Himalayan Borders - Page 2

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Fifteen hundred kilometres away, on the North-West Frontier, other Chinese troops moved forward. A few units of the Indian Army fought to the last man. The Chinese advanced to their claim line in the Ladhaki mountains and stopped.

On the North-East frontier they did not stop. Down in the Brahmaputra Valley, the leading citizens of Tezpur packed up and left, pausing just long enough to recommend that the townsfolk should die under Chinese bombs rather than surrender their homes. It began to seem that India might be clipped of its eastern wing.

Slit trenches were dug in Delhi’s public gardens. There was a rumour that Chinese paratroops were on their way. There was another rumour that General Kaul, India’s Chief of General Staff, had been captured by the Chinese.

“It is, unfortunately, untrue,” said President Radhakrishnan of India1.

Indian citizens of Chinese descent living in Assam were rounded up and sent to an internment camp in Rajasthan. Several hundred "stateless aliens" of Chinese descent living in Calcutta were also interned there.

The Inner Line - an old British device - was sharpened up

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a veteran of Gandhi's non-violent struggle against the British Empire. He was also a man easily impressed by his own words. Sometimes he sounded like the Mahatma at war, and sometimes he sounded like Joe Stalin. At the end of November, he told a group of schoolchildren that the war would be long, and that when they grew up they might get a chance to fight in it.

A US aircraft carrier changed course for the Bay of Bengal.

The Chinese withdrew, their point made. Possibly they were mindful of the threat to their supply lines posed by the continuing Tibetan resistance. They returned all their captured arms to India. India professed itself insulted. Nehru became an old man, and eighteen months later he had a stroke and died. His war dogged every step that I was to take in the Himalaya.

The politicians in Delhi came to see, in the end, that war is an art of the possible. Victory over the Red Army was not possible. Victory over civilians was thought to be a more sensible goal.

Trade between Tibet and India's Himalayan regions was halted, with bitter consequences for those in the Indian Himalaya who had depended on it.

The Inner Line - an old British device - was sharpened up2. The Line is an internal frontier drawn through the mountains, well south of the real frontier. Indians living south of the Line needed a permit to cross it. Foreigners were not allowed over it at all. Most of the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalaya were quarantined behind the Line, though there had been no fighting there. They soon became as mysterious to outsiders as the ocean floor.

Then in 1974 the Line was redrawn, and some of the mountains of Garhwal were ejected into civilian India. An expedition led by Balwant Sandu and the British mountaineer Chris Bonington travelled north from Josimath and climbed a frosted granite blade called Changabang.

I was sixteen years old, and learning to climb on the crags of the English Lake District. It took barely an hour to get there if I could scrounge a lift with climbers from my local mountaineering club; otherwise it might take half a day of hitching. Back in school, I would sit beside the classroom windows and practice tying bowlines and clove hitches in the cords that dangled from the Venetian blinds. That winter, Chris Bonington brought his slides of Changabang to a hall near my school. I saw pictures of granite monoliths and ice fangs and tormented green valleys and holy men bathing at sacred springs

Other climbers and trekkers followed Bonnington's lead. Many of the Garhwal's peaks and trails have become global must-dos. But the inner line still meanders across the Garhwal , uncharted by any map readily available to the public. To travel through the Garhwal - and various other parts of the Himalaya - you must locate the line and then either avoid it or obtain the necessary permits. If you are travelling alone and without formality you will not get them.

  • 1. Radhakrishnan's wry comment remark was reported by Neville Maxwell in his book India's China War (1967), based on a verbal communication from Kenneth Galbraith.
  • 2. India's independence hadn't put an end to the Inner Line. The 1952 issue of the Himalayan Journal contains a description of the Line's location, provided by the Minister of External Affairs. Foreign expeditions nevertheless enjoyed fairly straightforward access to the Garhwal peaks until 1962.