In a soon to be released book, End of an Era, India Exits Tibet, reputed China expert Claude Arpi has set out in exhaustive detail de-classified Indian and Chinese documents and personal interviews, based on Nehru Memorial Library papers, how even credible reports by agencies about the ominous consolidation of China’s occupation of Tibet failed to prod India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru into action.
In early 1957, an audacious secret mission into Aksai Chin that saw an Indian Army officer and a havildar join a group of yak grazers in disguise had provided first-hand evidence that China had illegally built a road in Indian territory, reveals the book. Unfortunately, Claude Arpi’s book says, the efforts of Lt Col RS Basera of Kumaon Regiment and Havildar Diwan Singh of the Corps of Engineers were wasted despite the immense risks and hardships they undertook.
The book says then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon remained sceptical about the road’s exact location. It would be a full two year later before the Indian government admitted in the parliament that the road had indeed been built.
The book is about India losing all its influence in Tibet, helping China press aggressive claims along the border with India. This came at the cost of letting down an opinion in Tibet that looked up to “Chogyal Nehru” and felt India could come to their aid in preventing “Sinofication” of their culture and ways.
Arpi’s research, however, indicates that India did have options. At the time, the Indian Air Force was clearly superior to China’s military air arm. The IAF could have aided in helping Tibetan resistance, which was significant, Arpi writes in the book. The diplomacy itself, given India’s strong presence through trading centres, could have been forceful.
Indian reports from Tibet spoke of the speed with which motorable roads were being built but failed to stir New Delhi. The roads enabled Chinese troops to reach India’s borders quickly. The long preparation saw Mao Zedong, annoyed by the asylum to Dalai Lama and Nehru’s attempts to “undermine” China’s leadership in the Third World, to order attacks on Indian positions on October 1962.
Lt Col Basera’s trip actually reached the road and took its measurements. But on return, Menon and Nehru asked the director of military intelligence if the road could be confirmed by a map, says the book. The secret patrol had, however, carried no maps for security reasons.
This was not the only evidence of the road. Even earlier, British mountaineer Sidney Wignall had gone to Tibet with the knowledge of the Indian military. China, which has increasingly turned belligerent since its annexation of Tibet, captured but released him at a high pass. He reached India after an incredible journey. Menon dismissed Wignall’s report on the Aksai Chin Road in Nehru’s presence as “CIA propaganda”, Arpi’s book adds.