How Sirima Bandaranaike Tried to Mediate Between India and China During 1962 Indo-China War

By P. K. Balachandran

Fifty years ago, in November-December 1962, Ceylon’s Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, made a brave and stupendous effort to settle the intractable border dispute between Asian giants China and India – a dispute, which was marked by a month-long ‘brutal and callous war’, to use the words of India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The efforts of six non-aligned countries, headed by Ceylon, were appreciated by both the warring parties, but the gulf between the two was so wide, that it could not be bridged, and the dispute remains unresolved to this day.

However, the non-aligned group comprising Ceylon, the United Arab Republic (Egypt), Ghana, Indonesia, Burma and Cambodia, could derive satisfaction from the fact that their moral authority had prevented China and India from engaging in hostilities during the past 50 years.

The war, which broke out on 20 October, 1962, ended on 21 November, with the Chinese occupying the Chip Chap River Valley, Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake in Ladakh in the Western Sector bordering Sinkiang and Tibet. Tawang, Thagla Ridge, Dhola Pass (Che Dong for the Chinese) and Walong in India’s North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) had also been over-run. By 21 November, the Chinese had come 160 km into NEFA, and were threatening Tezpur in Assam.

October 24 proposal

On 24 October and 4 November, Chinese Premier Chou-En-Lai had proposed a three point peace plan. The plan envisaged a 20 km withdrawal by both sides from the Line of Actual Control (LOAC); military disengagement; and talks between himself and Indian Prime Minister Nehru. But Nehru rejected the offer and insisted that the withdrawal should be to positions held before 8 September, 1962 when the Chinese first attacked and took Dhola, precipitating a full-scale war.

Despite the distressing news from the front, Nehru declared: “India will fight to the end. We are taking all possible help from friendly countries and there is no limit at all for such help.” He said he had asked for ‘massive military aid’ from the US and UK. But Nehru’s lurch towards the West irked China. Chou-En-Lai warned against the ‘internationalization’ of the border war.

Ceasefire stipulations

On 21 November, China unilaterally declared a ceasefire. It announced that it would withdraw its troops 20 km from the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) by which it meant the LOAC as of 7 November, 1959.

China stipulated that Indians should not go up to the ‘illegal’ McMahon Line in the Eastern Sector. They should keep a clear 20 km distance from the line. India should not reoccupy Walong, a major base in that sector. In the Western Sector, India should withdraw 20 km and not try to get back to the Chip Chap River Valley, the Galwan River Valley and the Pangong Lake. India was told not to re-establish any of the 43 ‘strong points’ it had set up in the Western Sector prior to the war. In the Middle Sector, India was told to keep clear of Wuje. It was warned against seeking the help of the ‘imperialist’ West. The ceasefire declaration said that Chinese troops would begin withdrawing from 1 December onwards, but would stop and ‘hit back’ if the Indians failed to observe any of the stipulations.

Rejecting the humiliating conditions, Nehru declared that India did not propose to negotiate, unless the Chinese forces went back to the LOAC which existed before 8 September, 1962. “Events since 8 September, 1962, have completely shattered any hope that anyone would have entertained about settling the India-China differences peacefully in accordance with normal principles observed by all civilized governments,” Nehru said. He declared that “India would never submit, whatever the consequences, and however long and hard the struggle may be.”

On their part, the Chinese argued that if the 8 September, 1962 line was accepted as the LOAC, 6000 sq km of Chinese territory would be in Indian hands. China rejected Nehru’s stipulation.

However, on 23 November, India ordered its troops ‘not to take any provocative action.’ But efforts to build up its military strength continued. Coming to New Delhi post haste were the US Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Averill Harriman; the British Under Secretary for the Commonwealth, John Tilney; and the Chief of the General Staff of the British army, Gen. Sir Richard Hull. The Soviets, who were initially pro-Chinese, also swung to the Indian side, with the announcement that they would sell MiG fighters to India.

Sirimavo swings into action

Alarmed by the standoff and the threat of a ‘world war’ with the US and UK openly supporting India politically and militarily, Ceylon’s Prime Minister Bandaranaike called for an ‘informal’ meeting of Non-Aligned countries.

In letters sent to the UAR, Ghana, Burma, Cambodia and Indonesia, she said: “The grave international situation arising from the present state of the Sino-Indian Border Conflict, in my view, requires immediate and concerted attention to influence the Governments of India and China to avert the outbreak of a world war. I have been in communication with the Prime Ministers of India and China and I am aware that several other Prime Ministers of other non-aligned countries have made similar approaches, but it seems to me that individual efforts have not met with much success. It is therefore, extremely urgent that Heads of State/Prime Ministers of such non-aligned countries, as may be able to assist in influencing India and China should, if possible, meet and consult one another and decide upon an immediate joint appeal to India and China. I propose, therefore, for your urgent consideration, an immediate informal meeting of the Heads of State and Prime Ministers of UAR, Indonesia, Ghana, Burma, Cambodia and Ceylon, in the capital city of any one of these countries. If that is possible, I should be happy to suggest Colombo as the venue of such a meeting. I shall be glad to have your views if there are other non-aligned countries, who in your view, should be invited to such a meeting. I propose that the meeting should be held at the latest possible moment, and I suggest the first week of December. I shall be grateful to have an immediate reply.”

Bandaranaike got favourable responses from the UAR, Indonesia, Burma, Ghana and Cambodia, and it was agreed that the meeting should take place in Colombo from 10 to 12 December.

Lakshmi Menon’s visit

In the first week of December, India sent a mission headed by the Deputy Minister for External Affairs, Lakshmi Menon, to Colombo to explain its stand. Menon told the Ceylonese PM that between 1957 and 1962, the Chinese had overrun 14,000 sq miles (22,530 sq km) of Indian territory, out of which 6,000 sq miles (9,656 sq km) had been taken by 9 September, 1962, and a further 2,000 sq miles (3,218 sq km) by 21 November, 1962. Post ceasefire Chinese maps displayed in world capitals showed 36, 000 sq miles (57,936 sq km) of NEFA and 12,000 sq miles (19,312 sq km) of Ladakh, as being part of China.

Menon pointed out, that the Chinese Line of Actual Control (LOAC) was a ‘shifting line’, and that India and China had different notions of the line as of 7 November, 1959. Giving the rationale for seeking a return to the 8 September, 1962 line, she said that it was more ‘determinate’, though by no means advantageous to India.

Colombo Conference Proposals

On 12 December, 1962, the six-non-aligned group came out with the following proposals, called the Colombo Conference Proposals (CCP):

1. The conference considers the existing de-facto ceasefire, a good starting point for a peaceful settlement of the India-China conflict.

2. With regard to the ‘Western Sector’, the conference would like to make an appeal to the Chinese Government to carry out the 20 kilometre withdrawal of its military posts from the LOAC as of 7 November, 1959, as defined in maps III and V circulated by China.

The existing military posts which the forces of the Government of India will keep, will be on, and up to, the line as of 7 November, 1959. The demilitarized zone of 20 km created by Chinese Military withdrawals will be administered by civilian posts of ‘both sides’.

3.With regard to the ‘Eastern Sector’, the Indian Forces can move up to the South of the McMahon Line , except in two areas, namely, Che Dong (Dhola), Thagla Ridge and Longju, over which there is difference of opinion between India and China.

4. In the ‘Middle Sector’ the status quo should be maintained.

The CCP made it clear these measures were only meant to enable China and India to begin talks to finally settle the boundary dispute, and that the suggestions were not meant to prejudice the final settlement.

India accepts in toto not China

While India accepted the proposals in toto, China said it agreed ‘in principle’ but not in toto. In its reaction dated 6 January, 1963, China said: “Since the conflict occurred in both the Eastern and Western Sectors, the same principle of withdrawal should apply to all sectors. In no case should one side be called upon to withdraw, and the other side allowed to advance. If there should disengagement, this should be done all along the entire Sino-Indian Boundary and not just in one of the sectors.” The Colombo proposals had allowed India to advance up to the McMahon Line, which China had dubbed as an ‘illegal’ border.

However, China unilaterally made a concession. It said it would withdraw from Che Dong (Dhola), Longju, and Wuji .It would set up only seven civilian posts in Ladakh. But there was a condition – India should not set up any military or civilian posts in the vacated areas.

On 12 January, 1963, India rejected the Chinese proposals as they had ignored the Colombo Conference’s stipulation that the administration of the demilitarized areas of the Western Sector should be carried out by civilian posts of ‘both the sides’.

Six months later, in August 1963, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, one of the chief negotiators on the Ceylonese Side, admitted that there was a deadlock, a deadlock which India and China are yet to break. But Ceylon could draw comfort from the fact that its efforts had prevented the renewal of hostilities.


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