AS soon as the Simla conference began, Tibet claimed that it was an independent state, while China claimed that Tibet was one of its provinces. At the very second meeting of the conference on November 18, 1913, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, who represented India in the talks, said, according to the minutes, that he did not see how the political status of Tibet could be discussed until the limits of the country were defined.
At the fourth meeting, on February 17, 1914, he tabled a statement on the limits of Tibetan territory. As a compromise, McMahon prepared a partition of Tibet: China to administer Inner Tibet, leaving Outer Tibet completely autonomous, albeit under Chinese suzerainty. The line between the zones was drawn in blue on a map appended to his statement. A red line showed Tibet “as a geographical and political unit”. This red line, insofar as it touched India and Burma, then a part of India, followed an alignment that had already been negotiated by Charles Bell with Lonchen Shatra but was subject to Lhasa’s approval. Lonchen Shatra represented Tibet in the Simla conference.
On March 11, McMahon presented to the conference a draft convention, the text of which he had received from London. The draft mentioned clearly “the borders of Tibet and the boundary between Outer and Inner Tibet”. Both were traced on an attached map. By now Lonchen Shatra had received Lhasa’s approval to the border agreement he had reached with Bell. It was given formal shape in the form of an exchange of diplomatic notes between McMahon and the Lonchen on March 24-25, 1914, not at Simla but in Delhi where the conference was held from January to March, 1914.
A view of the Sela pass and peak in Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Lonchen’s reply of March 25 is reproduced in full: “As it was feared that there might be friction in future, unless the boundary between Tibet and India is clearly defined, I submitted the map, which you sent to me in February last, to the Tibetan government in Lhasa and I accordingly agreed to the boundary as marked in red in the two copies of the maps signed by you, subject to the conditions mentioned in your letter dated March 24, sent to me through Mr. Bell. I have signed and sealed the two copies of the maps. I have kept one copy here and return herewith the other. Sent on the 29th day of the 1st month of the Wood-Tiger year (March 25, 1914) by Lonchen Shatra, the Tibetan Plenipotentiary [Seal of Lonchen Shatra].”
The conditions were in respect of Tibetan ownership in private estates and the apportionment of two sacred places, Tso Karpo and Tsari Sarpa. Thus was the McMahon Line born. It was drawn on two map sheets in red ink at a scale of eight miles to an inch. They were attached to the two notes.
Meanwhile, the tripartite conference was coming to a close. On April 27, 1914, at Simla, the representatives of all the three parties initialled the convention that McMahon had presented as well as the map appended. Ivan Chen, the Chinese plenipotentiary, wrote his name in full, though. Two days later, the Chinese government repudiated his action. Further negotiations followed but with no result.
On July 3, 1914, having waited in vain for China’s adherence, India and Tibet signed a Declaration that China’s refusal to sign would debar it from the enjoyment of all privileges accruing from the April convention. They reiterated their own adherence to it. McMahon and the Lonchen initialled it again and affixed their seals ceremoniously. For good measure, both signed the map attached to it.
Article 9 of the convention, which was initialled by Ivan Chen in April, spoke very distinctly of “the borders of Tibet and the boundary between Outer and Inner Tibet… in red and blue respectively on the map attached hereto”. The alignment of the red line, which delineated the Indo-Tibetan boundary, was identical to the alignment of the boundary as marked in red in the maps signed by McMahon and Lonchen Shatra in March 1914. Ivan Chen could not possibly have missed the significance of the red line on the map he had initialled.
As that authority, Dorothy Woodman, remarks: “It would seem extremely unlikely that Ivan Chen was unaware of the Indo-Tibetan talks and their outcome.” In any case, the language of Article 9 of the April 27, 1914, convention and the red line on the attached map served ample notice to China.China’s objections
Every single Chinese document objecting to that convention confined the objections only to the border between Inner and Outer Tibet. Not once was the Indo-Tibetan border mentioned. This was true of Chinese objections before the convention was concluded on April 27, 1914, as well as those sent thereafter.
Here is a list of eight precise objections by China. None of them concerned the Indo-Tibetan border, the McMahon Line. All centred on the boundary between Inner and Outer Tibet, and on China’s relations with Tibet. “As far as available records show, Chen did not at any time complain of the bilateral agreement” between India and Tibet defining 850 miles of their border (Woodman, Himalayan Frontiers; 1969; page 181).
The list settles the issue.
1. On October 30, 1913, China presented its “counter-proposals”. Its seventh point read: “The frontier boundary between China Proper and Tibet is now roughly indicated in the accompanying map.” That line ran far to the north of Tawang (see map).
2. On April 3, 1914, China presented a five-point proposal (The McMahon Line and After, Parshotam Mehra; page 216; a masterly work). There was no reference to the border with India.
3. A telegram of April 20, 1914, from the Waichiapu (the Chinese Foreign Office) to Ivan Chen (intercepted by the British) mentioned seven points “on which we will never give in”. Again, the same omission of the external boundary. Its telegram of April 25 hinted that except for the internal boundary the rest was acceptable.
4. China’s Memorandum of April 25, 1914, handed to the British Ambassador also ignored Tibet’s (external) boundary with India.
5. The President of China sent a Secretary to meet the British Ambassador Sir John Jordan on May 1, 1914. He said after and a propos disavowal of Ivan Chen’s initialling that “the question of boundary was the only article not generally acceptable”.
The President objected to “the inclusion in Outer Tibet of Chiamdo and of complete portion of Kokonor territory”. A memo of May 11, 1914, proposed further negotiations.
6. A Memorandum of June 13, 1914, with a map annexed, centred again on the Inner-Outer Tibet boundary.
7. So did another of June 29, 1914. D.P. Choudhury points out that the line drawn in the map of June 13 “lay far away from the north-east frontier of India” (The North-East Frontier of India 1865-1914; page 157).
8. As late as on May 30, 1919, China continued to present its proposals. It said: “As regards the boundary, a brief outline of our proposal is as follows….” Four proposals were listed. All concerned the line dividing the partitioned Tibet.
So, far from accusing Britain of double-dealing, on June 30, 1914, well after the Simla Convention was signed, China begged Britain “to continue to act as mediator between China and Tibet”. On their part, both London and New Delhi were eager to retain China’s friendship and keep the door open for parleys. On March 8, 1920, Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, rejected advice by the Foreign Office to publish the exchange of notes “so long as there remains any prospect of a final settlement of the Tibetan question by negotiations with the Chinese Government”. In 1928, when Aitchison’s Treaties was being revised, India Office decided that the documents be omitted.Ground situation in Tawang
Meanwhile, in Tawang, Tibetan administration continued as before in perfect bliss. The botanist W.F. Kingdom-Ward’s visit in 1935 sent the alarm bells ringing in South Block. “The main (Himalayan) range might be de jure frontier” but Tibet continued to administer the area, he reported. Nor was the Government of Assam better informed.
On February 6, 1936, it had to be informed that “the whole of the hill country up to the 1914 McMahon Line is within the frontier of India”. One Governor, Sir Robert Reid, who served from 1937 to 1942, used his spare time to write an authoritative History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam 1883-1941.
This writer discovered in February 1970 that copies of the work were removed from the Governor’s Library. Governor B.K. Nehru confirmed this.
It was only in the 1930s that Chinese maps began showing the area south of the McMahon Line as Chinese territory. On August 17, 1936, New Delhi drew London’s attention to this. But Whitehall ruled that “unless” Nanking “should endeavour to assert their territorial claims on the Line” otherwise than on paper, “no protest was called for”. The silly expression “cartographic aggression” was coined two decades later.
Reid sent Captain G.S. Lightfoot to go up to Tawang in 1938. On his return, he recommended Tibet’s withdrawal from Tawang. Assam’s Acting Governor Henry Twynam had other ideas. In March 1939, he suggested a line along the Se La Pass. It would save money and earn Tibet’s goodwill. It would cost only “about one-fourth” of the McMahon Line.
It is unnecessary to consider here the attempts to make good the McMahon Line such as the missions by Captain G.S. Lightfoot (1938), J.P. Mills (1943) and J.P. Mainprice (1944). They are fully discussed in Woodman (pages 184-212) and Mehra (pages 413-437). The material that has come to light after the publication of these works puts the matter beyond doubt; namely, The Transfer of Power 1940-47 Volumes I to XII, published by the British government.
On December 18, 1945, the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, informed the Secretary of State, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, “to indicate our rights to the territory this side of the McMahon Line” (Volume VI, page 656; see also Volume VI, page 1,113; and Volume VII, page 34).
Wavell recorded on March 25, 1944, in his Journal, a conference with the Foreign Secretary, Sir Olaf Caroe, and Sir Basil Gould, Political Officer in Sikkim and for Bhutan and Tibet: “We discussed Gould’s visit to Tibet and possibility of stiffening up Tibetans to resist any Chinese encroachment, and also pushing up to McMahon Line on northern frontier of Assam” (The Viceroy’s Journal edited by Sir Penderel Moon; 1973; page 620; see also page 194 for a record of his visit in December 1945).
British policy was stated in a letter dated April 6, 1947, by L.A.C. Fry, Deputy Secretary, to A.J. Hopkinson, Political Officer in Sikkim. “The Government of India stand by the McMahon Line and will not tolerate incursion into India such as that which recently occurred in the Siang valley. They would however at all times be prepared to discuss in a friendly way with China and Tibet any rectification of the frontier that might be urged on reasonable grounds by any of the parties to the abortive Simla Conference of 1914” (The Transfer of Power 1940-47, Volume X, pages 156-7).
India’s policies on the McMahon Line were transparent. On March 4, 1948, Vallabhbhai Patel submitted to the President of the Constituent Assembly, as Chairman of its Advisory Committee on Minorities, Fundamental Rights, Tribal Areas, and so on, the Report of the North East Frontier Assam Tribal and Excluded Areas Sub-Committee which his Committee had adopted.
The Sub-Committee had undertaken extensive tours. It is a masterly document and bears quotation in extenso: “The facts are that in 1914 there was a tripartite convention with Tibet and China regarding the relations of the three governments and in particular regarding the frontier between India and Tibet. The convention which contained an agreement about the frontier line between India and Tibet was ratified by the Tibetan authorities at Lhasa, and the line known as the McMahon Line was indicated on a map of which a copy was given to the Lhasa government, which acknowledged it.
“The existence of this line was for a long time and known to the Assam government, and on the other hand it was found that there was no notification under Section 60 of the Government of India Act, 1919, specifying the northern frontier of Assam, with the result that the McMahon Line which is the frontier between Tibet and India is the legal boundary of Assam as well. In practice the position is peculiar.
“Though the Governor of Assam is vested with authority over the Frontier Tracts… it is taken to be exercised, not by virtue of the provisions applicable to Excluded Areas of the Government of India Act, 1935, but as the Agent of the Governor-General under Section 123 of the Act” (Constituent Assembly Debates; Volume VII, page 104).
On the partition of India, the Indo-Tibetan Notes of 1914 were listed among the treaties which devolved on India in an Order made under the Indian Independence Act, 1947. All these were public documents noted by Foreign Offices the world over.Final push
Finally, on February 12, 1951, Major R. (Bob) Khating, a Tangkhul Naga and aide to the legendary Nari Rustomji, evicted the Tibetans from Tawang. China did not protest at all.
The Draft Constitution of India published on February 21, 1948, mentioned the area south of the McMahon Line in the Sixth Schedule, Part II. China did not protest. Nor did it protest when the Constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950. Its Sixth Schedule had a table annexed. In part B para 1, the areas were precisely mentioned.
Neither “regard for the historical facts”, nor pragmatism, nor commitment to a settlement can explain China’s persistent, obdurate, if not intransigent, stand on Tawang. It knows that India cannot cede that district, yet persists. One is at a loss to understand its calculations. Is it because it is not yet ready for a settlement? However, persist in the peace process both sides must.
A stage has been reached when it is futile to proceed with the Special Representatives’ charade. It has yielded nothing anyway. The dispute cries for attention from the top leaderships of India and China. They must come to grips with it and pursue the course with determination and in a spirit of conciliation.
Neither country is a threat to the other. Neither will play any outside power’s game. The peace dividend of a boundary agreement will be colossal and its effects far-reaching. Fundamentally, India must recognise China’s interests in the Aksai Chin and China must recognise India’s interests on the McMahon Line.
That said, in both sectors some adjustments will be necessary. India cannot legally claim areas north of the McMahon Line which it unilaterally occupied. China must withdraw from the 2,500 square miles it occupied as a result of the 1962 war.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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