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Neville Maxwell’s ‘Facts’ and Silences

(A rejoinder to Neville Maxwell’s “Olaf Caroe’s Fabrication of the ‘McMahon Line’” (EPW, 6 August 2016) claims that there are many factual inconsistencies. The author also asserts that Maxwell deliberately silences alternate explanations to his claims. EPW)


Neville Maxwell’s “Olaf Caroe’s Fabrication of the ‘McMahon Line’ ” (EPW, 6 August 2016) is well written and articulate, but there are too many factual inconsistencies and deliberate silencing of alternate explanations to his claims. Some of these have been deliberate and persistent in all of the author’s writings spanning more than half a century. There is nothing that the author has written here, or the charges that he makes, which are different from what he has written 50 years ago. They have only been recycled to make them look current and relevant.

I will follow the same sequence of thoughts that he has taken. Let me start with the most minor contested representation. The article opens with the claim that “by 1935 the British Indian Empire and China had coexisted as contiguous neighbours for just over a century.” This is on the presumption that the “in 1824 Britain acquired Assam as booty from the Burma War”.

The fact is the British may have begun entering Assam in 1824 to engage the Burmese who had occupied Assam by then, but the First Anglo Burmese War formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo on 24 February, 1826. Should not the annexation of Burma by the British be dated to 1826 and not 1824. A few more of these rather innocent flaws need also to be pointed out.  His claim that British India came to share border with China only after the annexation of Assam is also inaccurate. The territories now constituting Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Kashmir also shared borders with China.

He also without any qualification presumes Tibet was Chinese territory all throughout history, and has little use for what the Tibetan themselves think on the matter. China did always claim this, but as early as the closing decade of the 19th Century Viceroy Lord Dufferin had come to the conclusion that China’s claim of control over Tibet was fiction and that Tibetan issues should be pursued with Tibet directdly. Dufferin came to this conclusion following China’s inability to do anything to make Tibet honour two treaties the British signed with China in 1890 and 1893, the first on fixing the boundary of its protectorate state of Sikkim with Tibet and the second on regulation of trade between Tibet and India at Yatung in the Chumbi Valley.

Lord Curzon later embraced Dufferin’s outlook in earnest and began pursuing a Tibet policy independent of China, the highpoint of which was the Younghusband Expedition to Lhasa in 1904. Curzon took this step as he became convinced that the 13th Dalai Lama was leaning towards Russia. The book Maxwell quotes liberally to support his other claims, Alastair Lamb’s two volume The McMahon Line, A Study in the Relations Between India, China and Tibet 1904 to 1914(Routlege & Kegal Paul, 1966) has a fairly detailed account of this episode, so does Charles Bell’s “Tibet Past and Present (OUP, 1924”, an author Maxwell in his past writings condescendingly dismissed as partisan.

These, as I have said earlier, are more innocent claims. There are other more serious and seemingly motivated ones. It begins in the very second paragraph of the article when he said the Raj drew and ‘called this accepted limit to its rule “the Outer Line” and prohibited unauthorised ingress across it.’

For reasons not difficult to guess, the author avoids recalling a line which the British did officially draw called “the Inner Line”, which came into existence by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873. From his definition, the Outer Line that he mentions seems to be the same as this Inner Line. The Inner Line, was designed to separate the British revenue districts in the plains from the non-revenue “wild” hill territories surrounding the Assam plains. It was in many ways the British administration’s answer to tackling the non-State spaces they encountered in the Northeast region after they took over Assam in 1826. However, the administration also made it plain, that ‘this line does not necessarily indicate the territorial frontier but only the limits of the administered area… it does not in any way decide the sovereignty of the territory beyond’ as colonial writer Edward Gait wrote.[1] Gait further explains that ‘under the authority conferred by the Statute 33 Vict., Chapter 3, which gives to the executive Government of India a power of summary legislation for backward tracts. Such laws are called Regulations to distinguish them from the Acts, or laws passed after discussion in the legislature.’[2] No such legislation which created an “Outer Line” is in the record books, yet Maxwell insists the line was official and that it was the extent of British India’s territory, as does another scholar of repute, Alastair Lamb, in his The McMahon Line, A Study in the Relations Between India, China and Tibet 1904 to 1914.[3]

Lamb at least did not deny the existence of the Inner Line and argued, though rather ambiguously, that the Outer Line existed independently of the Inner Line and that the two overlapped in certain sectors. At other places, these were two somewhat parallel lines set apart by a few kilometres. Lamb never explained adequately or convincingly what the status of the 10km or so territory sandwiched between the two lines was, or what administrative purpose this narrow land strip was meant to served. It must however be said that the Outer Line has been referred to vaguely by executives at the operational levels on the ground, but this seems more like a confusion so common lower down in the bureaucratic hierarchy, and the line being referred to erroneously was actually the Inner Line.

There has been so much independent researches done on the Inner Line and other frontier management mechanisms in the region since Maxwell wrote his book “India’s China War”, but there are no signs Maxwell has factored them into his own understanding of the Northeast. Consider these lines for instance to see what area of the debate on the Inner Line is missed out by Maxwell:

‘…what lay enclosed by the Inner Line was not only a territorial exterior of the theatre of capital – it was also a temporal outside of the historical pace of development and progress. Though encountered on the numerous plateaus of everyday life, the communities forced to stay beyond the Line were seen as belonging to a different time regime – where the time of the law did not apply; where slavery, headhunting, and nomadism could be allowed to exist. The Inner Line was expected to enact a sharp split between what were understood as the contending worlds of capital and the pre-capital, of the modern and the primitive.[4]


The Inner Line is then an innovative mechanism devised by the colonial government to manage non-State, non-revenue spaces in the region. The ground for such an interpretation can be credited to Yale professor James C. Scott’s influential “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland Southeast Asia (Orient Blackswan, 2010)”.

It is also interesting to note that by the Government of India Act, 1919, these non-State spaces lying beyond the Inner Line were designated as “Backward Tracts” and left un-administered. By the Government of India Act 1935, these “Backward Tracts” were re-designated and categorised as “Excluded Areas” and “Partially Excluded Areas”. The “Excluded areas were not to have any representations in the Assam provincial Legislative Assembly and were to be placed under the direct charge of the Governor. The “Partially Excluded Areas” were to have some representations, but by nomination of the Governor.

By implication though it must be said, if there is an Inner Line, there should also be an Outer Line, even if notional. This implied line is where the McMahon Line was ultimately and tangibly conceived of during the Simla conference of 1913-1914.

Maxwell makes more debatable and indeed already much debated claims on the next page, under the sub-heading “A Flashback to the Simla Conference”. Unfortunately, he has chosen here to silence the voices from the other side of these past debates and presented only those voices from the side he belonged to. Let me point out some of these.

He writes, there was more to the ‘pre-mortal, last-gasp expansionary impulse of the Manchu Empire which in 1909-1910 began to drive its power closer to India’s north-east’. The fact is, during this ‘pre-mortal, last-gasp expansionary impulse, not only did China overrun Tibet and establish a firm control there, but it also began probing neighbouring principalities, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and the un-administered region that the British considered its territory but lying beyond the Inner Line. The British were not so much worried about Nepal which had a robust army, not Sikkim either for it was a British protectorate, not the un-administered areas in the Northeast for it was unlikely China would covet these wild non-State, non-revenue hills. The British were however extremely anxious about the possible fate of Bhutan. In 1910 therefore, on the advice of Charles Bell, the British sent a team to Bhutan to renegotiate a 1865 treaty with the king, adding a clause to the existing treaty to necessitate Bhutan to pursue its foreign affairs only in consultation with British India.[5] This was meant as a safeguard against any possible overtures of China to annex Bhutan, but the British were spared any further immediate anxieties because the Manchu/Qing empire collapsed not long after in 1911, on account of the Republican Revolution.

The British had little doubts this was only a breather for they were certain China would again try to return to Tibet. The urgency for ascertaining India’s boundary in the Northeast hence was this anxiety. The Simla Conference of 1913-14, must be seen from this vantage. These accounts are very much there in details, with copies of actual documents attached as appendixes in Lamb’s book which Maxwell quotes in other contexts, and in Bell’s book which he ignores.

There is yet another interesting angle to the circumstance and pressures which led to the Simla Conference. Till the Manchu Dynasty’s forward policy of 1909-1910, Britain’s Tibet anxiety was dominated by its fear of Russian influence growing in this weak monastery state. Maxwell himself acknowledged this in his own influential book “India’s China War” when he quoted Owen Lattimore, that ‘the prestige indispensable to the rule of the British over India demanded that their subjects should not be allowed to see on any horizon the rise of a power even remotely comparable to that of the British empire.’[6]

This concern was what was chiefly behind Britain literally coercing Russia to sign the St. Petersburg Treaty of 1907, by which, among others, Britain agreed to stay away from Tibet affairs and also had Russia agree to do the same. If needs arise that either had to deal with Tibet, this was to be through the mediation of China, though China was not made a participant of this convention. Britain’s fear was Russia and not China as is obvious from the terms of this treaty. This was despite Russia being on the back foot at the time, having been humiliatingly defeated by Japan in the naval war of 1905, and also the fact that the power equation in Europe was changing and Russia had by then become an ally of the British. Russia allowed Britain to have its way at the convention, but as Lamb notes, as in Judo, it used Britain’s weight to ground it.[7]

Lamb’s prophesy was what played out during the Simla Conference. Had it not been for the St. Petersburg Convention, technically China need not have been made a party at this conference and the boundary could have been settled between India and Tibet alone. In actuality, this was indeed the case. The line that we know today as McMahon Line was the result of exchanges of notes between McMahon and Lonchen Shatra, the Tibetan plenipotentiary at the conference in March 1914 without the knowledge of the Chinese plenipotentiary, Ivan Chen. It had become obvious to McMahon by then the Chinese would not ratify any agreement at the conference, as Maxwell also notes.

It may be recalled that the objection raised by the Chinese during the Simla conference was primarily on the map of Tibet, and not so much on Tibet’s border with India. After listening to Tibetan and Chinese conception of Tibet, and their widely different perceptions of the extent of Tibetan territory, the idea of an Inner and Outer Tibet, modelled on Mongolia, occurred to McMahon. It must be said this idea also echoed the Inner Line and Outer Line debate in the Northeast. Two maps, one bigger than the other were drawn. The smaller was embedded within the larger but their southern perimeters overlapped to form a single line and that was the boundary with India. These two maps were the Inner and Outer Tibet. ‘One zone, Inner Tibet, would be under some degree of Chinese sovereignty. The other zone, Outer Tibet, would be the autonomous domain of the Dalai Lama under Chinese suzerainty.’[8] The alignment of the border with India was what was done between the plenipotentiaries of Tibet and India only.

This treaty was not published in full immediately or publicised, again for fear of Russian objections in view of the nonparticipation of the Chinese representative. It left out the exchanges of notes between McMahon and the Tibetan plenipotentiary which defined the McMahon line.

Maxwell also brings up here the issue of a difference in perception between the British Home Government and the British Government of India to imply Government of India officials were going rogue and straying from guidelines of the Home Government. There was indeed such a friction between the Home Government and the government of the colony. This came to be most pronounced during Curzon’s term as Viceroy. What defined this friction were the maps of security perception of the two. While London saw the larger interest of the Empire as primary, Calcutta/Delhi/Simla, was influenced by immediate threats to India’s security. Hence for the latter, controlling Tibet was in the interest of India’s security and this was often misunderstood by London. Morley’s remark to Lord Minto, before the latter succeeded Curzon as Viceroy, is revealing of the character of this friction. It may be recalled, Morley ended up undoing whatever Curzon government claimed to have achieved by forcing the Lhasa Convention on Tibet at the end of the Younghusband Expedition. If Curzon was allowed to have his way then, Tibet probably would have ended up as Sikkim was – a British Protectorate State. Morley did not allow this. This policy friction is now legendary. Aloud hint is in what Morley wrote to Curzon’s successor, Lord Minto in October 1906 saying these ‘frontier men’, forget ‘the complex intrigues, rival interests and, if you like, diabolical machinations which make up international politics for a vast sprawling Empire like ours, exposing more vulnerable surface than any Empire the world ever saw.’[9] Ironically, Minto once in India would also begin to see India’s security from similar lens as Curzon’s.

It is not difficult to imagine this drama characterising policy friction between the big and small maps of concerns even today in the functioning of independent India’s bureaucracy, which is in very many ways a replica of the British Empire’s bureaucracy. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear of policy proposals by the bureaucracy in Indian states, especially weak remote Northeastern states, being shot down unceremoniously by the Ministry of Home Affairs, often on the presumption of a better vantage to assess national interest from the Centre. It is thus imaginable how, just as once upon a time India’s immediate interests were dismissed as myopic against the larger backdrop of the Empire’s interest, what the states see as their immediate and urgent interests often end up side-lined by the Union government on the charge that they were parochial.[10] And when the empire dissolved, the colony is now left to bear the consequences of the former’s now redundant concerns.

Maxwell then touches on the issue of the modifications Olaf Caroe made to the original entries in the Aitchison’s Treaties, Engagements and Sanads. This too is an old but hotly debated issue. Interestingly, many of these debates were on the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly. Maxwell has again picked up only one side of the debate while completely silencing the other.

A hypothesis or a postulate can qualify to be a credible truth claim only after all other hypotheses and postulates on the same matter has been explained away and thereby eliminated. This however has hardly been the case on this issue. Parshotam Mehra among others have contending theories of what may have prompted Caroe to do what he has done, and that his motives may not have to been at all as sinister as had been made out to be. It is unlikely Maxwell did not recall Mehra’s arguments while writing this present piece, for his reference to what he mockingly calls excuse of the outbreak of the Great War for the delay in implementing the provisions of the Simla agreement, echoes one of Mehra’s arguments. Let me elaborate by listing some of Mehra’s arguments, for they were far more than just the Great War excuse, and they were compelling too.[11]

  1. The non-implementation of the provisions of the agreement immediately was on account of its violation of the St. Petersburg Treaty. The British had at one point even considered requesting Russia to renegotiate or abrogate this treaty.
  2. WWI took attention away from it.
  3. China was not feared as an immediate threat as the country then was in an existential crisis following the chaos of the Republican Revolution.
  4. By the time the British government started considering the publication of the full text of the Simla agreement, and its implementation in the mid-1930s, the Communists had overthrown the Tsarist regime in Russia and after the formation of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, in 1921, abrogated the very next year most treaties concluded by the Tsarist regime, and among these was the St. Petersburg Treaty 1907.
  5. The reasons the British needed to publish the treaty in the mid-1930s include the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933; the misadventure of botanist Kingdon-Ward in 1935, when he strayed into Tibet without realising it while on an expedition in the Tawang region; the consistent mistakes London press, in particular The Times, were making in identifying the Inner Line as the international boundary of India (Maxwell is still doing this); the imminent separation of Burma from India as per the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935 as the northern frontier of Burma then was also defined by the McMahon Line.

On the question of Caroe’s forgery too, Mehra says although New Delhi decided to re-issue Volume-14 of Aitchison’s Treaties, Engagements and Sanads, some copies of the older version was preserved, (according to critics these copies survived despite effort to destroy them). Mehra also goes ahead to defend the gravest of the charges against Caroe that he replaced the short factual paragraph about the 1914 convention with a long embellished three paragraph set. He says that a close scrutiny reveals the meanings of the short original paragraph and those of the newer three paragraphs remain unchanged. The only reason this change had become necessary was that ‘the new Aitchison volume contained the text of the 1914 Convention, the McMahon-Shatra exchange of notes on the boundary, as well as the revised (1914) Indo-Tibetan Trade Regulations. Whitehall had ruled that the joint Indo-Tibetan declaration of 3 July was not to be published, its place being taken by an explanatory note. Surely, the additional contents had to be spelt out in terms of a narrative outline that comprehended much more than the earlier version; hence, three paragraphs in place of one.’[12] The only serious flaw Caroe committed, Mehra agrees, is that the 1938 version of Volume XIV, carried the old dateline of 1929, and this he attributes to bureaucratic lethargy.[13]

On the Tawang question, nobody, not even McMahon disputed the fact that ethnically and culturally, the Tawang tract should belong to Tibet. By the map making principle of watershed as natural border too, Tawang should have been awarded to Tibet. However, it was out of security concerns for India that McMahon assisted by Charles Bell bargained for the boundary to be drawn north of Tawang, thereby awarding Tawang to India. The Tibetans agreed to this on the unwritten understanding that Britain would not allow Chinese takeover of Tibet.

In 1950, after Mao’s army entered and occupied Tibet, and the Tibetans desperately tried to bring up the issue in the United Nations and requested those it believed were allies, including Britain, the US and India, to sponsor a resolution. Tibet unfortunately found itself betrayed by all, and the move was ultimately sponsored by El Salvador. The UN General Committee considered the question on 24 November 1950. Expectedly, none of Tibet’s allies were again willing to extend support to the motion and thereby doomed it.

Tibet did bring up the matter of how it conceded territories in exchange for British pledge to come to its aid and asked in vain for a renegotiation of the concession. A cablegram from the Tibetan delegation then residing at Kalimpong, circulated before the UN discussion blamed British persuasion for the signing the treaty “which superimposed on it the nominal (non-interfering) suzerainty of China” though that country was strictly forbidden to meddle in the internal affairs of Tibet’.[14] It further argued that China, by walking out of the Simla conference and thereby not becoming a signatory to the agreement, by default accorded Tibetan sovereignty de jure status.[15]

By the terms of the Simla Agreement then, Tawang belongs to India, however, informally, Tibet was allowed to continue to maintain its cultural links with the place, and even levy its traditional taxes from the population. But it was not just Olaf Caroe who thought it was necessary to remind the Tibetan that though they were allowed this right, the region belonged to India. Robert Reid, the Governor of Assam at the time was also of this view. In 1937 he had sent an expedition to Tawang for the purpose. In 1939 again there was a proposal for another such expedition. It was then Reid suggested a permanent solution and he offered three approaches.

  • One, leave the Tawang tract to the Tibetans altogether.
  • Two, end the part suzerainty of Tibet over Tawang and take over completely.
  • Three, continue with the periodic expeditions to remind the Tibetans the place belonged to India though they were allowed certain rights over the place.

He preferred taking over Tawang completely as he was of the opinion the tribes of the Tawang region, though culturally close to Tibet, considered themselves as British subjects.

These accounts are from Karunakar Gupta too,[16] but Maxwell quoted only those portions which suited him. Even more curiously, while Maxwell quoted portions of Karunakar’s work in which Henry Twynam, briefly the acting Governor of Assam in Reid’s absence, suggested China’s non participation made the Simla Tripartite Agreement illegitimate, therefore Tawang ‘which was always oriented towards Tibet ethnographically, politicall and in religion’ and was still under Tibetan administration should be handed over to the Tibetans. Maxwell however does not quote further on in the same note by Twynam which suggested that it would be much more cost effective for the administration to establish the frontier in the neighbourhood of the Se La pass and the Digien river instead of India asserting their full rights under the McMahon Agreement to the whole of the Tawang area.[17] In other words, even the moderate Twynam did not see the Inner Line, or Outer Line as Maxwell and others prefer to call, running along the foot of undivided Assam’s hills, as India’s frontier in the Northeast.

British India decided to maintain status quo, and allowed Tawang, though awarded to India, to remain under Tibetan administration. This continued after Indian independence, but in 1950, when a Chinese takeover of Tibet became imminent, India decided to end this arrangement. In a plan hatched by civil servant Nari Rushtomji, India sent a detachment of Assam Rifles soldiers to Tawang, led by Major Ralengnao (Bob) Khathing, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, who dutifully accomplished his mission, ending Tibetan administrative presence in the region and replacing it with India’s. India only notified the Tibetan Government at Lhasa, rather than Peking of its intention to take over Tawang. China nonetheless made no protests.[18]

It is rather strange that the episode is cited by Neville Maxwell in his India’s China War, as an alibi that China although denouncing the Simla Conference and the McMahon Line, was all willing to settle the boundary issue as per the McMahon Line, and provided India softened its stand on the matter, he presumed, China was prepared to negotiate. Here is what he ‘Although New Delhi now accepted China’s sovereignty in Tibet it made diplomatic sense to treat the matter of Tawang as a local question, leaving it to Peking to protest. In the event, the Chinese Government made no comment at all on the Indian move, so far as the record shows. This otherwise puzzling silence can be construed only as China’s acquiescence in India’s filling out the McMahon Line.’[19]

Throughout the article, Maxwell also is quick to point out wherever and whenever the Tibetans were not happy with British India and independent India but seldom when the Tibetans showed their dislike for the Chinese. As for instance during WWII, when British troops were concentrated in the Northeast in anticipation of the invading Japanese army breaking Chinese resistance under Chiang Kai-shek, he says one unnamed British officer recorded that this was “strenuously opposed by secular Tibetan frontier officials and by monastic authorities.” What Maxwell does not mention or probably is not aware of is, the Americans were desperately looking to build a land route supply line from India to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in 1942, and they initially planned this route through Tibet. However, Tibet had different concerns. Not wanting Chinese military presence in Tibetan territory, Lhasa refused the American request made through the Chinese government, for passage of Allied military hardware to the Chinese nationalists through Tibet.[20] Determined not to abandon their plan, the Americans approached the British, who in turn persuaded the Tibetans to allow two Americans ‘Ilya Tolstoy, the grandson of the Russian novelist, and Brooke Dolan to enter the rooftop kingdom’ for initial surveys.[21] The current Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Freedom in Exile (Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1990), corroborates this. The plan however was abandoned for reasons including the Tibetan unease at the prospect of Chinese military presence in Tibet and also because of the difficult Tibetan terrain. An alternate route, the Stillwell Road, was then built from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in Yunnan, for the same purpose.

Apart from the McMahon Line controversy, Maxwell’s article also has some comments on India’s claim to Aksai Chin. While it is true that this desolate high altitude tract in India’s north-west is important to China because it connects Xinjiang and Tibet, but he also says that the Raj had never claimed it. The implication is, India’s claim to ownership of the Aksai Chin is a fantasy of Nehru. In his own words, Nehru ‘metastasised India’s congenital affliction. This is an untruth. Let me quote from Karunakar Gupta again. Like Maxwell, Gupta was known for his disagreement with India’s position on its border with China, but even he agrees that the British left behind three different boundary alignments.

(1) Sir John Ardagh Line (1897) which showed a boundary alignment which took the crest of the Kuenlun range and placed within British territory the upper reaches of the Yarkand river and its tributaries and the Karakash river, as well as the whole of the Aksai Chin plateau; (2) Macartney-Macdonald Line (1899), which put forth a less ambitious territorial claim north of the Karakoram ranges. East of the Karakoram Pass, it left to China the whole of the Karakash Valley and almost all of the Aksai Chin proper. It followed the Lak Tsang range, the Lingzi Tang salt plains and the whole of the Change Chenmo valley, as well as the Chip Chap river further north; and (3) The Karakoram Line which was based on the watershed principle.[22]

These alignments were quite atrociously neither accepted by the Home Government nor rejected, therefore no attempts were also made to have them ratified by treaties with Tibet or China or both. These are some more ambiguous legacies of extreme trouble potential left behind by the Empire for its colony once liberated. These examples once again demonstrate how British India’s anxieties about India’s security were taken too lightly by the British Home Government. As to how real these anxieties were, independent India is finding out the hard way even today.

Alastair Lamb’s two volume work on the McMahon Line, as well as A.G. Noorani’s India-China Boundary Problem, 1846-1947 have very detailed and well researched accounts on why and how the British ultimately decided to claim the Aksai Chin without occupying it. Very briefly, reports from several surveys convinced the British the Karakoram ridge would make the most defensible border for India, but this would leave the valley between the Karakoram and Kuenlun mountain ranges, including the Aksai Chin, unclaimed, thereby leaving the possibility of the Russians, who were then rapidly expanding into central Asia, claiming it and having an access to Tibet. This Russian anxiety of the British and vice versa in the early late 19th and early 20th Century which characterised the Great Game is encapsulated in these lines from a letter by Henry McMahon to Viceroy Lord Hardinge dated 9 September 2012.

If we consider the existing boundary between Chinese dominion and India, it will be seen that a Russian occupation of Chinese territories in the New Dominion will bring Russia within 150 miles of Srinagar and within 300 miles of Simla. In other words the Russians frontier will be nearer to Simla than Rawalpindi, Multan or Lucknow and about the same distance in Agra.[23]

This recommendation ultimately culminated in Hardinge recommending what came to be referred to as the extended frontier of India. Accordingly, the Kuenlun watershed, by a unilateral decision was treated as India’s boundary. This was also the boundary alignment suggested by Sir John Ardagh in 1897.

Something more needs to be said of the effort to settle the boundary issues between India and China, in particular over the McMahon Line. While India holds on to this border as sacrosanct, China has made it clear it does not recognize the McMahon Line. Perhaps China cannot. Considering the history of the line, recognizing it would virtually mean China recognizing Tibet’s sovereign power of entering into international treaties. But China probably would have no objections to renegotiating this boundary, and even ratify the same alignment by another bilateral treaty between India and China. There is nothing trivial about this. From China’s point of view, removing the historical baggage which comes with the McMahon Line may be what is more important than some territory lost or gained in accepting the line.[24]

In this, there is the example of Myanmar to give optimism. China settled its outstanding boundary issues with Burma in 1960, and in the Burmese sector of the McMahon Line, the settlement in physical terms is virtually an adoption of the same alignment, with some minor gives and takes. However, the important point is this: The boundary agreed upon is not the McMahon Line anymore but a new line ratified by “The Burma-China Boundary Treaty of October 1, 1960”.[25]

There is yet another example from history. China could not accept the Lhasa Convention 1905, forced on Tibet after the Younghusband Expedition 1904, and signed between the British and Tibetans. But when ultimately China was able to persuade the British to enter into another treaty, the Peking Convention 1906, and this was allowed to supersede the Lhasa Convention, China accepted most of the earlier terms without problem.

The only moral question in having another treaty to supersede the Simla Agreement to ratify another boundary which allows the current McMahon Line alignment to remain after some readjustments but with the line be no longer called the McMahon Line, would be, the Tibetan struggle for sovereignty would have received a big blow, and perhaps even put it in an existential crisis.

(The writer is author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers)


[1] Edward Gait, A History of Assam, Thacker, Spink & Company, Calcutta, 1906

[2] Ibid, p.387

[3] Alastair Lamb, The McMahon Line, A Study in the Relations Between India, China and Tibet 1904 to 1914(Routlege & Kegal Paul, 1966)

[4] Bodhisattva Kar, When was the Postcolonial? A History of Policing Impossible Lines, occurring in Beyond Counter-insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India, (ed) Sanjib Baruah (OUP 2009), p. 52

[5] Charles Bell, Tibet Past and Present, OUP, 1924 (Text of treaty between Great Britain and Bhutan, reproduced as appendix XI in Ibid, p.297)

[6] Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, p. 236, (as quoted in Neville Maxwell, India’s China War, p.67)

[7] Alastair Lamb, The McMahon Line, A Study in the Relations Between India, China and Tibet 1904 to 1914 Vol.1, p.113

[8] Ibid. Vol-2, p.490.

[9] Morley Papers, (as quoted in Alastair Lamb, The McMahon Line, Vol-1, p.59)

[10] Pradip Phanjoubam, The Northeast Question: conflicts and frontiers, (Routledge 2016), p.141

[11] See Parshotam Mehra, Essays in Frontier History, India, China and the Disputed Border (OUP)

[12]Ibid. p.27


[14] W.F. Van Eekelen, Indian Foreign Policy and the border dispute with China, p. 31

[15] Ibid.

[16] Karunakar Gupta, The McMahon Line 1911-45: The British Legacy, The China Quarterly No. 47 Cambridge University Press, (Jul-Sept, 1971), p.538

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nari Rustomji, Enchanted Frontiers: Sikkim, Bhutan and India’s North-Eastern Borderlands, (OUP, 1971), p.125

[19] Neville Maxwell, India’s China War, p.73.

[20] Lezlee Brown Halper & Setphan Halper, Tibet: An Unfinished Story, (Hachette India, 2014), p.30

[21] Ibid.

[22] Karunakar Gupta, Distortions in the History, EPW, July 26, 1980.

[23] As quoted in A.G. Noorani India-China Boundary Problem, (OUP, 2011), p.157

[24] Pradip Phanjoubam in The Wire, accessed, August 12, 2016)

[25] Ibid.

This article was first published in the Economic and Political Weekly in its November 12, 2016 issue. It is reproduced again for its relevance again in the midst of the India-China boundary friction. This version also has my commentary on the boundary on the Western front other than the McMahon Line.

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