Why India and China went to war in 1962 : The Tribune India

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Why India and China went to war in 1962

Certain fundamental factors can be identified that framed the context of India-China interactions in the 1950s

Why India and China went to war in 1962

Indian troops manning forward positions in Ladakh (left) and Tibetan refugees flee their homeland after Chinese excesses.

This article was first published in The Tribune on  October 15, 2012, as part of a series on the 50th anniversary of the war.

by Zorawar Daulet Singh

(The writer is author of Himalayan Stalemate: Understanding the India China Dispute)

INDIAN historian John Lall once observed, "Perhaps nowhere else in the world has such a long frontier been unmistakably delineated by nature itself". How then, did India and China defy topographical odds to lock into an impasse that was ultimately tested on the battlefield?

In retrospect, certain fundamental factors can be identified that framed the context of India-China interactions in the 1950s. Despite attaining a bloody independence in 1947, a truncated India viewed itself as the inheritor of the legacy of British India's frontiers. While the Nehru regime was acutely aware of the changed geopolitical context, its perception of the northern frontiers was based on the institutional memory of a century of frontier making by British strategists.

The bone of contention

The border with China runs 3488 km. It can be divided into three sectors:

  • Western Sector: This includes the border between Jammu and Kashmir and Xinjiang and Tibet. India claims that China is occupying 43,000 sq km in this sector, including 5180 sq km illegally ceded to it by Pakistan.

  • Central Sector: This includes borders shared by Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand with Tibet. Shipki La and Kaurik areas in HP and areas around Pulam, Thag La, Barahori, Kungri Bingri La, Lapthal and Sangha are disputed.

  • Eastern Sector: China disputes India's sovereignty over 90,000 sq km, mostly in Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang, Bum La, Asaphi La and Lo La are among the sensitive points in this sector. Strategically vital Tawang holds the key to the defence of the entire sub-Himalayan space in this sector. 

Let's briefly deconstruct this legacy. It is now accepted that British India's frontier policies had failed to produce a single integrated and well-defined northern boundary separating the Indian subcontinent from Xinjiang and Tibet. The legacy, however, was more nuanced. In the eastern sector, the British had largely attained an ethnically and strategically viable alignment via the 1914 Simla conference of India, China and Tibet, even though the Chinese repudiated the agreement itself.

The underlying rationale for British policy was to carve a buffer around an autonomous 'Outer Tibet' not very dissimilar to the division of Mongolia in 1913 that Russia and China had agreed upon. While this policy of an attempted zonal division of Tibet never materialised, the fortuitous byproduct of this episode was the delimiting of a border alignment between India and Tibet that mirrors more or less the de facto position today. It is instructive to note that China's principal concern back then was not the precise boundary between Tibet and India but the borders and the political relationship between Tibet and China. 

In contrast, the legacy of the western sector was more blurred. This sector, the crux of the dispute, was never formally delineated nor successfully resolved by British India. The fluid British approach in this sector was shaped by the geopolitical and geoeconomic goals of its empire, and was never designed to meet the basic requirements of a sovereign nation state.


There were almost a dozen attempts by the British to arrive at exactly where the boundaries should lie. Most, however, were exploratory surveys by frontier agents reflecting British expansion in the north-west frontiers rather than a concerted pursuit of an international border. And, they varied with the then geopolitical objectives of London, vis-à-vis the perceived Russian threat. For instance, when Russia threatened Xinjiang, some British strategists advocated an extreme northern Kashmiri border. At times, opinion favoured a relatively moderate border, with reliance even being placed on Chinese control of Xinjiang as a buffer against Russia.

The only serious, albeit futile, attempts by the British to map the border east of the Karakoram pass with China were made in 1899 and 1905. The Chinese never responded to these proposals. Interestingly, Alastair Lamb's 1973 study argues that the 1899 line when plotted on a modern map rather than on one relying on surveys done in the nineteenth century would place the eastern portion of Aksai Chin, including the area covering the Xinjiang-Tibet road, in China.

Areas (in red) claimed by China in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh

In 1947, no definite boundary line to the east of the Karakoram Pass existed. On the official 1950 India Map, Kashmir's boundary east of this pass was expressed as ‘Boundary Undefined’, while the 1914 McMahon Line was clearly shown as the boundary in the eastern sector. The only two points accepted by India and China was that the Karakoram Pass and Demchok, the western and eastern extremities of this sector, were in Indian territory. Opinion differed on how the line traversed between the two points. Thus, in effect, India and China were faced with a ‘no man's land’ in eastern Ladakh, where the contentious Aksai Chin lay.

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This situation would have sufficed had Chinese power remained weak and relatively ambivalent to its southern periphery, as it had during most of the British colonial experience in India. But across the Himalayas, the restoration of Chinese power in 1949 and its thrust into Tibet in 1951, showed that Mao's China had awoken after its ‘century of humiliation’.

Adjustment to the new power equilibrium was unavoidable. Path dependence and institutional memory of previous British Indian frontier policies and its attendant impulse for a forward presence had to be reconciled with the reality of a rejuvenated China. The dilemma for India was to reconcile the colonial legacy that had produced the foundation for a strategically secure northern frontier and special relations with the smaller Himalayan states, with the post-colonial reality that obliged India to discard the symbols of the very policies that had bequeathed these privileges to India. A bit of hypocrisy was unavoidable if an independent but weaker India was to secure itself against a stronger China.

The essence of the Indian response was an uneasy combination of realism and accommodation of Chinese interests. And in the absence of military modernisation constrained by economic and institutional resources, diplomacy and soft external balancing via an attempt to leverage the superpower rivalry assumed the major burden of advancing India's diplomatic position and preventing conflict. Little effort was expended on internal balancing until after 1962.

Further, the spillover of the Cold War into South Asia, largely via an American decision in the early 1950s to buttress Pakistan as a regional client, reduced India's options of external balancing. It made an alignment with the West unappealing to the nationalist consensus among the Indian elites that had produced the philosophy of non-alignment.


Nehru's response to the 1954 US-Pakistan alliance exemplified this: "The United States imagines that by this policy they have completely outflanked India's so-called neutralism and will thus bring India to her knees. Whatever the future may hold, this is not going to happen". This explains much of India's early efforts to forge an accommodation with China, and the 1954 agreement over Tibet must be viewed in such a context rather than simply as an idealistic expression of Nehru's pan-Asian vision.

The 1954 agreement was essentially a Chinese fait accompli extracting a de jure Indian endorsement of China's sovereignty over Tibet and India relinquishing its special British-era privileges. The agreement was valid for eight years, till June 1962, and as relations turned sour, China would have to wait another five decades for a reiteration of the 1954 Indian position. This came in 2003 in a joint declaration at Beijing. Curiously, this important shift in the Indian position was once again undertaken without a reciprocal Chinese concession other than a tacit acknowledgment of India's sovereignty over Sikkim.

Returning to the April 1954 agreement, where India erred was in extracting a quid quo pro. Some have interpreted 1954 as an implicit trade-off that resolved the border issue. Indeed, the Nehru government seemed to believe it had addressed all Sino-Indian questions.

On 1 July 1954, shortly after the agreement, Nehru, through a note to the Secretary-General and Foreign Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, stated that, "All our old maps dealing with the frontier should be carefully examined, and where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our northern and northeastern frontier without any reference to any ‘line’. These new maps should also not state there is any undemarcated territory…Both as flowing from our policy and as a consequence of our Agreement with China, this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody". As it turned out, this was a significant decision because the new maps of 1954 publicly committed India to a cartographic position over territory in the western sector that was known to have been of ambiguous provenance.


The central puzzle, of course, is why did India not bring up the border issue during the 1954 negotiations with the Chinese? Archival evidence reveals that Nehru's unwillingness to unilaterally raise the boundary issue at the time was based on an assumption that Beijing might respond by offering to negotiate a fresh boundary, which could have been disadvantageous to India. Nehru instructed his negotiators that if the Chinese raised the boundary issue "we should express our surprise and point out that this is a settled issue". By not explicitly linking China's ownership over Tibet with a reciprocal and wider agreement on the frontiers was an extraordinary error of judgment.

Further, India gave no expression to its revised 1954 maps showing a settled northern border. Unlike in the east, where India proactively extended its sovereignty over Tawang in 1951, which was not contested by China at the time, and reaffirmed close relations with Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim, India did little to alter the ground reality in the west. Though historical record did not support Chinese claims in Aksai Chin, the Chinese by virtue of their expanded presence in Tibet would henceforth view Aksai Chin as a strategically located area to maintain their supply lines to Tibet. That Delhi knew little of these remote eastern parts of Ladakh was evident in the subsequent course of events such as the discovery of the Xinjiang-Tibet road after it was written about in a Chinese magazine in 1957!

India officially claimed Aksai Chin in a note to the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi in October 1958. A few months later, a rebellion in Tibet led to the exodus of the Dalai Lama to India. The first armed clash with China occurred at Longju in the east on 25 August 1959. On 21 October 1959, at the Kongka Pass in the west, Chinese guards killed nine members of an Indian patrol team and took ten prisoners. The wheels of dispute were set in motion though it would still take an unfortunate international conjuncture to transform a political disagreement into a military confrontation.

From genesis to nemesis

— Compiled by Vijay Mohan

October 1950: Chinese troops cross the Sino-Tibetan boundary and move towards Lhasa.

April 1954: Sino-Indian Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between India and Tibet region of China signed by Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in Beijing.

May 1954: China and India sign the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence or Panchsheel.

June 1954: Zhou Enlai visits India for the first time, stresses on the adherence to the five principles

March 1955: India objects to the inclusion of a portion of India's northern frontier on the official map of China, calling it a clear infringement of Panchsheel

November 1956: Zhou Enlai visits India for the second time on a goodwill mission.

September 1958: India officially objects to the inclusion of a big chunk of Northern Assam and NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) in China Pictorial.

January 1959: Zhou Enlai spells out for the first time China's claims to over 40,000 square miles of Indian territory both in Ladakh and NEFA.

April 1959: Dalai Lama escapes from Lhasa and crosses into Indian territory.

August 1959: Chinese troops open fire on an Indian picket near Migyitun in eastern Ladakh, killing an Indian soldier. They also overrun the Indian outpost at Longju in north-eastern Ladakh.

September 1959: China refuses to accept the McMahon Line. Beijing lays claims to 50,000 square miles of territory in Sikkim and Bhutan.

October 1959: Chinese troops fire on an Indian patrol in the Aksai Chin area killing nine soldiers and capturing ten.

April 1960: A meeting in New Delhi between Zhou Enlai and Nehru to address the boundary question ends in deadlock.

June 1960: Chinese troops violate the Indian border near Shipki village in the northeast

February 1961: China further occupies 12,000 sq miles in the western sector.

October 1961: Chinese start aggressive border patrolling and establishes new military formations which start moving into Indian territory.

December 1961: India adopts the Forward Policy to stem the advancing Chinese frontier line by establishing a few border outposts.

April 1962: China issues ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of the Indian frontier personnel from the border posts.

September 1962: Chinese forces cross the McMahon Line in the Thag La region in the east and open fire on an Indian post. Launch another intensified attack.

20 October 1962: China launches a massive multi-pronged attack all along the border from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east.

15 November 1962: A massive Chinese attack on the eastern front. Tawang and Walong in the eastern sector over run, Rezang La and the Chushul airport in the west shelled.

18 November 1962: Chinese troops capture Bomdi La in the NEFA region

21 November 1962: China declares a unilateral ceasefire along the entire border and announces withdrawal of its troops to 20 km behind the LAC.

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