British wiles in Tibet

The territorial concessions that the British won for India from Tibet in 1914 were received after the Chinese exited the conference at Shimla.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

Indian soldiers patrol the border with China in Bumla, at an altitude of 4,700 metres above sea level, in Arunachal Pradesh. A file photograph.

Indian soldiers patrol the border with China in Bumla, at an altitude of 4,700 metres above sea level, in Arunachal Pradesh. A file photograph.

ONE hundred years ago, in July 1914, a tripartite convention, involving Great Britain, China and Tibet, culminated in Simla (now Shimla). The conference, which began on October 13, 1913, was held at Wheatfield, a property of the Maharaja of Darbhanga. Apart from the large conference chamber, separate meeting and retiring rooms were provided for the respective plenipotentiaries and their staff. The refreshment room on the third floor catered to the needs of the delegates. The Tibetan delegation was lodged at a place called Mythe. The Chinese party was put up at Okover. The residence of Sir Henry McMahon, the British plenipotentiary, was called Konckdrin.

Despite elaborate plans and preparations, the six-month-long conference was a failure. However, it produced a secret bilateral accord between Tibet and Great Britain, which was signed in Delhi, away from the conference venue. The dubious agreement was disavowed by all the three parties to the convention.

After the completion of the conference, the three plenipotentiaries incurred the wrath of their respective governments. The Tibetan plenipotentiary, Lonchen Shatra, “lost credit with the bulk of his countrymen, for having given too much and obtained too little”. That Lonchen Shatra lost face in Tibet is corroborated by C.A Bell, one of the key British officials at the Shimla convention. Sir A.H. McMahon, Secretary, Government of India, Foreign Department, too, did not earn any felicitations from Whitehall and was posted out to Egypt. Ivan Chen, the Chinese representative, was considered a traitor by his countrymen. Although he did not sign any formal agreement at Shimla, he was castigated for initialling a draft agreement that was not approved by the Chinese government.

On July 6, 1914, three days after the last day of the conference, Ivan Chen wrote to McMahon regarding his government’s last message:

“The Government of China has no right to alienate any portion of her territory and this accounts for their inability to sign the Tripartite Convention and to recognise any Convention or other similar documents that have been signed between Great Britain and Tibet.”

On August 6, 1915, exactly one year after the completion of the conference, C.A. Bell wrote to the Secretary, Foreign and Political Department in India, enumerating the trade and territorial advantages that accrued to the British from the so-called Shimla accord. Bell wrote that Tibet had not only given Britain some 2,000 square miles of fertile land but also granted “cession of other tracts of Tibetan territory bordering on territories of hill tribes of the north-eastern frontier. We have thus been able to form buffer territories along the whole northern frontier of Assam, between it and Tibet. Formerly Tibetan territory Tawang adjoined the plains of Assam and might at any time have been occupied by Chinese troops. These cessions are naturally of great importance.”

On September 3, 1915, Secretary, Foreign Department in India, replied to Bell’s letter. He categorically stated: “Since the Simla Convention has not been signed by the Chinese government or accepted by the Russian government and is, therefore, for present invalid. It is true that by the secret Anglo-Tibetan Declaration, which recognised the Convention as binding on Great Britain and Tibet, certain advantages under the Convention have been obtained by both parties, but no useful purpose can be gained at present by an examination of those advantages. The fact remains that the negotiations conducted last year in Shimla broke down simply and solely because the Government of India attempted to secure for Tibet greater advantages than the Chinese were ready to concede.” The British vacillations on the outcome of the Shimla conference was brilliantly brought out by Karunakar Gupta in his 1974 book The Hidden History of the Sino-Indian Frontier . Gupta exposed the imperial intrigue that led to alterations in recorded history. The standard work on British Indian treaties, The Aitchison’sTreaties , Volume XIV, which was reissued in 1929-33, mentioned that the “Simla Convention was abortive because of the Chinese refusal to sign it” and that, in consequence, “it was of no great international significance”.

Usual imperial trick After a few years, Sir Olaf Caroe played the usual imperial trick. He recalled the original Volume XIV of Aitchison from all libraries and sent a new Volume XIV, under the same date as the original. This volume took a favourable view of the Shimla conference and introduced the element of “McMahon Line” in it. However, what Caroe failed to manage was the replacement of the original Volume XIV at the Harvard libraries. The net result is that we have two contradicting versions of the Shimla conference. The Harvard version plays down the Shimla conference and revised copies available in London bookshelves tell a different story. As long as the Chinese were part of the negotiations, the British never brought up the issue of the India-Tibet border. However, once Ivan Chen left Shimla, McMahon persuaded Lonchen Shatra to secretly give territorial concessions to India.

The north-east boundary was not dealt with at Shimla and, therefore, it is a myth that the McMahon Line emerged from the conference. On July 23, 1914, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, wrote to the Secretary of State, in London: “We recognise that a consideration of the eastern or Indo-Chinese portion of the North-East Frontier did not form part of the functions of the Conference.”

The planning and conduct of the conference was largely due to the initiative shown by a bunch of British officers who were involved in the 1904 invasion of Tibet. As early as April 1912, Major W.F.T. O’Connor, who was military assistant to Lt-Col. Francis Younghusband during the 1903-04 invasion of Tibet, looking for some action, wrote to McMahon: “Russia has not taken long to tackle the Mongolian question…. I presume that our own relations with regard to Tibet must now be under consideration and if such is the case I am sure you will bear in mind my earnest desire for employment there, or in that connection, should any opportunity occur.”

Another military officer, Lt-Col. J. Manners-Smith, the British government’s representative in Nepal, proposed that Nepalese troops be sent in aid of the Tibetan government with an aim to throw out the disgruntled Chinese troops and establish an autonomous government in Lhasa. Manners-Smith’s proposal was shot down not only by McMahon but also by the Maharaja of Nepal, who said that the “game would not be worth the candle”. His argument was based on the experience of Younghusband’s 1904 military expedition, which exposed the falsity of the assumption that Tibet was rich. The British felt that another military expedition to an impoverished Tibet was commercially not viable. Furthermore, the British interest lay in protecting more lucrative holdings such as Hong Kong and those in China, rather than in long-term commitments in Tibet.

Expediency and envy were the twin drivers of British policy to get China on the negotiating table to discuss Tibet. The British officers found in the political instability in China an opportunity to strike. They were also envious of the Russian victory in securing a Russo-Mongol pact, in 1913, which divided the territory into Inner and Outer Mongolia and gave greater access to Russia in the Outer region.

British ranks divided over Tibet On the question of Tibet, there was division within the British ranks. The Government of India’s approach on Tibet was completely at variance with that of Whitehall and of the English embassy in China. The British establishment in India was concerned about its regional interests centring on the rhetoric of Russian entry into India through Lhasa. The primary concern of the English envoy in Peking (Beijing) was to protect the imperial land holdings in an unstable China. Whitehall was preoccupied with a larger strategic game being played out in Europe prior to the First World War.

It is under these circumstances that the Government of India tried to convince London to sign the treaty with Tibet alone. On the other hand, the British Minister in Peking suggested a restrained course of action. These differences are amply clear in the Viceroy of India’s letter to the Secretary of State for India, written on June 22, 1914:

“I am not aware of considerations which impel the foreign office to deprecate the signing of the Convention by Sir A.H. McMahon with the Tibetan plenipotentiary independently of China if the Chinese government still hold out, but if these considerations are based entirely on Sir J. Jordan’s doubts as to the prospects of concessions and mining leases in China being compromised by such action, I would like to bring to Your Lordship’s notice that Tibetan situation is a purely Indian question which closely affects the defence of our frontiers and that His Majesty’s government should not allow British commercial concessions to weigh in the balance. We have good reason to believe that China will also join in signature if faced with fait accompli in signature of the Convention with Tibet alone.”

To begin with, the Chinese were reluctant to come to India for the convention. They wanted to have the negotiations in Peking. However, Sir John Newell Jordan, the British Minister in Peking, persuaded the Chinese to participate. At that stage, the Republican Chinese government was weak and it needed British cooperation to gain international legitimacy after the dissolution of the monarchy in 1911. Moreover, the Chinese thought that the British would act in good faith as an impartial mediator to restore peace and harmony in Tibet. It was for these reasons that China, through a presidential order of June 1913, appointed Ivan Chen and Hu Hanmin “Commissioners for the Pacification of Tibet”. The British opposed the use of the title “Pacificator” and asked for a written assurance from the Chinese that it did not imply any judicial or administrative control over Tibetan persons or territory.

They also protested against the inclusion of Hu Hanmin in the negotiating team because the young journalist was considered to be anti-British. Ivan Chen was more acceptable because the British were familiar with him. He had not only studied law in England but had been posted in the Chinese embassy in London continuously for 14 years.

The British not only were extra courteous towards Lonchen Shatra, who was given special permission to buy guns and ammunition from India, but were equally careful about the hospitality offered to Ivan Chen. In a memorandum of November 20, 1913, McMahon wrote, “If Mr Ivan Chen is worried by the attention he receives, he might be referred to a passage in his translation of ‘the book of filial duty’. In the Shih Ching it is thus written ‘the dignified statesman is always the object of the attention of the people’.”

However, British hospitality failed to get Ivan Chen to sign the final agreement. The process of putting pressure on him to initial the draft agreement is well documented in archival records. On April 17, 1914, Ivan Chen was told that on April 22, the draft convention and the map would be laid on the table to be initialled in full conference. And if the Chinese refused to initial the draft, the entire proposal would be withdrawn.

After this ultimatum, Ivan Chen was locked up in an intense 10-hour discussion at the foreign office. According to McMahon, this prolonged interview was of little interest because Ivan Chen did not raise any substantial issue. On the night of April 21, Ivan Chen communicated five additional demands received from his government. This was indicative of the Chinese government’s attitude, which refused to attach any importance to the threat of an inconclusive meeting.

Now, McMahon was aware that all his efforts were on the verge of going in vain. The Chinese were adamant and not afraid of losing their seat in the tripartite conference. In the April 22 meeting, McMahon enacted a drama by withdrawing the convention from the table and showed to the Chinese and Tibetan colleagues that the rupture of the conference was on the cards. However, he later agreed to continue with the meeting, after a week, on April 27, after making amendments that were acceptable to the Chinese. On April 27, the Chinese representative initialled the draft. On April 29, Ivan Chen informed the British that his government had disavowed his action of initialling the convention and declined to recognise the settlement. Lonchen Shatra considered Ivan Chen’s unwillingness to sign the agreement as resembling the story of “water catching fire”.

Atul Bhardwaj is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

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