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How the Chinese challenge erupted

Zhou and Nehru exchanged angry letters over the boundary,even as tensions rose over Tibet

All through 1958,China’s growing challenge to this country remained broadly below the level of awareness (‘And the slide towards sundown’,IE,April 9). Only in March 1959 did it burst into the open amidst high drama that grabbed the whole world’s attention. On the last day of that month the Dalai Lama — fleeing Lhasa because of Beijing’s brutal suppression of Tibetan revolt — entered India at Tawang and was immediately granted asylum (‘Anniversary of Exile’,IE,March 6,2009). The huge welcome given to him by the Indian people added to Chinese fury. Nehru’s clear policy of strictly barring the Dalai Lama and his followers from any anti-Chinese activity on Indian soil made no impression on Beijing. Nor did the prime minister’s refusal to recognise the Tibetan “government-in-exile.”

However,it is necessary to add that well before the Dalai Lama’s arrival in this country,something else had happened that was to strain and worsen India-China relations almost as much as Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s presence here. In December 1958,some weeks after the publication of a map in one of China’s official journals,China Pictorial,Nehru wrote a courteous letter to his Chinese opposite number,Zhou Enlai,gently reminding him that when they had last discussed the matter in 1956,Zhou had “indicated” that though the McMahon Line was a “legacy of British Imperialism”,because of “friendly relations between China and India,” his government would,after “consulting with local Tibetan authorities,” give it recognition. Nehru added that at the same time Zhou had “confirmed” Nehru’s impression that,“there was no major boundary dispute between China and India.” Yet the China Pictorial map showed large swaths of Indian territory as part of China.

Zhou’s reply,received on January 23,1959,was a shocker. For,it stated: “Historically,no treaty or agreement on the Sino-Indian boundary has ever been concluded.” The “so-called McMahon Line,” Zhou said,was a “product of the British policy of aggression against the Tibet region of China… (and) it cannot be considered legal.” And he added,for good measure,that Indians were protesting against a road across the land that was “always under Chinese jurisdiction.” This,he argued,“showed that border disputes do exist between China and India.” Nehru wrote back on March 22 to express his “surprise” on hearing that the border between India and the “Tibet region of China” was “not accepted by Peking.” Quoting chapter and verse,he reaffirmed that this frontier was well established in view of “geography”,the “watershed principle”,“tradition” and “treaties”. Nehru ended with the hope that “an early understanding” on this matter would be reached. But he rejected Zhou’s proposal that both sides should “maintain the status quo” pending a “final,friendly settlement.”

All this,it is needless to say,was “top secret” and saw the light of day only in the first week of September when the government published the first of a series of White Papers on the exchange of notes,memoranda and letters between the two largest Asian countries. Meanwhile,Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s escape to this country had exacerbated the bitterness in India-China exchanges. Understandably delayed,Zhou’s response to Nehru’s letter of March 22 arrived several days after the publication of the White Paper that had instantly created one of the loudest and angriest uproars in Parliament. Members of Parliament were furious that the Nehru government had “hidden” the extent of the Chinese claims on Indian territory and accused the prime minister of trying to “appease” China. This was reflected in the country’s mood.

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There was a lot more in Zhou’s vehement reply that represented a hardening of the Chinese position,adding fuel to fire. For,after repeating that the McMahon Line was the product of British Imperialism,he categorically stated that,“the entire Sino-Indian boundary has never been delimited.” A fresh settlement that would be “fair and reasonable to both sides” was therefore called for. Zhou also spoke of “increasing tensions” created by the Tibet revolt and accused India of “shielding armed Tibetan bandits”,and of “pressing forward steadily across the eastern sector of the Sino-Indian boundary.”

Replying almost instantly,Nehru first said that Indians “resented the allegation” that independent India was seeking to “reap a benefit from British imperialism.” He also restated all his arguments about the border having been settled by custom and covenants,expressed “great shock at the tone of Zhou’s letter,” and pointed out that between 1914 and 1947,“no Chinese government had questioned the

McMahon Line.”

As it happened,the publication of the White Paper and of the fresh exchanges between the two prime ministers coincided with two other disturbing developments that aggravated both the deterioration in India-China ties and the acrimonious internal debate on China policy. One of these was a highly damaging spat between Defence Minister Krishna Menon,often described as Nehru’s Man Friday,and the highly respected army chief,General K. S. Thimayya (‘Khaki versus Khadi’,IE,October 17,2008). In protest against the defence minister’s rude behaviour towards service chiefs and his propensity to play politics with senior military appointments,the general resigned. Nehru persuaded him to withdraw the resignation. In the parliamentary debate that followed it was Menon who was at the receiving end of trenchant criticism and was even accused of being “soft” on China. However,invoking the doctrine of “civilian supremacy”,Nehru backed Menon and said he “couldn’t congratulate the general.”

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This unhappy episode passed,but suddenly the verbal warfare between the two sides degenerated into armed clashes on the ground. In August 1959,an armed Chinese patrol intruded into Khinzemane near the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction and pushed back Indian personnel before withdrawing. Then the Chinese repeated exactly this performance at Longju,also in the eastern sector. The worst incident took place in October at Kongka-La deep in Ladakh when the Chinese opened fire on a patrol of Indian armed policemen,fatally wounding four and capturing 11 of them. Not only had the Chinese drawn blood for the first time,they also had the effrontery to return the dead bodies and the imprisoned policemen on November 14,Nehru’s birthday. India was enraged.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

First published on: 23-05-2011 at 12:59:07 am
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