September 12, 2020: With Tibet likely to become a major flash point in the coming days as India gears up to tackle an increasingly ambitious China along the border, a declassified confidential intelligence paper from 1959 reveals new details about Tibet being the centrepiece of the India-China tussle back in the 1950s.
US intelligence agency CIA had filed a “background paper” titled ‘Tibet and China’ on April 27, 1959. Decades down the line, the CIA has now made that important internal dossier freely available. In fact, the 38-page intelligence file – shared here in full – carries a notification that says the confidential paper is approved for release not until April 19, 2005.
The now-declassified paper gives us very interesting insights into how the US was closely following the positions of India and China on separatism in Tibet. It also gives a peek into backroom wrangling between Indian and Chinese diplomats over the handling of Tibet.
TIBETAN REBELS IN BENGAL’S KALIMPONG?
The most interesting highlight in that CIA dossier is an allegation from the Chinese government that India had been harbouring and training Tibet-separatism elements in the tranquil Himalayan town of Kalimpong in the northern state of West Bengal.
The ‘Tibet and China’ paper carries two detailed maps of Tibet from the American perspective during the 1950s, and it has six chapters titled: Tibetan Institutions, Land and People, Economy and Transportation, Sino-Tibetan Relations to 1950, Chinese Communist Control in Tibet, and International Aspects.
In this article, we will focus on the India-related aspects of the document, which will help us get a deeper understanding of the ongoing India-China conflict and the genesis of the tussle of the giants.
Tibet has always been an uneasy subject for modern China. The Tibetan plateau is much loved all over the world, especially with the world famous Mount Chomolungma (also called Sagarmatha in Nepal and Mount Everest in the West) overseeing the region. Much of the world has historically supported the cause of the separatist movement of the Tibetan people.
TWO MAJOR DEALS
The 1959 CIA paper says that Peiping, as Beijing was called during that time, had signed international agreements with two countries, neighbours India and Nepal, to establish clarity over the status of what the Chinese administration saw as the “Tibet Region of China”.
The CIA dossier says, “A treaty concluded with India in 1954 governs the conditions under which trade and travel would be carried on between territories under the jurisdiction of India and Tibet, and a similar treaty was negotiated with Nepal in 1956.”
Both the treaties “permitted continuation of the locally important traditional trade across the southern borders of Tibet and the travel of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims to holy places”, says the document.
Crucially, the CIA paper says, New Delhi “agreed to turn over Indian-owned postal and telegraph facilities to the Chinese, and both India and Nepal agreed to withdraw military escort forces which they had maintained in Tibet”. That apart, the signatories to the treaties, namely India and Nepal, were given the authority to set up trade agencies in “specified places”.
So, as per the US intelligence report, it’s clear that India and Nepal acknowledged Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, but only on the condition that the traditional Tibetan government would continue to administer “local affairs”.
As a result of China’s new deals, the CIA wrote, Indian and Nepalese representatives stationed in Lhasa, Tibet’s administrative capital, were categorised as “consul generals” who were accredited to China’s foreign affairs ministry, and not the Tibetan government.
NEHRU’S DIPLOMATIC STANCE
The CIA observed in that paper that before the Dalai Lama had been granted asylum in India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had sympathised with rebels in Tibet, but without violating New Delhi’s promise of “non-interference”.
“Nehru reiterated the (Indian) government’s hands-off policy towards the ‘Tibet Region of China’ before an aroused Parliament on March 23, 1959, but his statement by implication put Peiping (now Beijing) on notice that he regarded Chinese failure to respect Tibet’s ‘autonomous’ status as a violation of previous assurances. The Indian Parliament and press urged a much stronger stand than that publicly assumed by the government,” the CIA paper says.
Further down, the intelligence paper reveals that China later made a stunning claim that India was harbouring pro-Tibet separatist rebels in a centralised hub in the quiet mountain town of Kalimpong.
“Peiping on 28 March accused India of permitting a ‘central headquarters’ of the Tibetan revolt to operate at Kalimpong in the Indian state of West Bengal,” says the CIA file. “The Chinese Communist communiqué implied that further discussion of Tibet in the Indian Parliament would be ‘impolite and improper’.”
The CIA wrote in the paper that these allegations made by China were strongly rejected by Nehru, who commented that his government “would not submit to any kind of dictation from any country”.
In the document, the CIA agrees with New Delhi’s stance, saying Nehru’s “statement was balanced”, however, with a “plea for restraint and a reaffirmation of friendship with China”.
KALIMPONG, A ‘DEN OF SPIES’
More than the CIA paper, the Tibetan people’s Kalimpong connection is perhaps best documented in a powerful 2015 book co-authored by one of Dalai Lama’s older brothers, and US-based writer and research professor, Anne F. Thurston.
In the book titled The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong: The Untold Story of My Struggle for Tibet, the authors reveal how the sleepy town of Kalimpong was actually a hub for dissident Tibetans, with Nehru going as far as calling the hill station a “den of spies”.
The book introduces Thondup with the following description: “For over half a century, noodlemaker Gyalo Thondup has been a familiar figure in the Himalayan hill town of Kalimpong. But it was not until 2010 that the townsfolk discovered his true identity: Gyalo Thondup is none other than the older brother of the Dalai Lama and his special envoy, a trusted interlocutor between Tibet and foreign leaders from Chiang Kai-shek to Jawaharlal Nehru, Zhou Elai to Deng Xiaoping.”
The 2015 book recalls a visit by the Dalai Lama to Kalimpong during the time of Nehru. “The Chinese had tried to prevent the Dalai Lama from visiting Kalimpong. They knew that many disaffected Tibetans who fled to India were congregated in Kalimpong and nearby Darjeeling. Surely the refugees would try to meet the Dalai Lama and plead with him to stay. And Nehru, during one of his meetings with Zhou Enlai, had described Kalimpong as a den of spies.”
The book continues, “At first, Nehru agreed to respect the Chinese wish that the Dalai Lama not visit such a place. But he soon changed his mind, pointing out that India is a free country after all. His staff arranged the Dalai Lama’s visit to Kalimpong and Gangtok. Thousands lined the streets of Kalimpong to welcome the Dalai Lama, and a huge crowd assembled to hear his teachings in the outdoor stadium on the grounds of Dr. Graham’s school on the outskirts of the town.”
THE DALAI LAMA FACTOR
Interestingly, as the intelligence file exposes, while China initially hurled charges towards India, it soon began to treat New Delhi more respectfully with the hope that the India doesn’t let the Dalai Lama make rousing statements against the Chinese administration and engage in political activity.
“After these initial exchanges of charges and rejections, it appeared for a time being that Peiping would treat Indian sensitivities with greater regard, perhaps in the hope of inducing the Indian government to restrain the Dalai Lama from making public statements refuting Peiping’s claims as to the nature of his flight. After the Dalai Lama’s statement of 18 April, when he denied that he had left Tibet under duress, Chinese Communist attacks on the Indian government became more intemperate and carried hints that India must not permit the Dalai Lama to engage in political activity. Peiping did not, however, make a formal diplomatic protest to India,” the CIA dossier says.
CIA: REBELLION NOT WORKING
From the content of the confidential document, it now emerges that the CIA at that time had believed rebellion in Tibet against Chinese central authority wouldn’t have made much difference.
“Outbreaks of rebellion against Chinese Communist authority will probably continue for some time in Tibet and Tibetan-inhabited areas of China but will not present a serious internal threat to the stability of the Peiping regime,” the paper says.
Following the Galwan Valley massacre, it has recently emerged, according to media reports, that instead of backing away, China is amassing forces in the Tibet Autonomous Region – perhaps to prepare for more showdowns with its neighbour?
The 1959 CIA document shows that heartburn between India and China over Tibet is not merely a yesterday affair. It goes back a long, long way and it will continue to be an incendiary boxing ring for both the players in the time to come.