WHEN INDIA INVADED TIBET

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In a scenario where the Chinese activity in Tibet has become a matter of concern for us in India, it might be interesting to look back to a time early in the last century when India (read British India) adopted an aggressive policy towards Tibet. This was part of the ‘Great Game’, the war of wits that went on in the 19th Century and early 20th Century between the Russian and British Empires to establish dominance over Asia. The Tibetan Plateau, standing 3 miles above sea level surrounded by the world’s highest peaks, often referred to as the ‘Roof of the World’, is the world’s highest and largest plateau and it borders India to the north. The Tibetan Autonomous Region traditionally referred to as Tibet, now under Chinese rule, occupies most of this plateau. Till 1950 when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, it had indeed remained more or less autonomous. At the time of the Great Game it was very much autonomous though nominally under the rule of the Chinese Qing Dynasty and neutral as far as its relationship with the Russians and the British went. The British in India, though they had invaded Burma and Sikkim covering the whole of Tibet’s southern flank, were contended to keep their hands off Tibet as long as it remained neutral (thereby rendering its territory a buffer zone in the event of any Russian advance towards India) and made no overtures to the contrary till the end of 19th Century. However the scenario changed at the turn of the century.

Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, long-obsessed over the Russian advance into Central Asia and fearing a Russian invasion of India fell an easy prey to unsubstantiated rumours that China was about to give away Tibet to Russia. In spite of firm assurance from the Russian government that it had no interest in Tibet Curzon launched an expedition in the pretext of a diplomatic mission named Tibet Frontier Commission which set about for Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in December 1903. He had an equally paranoid lieutenant to carry out the task in the person of Colonel Francis Younghusband whom he appointed the leader of the mission. The 10,000-man military task force, comprising 3000 fighting men, mostly Gurkhas and Pathans from mountainous regions with elements of the Madras Sappers and Sikh Pioneers, and 7000 sherpas and other camp followers, was of course under the command of a seasoned soldier, Brigadier-General James Macdonald.

Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan Government, alerted of the British Indian Army column advancing into his territory marshalled whatever forces he had to resist the move. However militarily it was hardly a contest worth speaking of. Although the Tibetans had the massive advantage of a forbidding terrain to forestall the advance, their ill-trained troops with antiquated weapons were no match for the professional army with modern rifles and machine guns descending on them. Besides, overwhelmed by the enemy’s might the Tibetans had no heart to fight. Even at the only instance they tried to make a stand, at a place called Chumik Shenko on 31 March 1904, they acted more like a civilian resistance group blocking the road in numbers, but refusing to fight. Ultimately the British officers had to provoke them into a fight. They found their excuse when an angry Tibetan general fired a shot at a Sikh soldier during a scuffle and injured him. What happened then was yet another instance of British depravity than an act an army could be proud of. The task force opened up on the Tibetans crowded behind a 5-foot rock wall from 3 sides. They let loose their Maxim Machineguns mowing down the hapless crowd mercilessly, not even sparing those who fled. “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 British young officer who commanded the Maxim detachment was to write later, “I hope I will never again have to shoot down men walking away”.

Tibetan versions later claimed that the British had tricked them into extinguishing the fuses of their matchlocks and had opened fire without warning, which is not substantiated. Even if they had put up a fight the result couldn’t have been different given the nature of their weapons. 600-700 of them lay dead after the massacre and another 170 or so wounded most of who survived as prisoners in British field hospital. The British Indian casualties were a mere 12 wounded. The task force pressed on towards Gyantse overcoming what little obstructions the Tibetans put up, which only brought them further casualties although they did manage to conduct a raid on a garrison the invaders had set up at Chang Lo and keep it under fire for a while during May 1904 exacting some casualties. The only real fight took place when the force, by now reinforced with more troops, stormed the fortress at Gyantse Dzong on 6 July. The massive fortress, commanding a forbidding position high above a valley and well-defended by the best Tibetan troops with artillery, posed a challenge. It was eventually taken in a 11-hour operation which saw several failed attempts by troops to scale the rock face and caused considerable number of casualties before the breakthrough could be achieved. With the taking of this last obstacle, the road to Lhasa lay open.

By the time Younghusband marched into Lhasa at the head of his ‘diplomatic mission’ on 3 August, Dalai Lama had fled to Manchuria. In the absence of the Lama, Younghusband, in his own words, ‘rammed a treaty down the throats’ of the remaining Tibetan officials, exacting trade rights, a heavy indemnity, recognition of the Sikkim-Tibet border and an assurance from Tibet for it not to have relations with any foreign power which effectively turned that country into a British protectorate (a clause the Chinese meekly submitted to). This, so-called Treaty of Lhasa, signed on 7 September 1904, for all the blowing of his own trumpet by Younghusband, actually achieved nothing new which wasn’t already being practiced. All it did was to humiliate China for its inability to protect Tibet, which was technically under its rule, from foreign aggression. It was an arrogant and racist man’s bullying adventurism which was to come under severe criticism in the British establishment itself. And for modern India, it left a lasting legacy of enmity with its northern neighbour, giving it room for pretext to play the aggrieved party at every given context.

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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