Why Tawang matters 

Understanding its people, its geography, and its vital place in the history of India-China engagement over the past century

Updated - December 18, 2022 04:57 pm IST

Published - December 17, 2022 11:31 am IST

A bird’s eye view of the Tawang city of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a border with China, where clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers took place on December 9

A bird’s eye view of the Tawang city of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a border with China, where clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers took place on December 9 | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh, where the clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers took place on December 9, has long been a theatre for contentious border scuffles. It was in the Tawang sector that the 1962 India-China war first began. It was also the last place where the ceasefire was implemented.

The population here consists mainly of Monpas, adherents of Tibetan Buddhism with a distinct local ethnic identity. With all the attention on the two militaries clashing, it is easy to forget the trauma that a border skirmish imposes on the local people. It is vital to note that the Tawangpas, as they call themselves, are the only Indians who have lived under foreign occupation (in 1962) after gaining Independence from colonial rule.

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Sixty years ago, in December 1962, the last Chinese soldiers actually left Tawang after having occupied the area for almost two months. As the Chinese forces had advanced across the border, the Indian administration and the soldiers retreated towards Assam. The locals too tried to flee their homes fearing that the Chinese would visit the same wrath on them as they had done on their Tibetan brethren. Those who could not leave spent days in terror in the jungles as Chinese soldiers built camps in Monpa villages. Even today, every skirmish on the border rekindles the same sense of foreboding it did 60 years ago.

Chief Minister Pema Khandu is a Tawangpa himself and his statement after the December 9 clash was aimed at allaying those fears. “Yangtse is under my assembly constituency & every year I meet the Jawans & villagers of the area,” he tweeted. “It’s not 1962 anymore. If anyone tries to transgress, our brave soldiers will give a befitting reply.”

The Arunachal border has seen increased military activity since the 2020 Ladakh standoff. Like in eastern Ladakh, the border areas in the Tawang sector too have seen a strengthening of border infrastructure. The Chinese action in Tawang comes as the Se La Tunnel, meant for providing the Indian security forces an all-weather road to Tawang, is scheduled to be ready early next year.

Geography of contention

Yangtse, the scene of the latest clashes where soldiers on both sides suffered “minor injuries”, lies between two high mountain passes, Bum La and Tulung La. It is not far from where these clashes took place that the Chinese had ambushed an Assam Rifles patrol on October 20, 1975. Eight days after those clashes, the bodies of four Indian soldiers were handed over by the Chinese. This took place at the 17,300 ft high Tulung La pass, just west of the recent encounter in Yangtse.

Tawang valley is wedged between Tibet and Bhutan and is connected with the mainland through the Se La pass that lies at a height of 13,700 ft, and marks the entry point for the administrative jurisdiction of Tawang.

As one crosses Se La into Tawang district, the weight of history can be felt over the barren snowy landscape. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Chinese-held Tibet and entered India through the Tawang region. In 1962 the Chinese invaded Arunachal Pradesh through the Tawang sector.

It is today the biggest bone of contention in the talks for a border settlement between India and China.

File picture of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addressing a gathering in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh

File picture of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addressing a gathering in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh | Photo Credit: PTI

It was believed, at least in India, that with the 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, there was agreement that while demarcating the boundary, “the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas”. That is, a populated area like Tawang would remain undisturbed.

But Chinese interlocutors interpreted the agreement differently and have since claimed Tawang. In 2017, Dai Bingguo, veteran Chinese diplomat and China’s Special Representative for the boundary talks with India between 2003 and 2014, clearly spelt out Beijing’s stand. He said, “The disputed territory in the eastern sector of the China-India boundary, including Tawang, is inalienable from China’s Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction.” 

New Delhi’s response was that it is neither “possible nor practical” for India to concede Tawang in a border settlement. 

The historical backdrop 

As part of the 1914 Simla Agreement, in which a linear boundary, the McMahon Line, was created, the Tibetan rulers represented by the Lonchen Shatra, signed over control of Tawang to British India as they were seeking British support to offset a Chinese threat.

Tawang had thus far been administered by Tibetan officials through the systematic imposition of monastic and non-monastic tributes. The Lonchen Shatra, being Tibetan, understood the sensitivity of the Tawang transfer and suggested that the district should be taken over by British India ‘quickly and tactfully’.

But the British became embroiled in World War I in Europe, and so the matter was set aside. It was not, however, completely forgotten.

From the 1920s, as China became stronger and more interested in Tibet, the question of strengthening the claim on Tawang was reinforced by British Indian administrators. 

In 1937, the Assam Chief Secretary told G.S. Lightfoot, Political Officer of the Balipara Frontier Tract, that the Government of India should try to challenge Chinese activities that may support its claim to Tawang, or even to Bhutan and Sikkim. The Government decided that to emphasise the interests of British India in the Tawang area it would conduct actual tours or collect the revenue itself, since the mere reproduction of the McMahon Line on Survey of India maps would be insufficient to correct false impressions which had gained ground in the years since 1914.

Two expeditions were sent in to assess the mood in Tawang — Capt. G.A. Nevill had gone to Tawang in 1914, and Lightfoot in 1938. Both came back with recommendations to set up an administration of some kind in Tawang. Nevill specifically wrote that a European officer should be stationed, at least for a time, at Tawang. Nevill, who remained in the Tawang region from 1913 to 1928, wrote in a prescient note that would be proved correct in the 1962 war: “should China gain control of Tibet the Tawang country is particularly adapted for a secret and easy entrance into India”.

Lightfoot’s recommendations included that the Tibetan government should be asked to withdraw their officials and the Tawang monastery be made into a Monpa monastery. His recommendation was that Monpas should be elected to the religious high offices of the monastery in Tawang. It took another 70 years for that to happen — in 2008 the Dalai Lama, for the first time, appointed a local Monpa monk from a village south of Se La, as Rimpoche of the monastery. 

The acting Governor of Assam, Gilbert Hogg, accepted Lightfoot’s recommendations and forwarded them to the Government of India. 

These recommendations were followed up the same year with a proposal to send yet another expedition while pending a decision on administering Tawang. But the rise of Hitler and Britain’s entry into World War II ended these plans.

After Independence

As the war in Europe came to a close and India moved towards independence, the British Government of India managed to exert control over areas south of Se La, the massif that separates the Tawang valley from the rest of the Monpa belt to its south. But the question of realising the full territorial potential of the 1914 Simla Convention and implementing the McMahon Line on the ground was left for the successor Indian state “upon whom alone the rights and obligations arising from the existing Treaty provisions” devolved after August 15, 1947.

Hampered by the partition of India and the work of assimilation of princely states, the new Indian Government did not immediately enter Tawang and the decision was taken only after the Chinese government declared the 1914 Simla Convention null and void in November 1949. The urgency of the situation was further highlighted by the Chinese Ambassador’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the Indian Mission in Lhasa and the Trade Agencies in Yatung and Gyantse in reply to an Indian Government note of October 31, 1950. 

The Indian Government was now clearly ready to move. The Adviser to the Governor of Assam, N.K. Rustomji, issued formal instructions late in 1950 to Maj. Ralengnao Khathing of 2 Assam Rifles who was leading the march for setting up Indian administration: “Your task is to occupy Tawang.” 

Armed with this telegram, on February 6, 1951, Maj. Khathing rode in with the intention of claiming Tawang as Indian territory and changed not only the map of India but also the fate of the people in the area. 

The successful entry into Tawang set in motion a broader process in New Delhi to consolidate and administer the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), as Arunachal Pradesh was known then. NEFA was a challenge for administration and integration because it consisted of multiple different tribes who were divided by geography and not connected through a common language. In the early 1950s a new cadre of officers was created, called the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS), and they were personally interviewed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The work of the officers was rooted in the work of Verrier Elwin, who conceptualised the Indian governance strategy in his book, A Philosophy for NEFA, which went on to become the guide for early Indian administrators in the area. 

As tensions with China created strategic pressures, a more elaborate and complex administrative and military structure had to be set up in the heart of the tribal areas. This interrupted the implementation of the policy in its original form, but clearly the years of sensitive handling of the border areas had left a lasting impact such that the people in these areas saw themselves as Indians even as India appeared to be losing the war with China in 1962. Years later in 2008, Tashi Khandu recalled that when the Chinese came through his village Kitpi in Tawang in 1962, which had been vacated by Indian administrators and soldiers, “I did not ever hesitate to tell them that the Indian Government had done good work here.”

Sixty years on, the settled populations of Tawang continue to echo his words — although the sounds are muffled by the threat of once again being caught in an India-China conflict. 

Sonia Trikha Shukla is Professor of Practice at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi

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