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India–China Boundary Problem 1846–1947$

A.G. Noorani

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780198070689

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198070689.001.0001

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The Aftermath

The Aftermath

(p.219) 12 The Aftermath
India–China Boundary Problem 1846–1947

A.G. Noorani

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers how history was scorned in the negotiations to solve the boundary dispute on the western sector between independent India and China. It resulted in an impasse which resulted in the dispute in 1959 and blew into a war in 1962.

Keywords:   boundaries, war, diplomacy, boundary dispute

The end of a historical narrative naturally raises the question as to how independent India applied history to shape its policy on the frontiers and what diplomacy it crafted to pursue that policy. The archives are shut. Enough and incontrovertible documentary material exits, however, to enable one to form a judgement. That record calls for a detailed analysis.

Rather than end the narrative, as at 15 August 1947, it was decided, on reflection, to indicate broadly some major decisions which crystallized the issues in the boundary dispute which arose in 1959 between India and China and froze it in the form in which it has survived for half a century till 2010. A fuller examination of the record from 1947 to 2010 will, it is hoped, form the subject of the next and companion volume.

It was a sensitive boundary which India inherited. Its Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was almost singular among the leaders in his interest in foreign affairs and history. He was Minister for Foreign Affairs also. He could not have been unaware of a fact which a discerning foreign correspondent Robert Trumbull reported in The New York Times of 7 December 1950: ‘By repudiating the McMahon Line established in 1914 by a tripartite agreement that China never ratified, Peking readily forth a claim to Indian border territory now (p.220) claimed by New Delhi but shown as Tibetan on Chinese maps. A classic pattern for a border dispute is present’.

                   The Aftermath

Map 12.1: India showing the position of Indian States under the new Constitution

Source: Notes, Memorandum, and Letters Exchanged between the Governments of India and China, White Paper, New Delhi, Government of India, Manager Government of India Press, July 1950, appendix XL

Frontier consciousness centred exclusively on the McMahon Line. The Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel’s oft-quoted letter of 7 November 1950, shortly after the entry of Chinese forces into Tibet, referred laconically to ‘The policy in regard to the McMahon Line’. It figured last on the list of eleven ‘problems’ which he thought required ‘early solution’. Nehru responded in a ‘Note on China and Tibet’ dated 18 November 1950. He took a different view:

I rule out any major attack on India by China … the fact remains that our major possible enemy is Pakistan. This has compelled us to think of our defence mainly in terms of Pakistan’s aggression. If we begin to think of an prepare for China’s aggressions in the same way, we would weaken considerably on the Pakistan side’.1

(p.221) On 20 November, 1950 Nehru declared in Parliament:

the frontier from Ladakh to Nepal is defined chiefly by long usage and custom. … Our maps show that the McMahon Line is our boundary and that is our boundary—map or no map. That fact remains and we stand by that boundary, and we will not allow anybody to come across that boundary.2

The Ministry of States, over which Patel presided, published two White Papers on Indian States. The first, published in July 1948, contained two maps of India. Appendix I was a map of India ‘Prior to 15 August 1947’. The McMahon Line was clearly shown; not so, the boundary in the western sector. Even the yellow colour wash did not extend to the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir. The northern and eastern boundary as well as the boundary in the middle sector, as it is known, in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, bore no line to depict a boundary. Appendix XX was a map ‘showing the progress of Political Reorganisation of States’. It extended the colour wash in yellow to the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir but with an explicit legend ‘boundary undefined’. It was repeated for Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, the McMahon Line was firmly depicted; but its eastern extremity, in the Tirap Frontier Tract, bore the legend ‘Undefined’.3

The second White Paper was published in February 1950 after the Constitution of India had come into force on 26 January 1950. It carried a map of India ‘showing the position of Indian States under the New Constitution’. It was identical, in respect of the boundary, to the second map (Appendix XX) of the 1948 White Paper. The boundaries in the western and eastern sectors were ‘undefined’; a firm McMahon Line ended in an ‘Undefined’ boundary in the Tirap Frontier Tract.4 This was very much in keeping with a sensible policy in the past. On 16 May 1907 the Viceroy, Lord Minto, sent a formal despatch to John Morley, the celebrated Secretary of State in which he recalled an earlier despatch of 27 September 1893, containing proposals on colours to be used on maps, which London had approved on 11 April, 1905: ‘These washes were to be sharply defined along (p.222) demarcated boundaries and to die away gradually where boundaries were indefinite.’5

On 6 January 1908 Major W.C. Hedley, Superintendent, Map Publication Office, survey of India informed to the Foreign Secretary ‘The exterior limits of Kashmir which under previous orders was [sic] shown by a symbol thus … is now illustrated by fading of colour wash only’.6

On 12 February 1951 Major R. Khating evicted the Tibetan administration from Tawang and established a sub-divisional headquarters there.7 China responded with a studied and significant silence. It made no protest.

The next landmark is the Agreement between India and China on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet Region of China and India, signed in Peking on 29 April 1954; popularly known as ‘the Panchsheel Agreement’. Its pledge to respect ‘each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty’ must be read in the context of India’s maps as of April 1954, not as of July 1954 or thereabout when they were revised.8

Nehru’s biographer, Sarvapalli Gopal, has recorded the debate in New Delhi on whether or not to raise the boundary question with China. Documents in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (SWJN), Volume 16 and 19 particularly, show that the Prime Minister changed his mind more than once before acting on Ambassador K.M. Panikkar’s advice not to raise it, in preference to the advice by Girja Shankar Bajpai, former Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs that India should settle the matter before signing the Agreement.

A myth that grew up and is being fostered still, alike by Nehru’s admirers and detractors, must be put to rest, because it rests on self-righteous chauvinism. On 18 June 1954 Nehru sent a note on (p.223) ‘Tibet and China’ to the Secretary-General, the Foreign Secretary, and Joint Secretary. He wrote:

No country can ultimately rely upon the permanent goodwill or bonafides of another country, even though they might be in close friendship with each other. It is conceivable that the Western Atlantic alliance might not function as it was intended to and that there might be ill-will between the countries concerned. It is not inconceivable that China and the Soviet Union may not continue to be as friendly as they are now. Certainly it is conceivable that our relations with China might worsen, although there is no immediate likelihood of that. Therefore, we have always to keep in mind the possibility of a change and not be taken unawares. Adequate precautions have to be taken. If we come to an agreement with China in regard to Tibet, that is not a permanent guarantee, but that itself is one major step to help us in the present and in the foreseeable future in various ways.9

Nehru added:

Of course, both the Soviet Union and China are expansive. They are expansive for evils other than communism, although communism may be made a tool for the purpose. Chinese expansionism has been evident during various periods of Asian history for a thousand years or so. We are perhaps facing a new period of such expansionism. Let us consider that and fashion our policy to prevent it coming in the way of our interests or other interests that we consider important.10

On July 1 came a fateful seventeen-para memorandum in which he gave an important and explicit directive. Paras 7 to 10 read thus:

7. All our old maps dealing with this frontier should be carefully examined and, where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our Northern and North Eastern frontier without any reference to any ‘line’. The new maps should also be sent to our embassies abroad and should be introduced to the public generally and be used in our schools, colleges, etc.

8. Both as flowing from our policy and as consequence of our Agreement with China, this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody. There may be very minor points of discussion. Even these should not be raised by us. It is necessary that the system of check-posts should be spread along this entire frontier. More especially, we should have check-posts in such places as might be considered disputed areas.

(p.224) 9. Our frontier has been finalised not only by implication in this Agreement but the specific passes mentioned are direct recognition of our frontier there. Check-posts are necessary not only to control traffic, prevent unauthorised infiltration but as symbols of India’s frontier. As Demchok is considered by the Chinese as a disputed territory, we should locate a check-post there. So also at Tsang Chokla.

10. In particular, we should have proper check-posts along the U.P.— Tibet border and on the passes etc. leading to Joshi Math, Badrinath, etc.11

Para 8 shut the door to negotiations on the boundary—‘not open to discussion with anybody’ India unilaterally revised its official map. The legend ‘boundary undefined’ in the western (Kashmir) and middle sectors (Uttar Pradesh) in the official maps of 1948 and 1950 were dropped in the new map of 1954. A firm clear line was shown, instead.

Steven A. Hoff mann wrote in his book India and the China Crisis that

in 1953 a decision was made to reject the Macartney-MacDonald alternative and to regard the Aksai Chin as properly Indian. This decision was part of a larger policy-setting decision to publish official maps showing unambiguous, delimited boundary between India and China. Essentially those decision were Nehru’s. Officials advising him could have only limited influence. In 1953 the Director of the Historical Division, K. Zakariah (sic) was in the process of retiring, and being replaced by J.N. Khosla, who stayed only until 1954.12

His successor, Sarvepalli Gopal, who served as Director from 1954 to 1966, differed totally. These were not the actions of a romanticist but a leader who was determined to secure acceptance of his country’s boundary, as he would like it to be, regardless of the consent of the other side.

Under Zakaraiah’s supervision the Historical Division had prepared in 1951 a comprehensive and objective paper entitled ‘Studies on the Northern Frontier’ based on the archives. It discussed the history and circumstances in which different lines of frontier were suggested. The paper is still kept secret though the public has a right to its disclosure. On 24 March 1953 a decision was taken to formulate a new line for the boundary. Nehru’s directive of 1 July 1954 was (p.225) apparently in pursuance of that decision. It was a fateful decision. Old maps were burnt. One former Foreign Secretary told this writer how, as a junior official, he himself was obliged to participate in this fatuous exercise.

Maps are not documents of title. A map, prepared without any awareness of a dispute, can be evidence in favour or against the State that published it. One which is prepared to create evidence is worthless, legally and morally. Politically it can be disastrous.

The Director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), B.N. Mullik recounted authoritatively in detail in his memoirs the stand taken by the Ministry of External Affairs even in 1958, four years after the 1954 directive, when the report of a patrol party showed presence of Chinese personnel in the Aksai Chin plateau in north-east Ladakh:

This report was discussed in the External Affairs Ministry with the CGS present. The line taken by the Ministry was that the exact boundary of this area had not yet been demarcated and so in any protest we lodged we could not be on firm grounds. … In the meantime, a report had been received from our Embassy in Peking about the completion of the Aksai Chin road. We had also earlier reported it. So in June 1958, another meeting was held in the Ministry of External Affairs. This was attended by the CGS (Chief of the General Staff) also. The Foreign Secretary maintained that neither the Embassy report nor the Intelligence report conclusively proved that the Sinkiang–Western Tibet highway actually passed through our territory and no Indian party had actually traversed this route and so before any protest was lodged we should be sure of our ground. Hence it was decided that two patrol parties would be sent to traverse the Aksai Chin road and see it on the ground if it passed through Indian territory.

The IB held that it did:

Our recommendation was discussed in January 1959, at a meeting in the External Affairs Ministry with General Thimayya., Chief of the Army Staff, present. Thimayya quite categorically stated that he did not consider that the Aksai Chin road was of any strategic importance nor was he willing to open any posts at Peking Karpo and Sarigh Jilganang Kol because he felt that small army posts would be of little use and in any case he had no means of maintaining them from his base at Leh. When I argued that the Chinese were using this road to bring re-inforcements to western Tibet, whence they could threaten eastern Ladakh and so this road was of much security importance to us, Thimayya agreed but expressed his inability to do anything about it. The Foreign Secretary also agreed with the Army Chief and felt that posts at Shamul Lungpa, Shinglung, etc. would be of no use to stop (p.226) Chinese infiltration. They might even provoke the Chinese into making further intrusions. I was informed by the Foreign Secretary after some days that the Prime Minister had approved of his views and no posts need be opened in the area. …

The attitude of the External Affairs Ministry was that this part of the territory was useless to India. Even if the Chinese did not encroach into it, India could not make any use of it. The boundary had not been demarcated and had been shifted more than once by the British. There was an old silk route which was a sort of an international route. The Chinese had only improved it. It would be pointless to pick up quarrels over issues in which India had no means of enforcing her claims. These were all valid arguments and their validity seems to be more acceptable to the people at large and even the Opposition than it was in those days.13

The basic issue was squarely joined by March 1959; incidentally, well before the Dalai Lama came to India. The first White Paper published by the Government of India on 7 September 1959 contains the documents. It was the first in a series that ended with the 12th White Paper in 1966.14

India’s demarche to China on 21 August concerned the maps. In his letter to Zhou En-lai on 14 December 1958 Nehru quoted from the records of their discussions in 1954 and 1956 in which Zhou had proposed to recognise the McMahon Line.

Zhou’s reply of 23 January 1959 raised the question of the western sector. He wrote:

First of all, I wish to point out that the Sino-Indian boundary has never been formally delimitated. Historically no treaty or agreement on the Sino-Indian boundary has ever been concluded between the Chinese central government and the Indian Government. So far as the actual situation is concerned, there are certain differences between the two sides over the border question. In the past few years, questions as to which side certain areas on the Sino-Indian border belong were on more than one occasion taken up between the Chinese and the Indian sides through diplomatic channels. The latest case concerns an area in the southern part of China’s Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous region, which has always been under Chinese jurisdiction. Patrol duties have continually been carried out in that area by the border guards of the Chinese Government. And the Sinkiang-Tibet Highway built by our country in 1956 (p.227) runs through that area. Yet recently the Indian Government claimed that that area was Indian territory. All this shows that border disputes do exist between China and India.

It was true that the border question was not raised in 1954 when negotiations were being held between the Chinese and Indian sides for the Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet Region of China and India. This was because conditions were not yet ripe for its settlement and the Chinese side, on its part, had had no time to study the question …, the Chinese Government, on the one hand, finds it necessary to take a more or less realistic attitude towards the MacMahon Line and, on the other hand, cannot but act with prudence and needs time to deal with this matter.

In his reply on 22 March 1959, Nehru asserted ‘A treaty of 1842 between Kashmir on the one hand and the Emperor of China and the Lama Guru of Lhasa on the other, mentions the India-China boundary in the Ladakh region. In 1847, the Chinese Government admitted that this boundary was sufficiently and distinctly fixed. The area now claimed by China has always been depicted as part of India on official maps, has been surveyed by Indian officials and even a Chinese map of 1893 shows it as Chinese’.

He added,

I do hope that a study of the foregoing paragraphs will convince you that not only is the delineation of our frontier, as published in our maps, based on natural and geographical features but that it also coincides with tradition and over a large part is confirmed by international agreements.15

Every one of the statements was historically untrue. As late as 1950, to go no further, Indian maps showed the boundary as ‘undefined’. Nehru’s letter, written after two months, was evidently based on the advice of the Historical Division, now led by Sarvepalli Gopal. Nor did he relent in his talks with Zhou En-lai in New Delhi in April 1960. At his press conference on 25 April, Zhou defined the boundary in the west as ‘the line which runs from the Karakoram pass south eastward roughly along the watershed of the Karakoram mountains to the Kongka pass’. He also said, ‘China has no boundary dispute with Sikkim and Bhutan’.16

Zhou formulated these six points at the press conference.

(p.228) I. There exist disputes with regard to the boundary between the two sides. II. There exists between the two countries a line of actual control upto which each side exercises administrative jurisdiction. III. In determining the boundary between the two countries, certain geographical principles, such as watersheds, river valleys and mountain passes, should be equally applicable to all sectors of the boundary. IV. A settlement of the boundary question between the two countries should take into account the national feelings of the two peoples towards the Himalayas and the Karakoram mountains. V. Pending a settlement of the boundary question between the two countries through discussions, both sides should keep to the line of actual control and should not put forward territorial claims as preconditions, but individual adjustments may be made. VI. In order to ensure tranquillity on the border so as to facilitate the discussions, both sides should continue to refrain from patrolling along all sectors of the boundary.

These were, in fact, an elaboration of five points he sent forth to Nehru on 22 April in private after two days of sterile debate on rights and wrongs actually, an elaboration of four because a crucial point was omitted.

(iv) Since we are going to have friendly negotiations, neither side should put forward claims to an area which is no longer under its administrative control. For example, we made no claim in the eastern sector to areas south of the McMahon Line, but India made such claims in the western sector. It is difficult to accept such claims and the best thing is that both sides do not make such territorial claims. Of course, there are individual places which need to be re-adjusted individually; but that is not a territorial claim.17 In plain words he dropped his claim in the eastern sector.

He repeated them in crisp formulations in a meeting with Nehru the next day as forming ‘a common ground’. They were:

(i) our boundaries are not delimited and, therefore, there is a dispute about these; (ii) however, this (sic. there?) is a line of actual control both in the eastern sector as well as the western sector and also in the middle sector; (iii) geographical features should be taken into account in settling the border. One of the principles would be watershed and there would be also other features, like valleys and mountains passes, etc. These principles should be applicable to all sectors, eastern western and middle; (iv) each side should keep to this line and make no territorial claims. This does not discount individual adjustments along the border later; (v) national sentiments should be respected. For both countries a lot of sentiment is tied around the Himalayas and the Karakoram.18

(p.229) Nehru’s approach was radically different. ‘We should take each sector of the border and convince the other side of what it believes to be right’—an impossible exercise. On the fourth point, renunciation of territorial claims by both, Nehru responded during the talks on 24 April: ‘Our accepting things as they are would mean that basically there is no dispute and the question ends there; that we are unable to do’.19

The deadlock was complete. A century old boundary problem was neglected, by a conscious decision, in 1954. It acquired the dimensions of a boundary dispute in 1959. Unresolved in 1960 when the prospects of a fair settlement were bright, the dispute was sought to be resolved by a confrontation. India’s attempt to revise the status quo in 1961 by a Forward Policy in the West came to grief. China decided to settle the matter by recourse to war in October 1962.

The conclusion is hard to resist that there was a total disconnect between the facts of history and India’s policy on the boundary problem and later boundary dispute. Its diplomacy became inflexible because it espoused a policy which barred give and take. Each one of the propositions stated earlier in Chapter XI was flouted—the 1842 Treaty; and undefined boundary; the Karakoram boundary; and, worst of all, an impermissible recourse to unilateral change of frontiers.

This, in a dispute pre-eminently susceptible to a fair solution; for, each had its vital non-negotiable interest securely under its control. India had the McMahon Line while China had the Xinjiang–Tibet road across the Aksai Chin in Ladakh.

Zhou En-lai was all too ready to accept such a solution during his visit to New Delhi in April 1960. He was rebuffed. China proceeded to practice its own brand of unilateralism, sanctifying territorial gains won by armed force.

The war of October 1962 served only to harden its position. At his press conference in New Delhi on 25 April 1960 Zhou En-lai had said: ‘comparatively less time has been spent on discussion of the eastern sector of the boundary’. On the western sector, however, ‘there exists a relatively bigger dispute and the two prime ministers spent a particularly long period of time on discussions on this question’.20

(p.230) When India’s Minister for External Affairs, Atal Behari Vajpayee, visited Beijing to pick up the threads, after nearly two decades he was told by China’s top leader Deng Xiaoping, on 14 February 1979, that the eastern sector was of economic value and the area of the biggest dispute. Whether it was a riposte in anticipation of India’s expected demand for China’s withdrawal to positions it held before the war of 1962 is debateable. The offer he made a year later would suggest just that—settle on the basis of the status quo of 1980, not 1960; albeit, with minor adjustments.

In an interview to Krishan Kumar, Chief Editor Defence News Service, on 21 June 1980, Deng urged a settlement:

according to the line of actual control … for instance, in the Eastern sector we can recognise the existing status quo—I mean the so-called McMahon line … but in the western sector, the Indian Government should also recognise the existing status quo … I think you, you can pass this message to Mrs [Indira] Gandhi. …21

China’s pronouncements in recent years stridently challenge the McMahon Line. It is, perhaps, not without significance that Beijing Review of April 2005 published an article by Ding Ying which claimed that Deng had proposed a ‘package solution’ to Vajpayee when they met on 14 February 1979.

This is a bare outline of the events after 1947 and is necessarily inadequate.

There was nothing inevitable about this impasse. A settlement was possible at the summit in New Delhi in April 1960, despite the fact that public opinion had been ignited over the armed clashes in Longju and the Kongka pass in 1959. A divided Cabinet, an irresponsible opposition, an uninformed press and a restive Parliament, all fed on bad history, held Nehru hostage; not that he had a different view of the past. He had himself mobilized public opinion. Had he so willed, between 21 January and 22 March 1959 when he replied to Zhou’s letter, a policy based on the historical truth and sensible diplomacy conducted in private could have charted a route that would assuredly have led to accord. The incontrovertible historical truth could have been recalled to inform the Cabinet, Parliament and the nation, after (p.231) (p.232) a settlement has been reached, and events would have taken a different course.

                   The Aftermath

Map 12.2: Kashmir on 15 August 1947. The shaded portion in this map did not extend to the entire state. It was appended to the White Paper on Indian States (1948), published by the Ministry of States in 1948, Appendix 1

But history was scorned and it took its revenge; paving the way to a wild, irrational play of military might and the politics of power to shape a border dispute inherently and pre-eminently susceptible to a fair compromise. The diplomatic consequences of the deepening rift between India and China are incalculable; especially in India’s relations with its other neighbours, particularly Pakistan.

If and when the boundary dispute is resolved, the leaders of a democratic India will perforce recall to its people the very facts of history that were brushed aside in 1959 and thereafter, by its leaders and the entire nation, especially the media and academia, with baleful and lasting consequences.


(1) Durga Das (ed.), Sardar Patel’s Correspondence 1945–50, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, Vol. X, pp. 340 and 344–5, respectively.

(2) Parliamentary Debates, 1950, Vol. V, Part I, pp. 155–6.

(3) White Papers on Indian States, Delhi, Manager of Publications, Government of India.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Foreign Secret F. No. 83 of 1907, June 1907, No. 325.

(6) Foreign Department, Secret F., February 1908, No. 46.

(7) Sitaram Johri; Where India China and Burma Meet, Thacker Spink & Co. Pvt. Ltd., p. 146; Nari Rustomji; Enchanted Frontiers: Sikkim, Bhutan, and India’s Northeastern Borderlands, London, Oxford University Press; 1973; pp. 125–7.

(8) Vide Parshottam Mehra, The North-Eastern Frontier: A Documentary Study of Internecine Rivalry between India, Tibet and China, Vol. 2, pp. 165–71 for the full text.

(9) Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (SWJN hereafter), Vol. 26, p. 477.

(10) Ibid., p. 478.

(11) Ibid., pp. 482–3.

(12) Ibid., p. 25.

(13) B.M. Mullik, The Chinese Betrayal, New Delhi, Allied Publishers, pp. 203–6.

(14) Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements signed between the Governments of India and China 1954–1959, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, referred to as the White Paper hereafter.

(15) White Paper, pp. 52–7.

(16) Premier Chou-En-lai’s Visits to Burma, India and Nepal, Information Office, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, New Delhi, pp. 25–6.

(17) Haksar Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum Library, New Delhi.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Ibid.

(20) Vide fn. 14.

(21) Vikrant, Vol. X, No. 10, July 1980, p. 80.