By Claude Arpi
- Historians rarely mention an event which had the most serious strategic consequences for India; it is the 1953 closure of the Indian Consulate in Kashgar in Xinjiang, formerly Eastern Turkestan.The Indian government was then not ready to read beyond the Chinese rhetoric and Zhou En Lai’s assurance of ‘eternal’ friendship; the closure of the trade with Xinjiang should have been seen as an ominous sign. It was not to be.
As in several other cases, Nehru tried to justify the Chinese diktats, without taking any retaliatory measures or even protesting. India’s interests were lost to the ‘revolutionary changes’ happening in China.
In December 1953, Nehru declared in Parliament: “Some major changes have taken place there [Kashgar]. …But when these changes, revolutionary changes took place there [we had to close our Consulate], it is perfectly true that the Chinese Government, when they came to Tibet, told us that they intended to treat Sinkiang [Xinjiang] as a closed area.”
India agreed to close its Consulate without even a discussion.
India had been trading with Central Asia and more particularly Kashgar, Yarkand or Khotan for millennia. Just because ‘revolutionary changes’ had occurred in China, Delhi accepted the closure of the trade with Xinjiang as a fait accompli. At that time, the Karakoram Pass was still witnessing a large numbers of caravans, trading between Kashmir and Central Asia.
A few months later (April 1954), instead of using the opportunity of the negotiations for the Panchsheel Agreement to clarify the contentious border issue and the closure of the trade, the Chinese were allowed to walk away with making a vague statement. It was indeed a great victory for Beijing.
The main reason for wanting India to close the Kashgar Consulate was that China was building a road across the Aksai Chin area on Indian territory. The Communists did not want any witness. The Government of India never acknowledged it, but it had information about the Aksai Chin road as early as 1954-55. So did the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which recently released several lakhs of historical documents.
A CIA note
A couple of Information Reports dating from 1953 bring some light on the issue. On July 15, 1953, a note deals with “Chinese Communist Troops, West Tibet” and “Road Construction, Sinkiang to Tibet and Ladakh”. It says that late 1952 the 2 Cavalry Regiment, commanded by one Han Tse-min, had set up his headquarters at Gartok (the main trade centre in Western Tibet). It mentions that the regiment had 800 camels and 150 men garrisoned at Rutok, in the vicinity of the Panggong lake, shared with Ladakh.
The same report affirms that another PLA’s regiment is stationed on the Tibetan side of the Tibet-Ladakh border, near Koyul in the Indus Valley in Ladakh. According to the US document, the 2 Cavalry’s commandant announced the Chinese intention to built new roads in the area.
- A road from Rutok to Keriya, south of the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang (the construction is ‘contemplated’ says the report); on the eastern edge of the Aksai Chin.
- A motorable road from Khotan to Suget Karaul ending at Vanjilga (at the western end of the Aksai Chin)
- A road from Khotan (or Hotan) to Rutok to be completed in June or July 1953.
The second road is clearly the Aksai Chin road (now National Highway 219), though the alignment may have been slightly different from the present one and it was then probably impracticable for heavy vehicles (only 4 years later, heavy trucks were able to ply on the road).
The Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai wave (or was it a tsunami?) was most likely too strong and Nehru’s collaborators (BN Mullick, the IB Chief in particular) had ‘more important’ subjects to deal with than a road!
The local Chinese commander Han Tse-min asserted that “when these roads were completed, the Chinese Communists would close the Tibet Ladakh border to trade.” It is what they did soon after the signature of the infamous Panchsheel Agreement. Worse, the CIA document says that Han declared that “the Chinese Communists in Sinkiang [Xinjiang] were telling the people that Ladakh belongs to Sinkiang.”
Ten days later, another CIA note detailed the trade between Ladakh and Xinjiang, giving the coordinates for each place: “The Tibetan traders who visit Leh, are from the Chang Tang area, an arid plateau region in northern Tibet [plain between Xinjiang and Tibet] …These traders follow the Chushul [in Ladakh] route from Tibet to Leh. Border check posts on this route are at Chushul and Koyul.”
This shows how flourishing the trade was in 1953 …for a few months more. All this ended once the Aksai Chin road became fully operational.
The CIA remarks: “The only Chinese in northwestern Tibet are the Chinese Communist troops, seven or eight hundred of whom are stationed along the Tibet-Ladakh border. They first appeared in northwestern Tibet in 1951, having come from the Khotan.”
The CIA papers tend to prove that the Indian Government knew about the Aksai Chin road much earlier than thought, but it only became official on October 6, 1957, when a Chinese newspaper, Kuangming Jihpao reported: “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 [near Yarkand]. The Xinjiang-Tibet Highway… is 1179 km long, of which 915 km are more than 4,000 meters above sea level; 130 km of it over 5,000 meters above sea level, with the highest point being 5,500 meters.” The reporter 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. The Aksai Chin road was officially opened.
It should have been obvious for everyone, even for the blindfolded Intelligence Bureau Director, B.N. Mullick, that India’s Kashgar Consulate had been forced to close to hide the fact that the Communists were building a road on Indian soil; still, the government took nearly two more years to make the news public in India.
In recent weeks, one question has often been raised by Indian think tanks: should India participate in the new trade routes initiated by China?
Apart from the fact that nobody dares to question the viability of such a project, after all it is part of President Xi Jinping’s Dream of a ‘Revitalized China’ for which he has envisioned a mega “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project to connect Asia (read China) with Europe and Africa via the ancient trading centres of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, a modern Silk Road.
However, at the same time, all the ancient trade routes between India and Central Asia remain closed.
The time has perhaps come for India to ask China to reopen the Consulates in Kashgar and Lhasa, then India could perhaps sincerely participate in the Belt and Road project!
(The author is a veteran Sinologist, Tibet expert, columnist and author who has lived in India for the last four decades. The views expressed are his own)