Did Nehru really accept the Sino-British Treaty as final word on the border issue?

The current round of tensions was triggered by China's bid to construct a road in the Doklam area, which falls in the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan.

July 04, 2017 05:36 pm | Updated September 29, 2020 07:45 pm IST

A Chinese and an Indian soldier put back in position a barbed wire fence following a meeting of military representatives of the two countries at their border at the Nathu La Pass.

A Chinese and an Indian soldier put back in position a barbed wire fence following a meeting of military representatives of the two countries at their border at the Nathu La Pass.

The ongoing standoff at the Sikkim sector of the India-China border between troops of the two countries has brought the “Sino-British Treaty, 1890” into focus.

Here’s what the treaty is all about and why China is raking it up now .

Officially called the Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet , the treaty was signed in Calcutta on March 17, 1890. The Convention, according to Beijing, settles the border between the two regions. But India maintains that the borders in Doklam, the area in question, are yet to be settled.

Article I of the Convention talks about the boundary of Sikkim and Tibet in physical detail. “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi, on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory,” the Article states.

The standoff

The current round of tensions was triggered by the China's bid to construct a road in the Doklam area , which falls in the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. New Delhi says that a road there will threaten its national security.

Analysts say that if built, the road will provide China further access to the Chumbi Valley, adding to the vulnerability of the “Chicken’s Neck”, a narrow corridor that links the Northeast with the rest of India.


What is India’s stand?

India has expressed deep concern at the Chinese actions at the Doko La (Doklam) tri-junction. “…Conveyed to the Chinese Government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India,” said a government statement on June 30, 2017 in its first reaction since the tensions at the tri-junction were made public a week earlier. The war of words also saw Chinese anger towards Bhutan .

What is Beijing’s stand?

China stresses that the Sikkim section of the China-India boundary was defined by the 1890 treaty. China has accused India of “betrayal” of the treaty, a colonial era understanding of the boundary alignment relating to Tibet and Sikkim. Beijing, on July 3, 2017, cited letters between Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai that “had explicitly recognised many times that the (1890) Convention has defined the boundary between Xi Zang (Tibet) of China and Sikkim”.

According to a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in his letters to Zhou on March 22, 1959 and again on September 26, 1959, Nehru acknowledged that the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet “was defined by the 1890 Convention and demarcated by the two sides on the ground in 1895” and that “there’s no dispute over the boundary between Sikkim and Xi Zang, China”.

“Current actions by the Indian side undoubtedly run counter to the Indian government's longstanding position,” the spokesperson said.

What did Nehru say in the letter?

Nehru’s September 26, 1959 letter to Zhou , cited by China, was a point-by-point refutation of the claims made by the latter on September 8, 1959. Contrary to the claim that the letter was an overwhelming endorsement of the 1890 treaty on the Sikkim-Tibet border, Nehru takes objection to Zhou’s statement that the boundaries of Sikkim and Bhutan did not fall within the scope of the discussion. Nehru explicitly states in the letter that the 1890 treaty defined only the northern part of the Sikkim-Tibet border and not the tri-junction area that brings Bhutan into play. India’s first Prime Minister goes on to state that “rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is therefore a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India with the Tibet region of China in the same sector.”

Then only Nehru makes the statement that China now latches on to, out of context. He says: “This Convention of 1890 also defined the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet; and the boundary was later, in 1895, demarcated. There is thus no dispute regarding the boundary of Sikkim with the Tibet region”.

Nehru concludes his letter with regret and shock while invoking the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement. “India was one of the first countries to extend recognition to the People's Republic of China and for the last ten years we have consistently sought to maintain and strengthen our friendship with your country. When our two countries signed the 1954 Agreement in regard to the Tibet region I hoped that the main problems which history had bequeathed to us in the relations between India and China had been peacefully and finally settled,” he states.

Click here to read Jawaharlal Nehru’s September 26, 1959 letter to Zhou En-Lai

Nathu La Pass and Sikkim

In this July 2006 file picture Chinese Army personnel meet their Indian counterparts at Nathu La Pass, located on the northern part of Sikkim.


Why is China angry with Bhutan?

In the current standoff, Bhutan has rebuffed China by refuting the latter’s contention that it (China) was constructing a road at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction in an “indisputable” part of Chinese territory. Thimphu had said it had conveyed to the Chinese government that this was not the case.

According to an explanation published in The Hindu on Why Bhutan is special to India , “Under the 2007 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, the two sides have agreed to ‘cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.’

Click here to read Zhou En-Lai's November 7, 1959 letter to Jawaharlal Nehru

“Under a previous treaty, India was to ‘guide’ Bhutan on foreign and defence policies. The language of the 2007 treaty is meant to respect the sensitivities of Bhutan regarding its sovereignty. But the reality is that the Indian military is virtually responsible for protecting Bhutan from the kind of external threat that the Chinese military poses.”

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