Ben Byrne

Whatever the legal status of Tibet might have been under international law, Tibet around the turn of the 20th century and thereafter abjectly lacked the power to enforce its claim of independence against a territorially assertive China, whether in the waning years of the Qing dynasty, or during the Kuomintang interregnum, or more so in the face of a resurgent communist party juggernaut, a situation well-paraphrased by the 13th Dalai Lama about big insects eating small insects, notes Ben Byrne*

(, Jul25’20)

In a recent opinion piece published in Tibetan Review titled India’s Tibet Policy: Time to Turn Back the Clock, author Apo Lhamo argued that “India should reset its Tibet policy from the time before its independence from Britain.” The article further speaks of a time when “Tibet had the power to conclude treaties with other nation-states especially in relation to India.”

This idealistic vision of Tibet’s diplomatic relations prior to the Chinese invasion of 1950 is frequently echoed by CTA President Lobsang Sangay. Speaking in 2014 Sangay said “When Tibet was free, there was no dispute whatsoever, anyone from India could walk over to Tibet, no visa was needed, no restriction imposed.”

One man who decided to “walk over to Tibet” back in those days was Colonel Francis Younghusband. He marched an army of 3000 soldiers from British India into Lhasa in 1904. On the way six or seven hundred Tibetans were killed at the massacre of Guru; where not a single British, Nepali or Indian conscript died. Surviving Tibetans from their force of 1500 turned their backs on the British machine guns and walked away slowly. One British soldier wrote to his mother, “I hope I shall never have to shoot down men walking away again.” Another wrote, “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the General’s order was to make as big a bag as possible.” The Tibetan concept of tendra, which held that foreigners should be feared as enemies of the dharma, was well suited to Younghusband, a colonial “explorer” in the vein of those before him who had massacred millions across continents spanning the globe from North America to Australia. Upon arrival in Lhasa, Younghusband forced any Tibetan officials who hadn’t fled the country to sign the Treaty of Lhasa, practically at gunpoint.

This treaty required the Tibetans to “raze all forts and fortifications and remove all armaments which might impede the course of free communication between the British frontier and the towns of Gyantse and Lhasa” and pay a large indemnity of 7,500,000 rupees, with the Chumbi valley ceded to Britain until the payment was received. The sum was later reduced to 2,500,000 rupees, payable to the British as a war indemnity! It was eventually paid by the Manchu Chinese. The treaty also allowed for the British to trade in Yadong, Gyantse and Gartok. This first fumble into the diplomatic arena didn’t suggest that Tibet had much “power to conclude treaties” at all and things only got worse as the 20th century progressed.

In 1906 the Treaty of Lhasa was superseded by the “Convention Between Great Britain and China Respecting Tibet.” This treaty nominally reaffirmed Chinese suzerainty over Tibet by declaring that no foreign power “other than China” would be permitted to interfere with Tibet. It was negotiated and signed without the knowledge of the Tibetans, who were being shuffled around like a pawn on a chess board beyond their comprehension.

Tibetans got a seat at the table alongside China and Britain at the Simla Conference in 1914. The principal aim of this meeting was for the British government to extend and formalize the de-facto independence that the Tibetans had enjoyed since the collapse of the Manchu dynasty in China in 1912. It was hoped that Tibet would be maintained as a buffer state between China and British India. The conference, however, was an abject failure. The Chinese did not agree to a zonal partition of Tibet drawn up by the British representatives and refused to allow their representative in Simla to sign the draft of the convention. It was quickly forgotten by British officials, with one commenting a year later, “…The fact is that the negotiations conducted last year in Simla broke down simply and solely because the Government of India attempted to secure for Tibet greater advantages than the Chinese Government were prepared to concede.”

One thing which did emerge from the wreckage of Simla was the now infamous “McMahon Line”. It was part of a secret treaty signed between the British and Tibetan representatives without the knowledge of the Chinese. Drawn up by Sir Henry McMahon the line demarcated the border between Tibet and British India. It runs roughly along the crest of the Himalayas from the northern border of Bhutan to the north of Burma. Today the Tibetan Government in Exile and various politicians and commentators tout it as a just division of the Tibetan and Indian territories. In 1914, however, agreeing to this British drawn line basically blundered thousands of square kilometres of Tibetan land to the imperialists and handed them Tawang, the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama and undoubtedly a Tibetan settlement historically and culturally. A silver lining for the Tibetans, though they had no idea it existed, was that due to the prohibitive clauses of the Anglo-Russian Convention, which was signed in 1907 and forbade both powers from dealing with Tibet without consulting the Chinese, this secret treaty could have no legal validity.

In the decades that followed, the Tibetan Kashag appeared to recognise their error and attempted to walk back their commitment to the McMahon Line. When Basil Gould, a British political officer in Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet, visited Lhasa in November 1936 he reported back to New Delhi that the Tibetans were lukewarm on the agreements made in 1914 and were only “glad to observe” them if a definite Chinese-Tibetan boundary could be finalised. He concluded that if asked to re-affirm the agreement the Tibetans would “most likely decline.” Regarding Tawang at this time the Governor of Assam Sir Robert Reid said in May 1937 that though it had legally been British since 1914 “it has been controlled by Tibet, and none of the inhabitants have any idea that they are not Tibetan subjects.” It was proposed, therefore, that a small expedition should head to Tawang to “get in touch with the inhabitants, and form some estimate of its revenue possibilities.” When this expedition, led by a Captain Lightfoot, reached Tawang the Tibetans asked him to immediately withdraw and ignored his authority by collecting taxes under his watch. Whilst there, Lightfoot learned that the Tibetans were planning to settle with the Bhutanese on the latter’s eastern boundary. This was anathema to the British, who considered the territory to be theirs, not Tibet’s; and they promptly took action, instructing the government of Bhutan not to enter into any such negotiations with the Tibetans.  A treaty signed between the British and the Bhutanese in 1910 proved useful to the former in this transaction. This treaty forced the Bhutanese to be guided by Britain in foreign affairs.

It was only in 1940 that the McMahon Line finally began to appear in British Atlases. It came to be officially recognised by the British after Mr O.K. Caroe, then a Deputy Secretary in the Foreign and Political Department in the Government of India, went through a long-winded effort (too dense to go into detail on here) to resuscitate the line as the official British position. It is important to mention that Caroe’s efforts were sparked when a British Captain and trekker named Kingdon Ward was arrested by the Tibetans for “illegally” entering the Tawang-tract in 1935 (by the secret treaty signed in 1914 this trek was legal on Ward’s part). Though a more sedate event than Younghusband’s march, this trek runs contrary to Lobsang Sangay’s claim that in those days anyone could cross from India into Tibet without a visa.

Lhamo references “China’s arrogance in being not willing to take cognizance of the treat(ies) Tibet had signed with British India before 1949.” We can see, however, that abiding by these legally shaky treaties had hardly been in the interest of the Tibetan government prior to 1950 either. In fact, in 1947, as India hurtled towards independence, the Dalai Lama’s representatives sent a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, soon to be free India’s first Prime Minister, asking for the return of Tibetan territories, including Tawang, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and parts of Ladakh, all signed over to the British under duress in various treaties over the preceding centuries. The Tibetans, not yet shackled to a life in exile or required to pay deference to the Indian government, were demanding territories coveted today by the Chinese and refusing to ratify the Simla Convention with the incoming Indian government. In discussions between Chou En Lai and Nehru in the 1950s Chou referenced this refusal: “In the last agreement which we signed about Tibet (presumably a reference the Panchsheel Agreement signed in 1954), the Tibetans wanted us to reject the McMahon Line,” he continued by referring to the aforementioned letter, “I believe immediately after India’s independence, the Tibetan Government had also written to the Government of India about this matter.” Chou repeatedly referred the McMahon Line as “that illegal line” and said that “the Tibet local authorities were in fact dissatisfied with this unilaterally drawn line.” Though Chou was a wily operator with a reputation for subterfuge, it appears that here his words carried more than a modicum of truth.

Hugh Richardson, British India’s representative in Lhasa who had his services controversially retained by independent India, believed that Nehru should have given up the rights that India had inherited from the British in Tibet as a “generous gesture.” This was not Nehru’s intention, however, and when the Tibetan delegation arrived at the Asian Relations Conference in 1947, an event referenced in Lhamo’s article, they were told in no uncertain terms that the discussion of territorial issues was off the agenda. Nehru wanted relations to continue as per the Simla Convention and was likely concerned that immediately ceding Indian territory acquired by the British would be an ill-starred opening to the historic annals of the newly independent state. The four Tibetans at the conference, after trekking across the Himalayas, were therefore relegated to bystanders who delivered a platitude laden speech about “everlasting peace and unity in Asia” before trudging back to their soon to be invaded and occupied homeland up on the roof of the world.

In conversation with Claude Arpi in 1997, the Dalai Lama admitted that Tibetan attempts to bargain for the return of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Tawang with newly independent India was a “great mistake.” He distanced himself from the decision and placed responsibility on the Kashag, of whom he sarcastically remarked: “such a wonderful government!” Stories about members of the Kashag puffing on opium pipes whilst declaring that Tibet’s mountainous terrain rendered it militarily impenetrable abound. However, it is clear that in the first half of the 20th century, even if the Tibetan government had been staffed by the greatest Machiavellian strategists, their powers in negotiation with the superpowers that encroached on their territory were practically non-existent. In those days there was little to prevent, to paraphrase the 13th Dalai Lama, the big insects from eating the small insects.

*  Ben Byrne has a master’s degree in History and is an independent researcher.


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