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Roots of India China Conflict
by Dr. Kavita Sharma Bookmark and Share

Few people apart from the specialists know the genesis of the India China conflict in the Northeast part of India and China border. This article traces the genesis of the conflict in order to better understand the present and how it will be a long haul before any permanent settlement will take place.

To understand the ongoing border conflict between China and India, it is necessary to go back to its roots. India made mistakes that eventually led to the disastrous 1962 war, the scars of which still remain. Once again, India is faced with a Chinese leader who dreams of his omnipotence. It was Mao Tse Tung at that time and it is Xi Jinping now. Just as Mao made the twentieth century his ‘own’, Xi Jinping wants to claim the twenty-first for himself. He is ambitious, intelligent, and astute enough to attempt it. After all, in a very short span of time he has managed to acquire powers that surpass even those of Mao and silence all opposition to himself. The genesis of the problem probably goes back to China annexing Tibet in 1950-51, fulfilling its centuries-old ambition to rule Tibet and to India’s acquiescing in it to appease the Chinese.

It is pertinent to recall, at this point, the diagnosis of China made by Sir Charles Bell, British India’s Political Representative to Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal from 1908-1919, in his biography of the thirteenth Dalai Lama. He made four points: first, the Chinese have never been so involved that they are ready to fight for it; second, they are ruthless and cruel; third, they have scant regard for truth and make statements that further their interests; and fourth, any concession given to them only becomes a stepping stone for them for further concessions. Similarly, Claude Arpi in his extremely lucid book, Tibet: The Lost Frontier, analyses: “There is…one aspect of Chinese culture that is little known outside the circle of professional historians. It is the aggressive imperialism that characterized the Chinese politics of China throughout the course of her history, at least during the part of which is well known to us…It is characteristic of China that if a region once acknowledged her nominal suzerainty even for a short period, she should regard it as a part of her empire for ever and could revive her claims over it even after a thousand years whenever there was a chance of enforcing it.” India, on the other hand, has never had imperialistic ambitions. It is her ideas that have travelled and not her arms. Arpi adds: “The Chinese people have exemplified two characteristics during their five-thousand-year history: one is their attachment to ‘their land’ (or what they perceive as ‘their land’), and the second is their obsession with power….”

The Travails of Tibet

Given these traits, the occupation of Tibet that allowed the Chinese to come right up to the Indian borders removing the buffer of Tibet, a state friendly to India, was dangerous. George Ginsburgs correctly pointed out in his study on Communist China and Tibet, that “…he who holds Tibet dominates the Himalayan Piedmont, threatens the Indian subcontinent; and he who threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have all Southeast Asia within his reach, and all of Asia.” It demonstrated to the world who the real leader of Asia was, showing that India was incapable of defending a weaker country. India blundered and she will pay for it for a long time. Several questions arise. Why was Tibet not able to protect itself? Why was it necessary for India to protect Tibet? What was the relationship between Tibet and India and Tibet and China?

As one reads the history of Tibet, it becomes more than evident that Buddhism turned a warlike nation into a completely pacifist one that only looked inward and isolated itself completely. Buddhism came to Tibet between the 7th and 11th century CE from India at a stage when it had become decadent In Tibet, it intermingled with the indigenous Bon religion, a form of nature worship, that also entailed the worship of good spirits, propitiation of demons, killing and sacrifice of animals, and a great reliance on omens and divinations. The combination of Buddhism and Bon formed a strong national faith, suited to Tibetan needs.

Before embracing Buddhism, Tibet had been one of the chief military powers of Asia, a war-like country, which had overrun large parts of Turkestan, India, and China. It had even captured the Chinese capital and exacted tribute from it. Was the influence of Buddhism its undoing? The Tibetans may claim that they are the only country in the world that prays for the harmony and well-being of the entire world and in all creation but notwithstanding this idealism and its extremely laudable values, the outcome is that the existence of Tibet itself has become fraught. By the beginning of the twentieth century, centuries of Buddhism had made Tibet materially and militarily weak. Military service itself had come to be regarded sinful because it involved the taking of life, something prohibited by Buddhism. Tibet seemed to occupy itself only with the setting up of monasteries and following elaborate rituals. Every festival, and there were plenty of them, lasted for weeks in Lhasa. Also, theatrical performances carried on for days on end. They were attended by the Dalai Lama, together with his ministers. Was there really time and energy left for much else?

Impact of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama

The thirteenth Dalai Lama tried to rectify the situation He a remarkable figure, who, after centuries, took up both his spiritual and temporal duties with great vigour. His whole life is a saga of Chinese perfidy and his attempts to deal with it. At the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, a relationship of patron and priest had been established between China and Tibet, respectively by which Tibet was supposed to be the spiritual guide of China, while China was to protect it from all outside powers while maintaining the authority of the Dalai Lama in his country. However, the thirteenth Dalai Lama not only attempted to take charge of his own country but tried to maintain its independence. This involved great hardship to himself as he had to flee from Tibet twice, once for a period of five years to Mongolia and China when Tibet was attacked and defeated by British India, and the second time for a period of two years to British India as the country was then attacked by the Chinese. His stay in India made him more aware of how the world outside Tibet functioned. He also developed an intense friendship with Sir Charles Bell, British India’s political officer for Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet who spoke excellent Lhasa – dialect Tibetan and was a genuine friend of Tibet. In 1912, the thirteenth Dalai Lama finally returned to Tibet to take charge of his own country.

The Dalai Lama’s experiences during his two exiles had shown him that it was easier to deal with the British than with China, whom he regarded as dishonest and cruel. In one of his conversations with Bell he is reported to have said: “I would like to have Tibet entirely independent of China, and to consult the British government whenever the necessity arises. The British government, in the Simla Convention, having decided that there should be a Chinese Amban (representative) in Lhasa with tennis court of 300 soldiers, I have not ventured to represent the matter to them again. But I am opposed to having an Amban in Lhasa. When the Chinese government first sent an Amban with Chinese soldiers to Lhasa, they said that the soldiers were a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama of that period, namely the Seventh. Gradually the escort was increased in size, and was made the escort of the Amban, not of Dalai Lama. And later on, a second Amban was introduced.

“By myself, I can control any disaffected elements in Tibet, and hold the country together. But if an Amban comes, those who are dissatisfied will turn to him, and he will be able to foment opposition to the Tibetan government and myself. If an Amban must come, I want to have a British representative also at Lhasa. But until an Amban comes, it is sufficient that the British representative should visit Lhasa occasionally as necessity arises.

“The Chinese will make every effort to increase the number of their soldiers in Lhasa, by sending up a fresh escort to relieve the old one, and then not taking the old escort away; and by whatever other means they can devise. If the Chinese Amban is to have an escort, it should be furnished by Tibetan, not Chinese, soldiers. And the escort should be a good deal less than 300, the number fixed by the Simla Convention.”

According to Bell, on his return to Tibet the Dalai Lama firmly told the Chinese that he would rule Tibet himself. He debarred Chinese soldiers and the Chinese people from entering that part of Tibet over which he ruled, which was a major portion. Thus, Tibet partially gained independence from China during the reign of the thirteenth Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama also tried to bring about changes in the leisurely way of life that Tibet had got accustomed to. He wanted Tibet to become capable of looking after its own interests and to that end, he tried to bring in reforms like modern education and the setting up of a professionally trained army. He met with some success but his voice was not heeded to by the large monasteries.

One year before his passing, the Dalai Lama wanted to withdraw from secular life and devote himself solely to religion. He wrote his last testament for his people into which he distilled his wisdom and experience. His pragmatism is evident in his statement:

“The government of India is near us and has a large army. The government of China also has a large army. We should therefore maintain firm friendship with these two; both are powerful.

“There are one or two small countries over there that show hostility towards us. In order to prevail against them, you must enlist in the Army, young vigorous men and you must give military training of such a kind, as will benefit afterwards.”

He went on to say that in times to come, “The religion and the secular administration may be attacked both from the outside and from the inside. Unless we can guard our own country, it will now happen that that the Lai and Panchen Lama’s, the father and the son, the holders of the faith, the glorious rebirths, will be broken down and left without a name. As regards the Monasteries and the priesthood, their lands and other properties will be destroyed. The administrative customs of the three religious kings will be weakened. The officers of the state, ecclesiastical, and secular, will find their lands seized and their property confiscated, and they themselves made to serve their enemies, or wander about the country as beggars do. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and in overpowering fear; the days and the nights will drag on slowly in suffering.”His advice to his people was: “Do not be traitors to church and state. By working for another country against your own. Tibet is happy, and in comfort. Now; the matter rests in your own hands. All civil and military matters should be organized with knowledge; act in harmony with each other; do not pretend that you can do what you cannot do. The improvement of the secular administration depends on your ecclesiastical and secular officials. High officials, low officials, and peasants must all act in harmony to bring happiness to Tibet: one person alone cannot lift a heavy carpet; several must unite to do so.”

His words, as it usually happens, were forgotten and Tibet became an easy prey for China.

The Power Games and Vulnerable Tibet

It is amazing that Tibet was forever looking for a stronger power to defend and protect it at different times be it China, India or even Russia, while all these countries did not hesitate to sacrifice it in their own interests, whenever it suited them without even bothering to consult it. Since it had isolated itself with little or no contact with the outside world, Tibet was left ignorant of the power games of the countries it looked towards and how to deal with them. It led to blunders at some of the most crucial moments. For example, Tibet did not become a member of the League of Nations in spite of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama wanting to do so because of the opposition of the large Monasteries. The argument was that all the countries in the League were too far from Tibet to help it in times of need and hence it was enough for it to deal with China and India. Tibet failed to realize that such a membership would have once for all established it as an independent nation and the question of Chinese suzerainty that gradually transformed to sovereignty would not have arisen. Again, it failed to reaffirm the Convention between British India, China, and Tibet, signed in 1914 in Simla at the time of Indian independence when the newly independent government of India, wanted it to do so. Granted, it was an ambiguous treaty, but it at least showed that Tibet was an independent country at that time and had participated as such. Why did Tibet act in this fashion?

Tibet’s problem was the border between Tibet and the Northeast region of India, which had been proposed by the British colonial administrator Sir Henry McMahon at this Convention. However, this was signed by the British and the Tibetan representatives. This is usually the recognized border between India and China. The Chinese dispute its legal status as they had not signed the Simla Convention. However, China recognizes a Line of Actual Control which is much the same as the McMahon line. Tibet refused to renew the Convention because it claimed that Arunachal Pradesh belonged to it. This obviously irritated the newly formed government and also showed Tibet’s ignorance of conduct of international affairs. It did not realize or understand that it was hardly in a position to enforce any claim that it might perceive to have had. It was only in 2008 that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama accepted that Arunachal Pradesh was a part of India.

Thus, isolation made Tibet ignorant of international realities. It also made the Monasteries, at least three of them, very powerful as dictated Tibet’s actions in every walk of life. A lot of energy had to be spent to keep them in check. Vested interests developed within them that wanted to keep Tibet isolated and the population subservient and ignorant. Elaborate rituals grew over a period of time, even in the area of governance, which made decision-making, slow and difficult. The dominance of religion in every aspect of life also led to ideas like Tibet did not require a strong army as it would be protected by her gods. The response to an external crisis, even a military one, would be to double the prayers. The undue sway of religion resulted in a vast majority of the male population becoming monks. The consequence was a shortage of workforce and lack of enrolment in the Army, even when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama wanted to build it up. Further, once the Monasteries realized that they might have to contribute towards the upkeep of the standing army, they were against it. In any case, the rituals, festivities and picnics, all strongly imbued with religion, were more important to them than the military defence of the country and nuances of international relations. Besides, there were rivalries between the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama, which the Chinese exploited as much as they could.

Irretrievable Errors and Patel’s Forebodings

The moment of reckoning came in 1950-51 when China invaded Tibet and the Indian Prime Minister accepted the situation instead of trying to protect its weaker peaceful neighbour. This must have been an unkind cut indeed for Tibet because its relationship with India, unlike that with China, which was based on force, was based on cultural and religious ties which were sacred to it. Tibet was sacrificed on some idealistic notions of the rise of Asia facilitated by a friendship between India and China. As Claude Arpi has analysed, India’s policy towards Tibet was mainly dictated by Jawaharlal Nehru. His advisors were V.K. Krishna Menon the then Defence Minister and K.M. Panikkar, the Indian ambassador to China who is accused of having acted more like a Chinese ambassador to India. The then foreign secretary and his officers in the foreign office could not make their voice heard with regard to the ambitions of China and its designs as Krishna Menon and Panikkar prevailed over them.

Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister was at a diametrically opposite end of the spectrum from his Prime Minister on the China issue. In his last letter to Nehru on November 7, 1950, five weeks before his death, he wrote: “I have carefully gone through the correspondence between the External Affairs Ministry and our Ambassador in Peking, and through him, the Chinese government. I have tried to peruse this correspondence as favourably to our Ambassador and the Chinese Government is possible, but I regret to say that neither of them comes out well as the result of this study. The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intentions… There can be no doubt that, during the period covered by this correspondence, the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us, and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama. Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for the Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of the telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one of two representations he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf. It is impossible to imagine any sensible person believing in the so-called threat to China from Anglo-American machinations in Tibet. Therefore, if the Chinese put faith in this, they must have distrusted us so completely as to have taken us as tools or stooges of Anglo-American diplomacy or strategy. This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese, in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends…. In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates.”

The letter is prophetic and merits extensive quoting. Patel foresaw the Chinese threat and its consequences for India: “Throughout history we have seldom been worried about our Northeast Frontier. The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the North. We had friendly Tibet, which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. They had their own domestic problems and never bothered us about frontiers. In 1914, we entered into a Convention with Tibet, which was not endorsed by the Chinese. We seem to have regarded Tibetan autonomy as extending to independent treaty relationship. Presumably, all that she required was Chinese counter signature.”

Patel was pragmatic enough to note that the Chinese would have a radically different perception of boundary divisions based on colonial rule, especially agreements signed by the British, with Tibet, Burma and other political units of India’s north-east. He therefore argued: “We can therefore safely assume that very soon they (the Chinese) will disown all the stipulations, which Tibet has entered into with us in the past. That throws into the melting pot all frontier and commercial settlements with Tibet on which we have been functioning and acting during the last half a century. China is no longer divided. It is united and strong. All along the Himalayas in the north and northeast, we have on our side of the frontier of population ethnological and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongols. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of the population with these affinities to the Tibetans and Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.”

Patel was equally perceptive about the expansionist nature of international communism. The Soviet Union during World War II was a glaring example of this trend. He went on to declare: “Recent and bitter history also tells us that communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only covered the Himalayan slopes on our side, but also include the important part of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also. Burma has the added difficulty that it has no McMahon line around which to build up even the semblance of an agreement. Chinese irredentist am and Communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the Western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology, which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national, or historical claims. The danger from the North and Northeast, therefore, becomes both Communist and imperialist.”

At this point, Patel made a distinction between the threat from Pakistan vis-à-vis the newly emerging threat from China. “It is this new threat, a greater menace, that needs our attention.” He argued: “While our Western and non-Western threat to security is still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the North and Northeast. Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. Our defence measures have so far been based on the calculations of superiority over Pakistan. In our calculations, we shall now have to reckon with Communist China in the North and in the Northeast, a Communist China, which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed toward us.”

In his last address at a public meeting on the 11th of November 1950 to commemorate the 67th death anniversary of Swami Dayanand, Sardar Patel once again underlined the danger from China and concluded by saying that India’s freedom had to be fully protected and that, “In this kalyug we shall return ahimsa for ahimsa. But if anybody resorted to force against us, we shall meet it with force.”

On the same day, Sri Aurobindo wrote in Mother India on 11 November 1950, before his passing on 5 December 1950, “The basic significance of Mao’s Tibetan adventure is to advance China’s frontier right down to India and stand poised there to strike at the right moment and with the right strategy, unless India precipitately declares herself on the side of the Communist bloc… We must burn it into our minds that the primary motive of mouse attack on Tibet is to threaten India as soon as possible.”

While Nehru could have overlooked Sri Aurobindo as an isolated visionary distanced from matters of state but he ignored leaders like Sardar Patel, Ram Manohar Lohia, Acharya Kripalani, and Jayprakash Narain, all of whom warned Nehru of the impending perils.

The Irony of Panchsheel

It is interesting to see what India and Tibet were doing at this momentous point in history when Tibet was being occupied by China. India’s answer to the Chinese hegemonic plan was “Panchsheel” and invoking of friendship based on civilizational interactions between China and India several centuries ago. Ironically, while China signed the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954, it had scant regard for such ideas. It did not understand either nonviolence or nonalignment. Mao was unequivocal that power flowed through the barrel of the gun and saw war as a valid instrument for exercise of state power and authority. He had the measure of Nehru. He was convinced that India would not intervene and that she was trying to play a larger role in world affairs than she was actually capable of. He openly called India a stooge of the imperialist powers and India seems to have bent over backwards to prove that this was not so. The Indian foreign policy guided by her Prime Minister was based on notions of keeping the Western Powers away in view her experience of colonization through the policy of Non-alignment. However, in practical terms it led to India’s actions becoming pro-China in spite of the harm being done to India. While Chinese overran Tibet, Nehru was very busy trying to get Communist China into the United Nations and the Security Council.

Nehru not only backed out of the understanding India had given Tibet but also requested Washington to not publicly condemn China for its action in Tibet because he was afraid that it would be interpreted by the Chinese that Western powers were interested in Tibet and that the Americans had exerted influence over Indian policy. His rationalization of this let down is marvellous in its irony: “We cannot save Tibet, as we should have liked to do so, and our very attempts to save it might bring greater trouble to it. It would be unfair to Tibet for us to bring this trouble upon her, without having the capacity to help her effectively. It may be possible, however, that we might be able to help Tibet to retain a large measure of autonomy. That would be good for Tibet and good for India. As far as I can see, this can only be done on the diplomatic level and by avoidance of making the present tension between India and China worse.”

In the meantime, the aristocracy and the monks in Tibet continued with their normal life and were busy with the opera season which was considered sacred. There was widespread belief in Tibet that in the end, truth would prevail and that Tibet would be spared. The predictions of the thirteenth Dalai Lama had long been forgotten. It was thought that if things became really bad, the government could solve the problem by ordering the big monasteries in Lhasa or Kham to perform extra prayers to secure the land and its culture. On October 12. 1950, Lhasa was informed that the Yangtze River had been crossed but the Tibetan officials and monks believed that only the gods would give them victory – which, as Arpi says, was unanswerable – and they were doing their bit by praying. They only had to pray twice as hard, or rather twice as often, and that they felt would be of more use than taking up arms. Besides, there had been a divination that the Chinese will not come and everyone had breathed a sigh of relief. They truly believed that the gods had won. Finally, about 10 days after the Chinese had crossed the upper Yangtze, they themselves announced to the world on the 25th of October that Tibet had been ‘liberated’.

Before Repeats Itself….

There was outrage in Delhi about the treatment meted out to Tibet. Jayprakash Narayan, told The Hindu in Madras (now Chennai): “India is vitally interested in Tibetan affairs and she should do all that is possible to enable the Tibetan people to maintain her independence and their own way of life.” The socialist, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia spoke in stronger terms: “To call the invasion of Tibet an effort to liberate three million Tibetans is to make language lose all meaning and stop all human communication and understanding. Freedom and slavery, bravery and cowardice, loyalty and treason, truth and lie will become synonymous. Our friendship and esteem for the people of China will never dim, but we must state our conviction that the present government of China will not be able to wash out the infamy of this invasion and baby murder.” When the time came, India had been found wanting.

What has happened is history and cannot be undone. However, those who ignore it, will find to their chagrin, that it will repeat itself. The only way forward is courage and firmness. The Chinese do not respect the weak. An editorial published in Mother India with Sri Aurobindo’s approval advocated aligning with America in a way “consonant with our self-respect.” It emphasized “There are certain values that have to be upheld and no dread of consequences should unnerve us…But if we are brave and far-seeing, there may not be this war.” Perhaps the advice holds good even today.

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