The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently released more than one million reports, notes, cables and other documents relating to the agency’s work. Thousands are dealing with India and the subcontinent. Glancing through some of these ‘Top Secret’ documents, I came across a note dating July 15, 1953, which contains vital information for India’s northern borders.
It is titled “Chinese Communist Troops, West Tibet, Road Construction, Sinkiang to Tibet and Ladakh”. It confirms what many historians have been guessing: China had started building a road across the Indian territory in the early 1950s. It was only in August 1959 that Jawaharlal Nehru dropped the bombshell in the Lok Sabha: the ‘Tibet-Xinjiang highway’ had been built through Indian territory.
A few months earlier, Nehru hid the truth in Parliament. On April 22, 1959, when the issue of Beijing displaying Indian territory as its own on China’s maps came up, Delhi denied the existence of the road. Braj Raj Singh, an Indian MP, quoting “a news item published in several papers alleging that the Chinese have claimed some 30,000 sq m of our territory,” queried about the Aksai Chin. Nehru answered: “I would suggest to honourable members not to pay much attention to news items emanating sometimes from Hong Kong and sometimes from other odd places. We have had no such claim directly or indirectly made on us.” The Prime Minister deliberately ‘omitted’ to mention the Aksai Chin.
Now, the CIA note shows that in late 1952, the 2 Cavalry Regiment, commanded by one Han Tse-min, had its headquarters at Gartok (the main trade centre in Western Tibet). The regiment had 800 camels and 150 men garrisoned at Rutok, in the vicinity of the Pangong lake, which is shared by Tibet and Ladakh.
The same report affirms that another PLA’s regiment was stationed on the Tibetan side of the Tibet-Ladakh border, near Koyul in the Indus Valley in Ladakh. According to the US document, the commandant of the 2 Cavalry announced the Chinese intention to built new roads in the area. One of them was a road from Khotan to Rutok; the other one to Suget Karaul (Shahidulla) ending at Vanjilga (at the western end of the Aksai Chin). The first one was completed in July 1953, says the report. The alignment of the 1953 route might have been slightly different from present Aksai Chin road (now NH219). Moreover, it was then not fit for heavy vehicles (only four years later, heavy trucks would be able to ply).
It is difficult to believe that the information available with the US Intelligence agency was unknown to their Indian counterpart; let us not forget that India had still a Consulate General in Kashgar and, therefore, easy access to information.
The Hindi-Chini, bhai-bhai wave was most likely too strong and the PM’s collaborators (in particular, BN Mullick, the IB Chief) were busier pleasing their boss than checking on Chinese advances. Han Tse-min asserted: “When these roads were completed, the Chinese communists would close the Tibet-Ladakh border to trade.” It is what happened after the signature of the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954.
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The CIA document also says that Han declared that “the Chinese communists in Sinkiang (Xinjiang) were telling the people that Ladakh belongs to Sinkiang.” Another CIA note written 10 days later, provides details of the traditional routes used by the caravaners. The CIA remarks: “The only Chinese in north-western Tibet are the Chinese Communist troops, seven or eight hundred of whom are stationed along the Tibet-Ladakh border. They first appeared in north-western Tibet in 1951, having come from the Khotan.”
Delhi was not concerned. It would continue doing nothing for several more years, with the result that the Indian territory is still occupied by China today.
On October 6, 1957, Chinese newspaper Kuang-ming Jih-pao reported from Hong Kong: “The Sinkiang-Tibet — the highest highway in the world — has been completed. During the past few days, a number of trucks running on the highway on a trial basis have arrived in Gartok in Tibet from Yecheng in Xinjiang. The Sinkiang-Tibet Highway… is 1,179 km long, of which 915 km are more than 4,000m above sea level; 130 km of it over 5,000m above sea level, with the highest point being 5,500m.” It spoke of “thirty heavy-duty trucks, fully loaded with road builders, maintenance equipment and fuels, running on the highway on a trial basis” heading towards Tibet.
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Early 1958, five months after the ‘official’ opening, Subimal Dutt, the Indian foreign secretary, wrote to Nehru. Dutt suggested sending a reconnoitering party “in the coming spring” to find out if the road had really been built on the Indian territory. The next day, Nehru agreed for the reconnoitring party, but added: “I do not think it is desirable to have air reconnaissance. In fact, I do not see what good this can do us. Even a land reconnaissance will not perhaps be very helpful.”
It was only in the fall of 1959 that a CRPF patrol consisting of 70 constables attempted to cross over the Lanak Pass to establish a border post in the Aksai Chin. They were confronted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which had occupied the pass. On October 20, 1959, three Indians were captured and detained by the Chinese. The next day after a short confrontation, nine Indian soldiers were killed and seven taken prisoner. The Indian media was incensed; Nehru had no other choice to officially announce the occupation of the Aksai Chin.
Today, the CIA papers tend to prove that the Aksai Chin road was opened much earlier that thought.