The Dalai Lama’s visit this week to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, including the famed Buddhist monastery at Tawang, appears to be India’s response to perceived hostile Chinese reaction to several issues:

— India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, aimed at reducing the proliferation of materials needed to build nuclear weapons;

— Its demand that Pakistani Masood Azhar be declared a UN-designated terrorist, and;

—  The funding of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, which runs through illegally-occupied Indian territory in Pakistan.

The Dalai Lama’s visit in the company of India’s junior home minister has been described as a “purely religious” matter, despite the apparent political overtones. China’s claim to parts of Arunachal Pradesh is well known. But the significance of its claim to the mountain town of Tawang has a historical context that needs explanation.

In February 1951, India forcibly annexed Tawang, home to one of the most significant Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. Tibet protested but the move drew no protest from China whose presence in Tibet had barely extended beyond the capital, Lhasa. Tawang was the “daughter house” of Tibet’s largest monastery, Drepung, known to be sympathetic to the Chinese cause.  

Olaf Caroe, a former foreign secretary for the colonial Indian government who is said to have met then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, may have advised him to annex Tawang in view of the perceived security threat from communist China.       

Newly independent India took action to secure the final sector of the strategic frontier alignment, which Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary in colonial British India, had failed to achieve in 1914.

 The British became aware of what they called the “Tawang Tract” when they annexed the northeastern state of Assam in 1826. The belt of territory between British empire and the Tibetan plateau, (the “prickly hedge”) was seen as a protective barrier. The British called it “the outer line” — drawn along the foot of the northern hills. An “inner line” marked the extent of the British administration.

From 1911, the British tried to advance their northeastern border to bring the tribal territories (and the Monpa people) under political control. Variations of a plan to annex the Tawang Tract, either including or excluding the monastery, were discussed. At the Shimla conference of 1913/14, McMahon — negotiating secretly with the Tibetan delegation (without the knowledge the Chinese) — drew a red line on a map to set the border about 20 kilometers north of the Tawang monastery.

But the so-called “McMahon line” was repudiated by the Tibetans, the Chinese and the Indian viceroy, Lord Hardinge. The government of India accepted that the “outer line” marked the limits of its authority.

In 1935, foreign secretary Olaf Caroe, who succeeded McMahon, persuaded New Delhi and London to accept the McMahon line. The official record of the 1914 Shimla conference was altered to suggest falsely that McMahon’s alignment was legitimated at that conference. The 1937 Survey of India map and the 1940 Times Atlas printed the McMahon line.

The 1938 expedition by Indian army officer Captain Lightfoot was sent to Tawang to persuade Tibetan authorities that Tawang was British territory. Governor of Assam Sir Robert Reid strongly backed Lightfoot. But his successor, H.J. Twynham, challenged the advisability of occupying Tawang and the legitimacy of the territorial claims based on McMahon’s deceitful but fruitless actions at the 1914 Shimla conference. He noted that Tawang had always been oriented to Tibet culturally, politically and by religion and that it had long been under Tibetan administration. He advised that the boundary drawn by McMahon and accepted by India should run through Se La, leaving Tawang monastery and its surrounds to Tibet. This did not happen.

During the Second World War, the British sent expeditions into the northeastern tribal belt towards the McMahon line and set up new posts (a policy copied by Nehru’s intelligence chief B.N. Mullik in contested border areas during the 1950s).

In 1944, the British moved forces into the Tawang Tract and occupied Dirang Dzong, a Tibetan administrative center under the Tawang monastery. J.P. Mills, the officer in charge of that expedition, noted that he had moved from a “warring tribal territory into a settled civilized land,” adding that “our claim to this country was strenuously opposed by both Tibetan secular frontier officials and by monastic tax collectors.”

When the British tried to placate the Tibetans by offering to revise the McMahon alignment so that it should run to the south and not to the north of Tawang, the Tibetans argued that the McMahon line did not exist as an agreed boundary and that any British presence north of the outer line was illegal. As a result, when India became independent Tawang remained part of Tibet.

China is unlikely to accept any border settlement strongly in India’s favor and the Indian government is unlikely to relinquish Tawang, making the issue seemingly intractable.

However, the centuries-long Sino-Soviet territorial dispute was resolved after mutual trust was generated by then-president Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union.

Alternatively, if India were to agree to full and formal boundary negotiations, it’s possible that the dispute over Tawang could be set aside for resolution by a future, wiser generation, while other boundary disputes are finalized.

Map of ‘Tawang Territory’


1. Maxwell Neville, 1970 India’s China War, Jaico Publishers New Delhi  ( Historical Introduction: The Limitd of Empire’)

2. Maxwell, Neville n.d. China’s Borders: Settlements & Conflicts (pp. 145-53)

Tawang Photos from a recent visit

Tawang Monastery

Young Monks at the Tawang Monastery

A view of the Eastern Himalayas

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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