Himalayan Borders

Borders - click to read the article

The border between Tibet and India is a British invention, imposed secretly on Tibet while China was in eclipse. India and China went to war over it in 1962. South of the international border there's another border - India's "Inner Line. " It divides Indians and plagues travellers.

The Republic of India was born on August 15th, 1947. It gathered up the five hundred or so princely states that the British Raj had never officially absorbed. Indian troops reminded the people of Sikkim that their country was an Indian protectorate. Indian diplomats persuaded the government of Bhutan that India should be its guide in foreign affairs.

The People’s Republic of China was born on October 1st, 1949. Month by month, the Red Army gathered up the farthest provinces of the old Chinese Empire.

The farthest province of all was Tibet. The Chinese Emperors had exercised a loose kind of authority over it since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then in 1911 Sun Yat Sen’s nationalists deposed the Emperor and set up the Chinese Republic. The country became a playground for warlords and Tibet was left to plough its own furrow. The Chinese continued to regard Tibet as a part of their country; the Tibetans did not. To resolve the disagreement the Red Army moved into Tibet.

The decisive assault began on 7 October 1950. On 19 October the Chinese captured Chamdo, the regional capital of Eastern Tibet. In May 1951 a Tibetan delegation accepted the "17 Point Agreement," ceding sovereignty over Tibet to China.

The first of the 17 points summed the situation up neatly. It said: the Tibetan people shall be united and drive out the imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet; that the Tibetan people shall return to the big family of the motherland - the People's Republic of China.

People in Eastern Tibet seem to have taken the first clause to their hearts. Popular resistance to the Chinese forces continued, and from time to time involved fighting on a very large scale.

Soon the Red Army was facing India across the Himalaya.

The border between Tibet and India was a British invention

The border between Tibet and India was a British invention, imposed secretly on Tibet while China was in eclipse. Tibet was robbed by the deal, of course. But Tibetan nationalists still think warmly of the arrangement because it implies that Tibet was in those days a proper country, fit to be robbed nation-to-nation by the British Empire.

The British treated their territory along the Tibetan frontier as a buffer zone, and made no particular effort to govern it. Once they had departed, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Chou-En-Lai to express his admiration for China’s production of rice and pig iron, and his satisfaction with the British frontier1. Chou-En-Lai wrote back to Jawaharlal Nehru to express his interest in India’s five-year plan, and to point out that the frontier was a product of imperialist aggression.

Lhasa rose against the Chinese in March 1959. The Dalai Lama repudiated the 17 Point Agreement and fled to India. There were skirmishes along the Himalaya. China's estrangement from India's ally, the Soviet Union, was just around the corner. Defence Minister Krishna Menon declared that India would fight “to the last man” for its borderlands.

In September 1962 Nehru told his forces to evict the Chinese from India’s North-East Frontier. The Beatles had not quite released their first hit single. The Cuban Missile Crisis had not quite begun2.

Indian infantry struggled up jungle valleys sodden with rain and out onto high ridges where the air was thin. The politicians in Delhi seem to have supposed that the Red Army would face even greater difficulties on its side of the mountains. In fact, there was nothing there but the wide Tibetan plateau, high and cold but bare of serious obstacles. The Chinese roadhead was just a few hours march from the front line, and the Chinese troops were adjusted to the mountain air. Their counter-attack became a continuation of the “battle of the feet” that they had waged in the Chinese provinces a decade earlier. They advanced as fast their feet could carry them; the Indians withdrew at the same rate.

  • 1. For the text of the letters exchanged between Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-Lai (1958-1959), see Alan Lawrence, China’s Foreign Relations since 1949 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975).
  • 2. The Beatles released Love Me Do on 5 October 1962. On 22 October 1962, President John F. Kennedy went on television to tell the American people that the Soviet Union was preparing a series of offensive missile sites on Cuba and that the purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere