Looking back to the future: The Sino-Indian border dispute of 1954-62
By K.S. Subramanian
For half a century and more, the Sino-Indian frontier dispute (1954-62) has been crying out for resolution. Is this a case of “unprovoked aggression” against India by China or a case of India’s “self-righteous intransigence” in refusing to negotiate with China?
Basically, the dispute revolves around the competing claims for Aksai-Chin plateau in India’s Western Sector and the McMahon Line in its Eastern Sector. Since 1960, China has called for negotiations but India has held that its borders are historically evolved and cannot be subjected to negotiations. India’s unilateralism on the border dispute is considered illegal in international law. A leading Indian historian (Gupta 1974: 53) has held that the Indian claim to Aksai Chin in the West has no basis in treaty, usage or geography and that its claim to the McMahon Line in the East has a basis in geography and usage but no basis in a valid international treaty.
We examine here institutional impediments in the Indian ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB), which have prevented border a settlement between the two countries. The Indian army was handicapped by civilian institutional failures causing lack of readiness and preparation for war. The Indian view that “talks” can be held but not “negotiations,” has led to an interminable series of “talks” between the two countries with no results.
Historian Karunakar Gupta (1974) has questioned the role of the historical division of the Indian ministry of foreign affairs on the Aksai Chin and the McMahon Line issues. Neville Maxwell (2012) has pointed to deficiencies in India’s intelligence setup, in particular role of its intelligence chief BN Mullik. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would appear to have allowed the Indian bureaucracy to lead him rather than leading it to achieve a peaceful resolution of the dispute. The eminent scholar Ramsay Muir has said: “bureaucracy is like fire: invaluable as a servant, ruinous when it becomes master.”
S Gopal, director (1954-66) of the historical division of the of the Indian ministry of foreign affairs failed to do his homework on both the Aksai Chin and the McMahon Line issues and briefed Prime Minister Nehru poorly on India’s border claims which led to rigidities on his part in expounding India’s border claims against China.
In November 1959, the Indian foreign affairs ministry wrongly claimed that the boundary eastward from the Karakoram Pass in the Northern frontier extended up to the Kuenlun range. It asserted: “the India’s Northern frontier has been where it now runs for nearly three thousand years. The areas along this frontier, which is nearly 2,500 miles long from the Kuenlun mountains in the far north to the junction with Burma in the east have always been a part of India.” It emphasized “the sacrosanct nature of the northern frontier, which runs for much of its length along the crest of the Himalayan ranges. The Himalayas have always dominated Indian life as they have dominated the landscape.” This approach added fuel to the fire of nationalist passions and prejudices in the country as happened after the clash between Indian police forces and Chinese border guards at Kongka Pass near Aksai Chin, in October 1959. Thus the true nature and origin of the conflict remained hidden from the public view. Nehru accused China of being interested only in territorial gains and not a settlement based on traditional frontiers.
In November 1959, as directed by Nehru, S. Gopal had visited London to study the historical documents and had reported back to Nehru that India’s claim to the Aksai Chin plateau was “clearly stronger than China’s.” Historian Karunakar Gupta observes: “what sort of historical evidence Dr. Gopal dug up in London which would establish Indian claims over the Aksai Chin area still remains a mystery. No such evidence is available in the India office Library and Records.” Again, poor homework in the ministry led Nehru to misquote the 1899 boundary proposals by the British to the Chinese foreign office and claim that the “northern boundary of Ladakh and Kashmir with Sinkiang runs along the Kuenlun range.” By textual alteration, the “the Macartney-Macdonald line was made to include the whole of Aksai Chin plateau within the Indian boundary.”
The historical division of the Indian foreign affairs ministry failed again to do its homework to establish the spuriousness of the Aitchison Treaties (Volume XIV), 1929 relating to Tibet which Foreign Secretary Olaf Caroe had fabricated in 1938 to falsely assert that the Simla Convention of 1914 had covered both the Sino-Tibetan and Sino-Indian boundaries in order to confirm that the McMahon Line was a legal boundary.
Thus, the negative role of the Historical Division of the ministry of foreign affairs kept Prime Minister Nehru and the Indian people misinformed about the true nature of the border legacy and prevented a border settlement between India and China. Nehru could not practice his original diplomacy of working for a modus vivendi with China and work out a compromise with China. The official documents of the Indian foreign affairs ministry relating to the Sino-Indian frontier since 1914 are still classified, which has served to perpetuate ignorance about the true border legacy of the British Raj.
The role of BN Mullik, Director of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) was also controversial. He was Nehru’s main adviser on the border conflict. BN Jha the then Union Home Secretary revealed that Nehru’s controversial “forward policy” on the Chinese border was the “bright idea” of Mullik (Mullik, 1971: 517). Mullik was close to Harry Rositzke, the CIA station chief in New Delhi. He made frequent trips to Washington and would have had access to CIA thinking on China and Tibet no less than on India. He would have been aware that the CIA was involved in serious covert operations in Tibet especially after the Chinese take over in 1950 (Shakya, 1999). He did not brief Nehru on the issue as he should have (Mullik, 1971).
The “forward policy” (1954-62) involved the putting up of Indian check posts along the unoccupied borderlands with China, especially in the “disputed areas.” While the Indian army cited logistical difficulties, Mullik enthusiastically took up the task with the paramilitary forces under the Union Home Ministry. The policy was stalled in October 1959 after the clash at Kongka Pass near Aksai Chin between Indian and Chinese forces. Mullik kept informing Prime Minister Nehru that the Chinese would not physically resist the Indian border posts. The Henderson Brooks Report reveals that Mullik stuck to his view even in 1961 when the possibility of a violent response from the Chinese was not much in doubt. Presumably, Mullik had briefings from the CIA, which had extensive covert operations in Tibet (Shakya, 1999) as confirmed when the Dalai Lama, during his flight to India in 1959, was seen to be accompanied by a CIA operative (Gopal, 1984: 89; Mehta, 2006: 63).
The Kongka La incident on October 21 1959 marked a critical point in the border dispute and led to a public uproar in India. India formally accused China of “unprovoked aggression.” However, two days later, at the Prime Minister’s meeting, representative of the foreign affairs ministry and the army accused BN Mullik of “expansionism” and “provocation” on the border (Gupta: 26). Nehru was forced to order that future forward movements along the border would need the prior army approval. The IB had to take a back seat (Mullik, 1971, 243-44).
Indian Army split
There was indeed a clash of views between the army and the IB on the likely Chinese response to India’s “forward policy.” General DK Palit (Palit, 1991: 231) reveals that his boss, the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) BM Kaul, a key player in the Sino-Indian conflict, had accepted Mullik’s assertion that China would not go to war with India on the border issue. He added the IB had failed to warn Nehru about possibility of an imminent Chinese attack across the border in the North and the East. It had no intelligence on the ‘political intentions’ of the enemy (Palit, 1991: 231).
The Indian army’s role in the Sino-Indian border war, 1962 was complicated by an internal split between the professionals and the nationalists. The nationalist General BM Kaul, a key player in the final stages of the war was without combat experience but was appointed as Chief of General Staff (CGS) through his political connections. Mullik’s police-led “forward policy” was not coordinated with the army. Since he enjoyed Nehru’s confidence his views on the Chinese non-response prevailed. The policy, interrupted after the Kongka Pass, was resumed by the army in 1961. Though it lacked resources and reserves, the army was directed to remove the Chinese from territories claimed by India. Mullik never revealed the source of his information on what he considered would be the Chinese response to India’s “forward policy.” But China’s stunning victory in the war saw the removal from the army of Kaul and his men. Political interference in promotions and appointments coupled with field level incompetence had led to the reverses as noted by the Henderson Brooks Committee.
The Committee also noted that Mullik in 1960 still stuck to his view that the Chinese “would not react to India’s new border posts and they were not likely to use force against our posts even if they were in a position to do so.” It attacked appointments in General Staff and said mistakes and lapses at HQ were more serious than errors in the field. The panicky, fumbling and contradictory orders issued by Kaul, Corps commander at Tezpur, led to the disaster. Maxwell (2012: 129-43) noted that Generals Sen and Kaul and Brigadier Palit were culpable for the disaster; the planners and architects were Prime Minister Nehru, Intelligence Chief Mullik and General Kaul.
Dorothy Woodman, a geographer who scrutinized the maps published by India and China, noted innumerable discrepancies in them and said (Gupta, 1974: 53): “any settlement on the Sino-Indian border involves compromise.” Since China had accepted the 1914 Simla Tripartite maps in resolving the border dispute with Myanmar that could be a starting point for India. It should limit its claim in the Aksai Chin sector to the Macartney-Macdonald line of 1899. The starting point should be the formula suggested by Zhou Enlai to Nehru in April 1960 and commended by KPS Menon India’s then foreign secretary.
The impasse persisted. Narendra Modi, present Prime Minister of India with a stable majority in parliament and President Xi Jinping of China, a strong leader, should display political will and undertake serious negotiations to resolve the border dispute. Woodman’s sage advice is a good guide. Yes, they can do it!
Gopal, Sarvepalli, 1984 ‘Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography’, Volume III, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Gupta, Karunakar, 1974 ‘The Hidden History of the Sino-Indian Frontier, Macmillan, New Delhi
Maxwell, Neville 2012 ‘China’s Borders: Settlements and Conflicts, (Maxwell Publications), Sydney
Mehta, Jagat, 2006, ‘Negotiating for India: Resolving Problems through Diplomacy’, Manohar Publishers, New Delhi
Mullik BN, 1971 ‘Chinese Betrayal’, (Allied Publishers), New Delhi
Palit, DK 1991 ‘War in High Himalaya: The Indian Army in Crisis, 1962’ (Lancer International), New Delhi
Shakya, Tsering 1999 ‘The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947’ (Pimlico Publications), Great Britain.
The author was Director General of Police in the strategic Northeastern region of India where the McMahon Line is located. His book ‘State Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’, 2015 will be published soon by Routledge. He is an author and writer and was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs.