9 June 2023

The Barahoti Saga: Failure of 'Nehru Doctrine' and Deceitful Nature of Dragon

Hardly two months after the Panchsheel Agreement was signed, India discovered that all problems had not been solved. The first Chinese incursion took place in Barahoti in June 1954. This was followed by a series of intrusions numbering in the hundreds.  
The Hindu recently reported that new posts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had sprung up some six-seven Kilometres north of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Middle Sector on the Indo-Tibet boundary, “while the frequency of patrolling has also significantly increased in certain areas,” it noted.

Citing sources in the Government, the newspaper asserted that China was actively expanding its network of ‘Xiaokang’ model villages (‘Xiaokang’ meaning ‘moderately prosperous villages’), along the Middle Sector of the LAC. These villages are said to be constructed with the main objective of ‘poverty alleviation’, but one could ask: Is there a need for hundreds of such villages precisely on India’s northern borders…if there was no other purpose?

Obviously, these villages have a ‘dual use’; further, the fact that both Tibetans and Hans are settled there will quickly change the demography of the border areas, moreover providing bases or garrisons for the PLA when required.

The report also mentioned that the Chinese are “building villages at a rapid pace, sometimes as many as 300-400 houses in multi-storey blocks within 90-100 days. …Construction of a likely border settlement village was observed northwest of Tholing area [north of Chamoli district Uttarakhand] and a military complex is also under construction close by. Superstructures of buildings in both the locations are complete.”

China apparently uses prefabricated parts extensively to construct the houses at a quick pace. 

Historical background

The history of how Barahoti became a disputed area is interesting.

Let us remember that for centuries the Indo-Tibet frontier had been peaceful; however the Indian diplomats who negotiated the Panchsheel Agreement foolishly ‘avoided’ confirming India’s northern frontiers during the talks and in the final accord signed in April 1954. India still pays dearly for this monumental lapse.

The signature of the Panchsheel Agreement with China, through which India surrendered all its rights and responsibilities in Tibet while getting nothing in return, was a complete surrender to China; Delhi did not wait long to see the consequences of The ‘Nehru doctrine’ (to be friendly at any cost with China).

Intelligence Bureau’s version 

Let us go into the history of the so-called dispute; in July 1952, in a note ‘Border Disputes and Collection of Taxes by Tibetans in Garhwal District’, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) described the topography of the area (today’s Chamoli district of Uttarakhand): “The Garhwal-Tibet border can only be crossed through the Mana and Niti Valleys where there are open places and habitation, while the rest of the border area consists of snow-covered mountains studded with glaciers…”

The IB report continued its descriptions of the area: “There are four passes between Niti Valley and Tibet, namely: Gothing Pass, Damjin [Tunjun] Pass, Hoti Pass and Ghirti Pass. Niti, the northernmost village in the Indian territory, is situated 11 miles from Gothing Pass and Damjin Pass. There are few plains situated near these passes in the Indian territory.”

These passes marked the watershed line: North was Tibet (China after 1951), south was India.

The Intelligence note admitted that once in the 19th century, there was a short boundary dispute about Hoti Plain. Giving the background, it says: “About the end of the last [19th] century, the Tibetans had established a Customs Post at Hoti Plain. To stop this practice, the British Govt. had to send out a detachment of Gurkhas along with Shri Dharma Nand Joshi, Deputy Collector in 1890.”

The Tibetan official (called a Sarji, an emissary of the Tibetan Dzongpon or District Commissioner) usually crossed the border at Tunjun-la pass to announce the beginning of the trading season.

Though the access to the place was difficult, making it hard to keep a tab on the area, the British were quick to understand the plot and stop the Tibetan official to cross the pass.

Soon after the Chinese occupied western Tibet in the early 1950s, they started claiming Barahoti as theirs. The IB recommended to the Government of India that it was essential that Delhi “should make it clear to the Government of Tibet and its Dzongpon that the Hoti Plain is Indian territory and the Tibetans have no right to establish any customs post there; nor can they exercise any authority in the area.”

But the Tibetan Government was fast losing its independence.

The Ink was Hardly Dry

Hardly two months after the Panchsheel Agreement was signed, India discovered that all problems had not been solved, as just announced in Parliament by the Prime Minister. The first Chinese incursion took place in Barahoti in June 1954. This was followed by a series of intrusions numbering into hundreds and culminating in the attack on India in October 1962.

The irony of the story of the first intrusion is that it was China which complained about the incursion of Indian troops… on India’s territory!

Though Barahoti was well inside India’s frontiers (clearly south of Tunjun-la, the watershed), arguments about the new ‘dispute’ continued with the exchange of hundreds of notes during the following months …and years.

TN Kaul who had negotiated the Panchsheel Agreement, (before being sent back to Delhi for having an affair with a Chinese woman), philosophically explained later: “Territorial disputes have existed between near and distant neighbours through the ages. The question is whether they can and should be resolved by war, threat, use of force or through the more civilised and peaceful method of negotiation… Both sides still profess their faith in the Five Principles, and therein lies perhaps some hope for the future.”

The Five Principles had put Kaul and his colleagues to sleep.

Where is Wuje?

In the meantime, the Chinese started calling Barahoti by the name of ‘Wuje’ creating more confusion in the minds of the Indian diplomats (the same tactic of changing the names of places is today used in Arunachal Pradesh).

During the following months, the Chinese would insist on sending a joint investigating team to this spot, something Delhi always refused. The main reason for Beijing to insist on a joint investigation team was that Beijing did not know that Barahoti was located south of Tunjun-la and therefore in India.

A New Note

Over the years, as the situation continued to deteriorate, a note was prepared by Jagat Mehta, Director (China) in the Ministry of External Affairs in 1961. It provides the background of Barahoti saga during the preceding years. Mehta writes: “The Chinese claim to the Barahoti became known to us in 1954, when the Indian and Chinese army faced each other in the small pasture ground. The suggestion for refraining from sending the troops was first made in 1955 and was reiterated in 1956; it was agreed that no troops should be sent by either party in 1957, and a conference to discuss the dispute regarding Bara Hoti was held in April – June 1958.”

At the end of the conference, it was agreed that “neither side should send forces in exercise of its supposed right during the talks and until the question was settled.”

At the same time, the Chinese reiterated again their desire for a joint investigation, while “persistently refused to specify the actual area of Wuje. When pressed, in a vague manner they said that Wuje covered 15 kms north to south and 10 kms, east to west, but no coordinates were given even with reference to this area.”

Mehta explained that India made it clear that Barahoti was a small pasture ground south of Tunjun-la: “during the talks we specified the relevant coordinates and pointed out that the area involved was 2 miles in length and ¾ of a mile in breadth. The Chinese did not agree to our suggestion for the complete neutralisation of this area and hinted that they would continue to send civil officials, where upon we also informed them that we were reserving the right to send our own revenue officials to this area.”

The agreement was that the patrols should be unarmed; while India always kept its promise, already in 1958, China sent an armed detachment to the area after the Indian civil party withdrew in September.

Two points should be made to conclude: Though it was not necessary for India to participate in a conference for Barahoti in 1958 as the area was clearly south of the watershed and therefore in India, Delhi agreed out of goodwill and for the sake of the ‘friendship’ with China. It did not help to find a solution for the issue.

The second point is that even after agreeing not to send armed patrols to the remote plain, Beijing did not keep its word. It was the beginning of a series of un-kept promises, which continues till today in Eastern Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh.


Originally published in FirstPost on 05 June 2023