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Fractured Himalaya review: Why Tibet is still crucial to India-China relations

In her new book, ‘The Fractured Himalaya’, Nirupama Rao recounts the role the initial years played in shaping the relationship between the two countries

The Potala Palace in Lhasa. Tibet had been an independent state from about 1912, after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in China, till 1951.
The Potala Palace in Lhasa. Tibet had been an independent state from about 1912, after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in China, till 1951. (iStockphoto)

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Tibet has always been a factor in India-China relations. This was true even in the colonial era, when the British Raj attempted to build a buffer between India and China by increasingly acknowledging the sovereignty or suzerainty of Tibet. Between 1914-49, Beijing was relatively weak and its control over Tibet was, at the very least, questionable. A strong colonial government in India was able to call many of the shots in the tussle between Lhasa and Beijing.

This reality began to change in the post-colonial world—after India gained independence in 1947 and the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. The victorious Communists in China moved very early to re-establish Beijing’s control over the far-flung parts of their country, training their sights on Tibet and Xinjiang. In order to achieve this objective, the People’s Liberation Army moved into Tibet in 1950-51. Relations between India and China changed dramatically from that moment since they now shared a border. Until then, Tibet, with its southern boundary of the mighty Himalaya and 1.2 million square kilometres of land, had been a natural buffer between the two large countries.

In her new book, The Fractured Himalaya: India-Tibet-China, 1949-1962, Nirupama Rao, a former Indian ambassador to China and the US as well as former foreign secretary, explores the early years of this relationship, which remain controversial in India since they culminated in India’s military defeat in the war of 1962.

The Fractured Himalaya—India-Tibet-China, 1949-1962: By Nirupama Rao, Penguin Viking 640 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>999
The Fractured Himalaya—India-Tibet-China, 1949-1962: By Nirupama Rao, Penguin Viking 640 pages, 999

In her meticulously researched book, Rao confesses that she approaches the subject from the perspective of a diplomat-practitioner. There could be no better person in India to recount this history given Rao’s decades of experience dealing with the Chinese in the ministry of external affairs. Moreover, she is an acknowledged expert on the India-China boundary question, which adds to her considerable credentials. She brings history to life with her natural, readable style, and she has also drawn on new archival material, which has recently been made available to scholars, to add to her deep, practical experience of working in the region.

In the book, which is aimed at younger generations of Indians who may not be aware of the fraught early years of diplomacy and politics, Rao has scrupulously kept aside her emotions and analysed historical data from a logical viewpoint. This is the strength of the book, and makes it an authoritative work on the relationship between the two neighbours.

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It must be recollected that in the post-1947 world, India had been brought to its knees as a geopolitical entity due to two centuries of plunder and pillage by the British. The ultimate knife in the back of the nascent Indian state was its partition into India and Pakistan. A much weakened India was facing a resurgent and militarily stronger China during the period of the book, as well as a low-grade conflict along the new border with Pakistan. It was this reality that tempered many of the decisions taken by our political leadership in the 1950s and 1960s.

Even then, questions do arise as to why the then government of India was unable to extract some return for giving up the privileges in Tibet it had inherited as the successor state to British India. Tibet had been an independent state from about 1912, after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in China, till 1951, but had been of strategic importance to both China and the imperial British government, which saw Tibet as crucial to its security in India. As a result, the British carefully cultivated Lhasa and gained a considerable amount of influence. It was these privileges in Tibet that India inherited in 1947, including a mission in Lhasa and a few trading agencies, marking the historical economic and cultural ties that the regions shared. How did we give up these leverages without any quid pro quo? Was this due to our keenness on India-China friendship and the romantic notions held in Delhi of the two largest countries in Asia forging a partnership that would shape the new world? Rao clearly brings out that such notions did not animate China’s Communist leaders, who focused clearly on protecting their own national interests, particularly the integration of Tibet into the Chinese polity.

Rao’s book also brings out the confusion in India’s political leadership and among the topmost military commanders on a range of issues relating to China’s actions in Tibet, such as whether China was willing to wage war against India and the inadequate provisioning of the Indian Army. The worry about how it would be possible to “throw out the Chinese” with an ill-equipped and under-prepared military force was another concern among decision-makers, as was the objective of the war, even if India was defending her territory. Finally, and most critically, she points to the focus on the friendship between India and China even as Beijing was clearly preparing for war.

The book clearly details the misreading of Chinese intentions and the missed opportunities, which ultimately led to the 1962 war. As Brigadier John Dalvi stated in his 1968 book Himalayan Blunder: The Curtain-Raiser To The Sino Indian War Of 1962, India’s failure in 1962 was a failure in “the higher direction of war”. The question that comes to mind even as border tensions between the countries escalate once again is whether this higher direction of war in India today is any different from 1962.

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This book is a must-read for any student of India-China relations but would also serve a larger audience in India at a time when questions are being raised about China’s attitude and behaviour, especially in eastern Ladakh. Rao’s careful recounting and retelling of history has lessons for us even today, the main one being that Tibet played an enormously important part in the relationship in the past and continues to do so today. All Indians, particularly our policy planners, must give close thought to these linkages and come to conclusions based on a proper reading and understanding of history.

While China does not recognise the McMahon Line—the boundary between Tibet and British India, decided in 1914 as part of the Simla Convention—in eastern India, the country is careful to broadly abide by it due to its legitimacy as an agreement between Delhi and Lhasa during a period when Beijing was not in the picture. In Ladakh, however, China has always had shifting claims which continue till today. That is the genesis of their military posture and aggression in east Ladakh since April 2020. As Indians ask themselves how the country can rise to this challenge from China, a reading of Rao’s excellent and thought-provoking book is a must for an understanding of the past in order to comprehend the present.

Gautam Bambawale is a former Indian ambassador to China and high commissioner to Pakistan. Currently, he is distinguished professor, Symbiosis International University, Pune.

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