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IDSA COMMENT

Who Started the Fighting---- The Sequel

October 28, 2012

There is the widely held belief effectively propagated by the Chinese and ably supported by fellow travellers that the Chinese ‘counter-attack in self defence’ on 20 October 1962 was largely justified, as India had first violated the McMahon Line in the Tawang sector [Eastern Border] by crossing it and occupying areas to the north of the Line. For proving this contention, it is asserted that the Indian posts of Dhola, Khinzemane and the positions taken by the 7th Indian Brigade in 1962 along the Namka Chu [river] were all north of the McMahon Line. Thus it was India that initiated the hostilities. Let us for a moment accept this contention, but let us also examine it against known facts to see whether this assertion has any factual basis.

Confident that he would score a propaganda coup, the Chinese PM Zhou Enlai officially wrote to Nehru in November 1962 that the Namka Chu Valley, Dhola Post, Khinzemane and the Thagla Ridge where hostilities commenced, were all north of the McMahon Line, even as per the co-ordinates of the original McMahon map. Therefore, it was Indian troops that had first intruded into Chinese territory. To rub it in, Zhou even provided Nehru with the McMahon map co-ordinates; 270 44’ 6”N. [The Indian position was that the McMahon Line began at 290 48’ N.] As the McMahon Line was not demarcated on the ground, the location of any point could only be clarified or fixed by reading off the longitude and latitude from the original McMahon map. Therefore, China was within its rights to initiate a ‘defensive counter attack’ as Indian troops were even north of the ‘so-called’ McMahon Line as per the McMahon map co-ordinates. Zhou’s contention was supported by Neville Maxwell who termed this approach ‘to be sound both practically and legally.’1 Fair enough; Zhou’s point is taken.

However, what Zhou did not mention, or had selective amnesia about, was the fact that the original McMahon map also had place names indicated in this sector. Two villages are mentioned; these are Le in Tibet and therefore north of the McMahon Line and Pangchen south of the McMahon Line and therefore in India. Logically, therefore, the boundary, as per the McMahon map, should be somewhere in between these two place names. After China occupied Tibet in 1950, local officials from both sides exchanged three letters in August and September 1953 and the Chinese [Tibetan] official, the Dzongpon of Pemakoe, met the Assistant Political Officer from Tawang and accepted the Indian alignment of the boundary, i.e. Namka Chu, Kinzemane, Dhola Post were south of the McMahon Line.2

Let us for a moment also disregard such written evidence and follow Zhou’s contention and stick to the co-ordinates as per the original McMahon map to determine the boundary line. But then why not extend the same logic to the entire length of the McMahon Line? Why only in the Tawang area? If that were to be done, to go by the co-ordinates of the original McMahon map, then the Sino-Indian boundary in the areas near both Migyitun and Tulung La would be advanced even further north, thereby including both these areas in India. In the area east of Tsari Sarpa, the Indian boundary, going by the original McMahon map co-ordinates, would advance by at least seven miles to the north, which would mean inclusion into India of additional Tibetan territory of at least 70 square miles!

So, when this proposal was put to Zhou by Nehru in his reply of 14 November 1962 that the Chinese cannot have it both ways – either accept the McMahon Line alignment along the highest watershed or go by the strict co-ordinates as per the original McMahon map – the Chinese, realising the folly committed by their Prime Minister, demurred. Belatedly, the Chinese realised that if they accepted the alignment of the McMahon Line based on the highest watershed principle, they then had clearly crossed the McMahon Line and attacked Indian posts [Dhola, Namka Chu, etc.] in September/October 1962; thus clearly being the aggressors. This would have nullified their entire propaganda effort. Alternatively, if, on the other hand, they accepted the alignment of the McMahon Line as per the ‘strict co-ordinates’ principle, they then would lose about 70 square miles of territory! Not unsurprisingly, therefore, Zhou never responded to Nehru on this point, perhaps deeply embarrassed.

Zhou preferred to downplay this very uncomfortable query by not answering Nehru himself, but by asking the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reply [Memo dated 20 December 1962]. To hide their embarrassment, the Chinese Foreign Ministry obfuscated by responding that since the Eastern Sector of the Sino-Indian boundary had not yet been ‘defined’, so the question of which ‘principle’ China accepts ‘does not arise’! The question then is, why raise the issue and that too at the PM’s level? It was done only to confuse the gullible, for scoring propaganda points and to perpetuate the myth that it was India that began the fighting in the 1962 conflict.

Let us now move forward to more recent times. In 1986, a major stand-off (Wangdung Incident) occurred in the same area since there was still no clarity as to where the boundary line or where the Line of Actual Control [LAC] was. Chinese troops entered an area called Wangdung slightly to the east of Khinzemane, but claimed that they were still north of the McMahon Line. For India, Wangdung was south of the McMahon Line. Indian troops were also mobilized and a major incident was averted just in time only due to strenuous efforts.

According to the Chinese, there exists a Line of Actual Control in the area that conforms to the McMahon Line. This was officially confirmed by a Note sent by Zhou to Nehru. However, the question that still remains unanswered is which alignment of the McMahon Line is to be followed? The Line as per the co-ordinates of the original map, or the Line as per the highest watershed in the region as McMahon had intended?

Time and again India has requested for clarity. In order to avoid any further incidents India has officially requested China, on numerous occasions during border talks, to indicate, as per its perceptions, the alignment of the LAC. Till date, China refuses to exchange maps of the LAC, let alone define or even demarcate the LAC. The reasons why China has opted for obfuscation and does not wish for clarity is perhaps best known to the Chinese themselves; we can only surmise. But the facts are there for all to see.

  • 1. Neville Maxwell, India’s China War, p. 299.
  • 2. Report of the Officials of the Government of India and the People’s Republic of China on the Boundary Question, [1961], p. 231.