“Fractured Himalayas” rightly puts Tibet at the center of the Indo-Chinese conflict


Arriving just before the 60th anniversary of the Sino-Indian war, Nirupama Rao’s Fractured Himalayas examines the 13 consecutive years leading up to 1962, a period that has shaped and constrained relations between the two countries since then. Combining a diplomat’s eye for negotiation and a historian’s ease with multi-faceted explanations, Rao’s book is sure to become required reading on the history of Sino-Indian relations.

Nirupama Rao
The Fractured Himalayas: India Tibet China 1949-62
Viking penguin (October 2021)

Fractured Himalayas rightly puts Tibet at the center of the Indo-Chinese drama. Too often, the story of China’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet has been told as a tragic historical inevitability. Rao points out how, from the start, the India-China relationship was in fact a “three-body problem”, with Tibet at the geographic and diplomatic center of the emerging relationship. By the 1940s, Tibet had exercised a high degree of de facto independence for decades, despite the claims of the successors of the Qing Empire to sovereignty over it. Once the goals of the communist regime became evident and the isolationist government of Tibet sought international recognition, diplomatic options were limited.

A distinguished diplomat herself who served as Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China, Rao explains how Indian diplomats struggled to respond to reports of the PRC’s invasion of Tibet in the late 1950s. As with British officials before them, Indian officials stationed in Tibet had views on the situation of those posted in Beijing. When a resolution was presented to the United Nations condemning China’s aggression and working out measures to take, India objected. This silence was at least in part due to fears that the pro-Chinese contingent would react by lifting India’s annexation of Hyderabad in 1948. It also reflected dissenting views among Jawaharlal Nehru’s advisers – and in the spirit of Nehru – on how to resolve the situation in Tibet with India’s emerging relations with China. The figure of a discordant Nehru, at the same time idealistic and realistic, clairvoyant and blind, dominates the whole book.

Rao’s diplomatic eye is evident in his analysis of missed opportunities to resolve fundamental issues between the three (then two) governments. This is particularly the case in its assessment of the negotiations surrounding the Sino-Indian agreement of 1954, in which India for the first time recognized that Tibet was part of China. By then, India had taken a number of good faith steps towards China: repatriating prisoners of the Korean War, supporting China’s bid for a seat on the Security Council of the UN and even providing a supply channel for Chinese troops in Tibet.

In 1954, India had leverage in its negotiations – perhaps more than at any time since. Despite this, Nehru chose not to raise the issue of the border settlement. After signing the 1954 agreement, Nehru made the “political decision” to have borders with China shown as defined on maps of India (previously they had been marked “undefined” or omitted entirely, especially in Aksai Chin). This limited Nehru’s ability to negotiate a border settlement in the years to come.

Two parallel but incompatible strategies

All along Fractured Himalayas, Rao shows the evolution of two parallel but incompatible strategies. Although initially evasive about discussing the border issue, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai eventually came to insist in 1959 that the dispute be settled and that a “give and take” principle be applied. Nehru initially followed the advice he first received from his ambassador in Beijing, KM Panikkar, and also avoided raising the issue of a border settlement. As signs emerged, especially in Ladakh, of the magnitude of the land claim gap, public outrage and growing criticism in parliament have further reduced all options on the Indian side.

China opposed the North East Border Agency’s (NEFA) “illegal McMahon line” (now Arunachal Pradesh). India had long insisted, as it still does, on adhering to the outcome of the 1914 Simla Convention, the result of a trilateral conference between representatives of Britain, China and Tibet. The British had made Chinese recognition of Tibet’s autonomy a condition of diplomatic recognition of the new Republic of China, strongly urging them to participate in the conference. The Chinese representative at the conference initially accepted Britain’s proposed division of Tibet into two parts, with the outer region ending at the line marking the potential border between Tibet and northeast India. But after the conference, the Chinese government repudiated the project. The trilateral agreement has become a bilateral agreement between Britain and Tibet.

When the border issue was finally raised in talks in the 1950s, the Chinese rejected what they saw as an “imperial” line. The PRC, however, agreed to use part of the McMahon Line – which largely applies the watershed principle to its course – in its border with Burma, although it does not refer to the line by name. Given China’s willingness to jointly demarcate its border with Burma along this line, one wonders whether a line with another name would have turned out less bitter for Chinese officials. Either way, it remains to be noted that while the Indian defenses of the NEFA collapsed in October 1962, the PLA withdrew to this line, despite continuing to insist on makes it not accept it.

Shortly before war broke out, the two sides met in 1960 to make their respective arguments. On the Chinese side, “the mockery of British imperialism” has been used “to mask the insufficiency of their own documentation”, as Dorothy Woodman observed. It was all the more ironic since it was precisely the Communist regime’s insistence on the territorial claims of its own imperial predecessor that had justified its “liberation” from Tibet.

Things were even more complicated in the western sector, where the discovery of Chinese road construction through uninhabited Aksai Chin signaled the end of the short period of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” – a phrase that Rao aptly describes it as “delusional diplomacy.” Nehru’s decision to unilaterally solidify the borders on India’s maps in 1954 forced India to claim the desolate, high-altitude Aksai Chin without effectively occupying it ( or survey it exhaustively.) The challenge this posed was, in the words of Foreign Minister Subimal Dutt, “practical and stupendous.” The solidified border on the map of India, combined with the public knowledge of Aksai Chin’s road after 1957, hampered Nehru’s options and led to India’s intransigent stance on border talks in 1960 when Zhou appeared willing, at last, to perhaps address the issue.

The status of Aksai Chin, Tawang, and other remote areas of the Himalayas raises a point that might put Rao the diplomat at odds with Rao the historian. From an administrative and practical standpoint, neither India nor China effectively controlled the outer limits of the Himalayan territory they claimed in the late 1940s. For China, the obvious problem was a territory of size. of Tibet which would require invasion and violent repression to ensure its integration as an inviolable part of China. For India, the problem meant establishing a presence in areas only officially claimed on maps or by treaty. More particularly, this forced India to send personnel to administer Tawang for the first time in 1951. Later, this would also include the promotion by Nehru of a so-called “advanced policy” by establishing advanced points in Aksai. Chin.

Jawaharlal Nehru interacting with army officers at NEFA in 1962. Photo: Photo Division, GOI

Unsatisfying comfort

And this is where the story brings unsatisfying comfort to a diplomat. Against China’s argument in 1960 that Tawang had historical ties to Tibet, Rao notes that NEFA is “mentioned in the Indian constitution.” This is of course true, as is the fact that the McMahon line exists on a map. But it highlights a tension between legal and diplomatic assertions on the one hand and the more messy ebbs and flows of history on the other. Ladakh, Tawang, Sikkim and other regions had maintained centuries-old ties with Tibet and other Himalayan political regimes. Tributary missions between Leh and Lhasa had existed since 1684. Despite the physical obstacle posed by the Himalayas, it was a region historically devoid of linear political boundaries, where only the occasional mountain pass signaled a change of jurisdiction. The problem of Sino-Indian relations in the 1950s was at least in part the problem of integrating the Himalayas into the modern world system.

Rao expresses the diplomat’s frustration at the hardened positions adopted by the two parties in 1959. agreement between the sovereign governments concerned. This, for Rao, reflects a failure of foreign policy, which should combine “firmness and flexibility”.

Fractured Himalayas is a fluidly written synthesis of the vast archives available. It complements the voluminous studies of Claude Arpi and Avtar Singh Bhasin and the now classic analyzes of Dorothy Woodman, Alastair Lamb and others. At 600 pages, this is not a one-time dispatch book. But the author’s ease of creating a beautiful narrative gives life to the wide range of characters of this era. Rao gives a clear digest of a complex and consequent period, which continues to cast a shadow the size of the Himalayas on relations between India and China.

Kyle Gardner is a non-resident researcher at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University. His first book, The border complex: geopolitics and the making of the Indo-Chinese border, 1846-1962, was published by Cambridge University Press in January 2021.