Kashmiri Muslims in Tibet faced persecution, as did Chinese scholars with links to India

In the months leading up to October 20, 1962, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched its massive offensive, the members of the small community of Indians in China began packing their bags.

Back then, there were few Indians living in Beijing and Shanghai, recalls Narayan Sen, who spent close to four years as the first Government of India Exchange Scholar, between 1955 and 1958, at Peking University.

Businessmen in Beijing and Shanghai either left for India or moved to Hong Kong. The small group of Indian scholars, who were working in Chinese universities as teachers or as translators in government publishing companies, also left China. Accounts from the time suggested they were advised to leave by the Indian Embassy — not by the Chinese government — and many would return to Beijing in the 1970s.

Perhaps most affected by the war, according to Indian Government documents from the time, was the community of Kashmiri Muslims and Ladakhi Lamas in Tibet, whose nationality became a point of major discord between India and China. The Indian Government believed that China was pressuring them to accept Chinese citizenship, while harassing the community and confiscating their property.

A 1960 diplomatic note from New Delhi said India was beginning to “receive reports of hardships suffered by a large community of Kashmiri Muslims and Ladakhi Lamas who are still in Tibet.” It criticised China’s attempt to question the right to Indian citizenship of the Indian-origin community.

The Indian Government said the Chinese authorities were pressuring the community to accept Chinese nationality and preventing them from approaching the Indian Consulate. The Ladakhi Lamas, the note said, went to Tibet for theological study, while the Kashmiri Muslims, even if they had resided in Tibet for more than a generation, had retained their separate identity.

India received reports of several Kashmiri Muslims having been placed under arrest in Tibet and their property confiscated. Another 1960 note also expressed concern at a “mass gathering” held in Lhasa’s Athletic Stadium where Chinese and Ladakhi Muslim prisoners were “made to face the crowd hand-cuffed and with heads bent.” Three Kashmiri Muslims were given prison terms ranging from 11 to 15 years, charged with the “incitement of Ladakhi Muslims to claim a foreign nationality.”

In a July 1960 note, India said it had “received a stream of messages from Lhasa about acts of terror and intimidation and indiscriminate arrests of Kashmiri Muslims to abandon their claim to Indian nationality.” “According to our information, Kashmiris are being called every day to the area offices, subjected to severe abuse and then admonished to line up with other Tibetans and attend indoctrination meetings… It is reported that the beating lasted from five to six hours and was administered through the Tibetans. A leading member of the community, Barkat Ullah Shahkali, was beaten with fists, and [he] bled profusely. He and another Kashmiri Muslim called Ibrahim were not only beaten up badly but were threatened with rifles aimed at them…”

The Indian Government said there were at least 125 Kashmiri Muslim families in the Lhasa area and a few hundred Ladakhi Lamas who were anxious to return to India.

Cultural links

The war left a legacy of strained cultural links, which were just beginning to flourish in the early 1950s. Dr. Sen, the first Exchange Scholar, recalled fondly his time in Beijing. The last batch of scholars, he said, arrived in January 1959. After the uprising broke out in Tibet in March, relations began to strain.

Dr. Sen would only return to Beijing twenty years later. He would later spend more than a decade in China, at the Bengali section of the Foreign Language Press, where he translated books into Bengali and subsequently authored two books on the Chinese economy and on the writer Lu Xun. “I was received with warmth,” he said, suggesting that the memories of 1962 had, in some sense, already begun to fade for the Chinese public.

It was not only Indians in China who felt the impact of the war. In some ways, the legacy of the war was less forgiving on Chinese who had links in India. Dr. Sen recalls at least two young scholars at Peking University who were condemned as Indian spies and humiliated publicly during the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s and in the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong four years after the war.

This was a fate that, no doubt, befell thousands of intellectuals during Mao’s campaigns; but in many cases, their links to India perhaps further damned them. One Chinese engineer and scientist, who spent a few years in Ranchi and did not want to be identified, was imprisoned for being “an Indian spy” for five years during the Cultural Revolution. “And it was only because I spoke good English!” he said.

Dr. Sen remembered one scholar who would come and visit him every week at Peking University. “One day,” he said, “he stopped coming.” Thrown out of the university, the scholars were made to work as construction workers and bathroom cleaners. One of them, Dr. Sen discovered some 20 years later, would take his own life.

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