Friday, March 24, 2023
HomeOpinionSecurity CodeHow Qing and British empires’ mapmakers laid the foundations for 1962 India-China...

How Qing and British empires’ mapmakers laid the foundations for 1962 India-China War

Across the LAC, the armies of China and independent India are inheritors of a struggle manufactured by greed, geopolitics, and imperial mapmaking.

Text Size:

The pilgrim’s enchanted eye gazed out at the sheets of blue ice of the Lake of the Peacock Spots, Tso dom-dongma, illuminated by the light shining off the five great peaks of Kanchenjunga. Then, a grey shroud began to form. “Look at the sky,” the pilgrim’s guide warned. “Those will shortly fall in heavy snow, from which no human means can enable us to escape.” “Why proceed up further,” he remonstrated? “Death awaits us in this desolate place. One more hour, and we shall be gone.”

Less than a month later, in December 1878, the great scholar, adventurer and imperial spy Saratchandra Das had clawed his way past the The Western Flying Medicine Monastery, Nub Mang-din, through the forbidden frontier of Tibet.

The saffron-robed Bengali scholar’s incredible journey—among the greatest feats in the history of spycraft—would lay the foundations for the war China and India fought sixty years ago this week. The expedition would set off a bloody struggle to draw borders through the inner Himalaya between two great empires, the Qing and the British.

Facing out across the Line of Actual Control, the armies of the People’s Republic of China and independent India are inheritors of a struggle manufactured by greed, geopolitics, and imperial mapmaking.

Also read: ‘Nobody crosses over now’— what Indo-Tibetan tribes that helped Army in 1962 China war lost

The mountains before maps

“A team of horses cannot overtake a word that has left the mouth,” notes the 16th century fantasy novel Journey to the West, telling of the monk Xuanzang’s travels to India, to collect the great Buddhist sutras  The emperor Qianlong, fifth of the Qing dynasty, later had a special edition commissioned to illustrate the strange worlds of which the novel told. The map showed Hindustan lay somewhere south of the Kuen Lun range. Like words, maps acquire a life of their own.

There was a line somewhere in the Himalaya—but no one knew just where it ran.

East India Company officials, pushed by Governor-General Warren Hastings, had begun to explore trading with Tibet in the 18th century. England was seeing a surge in demand for commodities from China, historian Vibha Arora has shown, but the restrictive trade practices of the kingdom had made meeting it difficult. Tibet seemed a possible alternative route. Traders and mendicants—as well as bandits—had long profited from the great chains of trade linking the plains with Lhasa. The East India Company wanted in.

Although he was not allowed to enter Lhasa, the young military officer George Bogle succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations through a mission in 1774. In 1783, another East India Company official arrived, historian Luciano Petech records, bearing gifts “from the Bara saheb”: “fine earrings of coral, a clepsydra functioning with particles of gems [a mechanical watch], spectacles, two pieces of special Russian cloth [and] silver cups full of nutmegs and cloves.”

Little was done, though, to develop these early diplomatic contacts, and imperial Britain had little influence on the lives of Himalayan people—Mishmi, Mishing, Pasi, Abor—with loose ties to rulers in Gangtok and Lhasa. Through the course of fourteen centuries, Tashi Tsering has written, Lhasa in turn had a complex relationship with imperial courts in Beijing and Central Asia, ranging from independence to vassalage.

From the chronicle Das kept, it is clear the Chinese head-constable in Shigatse had little real authority. The local economy was disintegrating, with the authorities seeking to obliterate the distinction between silver and debased coin. Feudal authority was exercised savagely: Local criminals, their eyes gouged out, wandered the streets in chains, begging for food.

Late in 1881, Das returned to Tibet along with the imperial official Colman Macaulay. The exposure of his role as a spy would have hideous consequences, Lawrence Waddell recorded in 1905. Tibetans who had helped Das earlier were imprisoned for life. Their servants, he wrote, were “barbarously mutilated, their hands and feet were cut off and their eyes gouged out.”

For this small price, Britain had learned what it needed to know: The power of the Qing, and their allies in Tibet, was an illusion.

Also read: If India loses grip on Kailash Range, PLA will make sure we never get it back

The road to war

“There is a great coming forward of robbers, quarrelling and fighting,” warned the Tibetan religious almanac for the Year of the Wood-Dragon, 1904. Grim omens were seen, like drops of water falling from a brass dragon head in the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, even though it had not rained. An oracle foretold war. Led by the legendary adventurer Francis Younghusband, imperial British troops captured the city later that year. Tibetan soldiers, armed with magical amulets to ward off bullets, were slaughtered.

Following a treaty with the Dalai Lama, Britain won the right to maintain a military presence in Lhasa-controlled territory, as well build a network of rest-houses, trading posts and a telegraph. The cannon had levelled the fortresses guarding against free trade.

To imperial administrators in Kolkata (then Calcutta), though, the prize did not seem worth winning. Tibet’s primitive economy did not justify the costs needed to control it. Fears of a geopolitical threat from Russia, moreover, seemed laughable after the czar’s armies were crushed by Japan. In 1906, imperial Britain signed a treaty recognising Beijing’s suzerainty over Tibet.

From the summer of 1910, Chinese power began to reassert itself. Following threats of rebellion in Tibet’s Khan region, the Qing ordered its troops to capture Lhasa. Troops of the Qing army occupied the town of Rima, and ordered villagers to build a broad new road to the plains Assam—“broad enough for two horsemen to ride abreast,” historian Bérénice Guyot-Réchard notes. Troops were seen in the forests of Kongpo, north of the Siang River.

Early in 1911, the colonial official Noel Williamson and tea-garden doctor John Gregorson were sent to investigate these intrusions. They found Chinese flags deep inside what is now Walong in Arunachal Pradesh, and were determined to push further into the Siang Valley. Assam authorities sought vengeance, and a succession of punitive expeditions followed.  The Qing dynasty itself crumbled in 1911, though—putting an end to its ambitions.

The big question, though, remained unresolved: Where in the Himalaya did India end, and China begin?

Also read: China has taken LAC clock back to 1959. India not in a position to take back Aksai Chin

Lines in the dark

Even when India became independent in 1947, there was no entirely clear answer. The first official map issued by the country showed only a wash of colour where Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh are today, with the words “border undefined.” Large parts of the border with Tibet in the east, the map noted, were un-demarcated.  Even though the map asserted sovereignty over areas like Walong, there had been no colonial administrators present there for decades—nor Tibetan authority, for that matter.

Following the conflict in 1911, Lhasa, Beijing and New Delhi negotiated the Shimla Agreement, aimed at hammering out the borders between Tibet and New Delhi. Although China walked out of the discussions, the Dalai Lama agreed to significant concessions—seeing Britain as a guarantor of Tibet’s independence.

Late in the summer of 1914, the colonial officer Henry McMahon drew a line through the darkness of the inner Himalaya—much of it unknown to contemporary cartography—running some 1,400 kilometres from Burma to Bhutan. The new border was one of imagination, with neither side exercising real control. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, moreover, it was simply forgotten: China was, after all, a war-time ally of Britain and the United States against Japan.

Late in 1950, though, the PLA marched into Lhasa—and India’s world changed. The map issued in 1950 was withdrawn four years later, and replaced with one that asserts modern India’s position.

Even before the invasion of Tibet, there were signs that Beijing wasn’t content with the borders as India understood them. Within weeks of Prime Minister Chou En-lai’s 1954 visit to India—where he made no suggestion China disputed India’s understanding of the border—Beijing protested the presence of the Indian Army on the Barahoti Pass in Uttar Pradesh. From 1955 on, there were a succession of military intrusions. In each case, China insisted the PLA was on its own territory.

Then, in 1958, Beijing’s official China Pictorial map, asserted claims over the whole of what was then India’s North-East Frontier Agency, with the exception of Tirap, as well as parts of Ladakh, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

Chou En-Lai responded to Indian protests by repeating that the maps were based on old Kuomintang cartography—but added that China hadn’t surveyed its boundaries, nor consulted with other countries on the issue.

Prime Minister Nehru shot down Chinese proposals for a joint border survey outright. “There can be no question about these large parts of India being anything but India,” he wrote on 14 December 1958. “I do not know what kind of surveys can affect these well-known and fixed boundaries”.

Even today, both countries make the same argument—backing it with armies faced-off on the roof of the world.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular