historical Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, K. Zachariah, a thorough professional, produced a report entitled “Studies on the Northern Frontier” on the basis of the archives. Even 60 years later, it remains suppressed because of the inconvenient truths it contains. There can be no answer to an application under the Right to Information Act for its disclosure for public edification. It contains no military or diplomatic secrets, only an honest historical record. In 1953, Zachariah retired and was succeeded by J.N. Khosla, who quit in 1954 to be succeeded by Sarvepalli Gopal, who stayed on until 1966.

Nehru’s letter

On March 24, 1953, a decision was taken to formulate a new boundary. Nehru issued a directive on July 1, 1954, to implement that decision. Old maps were burnt. The new map showed a defined boundary in the western sector also. It included the Aksai Chin in Ladakh in India’s territory. Nehru took up the McMahon Line with Zhou in 1956 when they met in New Delhi, having raised the issue of China’s maps earlier in 1954 in Beijing. Eventually, after an unsatisfactory exchange of notes between the two governments (August 21, 1958, and November 3, 1958), Nehru wrote to Zhou on December 14, 1958.

However, while India’s note of August 21, 1958, explicitly complained that China’s maps depicted as its “large areas in eastern Ladakh which form part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir”, Nehru’s letter of December 14 was explicit only on the North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh. For the rest, he said “…as well as some other parts which are and have long been well recognised as parts of India and been administered by India in the same way as other parts of our country”. On Aksai Chin, at least this claim was untrue.

Zhou Enlai’s reply

Zhou replied to Nehru on January 23, 1959: “First of all, I wish to point out that the Sino-Indian boundary has never been formally delimited. Historically, no treaty or agreement on the Sino-Indian boundary has ever been concluded between the Chinese Central government and the Indian government. So far as the actual situation is concerned, there are certain differences between the two sides over the border question. In the past few years, questions as to which side certain areas on the Sino-Indian border belong were on more than one occasion taken up between the Chinese and the Indian sides through diplomatic channels. The latest concerns an area in the southern part of China’s Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which has always been under Chinese jurisdiction. Patrol duties have continually been carried out in that area by the border guards of the Chinese government. And the Sinkiang-Tibet highway built by our country in 1956 runs through that area. Yet, recently the Indian government claimed that that area was Indian territory. All this shows that border disputes do exist between China and India….

“An important question concerning the Sino-Indian boundary is the question of the so-called McMahon Line…. I have told you that it has never been recognised by the Chinese Central government….. Chinese government, on the one hand, finds it necessary to take a more or less realistic attitude towards the McMahon Line and, on the other hand, cannot but act with prudence and needs time to deal with this matter. All this I have mentioned to you on more than one occasion. However, we believe that, on account of the friendly relations between China and India, a friendly settlement can eventually be found for this section of the boundary line” (emphasis added, throughout) .

It is against this background that Nehru’s fateful letter of March 22 must be appraised. He claimed: “It is true that this frontier has not been demarcated on the ground in all sectors but I am somewhat surprised to know that this frontier was not accepted at any time by the Government of China. The traditional frontier, as you may be aware, follows the geographical principle of watershed on the crest of the High Himalayan Range, but apart from this, in most parts, it has the sanction of specific international agreements between the then Government of India and the Central Government of China. It may perhaps be useful if I draw your attention to some of these agreements….

“The Ladakh region of the State of Jammu and Kashmir—a treaty of 1842 between Kashmir on the one hand and the Emperor of China and the Lama Guru of Lhasa on the other mentions the Indo-China boundary in the Ladakh region. In 1847 the Chinese government admitted that this boundary was sufficiently and distinctly fixed. The area now claimed by China has always been depicted as part of India on official maps, has been surveyed by Indian officials and even a Chinese map of 1893 shows it as Indian territory.”

The critical moments in the history of any dispute is when it is first raised clearly and the issues are defined. At such a moment, a leader, faced with the assertion of a territorial dispute, must bear in mind three factors: territorial integrity, the strategic importance of the territory in question, and the political consequences of failure to resolve it. Nehru brushed aside all three. He asserted that the Ladakh-Tibet Treaty of 1842 “ mentions the Indo-China boundary in the Ladakh region” and that in 1847 China had “admitted that this boundary was sufficiently and distinctly fixed”. This was a strange blend of irrelevance and falsehood.

The treaty of 1842 did not define that border at all. It was a non-aggression pact concluded after the end of hostilities. It simply affirmed the boundaries that existed “formerly”. The linear boundary came with the British. India, like others, had frontier zones. If, indeed, the boundaries were defined in 1842, why did the British pursue China for a definition of the boundaries soon after Kashmir came under British suzerainty under the Treaty of Amritsar on March 9, 1846? China, weak and insecure, rebuffed the overtures saying, on January 26, 1847, that since its territory “has its ancient frontier, it was needless to establish any other”. This is what Nehru cited as acceptance of his claim to a defined border.

If the boundary in Ladakh was defined, where was the need for: (1) The protracted Sino-British correspondence on the subject from 1846-1848, 16 letters in all; (2) Two unsuccessful Boundary Commissions in 1846 and 1847; and (3) Britain’s Note to China on March 14, 1899, proposing a definite boundary for northern and eastern Kashmir.

There are, besides, many internal British memoranda on the need for a definite boundary. Two questions cannot be evaded: (1) Was Nehru ignorant of this none too voluminous record? and (2) Did Gopal not draw his attention to them? Nehru’s assertion that Aksai Chin was always depicted as part of India’s territory was untrue to his own knowledge. He had himself revised the maps in 1954, after all. Remember, his reply was written after due deliberation, two whole months after Zhou’s letter, no doubt with Gopal’s assistance.

On each of the three factors, Nehru went wrong. The territory in the crucial sector in Ladakh was of no strategic value and was not part of India’s territory either. It was never “surveyed” by India, as he claimed. It was of strategic importance to China since the Xinjiang-Tibet road ran through it. Likewise, the McMahon Line was of strategic importance to India. This is the one boundary dispute that should have been the easiest to resolve because each side had its own vital non-negotiable interest exclusively within its own control. This was a pre-eminently negotiable dispute.

B.N. Mullik writes in his memoirs: “Our recommendation was discussed in January 1959 at a meeting in the External Affairs Ministry with Gen. Thimayya, Chief of the Army Staff, present. Thimayya quite categorically stated that he did not consider that the Aksai Chin road was of any strategic importance nor was he willing to open any posts at Palong Karpo and Sarigh Jilganang Kol because he felt that small Army posts would be of little use and in any case he had no means of maintaining them from his base of Leh. When I argued that the Chinese were using this road to bring reinforcements to western Tibet whence they could threaten eastern Ladakh and so this road was of much security importance to us, Thimayya agreed but expressed his inability to do anything about it. The Foreign Secretary [S. Dutt] also agreed with the Army chief and felt that posts at Shamul Lungpa, Shinglung, etc., would be of no use to stop Chinese infiltration. They might even provoke the Chinese into making further intrusions. I was informed by the Foreign Secretary after some days that the Prime Minister had approved of his views and no posts need be opened in this area…. The attitude of the External Affairs Ministry was that this part of the territory was useless to India. Even if the Chinese did not encroach into it, India could not make any use of it. The boundary had not been demarcated and had been shifted more than once by the British.” ( The Chinese Betrayal, Allied Publishers, 1971, pages 204-5).

Aksai Chin

Aksai Chin was neither part of India nor was it of any strategic importance to it. Now for the political consequences if the area was allowed to become a subject of dispute and the dispute lingered on unresolved to embitter relations between India and China.

None knew that better than Nehru. In reply to Vallabhbhai Patel’s oft-quoted letter of November 7, 1950, Nehru sent him “a Note on China and Tibet” dated November 18, 1950. He explained his policy in the context of his entire outlook in these revealing terms, which bear quotation in extenso. “I think that it is exceedingly unlikely that we may have to face any real military invasion from the Chinese side, whether in peace or in war, in the foreseeable future. I base this conclusion on a consideration of various world factors. In peace, such an invasion would undoubtedly lead to world war.[!] China, though internally big, is in a way amorphous and easily capable of being attacked on its sea coasts and by air. In such a war, China would have its main front in the South and East and it will be fighting for its very existence against powerful enemies. It is inconceivable that it should divert its forces and its strength across the inhospitable terrain of Tibet and undertake a wild adventure across the Himalayas. Any such attempt will greatly weaken its capacity to meet its real enemies on other fronts. Thus I rule out any major attack on India by China….

“While there is, in any opinion, practically no chance of a major attack on India by China, there are certainly chances of gradual infiltration across our border and possibly of entering and taking possession of disputed territory, if there is no obstruction to this happening. We must therefore take all necessary precautions to prevent this. But, again, we must differentiate between these precautions and those that might be necessary to meet a real attack.” Note that even as early as in 1950 Nehru was fully aware that a territorial dispute with China very much existed.

To continue: “If we really feared an attack and had to make full provision for it, this would cast an intolerable burden on us, financial and otherwise, and it would weaken our general defence position. There are limits beyond which we cannot go, at least for some years, and a spreading out of our army on distant frontiers would be bad from every military or strategic point of view.

“In spite of our desire to settle the points at issue between us and Pakistan, and developing peaceful relations with it, the fact remains that our major possible enemy is Pakistan. This has compelled us to think of our defence mainly in terms of Pakistan’s aggression. If we begin to think of, and prepare for, China’s aggression in the same way, we would weaken considerably on the Pakistan side. We might well be got in a pincer movement…. If we fall out completely with China, Pakistan will undoubtedly try to take advantage of this, politically or otherwise. The position of India thus will be bad from a defence point of view. We cannot have all the time two possible enemies on either side of India. This danger will not be got over, even if we increase our defence forces or even if other foreign countries help us in arming. The measure of safety that one gets by increasing the defence apparatus is limited by many factors. But whatever that measure of safety might be, strategically we would be in an unsound position and the burden of this will be very great on us.” (Durga Das, Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Navajivan Publishing House, Volume 10, pages 344-45).

Is it unfair to say that on all the three factors Nehru acted against his own insights, against his own prior assessments? He sinned against the light and his warnings on November 18, 1950, came true a little over a decade later. The Sino-Pak entente is a direct consequence of the wrong turn Nehru took on March 22, 1959. There was every opportunity of making amends until at least the end of 1960. Nehru ignored every opportunity. Where he misled and whipped up public opinion, the results are still with us.

This volume, like its predecessors, contains instructive material on a host of matters. One looks forward to its successors in the hope they will contain more material on China and Kashmir than this volume does. That said, no student of history can afford to neglect it.

Nehru’s letter of March 22, 1959, was in keeping with his directive of July 1, 1954, on the maps, in which he said, the boundaries as then (in 1954) defined were not open to discussion. It was written with full consciousness of the fact that a boundary dispute existed. He was set against a compromise. This stand spelt a deadlock.

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