Defusing 1962 Sino-Indian conflict

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 26 2020
Columns Defusing 1962  Sino-Indian conflict

By P. K. Balachandran

When an unprecedented war broke out between India and China 58 years ago on 20 October 1962, Ceylonese Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, made a brave effort to defuse the conflict which was threatening to turn the region into a theater of power rivalry and war.

Leading a six-member group of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) called the ‘Colombo Powers’ Sirimavo Bandaranaike attempted to bridge the yawning gap between India and China on their 4056 km Himalayan border. The Colombo Powers comprised Ceylon, the United Arab Republic (Egypt), Ghana, Indonesia, Burma and Cambodia. Their leader was Sirimavo Bandaranaike.  

Though the war had ended by the time the Colombo powers came into being, and though their proposals were rejected by China, they could claim that they had ensured that another Sino-Indian armed conflict did not occur for more than five decades.

Background 

The Sino-Indian war broke out on 20 October 1962 and ended on 21 November 1962, with the Chinese occupying the Chip Chap River Valley, Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake in Ladakh in the Western Sector bordering Sinkiang and Tibet. In the Eastern North East Frontier Agency (NEFA now called Arunachal Pradesh) the Chinese had overrun Tawang, Thagla Ridge, Dhola Pass (Che Dong for the Chinese) and Walong. By 21 November, the Chinese had come 160 km into NEFA, and were at the gates of Tezpur in Assam.

On 24 October, soon after the war started, and again on 4 November, the  Chinese Premier Chou-En-Lai proposed a three-point peace plan.This envisaged a 20 km withdrawal by both sides from the Line of Actual Control (LAC); military disengagement; and talks between himself and Indian Prime Minister Nehru. But Nehru rejected the offer and insisted that the withdrawal should be to positions held before 8 September 1962 when the Chinese first attacked and took Dhola, precipitating a full-scale war. However, on 21 November, China unilaterally declared a ceasefire and announced that it would withdraw its troops 20 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by which it meant the LAC as of 7 November 1959.

The Chinese also demanded that the Indians should not go up to the ‘illegal’ McMahon Line in the Eastern Sector and should keep a clear 20 km distance from the McMahon Line. India should not reoccupy Walong, a major base in that sector. 

In the Western Sector, China demanded that India withdraw 20 km and not try to get back to the Chip Chap River Valley, the Galwan River Valley and the Pangong Lake. India was told not to re-establish any of the 43 strong points it had set up in the Western Sector prior to the war. In the Middle Sector, India was told to keep clear of Wuje. 

The ceasefire declaration said that Chinese troops would begin withdrawing from 1 December  onwards, but would stop and hit back if the Indians failed to observe any of the stipulations. India was also warned against seeking the help of the imperialist West as the US and UK had rushed military aid to India.

Rejecting these humiliating conditions Nehru ruled out negotiations unless the Chinese forces went back to the LAC which existed before 8 September, 1962. The Chinese argued that if the 8 September 1962 line was accepted as the LAC, 6000 sq km of “Chinese territory” would go to India. The differences notwithstanding, India declared a ceasefire on 23 November. 

Sirimavo’s Action

The initial Ceylonese response to the conflict was pro-India. In fact Ceylon was the only Non-Aligned country from Asia which responded positively to Nehru’s appeal on 26 October 1962. Replying to Nehru’s message Sirimavo Bandaranaike said: “I do appreciate very much that India would not want to do anything to prejudice her territorial integrity or self-respect by submitting to negotiations under pressure of armed forces.” However, she soon became non-partisan but only to be a mediator and defuse the conflict because she feared the return of West’s hegemony with the US and UK openly supporting India.

Plunging headlong into mediation, Mrs. Bandaranaike wrote to UAR, Ghana, Burma, Cambodia and Indonesia saying: “The grave international situation arising from the present state of the Sino-Indian Border Conflict, in my view, requires immediate and concerted attention to influence the Governments of India and China to avert the outbreak of a world war. It is therefore, extremely urgent that Heads of State/Prime Ministers of such non-aligned countries, as may be able to assist in influencing India and China should, if possible, meet and consult one another and decide upon an immediate joint appeal to India and China. I propose, therefore, for your urgent consideration, an immediate informal meeting of the Heads of State and Prime Ministers of UAR, Indonesia, Ghana, Burma, Cambodia and Ceylon, in the capital city of any one of these countries. If that is possible, I should be happy to suggest Colombo as the venue of such a meeting.”

Bandaranaike got favorable responses from the UAR, Indonesia, Burma, Ghana and Cambodia, and it was agreed that the meeting should take place in Colombo from 10 to 12 December 1962. In the first week of December, India sent a mission to Colombo headed by Lakshmi Menon, the Deputy Minister for External Affairs. Menon told the Ceylonese PM that between 1957 and 1962, the Chinese had overrun 14,000 sq miles (22,530 sq km) of Indian Territory. She pointed out that the Chinese Line of Actual Control (LOAC) was a ‘shifting line’, and that India and China had different notions of the line as of 7 November 1959. Giving the rationale for seeking a return to the 8 September 1962 line, she said that it was more ‘determinate’, though by no means advantageous to India.

Colombo Proposals

On 12 December 1962, the Colombo Powers came out with the following proposals: In the ‘Western Sector’, the Chinese should withdraw 20 km from the LOAC as of 7 November 1959, as defined in maps III and V circulated by China.India could keep military posts up to, the line as of 7 November 1959. The demilitarised zone of 20 km created by Chinese military withdrawals will be administered by civilian posts of both sides.

With regard to the ‘Eastern Sector’, the Indian Forces can move up to the South of the McMahon Line, except in Che Dong (Dhola), Thagla Ridge and Longju, over which there is difference of opinion between India and China.In the ‘Middle Sector’ the status quo should be maintained.

The Colombo Proposals made it clear these measures were only meant to enable China and India to begin talks to finally settle the boundary dispute, and that the suggestions were not meant to prejudice the final settlement.

China Rejects

While India accepted the Colombo proposals in toto, China did not. On 6 January 1963, China said: “Since the conflict occurred in both the Eastern and Western Sectors, the same principle of withdrawal should apply to all sectors. In no case should one side be called upon to withdraw, and the other side allowed to advance. If there is disengagement, this should be done all along the entire Sino-Indian Boundary and not just in one of the sectors.” The Colombo proposals had allowed India to advance up to the McMahon Line, which China  dubbed an ‘illegal’ border.

However, China said it would withdraw from Che Dong (Dhola), Longju, and Wuji .It would set up only seven civilian posts in Ladakh. But there was a condition – India should not set up any military or civilian posts in the vacated areas.On 12 January, 1963, India rejected the Chinese proposals.

In August 1963, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, one of the chief negotiators on the Ceylonese side, admitted that there was a deadlock, a deadlock which India and China have been unable to break till date, though peace was maintained on the border till very recently.

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 26 2020

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