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Dept of Environment and Climate Change

India’s Tawang Itch: How Politicians Misinterpret History to Score Political Brownie Points

India’s Tawang itch remains though it should have ended after January 1951. Tawang was needlessly in the news again recently following a callous statement by Union law minister, Kiren Rijiju, that Nehru did not want Tawang. Congress came back with a sharp response producing documents which indicated otherwise. Rijiju is from Arunachal Pradesh therefore unlikely he is unaware of Tawang’s recent history.

Towards 1950 China had indicated to India they would be taking over Tibet, a monastic state which had wrested itself free from Chinese control since the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 in the wake of Sun Yat-sen’s Republican (Koumintang) Revolution. India earnestly appealed to the Chinese not to resort to force and instead take the diplomatic route to resolve its Tibet problem. However, when it became certain China was not paying heed to the advice, India quietly decided to end any exercise of Tibetan suzerainty over Tawang. Among others, W.F. Van Eekelen in his book Indian Foreign Policy and the Border Dispute with China, has some details on these sharp exchanges.

Other authors too have interesting observations. Neville Maxwell, a man often charged of being too eager to agree with Chinese claims and equally eager to disagree with India’s, in his book India’s China War, notes that India notified Lhasa, not Peking, about its intent to take over Tawang administration. In January 1951 civil servant Nari Rushtomji and Governor of Assam Jairamdas Daulatram India had the green signal from Delhi to plan for the takeover and the man chosen for the mission was Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur. Khathing led 200 soldiers of the Assam Rifles to Tawang to accomplish the job after first convincing the Monpas, already burdened by Lhasa’s monastic taxes, that a much better future awaited them in India. Maxwell again notes that China did not protest India’s move, and in his opinion, this was an indication China at the time was willing to negotiate and settle the boundary issue with India where the McMahon Line was, though it did not officially recognize this line.

It is well known McMahon Line was agreed upon through exchanges of note between the British India plenipotentiary Henry McMahon and his Tibetan counterpart Longchen Shatra during the Simla Conference 1913-1914, bypassing the Chinese plenipotentiary Chen I-fan who latter walked out. The two agreed on the watershed principle of mapmaking. This being so, the boundary ought to have been along the Se-La Pass ridge at about 14,000 feet above mean sea level, leaving Tawang on the Tibetan side. The Monpas and Lopas who form the dominant population of Tawang are also very much proto-Tibetan, and in Alastair Lamb’s illustrative phrase in his two volume The McMahon Line, A Study in Relation Between India, China and Tibet 1904-1914, they were very much part of the ‘Tibetan Buddhist Church’. Indeed, the 6th Dalai Lama is a Monpa from Tawang.

But Tawang come to be south of the McMahon Line, therefore in India, by a concession the Tibetans made to McMahon who on the advice of Tibet expert Charles Bell convinced the Tibetans of the extreme vulnerability the Assam plains would be left exposed to if Tawang was out of India’s control. The Tibetans agreed in the belief this was part of a larger bargain that “the British would guarantee a Tibetan boundary with China” Lamb writes. The British reciprocally agreed to allow Lhasa to retain its cultural suzerainty over the Tawang region, or Monyul in Tibetan, and traditional right to collect taxes from the Monpas and Lopas, Lamb says. So long as India’s northern boundary was with Tibet, there was no cause for alarm in this, but when it became certain China would take over Tibet, India had to make the move to end this arrangement.

China began its military campaign in Tibet on October 24, 1950. Sadly, Tibet found itself friendless. When it tried to move the UNO on the aggression, none of its allies, Britain, America, India wanted to sponsor it, and it was ultimately El Salvador which did the needful. Still the motion died in a whimper. In frustration Tibet did ask for Tawang’s return, but that is now history, and Tibet was already becoming China.

This article was first published in The Telgraph under a different headline. The original can be read HERE

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