Author name: 
R. N. Ravi, strategic affairs analyst, was in charge of India's land borders in the Home Ministry (IB) for over twenty years.

Colonial Intervention in Border Resolution and its Implications


Strategic maneuvers of Imperial Russia in Central Asia that had almost reached the western segment of the India-Tibet border and the rise of a rabidly nationalist China on the east after the fall of Manchus in the early 20th century, worried both India and Tibet. The fast unfolding geo-political and strategic scenario was freighted with sinister forebodings both for India and Tibet. The imperial Russia and the ultra-nationalist Republican China had to be pre-empted in their potential misadventures toward India and Tibet. Convergence of the strategic interests of India and Tibet led to the Simla Convention between Great Britain, Tibet and China in 1914. The British persuaded the Chinese to come to the table. The Convention reaffirmed the traditional alignment of the India-Tibet border in the eastern sector. The so-called McMahon Line that formally delineated the India-Tibet border in the east was a mere reiteration of the long settled traditional border alignment.


The Simla Convention also delineated Tibet’s border with China. The sprawling Tibet was segmented into Inner and Outer Tibets. The Inner Tibet was its eastern most part in close proximity of China where the Chinese historically exercised some kind of authority and thus it was made a part of the Republic of China with a proviso that Tibet would continue to exercise its traditional right to appoint the ‘high priests’ to the monasteries in Inner Tibet and also have ‘full rights’ in matters affecting religious institutions. At the same time, independence of Outer Tibet was recognized. China gave an explicit commitment not to invade or intrude into it and not to ‘convert Tibet into a Chinese province’.                                                                


China actively participated in the deliberations and agreed to the outcomes of the Convention. Their representative, Ivan Chen had initialed the Convention documents including the maps. However, on later instructions from Beijing, he did not sign it. Apparently, China had misgivings about the line delineating Inner and Outer Tibet. However, China’s refusal to sign the documents did not undermine the fact that there was no difference over the alignment of the India-Tibet border. 


Although the age-old friendly relations between India and Tibet precluded any need for regular border policing by either country, India could not be oblivious to the fast emerging profound geo-political and strategic developments in its northern neighbourhood. India took measures to establish its visible administrative presence at least at some strategically important points along the traditional India-Tibet border that was hitherto lightly administered. India began sending periodic patrols to the routes and tracks traversing between the two countries. Indian patrols had friendly exchanges with the Tibetan border authorities. Given the friendly relations between the countries, these were police patrols and not the army.


The Invasion of Tibet and the Beginning of the Endgame


The invasion and occupation of Tibet by Communist China in 1950 shattered the peace and tranquility at the India-Tibet border which had survived for millennia. The newly established communist regime in Beijing seemed determined to restore real or imagined frontiers of Imperial China. It fought a war with the United States in Korea and confronted it over Taiwan. It unilaterally reinterpreted Imperial China’s Cho-yon relationship with Tibet that was broadly founded on China extending military support to Tibet in case of external aggression against it in return for the independent Tibet extending its spiritual mentorship to the Imperial Court. Such a relationship had developed between the two in the 17th century and continued thereafter on the basis that Imperial China respected the Independence of Tibet and never sought to integrate it with its empire. Tibet, in turn exercised its sovereignty by entering into treaties with other countries. However, Communist China in its drive to restore, indeed expand its frontiers, re-interpreted this relationship in furtherance of its imperial ambitions.


While the world’s attention was focused on the conflict in the Korean peninsula where the US troops under the command of General MacArthur had crossed the 38th parallel on October 7, 1950, over 40,000 Chinese troops from the South-West Military Region under command of Gen Zhang Guohua crossed the Dri Chu River on the same day and marched into Tibet. The PLA captured Lhasa and spread itself over the strategic vintages in Tibet. Tibet lost its independence and India got a new neighbour in China.


This sudden turn of events severely impacted the geo-political and strategic imperatives of India’s northern frontier. China, by force, converted the age-old India-Tibet border into the ‘India-China’ border. Anticipating resistance from the freedom loving Tibetans it heavily militarized the hitherto peaceful India-Tibet border. At that time India’s defence infrastructure at the border was almost non-existent. The age-old mutual friendship between India and Tibet precluded any need for military deployment along the border. The mutual trust was such that the two countries did not even keep their regular police posts along the border. Except a thin presence of regulatory authorities at the trade routes any other deployment of border guarding resources was considered wasteful and scrupulously avoided.


Although independent India and Communist China came into being at almost the same time, the fundamentally distinct processes of their birth shaped their worldviews differently. While India’s freedom struggle under Mahatma Gandhi, the biggest apostle of peace in modern world history, was non-violent and peaceful, Communist China was born through a protracted bloody revolution under the leadership of Mao. While the leaders of India’s freedom struggle carried the message of peace and peaceful co-existence to all the people in the world, Mao believed in exporting bloody revolutions especially in its neighbouring countries in order to destabilize them and turn them into its lackey regimes. 


Forcible occupation of Tibet and brutal suppression of religious practices by Communist China rankled Tibetan nationalists. The Dalai Lama accompanied by several thousand Tibetans escaped to India. In keeping with its tradition of warm hospitality to guests and consistent with its long standing friendship with Tibet, India received the Dalai Lama and his entourage with warmth and extended all possible humanitarian assistance to them. China blamed India for giving refuge to the Dalai Lama and several thousand Tibetans who fled to India. It assumed a menacingly aggressive posture along India’s border.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.