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TFV Timelines: Understanding the 1962 Sino-Indian Conflict

The Sino-Indian border conflict, between the two Asian superpowers India and China, in a nutshell, could be a bit complicated to understand. Last year we saw one of the bloodiest border clashes between Indian and Chinese border patrol troops, which resulted in over 70 killed and a hundred-odd injured. TFV Timelines sheds light on the root cause of the conflict, interpreting an “informed” analysis of the dispute.

Birth of the conflict:

The Sino-Indian border conflict is mainly focused on 3 key areas, namely Aksai Chin, Sikkim and North Eastern Frontier Agency [NEFA] (now known as Arunachal Pradesh). The controversy dates back to the year 1914, when the tripartite Simla Convention was held, which decided that the border drawn upon by Sir Henry McMahon, would be considered as the border between Tibet and British India. China, which was also a part of the negotiations, later ratified the proposal but was not present when the Simla Accord was signed. This however decided the border only along NEFA. Tawang, which was and still is a regional trade centre, was slated to be administered by Tibetian officers. This was subjected to change during the Second World War, when the Assamese government decided to pre-emptively defend the city of Tawang, expecting an invasion by the Imperial Japanese Army, which was on an ‘Expansion Spree’ across East Asia. In 1944, a unit of the British army, under the command of an Assamese government administration officer, J. P. Mills, set up an Assam rifles post just south of the Se La Pass at Dirang Dzong, which resulted in the Tibetian administrators packing up and leaving the city.

Map of NEFA, you can see KAMENG frontier division at the western side. Image: Wikipedia

Renowned historian Neville Maxwell writes in his book “India’s China War”, the account as narrated by Mills himself:

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“The task of making good the McMahon line was given to J. P. Mills, the government’s adviser on tribal affairs… 

Mills went on to point out that the tribal areas were commercially as well as culturally tied to Tibet rather than to India, exporting grain and madder (for dyeing monks’ robes) to Tibet, and importing salt. He concluded that ‘the attachment [of the tribal areas] to India is an unnatural one and all the more difficult to maintain’.

Mills nevertheless took up his task energetically; he strongly believed that, natural boundary or not, the extension of British administration was in the interest of the tribal people…

In 1944 Mills moved into the Tawang Tract and reached Dirang Dzong. Here was in a country very different from the tribal areas proper, to the east, with their primitive, warring tribes…

Ignoring the protests of the Tibetan officials, he prevented them from collecting taxes (“They said that if they did not they would be executed when they returned home – I said I could not help that and set up an Assam Rifles post at Dirang Dzong. The Tibetans there reported to their superiors at Tsona Dzong: British officers and men came to Dirang. Like the little devils who trespassed on the land of the Buddha…”)

The same status was maintained even post-independence. Things however took a turn for India’s advantage in this dispute (for the time being), when China annexed Tibet and Xinjiang Regions in 1949-50. This annexation by China, led to the Tibetan government losing its legitimacy, which meant that now China would be the deciding party on behalf of Tibet. 

Aksai Chin: “Land of White Rivers”

3,500 km North-West of the town of Tawang lies a vast piece of land, again under dispute between China and India. This 38,000 Sq. km of land along the Karakoram Pass is one of the world’s coldest deserts. Aksai Chin, which literally means “Land of White Rivers” has no inhabitants or vegetation, but lies on one of the oldest trade routes of Asia. It was a route often used by nomads and pilgrims to travel between Xinjiang and Tibet (which would eventually present itself in the dispute later on). The average elevation of the terrain is over 5000m (16,000ft) above sea level.

The region first came under a treaty, when Raja Gulab Singh, a Dogra ruler, under the suzerainty of the Sikh Empire in 1842. An unsuccessful invasion of Tibet by Raja Gulab Singh led to a treaty between the Dogras and the Tibetans, which stated that both nations would revert back to “old, established frontiers”.  

Neville Maxwell goes on to describe the 1841 Dogra-Tibetan war outcome as follows:

“With the honours of war even, the leaders of the two forces in October 1842 signed what was in effect a  non-aggression pact. This bound each to respect the territory of the other – but it did not specify a boundary between them. referring only to ‘the old, established frontiers’. That this imprecise formulation was acceptable to the Tibetans and the Dogras seems to reflect the fact that their domains, although neighbouring, were not clearly contiguous; either would have had to dispatch an expeditionary force to “attack the other, first crossing mountainous no-man’s land.”

Tides turned again in 1846, when the British defeated the Sikh Empire, bringing the Dogras effectively under the British. Raja Gulab Singh, however still retained his position, acting under suzerainty of the British. In order to prevent a border dispute, the British, through Raja Gulab Singh, sent the Chinese officials a request to negotiate a fixed border, which the Chinese did not respond to. The British regarded the territory south of the Pangong Tso as British/Kashmiri and the territory North of the Lake to be as terra incognita (uncharted lands).

Clash of the lines: Johnson and the Macartney-MacDonald Lines

Whenever border dispute related to Aksai Chin crops up, the biggest debate is which line is the true border, and holds official. During the period from 1847-1947, 2 major borders were drawn upon to demarcate British Indian territory in Aksai Chin. The first of which, the Johnson Line, was proposed by British civil servant William Johnson in 1865. This line, claims Aksai Chin to be a part of Kashmiri territory. The line was put forth to the Maharajah of Kashmir, who accepted it and claimed the 18,000 sq km of land. On the contrary, the Chinese weren’t informed of this line, as most of Xinjiang at that time was not under Chinese control and the existing Kashgaria Empire was at war with the Qing Dynasty. 

The Qing Empire conquered Xinjiang in 1879, and by 1892, started demarcating its boundary line. Around 1897, fears of the Russian Empire’s potential expansionism started worrying the British, which led to the proposal of the Johnson-Ardagh line (which is a modified version of the Johnson line, which, as per Sir John Ardagh, was more feasible to defend in case of a Russian invasion). This line was proposed, keeping in mind that the Chinese would have been weakened by the war in Xinjiang, and would potentially be a victim to Russia’s expeditions.

Simultaneously, in 1899, another new boundary was being suggested by George MacCartney, the British consul general in Kashgar. This proposal, placed Lingzi Tang plains under British territory while placing Aksai Chin on the Chinese side. The Laktsang and Karakoram mountain Ranges were seen as a boundary demarcator, to the north of which lay the Chinese lands. This allowed the British to control lands upto the Indus river watershed, while giving away the Turin river watershed to the Chinese. This in turn, would complicate the matters for Russians, if they wanted to invade. This proposal was made to the Chinese authorities through an official note sent by Sir Claude MacDonald (hence the name MacCartney-MacDonald line). The Chinese already believed that this was the accepted boundary, henced raised no objections.

The real issue here, however, is that over the next 47 years (1900-1947), the British would go on to maintain an inconsistency on which line was the officially accepted one. Depending on the situation inside China, they would keep switching between Johnson and MacCartney-MacDonald lines to suit their needs. However at the time of India’s independence in 1947, the Johnson line remained as the official boundary reference for the newly born nation of India.

Read Part-2 here

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