Doing Time With Nehru
The India-China Border War of 1962 — a brief background
Before 1962, the Indian government and native Indians generally did not resent the Chinese in India. Their numbers were small and they had little political power. The Chinese were also willing to work in jobs the Indians didn’t want and as a group did not present a threat. After India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, and the Chinese Communists established a new regime in China in 1949, these emerging nations shared a common bond and envisioned a new Asia with a close alliance between the two countries.
The decade 1950-59 was known as the “Nehru–Chou En Lai Honeymoon” period. The popular phrase during that time was “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” which meant “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” The Indian government was one of the first to recognize the PRC as the new legitimate government, and encouraged Chinese living in India to register for citizenship with the PRC. The honeymoon period was short-lived, however, and soon deteriorated with the increasing tension between the two countries over border territory. This disagreement came to the forefront in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s, culminating in a border war in 1962. Though the war lasted only a month, the residual affects on the relations between the two countries have lasted several decades. Likewise, the Chinese living in India suffered a great deal as a result of this conflict. The steady increase of Chinese immigration came to a halt because of the deteriorating relationship between the two governments, and the Chinese began to emigrate from India to seek stability and a home elsewhere.
The total length of the border between India and China is about 2,500 miles. It was never defined or officially drawn up. Over the centuries the Chinese government had always considered these border territories between India and China as belonging to Tibet, and ultimately, under its domain. In the late 1800’s the British. saw Russia and China as emerging competing powers and were eager to create buffer zones to protect their encroachment into India. The border areas fall into three sections: Western, Central, and Eastern.
The Western sector spans about 1000 miles, from Afghanistan to Nepal. The disputed area in this section is about 15,000 square miles, which includes part of the Ladakh desert region known as the Aksai Chin. It was declared British (Indian) territory in the 1860’s however, China has never recognized this claim.
The Middle sector included the three Himalayan Kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. Though there are nearly 400 miles of disputed border in this sector, no actual fighting took place there during the 1962 conflict.
The Eastern sector of these border regions spans about 700 miles along the Himalayan crest between Bhutan and Burma. The Indians called this area approximately 32,000-35,000 square miles, the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). The Chinese and Tibetans have always recognized this area as part of Tibet.
In 1913 the British in India presented the McMahon Line, which basically pushed British territory from the foothills of Assam all the way to the Himalayan Crest. The government of China has never recognized the McMahon Line as legitimate because she felt she had not officially signed the document. Most of the fighting in the 1962 war took place in this disputed territory.
There were a number of reasons that caused the claims and arguments of the border to come to the forefront.
The Chinese began building a road from Xinjiang to Tibet which spanned approximately 100 miles through Aksai Chin, which was the start of many skirmishes between the two nations. When China (PRC) took control in 1950, Tibet declared its independence and China responded by invading Tibet. To India, this was further aggravation in Sino-Indian relations and a threat towards its government. As the Tibetan rebellion spread, China launched a full-scale assault on Tibet in 1959, squelched the rebellion, and took full control of the region. India immediately offered the Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetan refugees political asylum. China saw this gesture as a direct attack on its government.
These combined factors abruptly ended the decade-long honeymoon period between the two countries. When China took over control of Tibet, India became increasingly uneasy about China’s encroachment and sent troops to the disputed borders to protect its claims. China did the same. There were continued arguments and attempted negotiations over the border. Between 1960-62 there was a steady buildup of troop patrols on both sides in Aksai Chin and NEFA. A number of small skirmishes took place where each side lost lives, but no compromise could be reached. On October 20, 1962 China and India went to war.
Internment of Chinese-Indians
Immediately after the war started hundreds of ethnic Chinese living along the border were arrested arbitrarily and eventually sent off to an internment camp in the Rajasthan desert. A month after the war started, with the loss of many lives on both sides, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and the war ended. They were satisfied for the moment that it had reached the lines of the border they claimed. Although the war ended after a month, many Chinese remained interned for up to five years. One of the fallouts resulting from the border war was anti-Chinese legislation, which included the Foreigners Law Act passed in November 26, 1962 and Foreigners Order issued in January 14, 1963.
The definition of foreigner was “any person who had either parents, or grandparents, that was at anytime a citizen or subject of any country at war with, or committing external aggression against India.” The Act restricted the freedom of movement of people of Chinese descent by requiring them to carry a permit whenever they left their registered address for more than twenty-four hours.
The Foreigners Order, required ethnic Chinese to carry a permit at all times to live in, or even enter, particular restricted areas near the border in the State of Assam and some districts of West Bengal like Darjeeling and Kalimpong, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab. Many Chinese who were residents of these restricted areas were forced from their homes. After the Foreigners Order was issued, life became very difficult for ethnic Chinese living in India. Those that were able to leave emigrated to other parts of the world, mostly to Canada, the United States and Australia, and never looked back. Today, there are only a few thousand ethnic Chinese who remain in India. Those who were born after 1950 were finally granted citizenship in 1998; those born before 1950 are still waiting for theirs.