1 April 2024

Dalai Lama's arrival in Tawang: 65 years on, India-China ties remain complex and chaotic

65 years ago, momentous events took place on the Tibetan plateau; they had incalculable and incredible consequences for India, which until then had peaceful northern borders.

On 31 March, 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet crossed the Indian border at Khenzimane on the riverbank of the Namjiang Chu (river) in the Tawang sector of today’s Arunachal Pradesh.

A few days earlier, camping in Lhuntse Dzong in Southern Tibet, the Tibetan leader had sent a cable to the Indian prime minister. The Dalai Lama who had just denounced the 17-Point Agreement signed under duress in Beijing in May 1951, said: “The Government of Tibet have tried their best to maintain good relations with China but the Chinese have been trying to take away powers from the Tibetan Government and in some areas they are making preparations for war. On March 17, 1959 at 4 pm the Chinese fired two shells in the direction of my residence. They could not do much damage. [But] as our lives were in danger, I and some of my trusted [people] manage to escape the same evening at 10 pm.”

On 27 March, TS Murty, the Assistant Political Officer in Tawang received instructions about the possibility of the Dalai Lama seeking entry into India. He was immediately asked to proceed towards the border to receive the dignitary and escort him to Tawang, Bomdila and Tezpur.

An archive document from the Government of India stated: “Expecting that some such development might occur, we had instructed the various check-posts there what to do. So, when the Dalai Lama crossed over into our territory, he was received by our Assistant Political Officer of the Tawang Sub-Division. …A little later, the rest of his entourage came in. The total numbers who have come with him or after him is 80.” More than 85,000 Tibetans would come to India during the following years.

Dalai Lama arrives in India

On 31 March at 9 am, Murty reached Chuthangmu, where a detachment of the 5th Battalion of the Assam Rifles was posted. The Dalai Lama’s advance party under a junior officer had already reached the post two days earlier. Murty was told that the main party consisting of the Dalai Lama, his family, ministers and tutors was expected to enter India at 2 pm the same day.

Murty communicated to Bomdila and Shillong (seat of the Governor of Assam) that there was no sign of the Chinese pursuit.

After planting his walking stick (which since then has become a beautiful tree and is known by the locals as the ‘Holy Tree’) on the frontier at Khenzimane, the Dalai Lama proceeded to Chuthangmu check-post where Murty handed over to him the Indian prime minister’s message. The Tibetan leader was immediately treated by India as an ‘honoured guest’ and for the past 65 years, he has remained so.

This would have important consequences for India. Soon after, the first clashes took place with the Chinese on the border (the first serious skirmish happened in Longju in Subansiri sector on 25 August, 1959). It was undoubtedly for the warm welcome given to the Tibetan leader.

Today’s Chinese claims

Recently, Beijing has again started claiming the area (corresponding to the state of Arunachal Pradesh) as its own. However, it is worth noting that when the Dalai Lama and his entourage entered India at Khenzimane in 1959, the Chinese government did not protest about the location of the border or even claim that Tawang was part of ‘Southern Tibet’ (the term used today by Beijing to define Arunachal Pradesh).

They knew perfectly well that the Tibetan leader had taken refuge in Indian territory. Strangely, Beijing is today insisting that Tawang district is part of the People’s Republic of China, but it is clearly an afterthought.

Had Beijing already believed that Tawang area was part of the Chinese territory in 1959, the Chinese troops would have followed the Dalai Lama and his entourage into this area and stopped him from moving to Assam.

The Dalai Lama also clearly mentions in his autobiography that Chuthangmu was the border where he was received by a detachment of the Assam Riffles. He wrote: “I would like to state how the Government of India’s officers posted there had spared no efforts in making my stay and journey through this extremely well administered part of India as comfort-able as possible.”

Events of March 1959

The Tibetan leader’s arrival in India was the culmination of the events of March 1959 in Tibet. It included the popular uprising on 10 March. The escape of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa on the night of 17 March, the massacre of the Tibetan population during the following days and finally the so-called ‘emancipation’ (or ‘liberation’) of the Tibetans by the Communists.

In his ‘Report for the months of March, April and May 1959’ sent to the Ministry of External Affairs, Maj SL Chibber, the Indian Consul General in Lhasa recounted: “In the history of movement for free Tibet, the month of March, 1959, will be most historic …during this month Tibetans high and low, in Lhasa, capital of Tibet, openly challenged the Chinese rule … the might of [the] Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who on March 20, 1959, started an all-out offensive against the ill-organised, ill-equipped and untrained Tibetans with artillery, mortars, machine guns and all types of automatic weapons, [the protest] was short-lived.”

Chibber continued: “On March 28, 1959, the State Council of the Peoples Republic of China dissolved the local Tibet Government and transferred all its functions and powers to the Preparatory Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).”

Another account was given by the Chinese author, Jianglin Li in her book, Tibet in Agony. She used Chinese sources to describe the crackdown in Lhasa. Li wrote: “From March 25 to April 5, the CPC’s Central Committee held an enlarged politburo meeting, and the seventh plenary session of the Eighth Central Committee in Shanghai. Pacification of rebellion in Tibet and relations with India were two of the issues discussed. Wu Lengxi, who was then head of Xinhua news agency and chief editor of The People’s Daily, revealed a glimpse of Mao’s thinking on the China-India relationship in his memoir: ‘Let the Indian Government commit all the wrongs for now. When the time comes, we will settle accounts with them’ [would have said the Great Helmsman].”

The accounts were ‘settled’ three years later (in October 1962) when the Indian Army’s 7th Infantry Brigade was decimated on the slopes of the Thagla ridge.

Since then, Beijing has used its propaganda machinery to paint the dramatic events of 1959 in white when they were black.

Propaganda continues

As recently as 21 March, 2024, China Tibet Network republished an interview of Anna Louise Strong, the author of A Million Serfs Stand Up. She, like Edgar Snow, falls in the category of what Lenin described as the ‘useful idiots’, i.e. foreigners defending all the actions of the Communist Party of China, including during the Cultural Revolution.

In August 1959, she was one the first foreign journalists to arrive in Tibet after the massacre of the Tibetans (prosaically called ‘democratic reform’ by Beijing); she wrote: “The air on the plateau is thin, and the entire nature seems to be soaked in sunlight. Snow peaks, rocks, cliffs, and long sloping pastures all have very bright colors, which are more dazzling than any scenery I have ever seen.” She added, “Maybe instead of trusting others, it’s better to go and see for yourself.”

The Chinese website said: “In the next months, she visited Norbulingka, Jokhang Temple, Potala Palace, Drepung Temple…She interviewed monks and former serfs, celebrated the Fruit Festival with farmers and herdsmen, and felt the joy of the harvest.” Strong celebrated the Communist ‘emancipation’ of the Tibetans.

65 years later, Beijing still uses Strong’s propaganda writings to justify their 1959 actions, forgetting that according to Chinese own records, 87,000 Tibetans were killed during these few weeks of March and April 1959, though according to China Tibet Network: “[Strong] did a lot of homework, analyzed the background of democratic reform, and also carefully observed and recorded the situation of democratic reforms in Lhasa, Shannan, Shigatse, Nyingchi and other places…”

End of a way of life

RS Kapur, another Indian official posted as Indian Trade Agent in Gyantse, wrote in his usually emotionless Annual Report for the Year 1959: “While the heart of Tibet was bleeding the free world only made speeches. With the end of the debate on Tibet in the United Nations, Tibetans lost all hopes of their survival, stare at the sky with the blank eyes and ask: Where is God? Where is Buddha? How can the world witness such brutal acts on a race that has always wanted to live in peace?”

Kapur added: “Buddha, the Tibetans say, has disappeared from the world; [they] are fast losing hopes of survival of their race. From all appearances, Tibet is finished.”

65 years of a very sad tale indeed. But we have perhaps not seen the end of the story.

Originally Published in Firstpost on 28 March 2024