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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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July 3, 2020

British India and Tibet Sign the Simla Convention

On 3 July, 1914, the British and Tibetan governments signed the Simla Convention clarifying the semi-autonomous status of Tibet and demarcating the border between Tibetan territory and British India. The treaty followed years of political plays in the region between the British Empire, Russia, China, and Tibet, and was meant to solidify British India’s North-Eastern borders and create a status quo in the region. The lines drawn under the Convention remain contentious, and have important ramifications, to the present day.

First, a brief primer on Tibet. In 1720, the Qing Dynasty of China conquered and annexed Tibet. It was never a particularly comfortable occupation, and as the Qing dynasty weakened throughout the 1800s, their hold on Tibet slipped. In 1904, following a British military expedition to Tibet, British and Tibetan authorities signed the Treaty of Lhasa. The Qing were furious, and in 1910 a military expedition instituted direct Chinese rule over Tibet while the 13th Dalai Lama fled to India. Just two years later, however, the Xinhai Revolution in China brought down the Qing Dynasty. Tibetan militias and religious leaders rapidly organized and expelled the Chinese occupation force.

By 1913, the British still nominally recognized the suzerainty of China over Tibet, but were worried about the territories and boundaries involved. China wasn’t really a player, but the so-called Great Game of conquest in Central Asia between the British and Imperial Russia was still on, and the British were concerned about Russian ambitions in Tibet. To that end, in 1913 they called a conference in Simla between them, Tibet, and China, to clarify Tibet’s status and demarcate clear borders. The agreement proposed was to divide Tibet into two parts: Inner Tibet, which would be under Chinese rule, and Outer Tibet (approximately today’s Tibet Autonomous Region) which would be largely independent but nominally accept Chinese authority. The line between Tibet and British India was proposed by the British chief negotiator, Sir Henry McMahon; it later came to be called the McMahon line. This proposed border, not by accident, gave the British several hundred square kilometers of Tibetan territory around the important trading hub of Tawang. The Chinese representative, however, refused to sign the completed treaty. The British and Tibetan representatives finally ended up signing on 3 July, 1914.

After signing, however, the British government determined that without Chinese agreement, the Simla Convention was in conflict with the 1907 agreement between Britain and Russia. It was decided to essentially ignore the McMahon line, shelving the treaty for the time being. By 1918, at the end of the First World War, Russia had gone through a destructive revolution and the young Republic of China had splintered into warlord-ruled territories; there were no longer any powerful countries around British India, and the border issue was unimportant enough that the British failed to enforce their rule over the parts of Tibet they had claimed under the McMahon Line. For years, a comfortable status quo in the region persisted.

In the 1940s, things changed. India became independent in 1947, and Britain’s border issues became independent India’s border issues. In 1949, the Chinese Communists won their civil war and immediately declared their intention to reclaim all the territories they regarded as integral to China - including Tibet. Since China had never signed the Simla Convention, the new People’s Republic of China did not consider itself bound by the McMahon Line. India, in response, claimed to have inherited the Line from British India as its legal border. In 1950, Chinese troops entered Tibet. Tibet appealed to India and the United Kingdom for help; Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru replied that India was unable to provide armed assistance, or assistance in the United Nations. The reasons for which India essentially conceded Tibet in 1950 are still debated to this day. It certainly is true that the young Indian nation was in no position to resist the large Chinese assault on Tibet; it is also possible that India’s leaders felt appeasing China was their best bet to resolve any border issues and foster good relations between the two neighbours. Regardless, the situation in Tibet remained tense until 1959, when an uprising was decisively put down and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India; Tibet’s government, social, and religious structures were toppled, and Tibet finally came under direct and strict Chinese rule.

With China’s position in Tibet secure, attention turned to the disputed border with India. Neither side was willing to compromise on the dispute around the Simla Convention; Chinese maps showed (and continue to show) part of the Indian North-East Frontier Area (now in the state of Arunachal Pradesh) as Chinese territory, under the name ‘South Tibet’. By 1961, Indian military planners had formulated a ‘forward policy’ in the region, deploying Indian outposts north of the McMahon line to aggressively assert Indian sovereignty in the region. In response, China stockpiled personnel and munitions in its own outposts. In 1962, following a number of confrontations, an intense month-long conflict ensued. Indian troops were quickly pushed back to the McMahon Line, and even further, leaving China in possession of Tawang and large parts of modern-day Arunachal Pradesh. At the close of the conflict, Chinese forces voluntarily returned to the Line of Actual Control (which closely approximates the McMahon Line in the region), but China’s official claims still extend over most of the Indian state.

Since then, a tense peace has prevailed around the border, even though it remains officially repudiated by China. Not that they’re alone in this; until relatively recently, the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama, too, refused to recognize the McMahon Line and India’s claim to the Tawang area. China’s claims in the region are, it is often argued, a bargaining chip for its claims to the Chinese-administered Aksai Chin region in Ladakh, India; Chinese governments have offered to concede their claim to Arunachal Pradesh in return for India relinquishing its claim to Aksai Chin. China has been more aggressive in pushing its claims in other parts of the Line of Actual Control, but the conflict around the Simla Convention remains a thorn in India’s side and a constant worry for a country that has often found it difficult to enforce its border claims on its hostile neighbour.

Sahaj Sankaran

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