The Dalai Lama, contours of the Cold War and the 1962 Indo-China War

KMT’s defeat despite major US support, and close ties between the two communist blocs — China and USSR — led the US to focus on opening a new front against China.

 |  12-minute read |   06-07-2020
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The Dalai Lama (Lhamo Thondup) has spent nearly 61 years of his life in India. His struggle for the Tibetan cause and the ongoing tensions with China provides a backdrop to reflect on the strategic issues that had set the stage for the 1962 Indo-China War. These were (i) refuge to him by India; (ii) CIA’s efforts to fan an armed insurgency in Tibet after the Korean War; (iii) the rift between China and former USSR; (iv) USSR’s close relations with India; and (v) Indian influence in Tibet.

On April 2, 1959, The New China News Agency broadcasting on Peking Radio reported that “...the Dalai Lama, under duress by rebellious elements, has entered India on March 31. Indian border police authorities have left Tawang to meet him.” Indian diplomatic sources, speaking anonymously, added that he may be granted asylum by the Indian government. Gyalo Thondup, Dalai Lama’s elder brother, also reached the North-East Frontier Agency of Assam (present-day Arunachal Pradesh) to meet him. Incidentally, Gyalo Thondup had lived under the personal care of Chiang Kai-shek of the Kuomintang (KMT) — often referred to as the Chinese Nationalist Party — and was married to the daughter of a KMT general.

main_dalai-lama-ente_070620071609.jpgThe Dalai Lama (sixth from left) rests with members of an escape party who protected him during his flight to exile across the Himalayas in March 1959. (Photo: Associated Press)

After being founded in 1949, the People's Republic of China (PRC) quickly renounced all prior foreign agreements as unequal treaties imposed upon it during the "century of humiliation" and demanded re-negotiation of all borders including the McMahon Line. In November 1950, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet, after which the Dalai Lama (15 years old then) was appointed head of state in Tibet. In May 1951, however, the Tibetan leaders were forced to sign the "Seventeen Point Agreement” and renounce cultural and religious autonomy. This agreement also allowed the establishment of Chinese civil and military headquarters at Lhasa. The 1955 Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet further excluded Dalai Lama's government and instituted a system of Communist administration. Tensions continued to simmer amidst Chinese misrule.

As the Khampa rebellion (The 1959 Tibetan uprising) spread, the fighting triggered a flight of Tibetans, with about a lakh of them landing up in Nepal and in a refugee camp in Kalimpong (near Darjeeling). In March 1959, a full-scale uprising broke out in Lhasa. Thousands died, and the Dalai Lama, his ministers and tens of thousands of others fled to India. On reaching Lhuntse Dzong on March 26, 1959, the Dalai Lama announced the re-establishment of the interim government of Tibet and sought refuge in India.

On March 31, he entered India through the Indian post of Chuthangmu (north of Tawang). In Tibet, the Chinese repudiated the Seventeen Point Agreement and appointed the Pancham Lama as the chairman of a committee to rule Tibet.

US Factor in the 1962 Indo-China War

After World War II, the Communist Party of China (CPC) defeated the KMT, gained control of mainland China, established the People's Republic of China in 1949, and forced the KMT/Nationalist leadership to flee to Taiwan. This was followed by the Korean War (June 1950 to July 1953). Initially fought between USSR and South Korea/USA, it soon witnessed three major events. Foremost, the USA deployed its Navy in July 1950 to the Taiwan Strait to protect the KMT government in Taipei (First Taiwan Strait Crisis), at which China abandoned its plans for a ‘reunification’ invasion of Taiwan.

Second, China entered the Korean War after the US forces, after defeating the North Korean Army, reached the Yalu river, the border between North Korea and China. Third, the US agreed to the UN-led armistice after over 54,000 US soldiers died and nearly a lakh soldiers were wounded in this war.

KMT’s defeat despite major US support, and close ties between the two communist blocs — China and USSR — led the US to focus on opening a new front against China. Tibet was in throes of post-invasion unrest and from 1951 onwards, the US commenced efforts to exploit the turmoil, even asking the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

But with sparse headway, the then-US President Dwight Eisenhower reoriented US’s covert activities to push back against Communism. The US National Security Council directive 5412/2 of December 1954, inter-alia, mandated that “covert operations shall...create and exploit troublesome relations for International Communism, impair relations between USSR and China...develop underground resistance and facilitate covert and guerrilla operations...” The secret 5412-Committee was set up for coordinating the covert operations and it included the “Tibet Program”.

main_dwight-eisenhow_070620072401.jpgThe then-US President Dwight Eisenhower reoriented US’s covert activities to push back against Communism. (Photo: Associated Press)

With Thubten Jigme Norbu, Dalai Lama’s elder brother, in touch in Washington and his other brother Gyalo Thondup establishing contact with the CIA office in Kolkata, covert US operations began to take shape. A telegram dated June 28, 1956, from the US Consul General in Calcutta records the Crown Prince of Sikkim (then a protectorate of India) conveying Dalai Lama’s request to the US for weapons to fight the Chinese in Tibet.

After the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of others reached India in 1959, the Eisenhower administration expanded its Tibet program. John Greaney, the then-deputy head of the CIA’s Tibetan Task Force, was soon overseeing training at Saipan and Camp Hale (Colorado) of Tibetan fighters commissioned by Gyalo Thondup and his deputy Lhamo Tsering, under Operation ST CIRCUS. The fighters were air-dropped into Tibet from an airbase in erstwhile East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). From 1960, the CIA also began using Mustang in Nepal for launching hit-and-run raids into Tibet.

Deterioration in China and USSR relations

In USSR, Khrushchev who succeeded Stalin denounced his predecessor in 1956 and began “de-Stalinisation” after the speech “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences”. Mao Zedong, a cult figure, considered himself as the head of Communism and felt upstaged by the reformist Khrushchev. In addition were ideological differences on Marxism-Leninism — the USSR was espousing peaceful coexistence with the Western bloc. Mao labelled it as “Marxist revisionism” and “cowardice”. July 1958 saw the Beijing-Moscow negotiations — on the stationing of the Soviet nuclear-armed submarines at joint Sino-Soviet naval bases in China — break down after Mao accused Khrushchev of trying to establish control over China’s coast. 

main_mao-and-nikita-_070620073416.jpgMao Zedong (L) considered himself as the head of Communism and felt upstaged by the reformist Khrushchev (R). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In August 1958, China attacked the Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu, leading to the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. The US responded by staging its Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Straits and arming Taiwan. The USSR was both angered and surprised by China’s action. Angered because the Chinese action forced the USSR to revise its policy of peaceful coexistence to include regional wars. Surprised because the Chinese leadership had kept this plan secret. Relations between the two nations further deteriorated.

There were additional reasons for the deterioration. The primary one was USSR’s friendship with India. By 1960, India had received more economic and military assistance than China from USSR. The second was the USSR’s neutrality in the Tibet border dispute. And the third was USSR’s criticism of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which had led to economic distress and the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961). By 1960, relations between the two nations had reached a point where their respective leaders were trading insults publicly.

Internally, the above and other events relegated Mao to a second line of leadership yielding place to pragmatists such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai. However, Mao was soon able to ally with General Lin Biao to regain control over the ruling Communist Party and the 1962 war with one part of that endeavour.

The Indo-Sino events

Although India had protested China’s invasion of Tibet in September 1952, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced that the Indian Mission in Lhasa (for India-Tibet relations) would be replaced by a Consulate-General accredited to China. This was a tacit acceptance by India of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet (it was only in 2003 that India explicitly recognised Tibet as a part of China). This was followed by India and China concluding the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel Treaty) in 1954.

main_nehru-and-mao-z_070620073924.jpgIndian Prime Minister Nehru (L) and Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong (R) signed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchsheel Treaty) in 1954. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Things seemed normal until a Chinese newspaper, Kuang-ming Jih-Pao published an account of a road connecting Tibet-Xinjiang through Aksai Chin in October 1957. After this, the Indian government decided to send investigation patrols in the summer of 1958. Of the two patrols sent, one was captured by the PLA and released after 40 days. The second patrol confirmed the existence of this road.

The inter-governmental correspondence between India and China on this road was initially cordial. However, that changed after the Dalai Lama was granted asylum by India in 1959. On August 25, the Chinese attacked an Assam Rifles’ post at Longju (Subansiri) and on August 29, former PM Nehru was finally compelled to inform the Parliament about this road through Indian territory. This was followed by the October 1959 clash in the south of Kongka Pass (Aksai Chin) in which nine Indian policemen were killed.

The ensuing months saw many meetings between the two governments, but the differences couldn’t be reconciled. Meanwhile, BN Mullik, the then Director of the Intelligence Bureau of India (IB), reported in October 1961 that China had established 61 new posts (seven in Ladakh, 14 opposite the Central Sector, 12 facing Sikkim, three opposite Bhutan and 25 across NEFA). India had two options: either to act on the claims of Aksai Chin being India territory, or do nothing.

Thus was conceived the so-called ‘Forward Policy’ during a high-level meeting under Nehru on November 2, 1961. The government’s directive envisaged an initiative for strengthening Indian territorial claims and forestalling further Chinese ingress, albeit without considering the need for requisite military support. Many of the forward posts were air-maintained and there was an absurd assumption that China would not react to this forward staging of troops into areas that it considered disputed. ‘Forward Policy’ was first applied to the Aksai Chin area and then to NEFA.

In addition, there were reports that Mao felt humiliated by the reception and refuge given by India to Dalai Lama and suspected India was covertly working separately with both — the USA and USSR — to destabilise Tibet. This suspicion was reinforced by the fact that historically it was the Indian cultural and religious influence that spread into Tibet, and prior to 1950, the majority of Tibetan trade was with India. Even today, the Chinese leadership views the overseas Tibetan movement as the single biggest ethnic challenge.

To sum up, the broad geopolitical underpinnings of the Cold War, and the bilateral aggravations between China and USSR, and China and India, set the stage for the Sino-Indian armed conflict. On July 10, 1962, around 350 Chinese troops surrounded an Indian post at Chushul and harangued the Gurkha troops to not fight for India. The Gurkha troops, of course, rejected this ‘suggestion’.

On October 20, 1962, China attacked India even as the world was distracted by the Cuban Missile Crisis. On November 21, 1962, China announced it was declaring a unilateral ceasefire on the Sino-Indian border and beginning December 1, it would withdraw its troops 20 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) existing between the two countries as on November 7, 1959, as also 20 kms north of the so-called McMahon Line. With India not challenging the Chinese assertions, the fighting came to an end.

main_bruce-riedel_070620074502.jpgEx-CIA official and author of JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War - Bruce Riedel.

Ex-CIA official Bruce Riedel, records in his book JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War: “For Mao, India was a surrogate for his rivalry with Moscow and Washington. He ostensibly finalised the decision to go to war on October 6, 1962, with his senior generals. He told them that China had defeated Chiang Kai-Shek, Imperial Japan, and the US in Korea – and now it was time to impose a ‘fierce and painful’ blow on India, and expel it from territories that China claimed west of the Johnson Line and in NEFA South of McMahon Line. On October 08, the Chinese Foreign Minister informed the Soviet Ambassador in Beijing of the planned attack on India. However, the USSR, engaged in its own high-stakes gamble in Cuba, did not discourage the Chinese, despite Khrushchev’s close relationship with Nehru. Losing territory and suffering casualties, Nehru asked the US and UK for help. This was a momentous request – just a decade after US forces reached a ceasefire with Chinese forces in Korea, India was asking the US to join a new war against China. On October 28, 1962, the day before Nehru asked for US military assistance, the US Ambassador in Pakistan, Walter McConaughy, told then Pakistani ruler Ayub Khan that the US and UK would view a Pakistani move against India as a hostile and aggressive action inconsistent with the SEATO and CENTO Treaties.”

Riedel adds that Mao’s objectives in the War were to “humiliate” Nehru who was emerging as a leader of the Third World, and inflict a humbling defeat on India because that would be a setback for two of Mao’s enemies — Khrushchev and Kennedy. Mao also believed that it would demonstrate that the PLA was not an army to be trifled with.

After this war, the US lost interest in the Tibet Program and the training of Tibetans in Colorado came to a halt. Thereafter, Tibet met the same fate as the Cubans (Bay of Pigs fiasco) and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in 1989. All three were abandoned by the US. The CIA’s involvement, however, gave China an excuse to portray Tibet as a ‘pawn on the chessboard of imperialist cold-war policy’ and by its own count, allowed it to eliminate about 87,000 Tibetans. In his autobiography, the Dalai Lama states that the CIA’s involvement "caused almost more harm to the Tibetans than to the Chinese."

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Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retired) Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retired) @ksingh_pds

The writer is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army.

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