11 June 2024

The Last Indian Villages on the Tibet Border

After searching for years in the old dusty files of the National Archives of India to unveil some of the secrets on a specific subject, one becomes rather familiar with the object of one's research – but only on paper.

Often, the physical reality is vastly different.

This is what happened to me when I recently visited a remote area in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand.

The places are Nilang (also written as Nelang), a village located in the Jadh Ganga valley, Jadhang (or Jadhung) and Pulam Sumda, the latter two lying on the upper reaches, towards the India-Tibet frontier. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) with the Chinese army occupying Tibet is located on top of the ridge.

The particularity of the place is that the area was claimed by Tibet before India's Independence (and subsequently by China) as part of Tsaparang in Tsamda county of Ngari Prefecture in western Tibet Autonomous Region.

Today, when China claims any area, its People’s Liberation Army first physically takes over the place, and later, Beijing announces that it is ready for discussions. However, the disagreement between the Lhasa government and the administration of the erstwhile princely Tehri state (and, by extension, British India) was different. Despite continuing for decades, at the end of which no mutually acceptable solution was found, the 'dispute' did not result in any physical clashes or even an increase in the police personnel posted on the border.

A large amount of correspondence took place between Tibet (Lhasa and the Dzongpen or commissioner in Tsaparang) and the princely states of Tehri‐Garhwal, Bashahr (today Kinnaur), as well as the provincial governments of the United Provinces, Punjab and, of course, the Foreign and Political Department of British India in Delhi.

 Brief History of the Dispute

Let us first look at the long history of the area.

 The difference in perception seems to have arisen when the Dzongpen of Tsaparang, the nearby Tibetan district, visited the Gumgum nalla in 1914. He publicly announced his decision to set up a boundary pillar near a bridge.

When the local villagers objected, the Dzongpen left without any further action.

A few kilometres beyond Gangotri, I kept asking my guide, "Where is this Gumgum nalla?" Finally, he pointed out a most insignificant place — without a real nalla.

It was where the Tibetans had unilaterally decided to 'fix' their border with India. Of course, the watershed principle or other features determining a boundary were unknown to them.

Four years later, in 1918, the Tehri State decided to erect three pillars on the top of the watershed at Tsang Chok‐la, following the watershed principle.

In 1920, the Tehri State surveyed the area for the first time and prepared cultivation maps of the Nelang area. The Jadh Ganga valley was then included in the maps of the princely state.

In 1921, the Tsaparang Dzongpen visited Nelang again. This time, he sent a letter to the Raja of Tehri requesting him to nominate an official to sort out the boundary issue; at that time, it was not yet considered a 'dispute'; it was only a 'difference of perceptions' between friendly neighbours. The Raja answered that the issue had to be raised through the Government of India as it involved a problem between two foreign governments.

In 1924, British India finally proposed the appointment of a boundary commission. However, due to poor communications and the fact that these areas could only be visited in summer, the commission could meet only in the summer of 1926.

Travelling in the Valley, you first note the inaccessibility of the area. On the opposite side of the road, perched on a cliff, is the Gartang Gali (bridge), built some 150 years ago by Pathans, who are said to have come from Peshawar to build this bridge at a height of 11,000 feet.

Eventually, it was slightly easier for the villagers to move in the valley and visit the trade marts in Tibet. This wooden step bridge path was closed after the 1962 War, but today, it has been opened for tourists.

The 3.5 km bridge is indeed a marvel of wooden architecture, worth the visit.

The Acton Commission

To return to history, in June 1926, T J C Acton, an officer of the Indian Civil Service, was nominated as the British representative to discuss the issue with Tibetan officials near the Gumgum nalla.

The Tibetans claimed that the Tehri people had removed their boundary marks after they had returned to Tibet.

The British commissioner commented: 'Their attitude, I think, was that His Highness [His Holiness] the Dalai Lama had said that the boundary was the Gumgum nalla and that any criticism of that decree would be a dangerous form of blasphemy.'

It was the first of several commissions that would try to solve the problem with the Buddhist neighbour during the following years.

At one point, the British, great adepts of compromise, suggested that Nelang could remain with Tehri State while Jadhang would go to Tibet. But a complication soon cropped up: Jadhang (and even Nelang) was claimed by the Bashahr state.

The Tibetan claim of a frontier in line with the Gumgum nalla remained 'clearly absurd', according to Acton.

The Saga Continues

Two years later, on 14 November 1930, Col. J L R Weir, the political officer in Sikkim, informed the foreign secretary in Delhi that he had received a letter from Lhasa about the Tibet‐Tehri boundary question.

Weir commented: 'This Tehri boundary is one to which much importance is attached by the Tibetan Government, so much so that they paid me a special visit to discuss the matter that day.' Nothing came out of a new enquiry.

Frederick Williamson replaced Col Weir as the political officer in 1932. During a tour in western Tibet from August to October 1932, Williamson was requested by the Government of India to look into the 'Tehri‐Tibet' dispute again.

In his report, the political officer mentions the Acton Report, which 'reported in favour of the watershed boundary claimed by Tehri, but the Government of India considered that the evidence showed that Tibet was entitled to a frontier further to the west.'

Williamson commented, ‘With the exception of the northwest corner, this tract appeared to my untrained mind to be practically valueless. But the south‐west corner contains valuable deodar forest.’

 The discussions continued till Independence.

Post Independence: The Valley Occupied

In the early 1950s, the government moved fast following the Himmatsinghji Committee report. One of the actions suggested by the Committee was that Indian forces should immediately occupy areas such as Tawang and Nelang .

Already in May 1950, the Ministry of External Affairs had sent a note to the Ministry of Defence asking the latter to comment on the feasibility of occupying the Nelang/Jadhang area. The Political Officer in Sikkim had noted: 'The guiding principle in the new circumstances must, however, be the Government of India's ability to vindicate what they would regard as the appropriate frontier.'

While visiting the area today, one realises the difficulty of sustaining a permanent occupation of these villages.

On 4 April 1950, the Ministry of Defence answered: 'The area under dispute is an extremely difficult country physically and climatically with hardly any communications. It, therefore, follows that operations in the area will have to be confined to short periods and undertaken by specially trained infantry.'

Six years later, China walked into the area.

On 2 May1956, the Ministry of External Affairs complained about a Chinese intrusion. The ministry said: 'Nilang at the area right up to Tsang Chok‐la pass is clearly within Indian territory and has always been in our possession.'

Apart from the fact that the border follows the watershed, the area is clearly Hindu, with two small mandirs being maintained by the Indian Army on behalf of the Jadh population.

Today, what remains of the villages of Nelang and Jadhang, has been opened to visitors, and the Government of India has decided to repopulate the villages under the Vibrant Village programme. This is a fine initiative, though it is not certain that the scheme will immediately succeed. In the meantime, the villages are worth visiting.

As I entered the Jadh Ganga valley, the story of George Fernandes, the then Indian defence minister, sending bureaucrats to the Siachen Glacier to study the topography of the place instead of getting their knowledge from the files alone, came back to mind.

It is indeed an entirely different experience to travel on the road between two majestic ridges and slowly go up in altitude from the base camp in Harsil village.

It is a breathtaking journey towards the Tibet border, especially since the Border Road Organisation has accomplished a fabulous feat in black-topping the road.

One is left with a salute for the dauntless Indian soldiers who spend the winter in these majestic, though inhospitable areas (we were told that the temperature comes down to minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter).

When India had a peaceful neighbour, such measures were not necessary, but today, Delhi has no other choice.

This is a slightly modified version of the article, originally published as Claude Arpi. 2024. ‘The Last Indian Villages On Tibet Border'. Rediff.com. 23 May.