The End of an Era | Unravelling the mysteries of India’s last days in Tibet
Reasons for the closure of the Indian Consulate in Lhasa in December 1962 remain unclear.
For a development as significant as the end of India’s presence in Tibet, the events surrounding the closure of India’s Consulate General in Lhasa in December 1962 still remain a small footnote in the history of that period, forgotten in the immediate aftermath of the war earlier that year.
Attempting to lift the veil on what would turn out to be a landmark event in the history of India’s relations with Tibet and China, a new book reveals it was India that took the fateful decision to close the Consulate in Lhasa — a momentous decision that, the book concludes, remains a mystery and still never fully explained, and one that India would come to regret as it made numerous unsuccessful attempts to reopen its presence in Lhasa and return to Tibet following the normalisation of relations with China in 1988.
The End of an Era: India Exits Tibet is the fourth volume of a sweeping work of research by the south India-based scholar Claude Arpi, who has drawn on official documents to write the most detailed history yet of India-Tibet relations from 1947 to 1962.
In the book, Mr. Arpi notes that information about the Lhasa Consulate and this period in history remains scarce. “Unfortunately,” he laments, “the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) still zealously keeps classified all documents related to 1961-62.”
He does, however, piece together the chain of events leading up to the fateful decision, which was, finally, conveyed “in a laconic note” from the MEA to a surprised Chinese Embassy in India, saying it had “decided to discontinue the Indian Consulates in Lhasa and Shanghai from December 15, 1962.”
Mr. Arpi writes that even the Indian Embassy in Beijing appeared to be kept in the dark. The then charge d’affaires P.K. Banerjee, would write in his memoirs that Delhi took the call on Shanghai “because there was hardly any work to carry out.”
That certainly wasn’t the case in Tibet, at a time when, not only was being in Lhasa crucial in the aftermath of the war, but there was also the unsettled matter of 3,900 Indian PoWs in Tibet.
In the memoirs, Mr. Banerjee suggests one reason could have been Delhi being “anxious” to close Chinese consulates in Mumbai and Kolkata because “they were indulging in activities other than consular work”, but that doesn’t explain why Delhi would voluntarily close Lhasa.
What we do know is that in the lead up to the war, Indian officials in Lhasa began to come under increasing harassment from Chinese authorities. On October 9, 11 days before China launched its offensive, the consulate’s telegraphic lines were cut, as were its telephone lines and courier communication. All outsiders were barred from entering the Dekyilinka area where the mission was located, while supplies of essential commodities like milk and eggs were also stopped.
On November 4, 1962, the MEA in a note complained this treatment was “against all established norms” and its staff were subject “to the most willful harassment by local Chinese authorities.”
Yet after the November 20, 1962 ceasefire, this would stop, Mr. Arpi notes, leaving unclear why the closure still went ahead. “These are among the many questions without answers,” he writes.
Mr. Arpi traces the closure to India’s gradual withdrawal from Tibet, where it was also maintaining trade agencies in Yatung, Gyantse and Gartok under the 1954 agreement on trade and intercourse — now famous as the “Panchsheel” agreement — and its decision to not renew the agreement when it expired in April 1962.
Beijing had offered a renewal, but India’s contention was that with every tenet of panchsheel violated by then — the MEA highlighted China’s actions in Aksai Chin starting in 1957-58 — it could not renew. The trade agencies, where Indians were coming under increasing restrictions, were all shut, and by the end of the year, the consulate would follow.
India would later try unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to return to Lhasa. In 2006, Mr. Arpi notes, when both sides agreed to open new consulates, India suggested Lhasa but had to settle for Guangzhou, while China returned to Kolkata. As trade boomed, India had also returned to Shanghai and China reopened Mumbai, but Lhasa still remained off-limits.
In 2015, an agreement was reached for India to open a consulate in Chengdu and for China to open one in Chennai, although that remains stalled. That year, India had again sought Lhasa but was turned down again, unable to return to the city it left under a cloud of mystery.