The years 1954 through 1959 were perhaps the most damaging ones in the history of India-China-Tibet relationship. The infamous ‘Panchsheel’ agreement was signed in 1954. The propaganda unleashed by the government of India, upon the Indian people themselves, immediately after signing of this treaty, was designed to fool Indian population into believing that India’s ill-advised appeasement of communist China was in the interest of long term ‘Hindi-Cheeni-Bhai-Bhai’ (eternal friendship between India and China). Throughout this 5-year period, Indian government had received numerous intelligence inputs from different sources, pointing to the tremendous danger Indian and Tibet had faced from Chinese imperialism and ominous Chinese PLA build-up in Tibet. All were suppressed. Throughout this period, the Chinese PLA had made numerous incursion into Indian territory, almost all of which were hushed up by the Nehru government. Indian government had worked overtime to stop Indian army from collecting any intelligence about overall Chinese designs and specific Chinese activities in Tibet. This is when India had allowed Chinese PLA intelligence officers to operate inside India! China had constructed their ‘Western Highway’, connecting Tibet with Xinjiang, through India’s Aksai Chin area. This highway was opened to traffic in 1957. Indian government knew all along about this dangerous development, but did nothing to stop it, and worse still, hid this from the Indian parliament and people. The strain in their relationship could not be hidden any longer when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. The lid on this devious propaganda fog blew over. However, the damage had already been done. Chinese communists had used this 5-year period to significantly consolidate their military prowess in Tibet, threatening India ominously and crushing the terribly oppressed Tibetan people. India and Tibet still pay for India’s criminal negligence of fundamental statecraft during this period.
One bizarre example of this was, when, in 1956, two British mountaineers, and their young Nepalese liaison officer, had emerged from Tibet, after being imprisoned by the Chinese PLA inside Tibet, with invaluable intelligence, pointing to approximate Chinese PLA strength in Tibet, as well as the likely date of completion of Xinjiang-Tibet highway. The leader of the expedition, late Shri Sydney Wignall, was the only one who knew anything about the intelligence operation, with his companions being completely in dark. Patriotic Indian army officers, led by General K S Thimayya, had tried very hard to convince Indian government about the Chinese threat, based on this, and other, intelligence inputs. Vindictive and ambitious V K Krishna Menon had viciously attacked the messenger and prevented Pt. Nehru from acting on this information.
I am indebted to late Shri Sydney Wignall and his memorable book “Spy on the roof of world”. I will quote extensively from this book. The cover photograph of this article shows Wignall in base-camp located in Western Nepal.
In early 1950’s, Wignall founded a mountaineering expedition club in Welsh, his home state in Britain. He and friends looked for a suitable mountain to climb. They intended to leave a legacy and thought of climbing a mountain area hitherto unexplored. Upon many deliberations, they finally zeroed in on Gurla Mandhata, which fell in Tibet. They had not received permission from the Chinese communist government. Then, they contacted reputed mountaineering experts such as Col. Harry Tobin, and decided on climbing in Western Nepal Himalaya. At this point, Col. Tobin introduced Wignall to an Indian army officer, posted at that time as part of Indian diplomatic staff in India’s London embassy. This contact, referred to as ‘Singh’, had explained Wignall about the intelligence fog that the Nehru government had created with respect to Tibet and communist China. He also gave him an idea of climbing Gurla Mandhata clandestinely, via west Nepal. He also requested to bring back intelligence information on what the Chinese were up to, in Tibet. Wignal was not to receive any payment for this intelligence gathering activity, neither did he ask for. He agreed, for the love of India and Tibet, especially for the love of Indian army, which institution he had held in very high regard. Wignall kept this a secret. In 1955, he and his team of mountaineers traveled from Welsh in Britain, to India, via road. Then they traveled to West Nepal. Their mountaineering plans were badly impacted by inclement weather. However, Wignall, his close friend John Frederick Harrop, and their young Nepalese Liaison officer Damodar Narayan Suyal, had proceeded to climb Gurla Mandhata. They were captured by the Chinese PLA in a place called Jung Jung Khola, which was in Western Nepal, but China had aggressive designs on this place too, and were patrolling this area. For two months, Chinese PLA had imprisoned them in Taklakot. During their imprisonment, PLA officers had tried very hard to break the will of Wignall, Harrop and Damodar, and get their confession of them being spies on the payroll of CIA. PLA was not successful. During this two-month long imprisonment, Wignall and friends witnessed the bestiality of PLA, persecution of Tibetans and the immense pressure Chinese occupation was causing on Tibetan economy. They also befriended one PLA soldier, from whom they gathered important intelligence information on when the Xinjiang-Tibet highway would be completed. The information was correct, the highway was indeed completed in 1957. With the help of John F Harrop’s keen observation and sharp mind, Wignall was also able to accurately estimate Chinese PLA strength in the areas around Taklakot. He had secretly made notes and concealed these in his inflatable sleeping bag.
British government had raised very serious objection about China imprisoning peaceful mountaineers. Indian government also had quietly helped Britain, by negotiating with the Chinese government, about the release of the mountaineers. However, PLA officers had, in their fit of incompetence, divulged China’s claim to Nepal, Sikkim, Ladakh, Bhutan and NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) to Wignall. Now, Chinese PLA was in a fix. They did not want to release Wignall and team. However, they had to release, due to the fear of seriously antagonizing the western powers. So, they decided to let Wignall and party return from Tibet, to Nepal, via the dangerous Urai Lekh pass, in winter. Crossing Urai Lekh pass and the gorge of Seti river, in winter, was considered impossible. Locals never tried to brave Urai Lekh pass in winter. Chinese had expected that Wignall and party would not survive this ordeal. Hence, while they could claim that mountaineers were released, mountaineers would never reach Nepal alive. However, Wignall, Harrop and Damodar had, in spite of going through tremendous hardship in winter, in such inhospitable terrain, survived, and reached Nepal. There they were able to contact Indian army detachment of Gurkha soldiers, and finally were able to reach India.
In India, Wignall’s secret contact was Indian army officer, late Shri B N Mehta (who later died in the 1962 war imposed by China on India). Wignal passed on the intelligence information, and profoundly thanked by this brave and patriotic officer. Indian army tried to knock sense in the thick skulls of India’s political masters, including India’s illustrious Prime Minister, Pt. Nehru, who was so busy in preaching peace to the world, that he had no time for India’s security, or survival of unfortunate Tibetan people. It did not work. When China invaded India in 1962, Indian army’s preparedness was abysmal, a sad account of which can be read in the book ‘Himalayan Blunder’ written by late Brig. John P Dalvi. Wignall was berated by the leftist press of India, who denounced him. Wignall was treated poorly by the Indian civilian government officials for his foray into Tibet. However, the select few officers of the Indian army, who were in the know, respected Wignall profoundly, for his service to India, out of sheer love of Tibet and India.
It is hoped that Indian governments of the future do not shoot the messenger, do not repeat the criminal negligence of national security, and do not demonstrate inconsiderate attitude towards the Tibetan people, that Pt. Nehru’s government had done.