From Indian Territory To Chinese Control: The Curious Case Of Menser
Amid the ongoing standoff in eastern Ladakh, singularly foisted due to Chinese aggression to grab Indian territory and push the Line of Actual Control in the western sector further westward, here’s an account of a cluster of villages located near Mount Kailash that were once part of Ladakh but have been under Chinese jurisdiction for decades now. How did it happen? Why is India still silent about it? Here’s an edited extract from a chapter written by former Indian diplomat P. Stobdan from a recently published book edited by former civil servant Shakti Sinha.
NEW DELHI: Indian citizens know little about Menser which is a part of Ladakh. It is a cluster of villages in Ngari-Khor-Sum or the Guge Kingdom in western Tibet, located near Mount Kailash. The area was part of Ladakh during the reign of King Singge Namgyal (1570–1642) when he ruled over all of western Tibet—covering Rudok, Guge, Kailash and Purang up to the Nepal border junction. The Tingmosgang Treaty (1684) allowed Ladakh its right to govern the villages in Menser for: a) to have a transit place for Indian traders and pilgrims to Mount Kailash, and b) to meet the expenses of religious offerings to the sacred Mount Kailash. The treaty also confirmed delimitation of the Tibet–Ladakh boundary at Demchok, as well as trade regulations between Ladakh and Tibet.
Since 1846, the Maharajas of Jammu & Kashmir also followed the obligations of the 1684 treaty and collected tax from Menser villagers. For over 300 years, the enclaves of Menser and Darchen-Labrang served as key outposts for India and Bhutan for defence and trade and for pilgrims visiting Mount Kailash. Both countries exercised full administrative jurisdiction and collected annual tributes from their respective enclaves until the 1960s.
According to John Bray (a British Ladakhlogist), ‘Ladakhi and Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet’, the Wazir of Ladakh, Mehta Basti Ram, collected Rs 56 as revenue from Menser in 1853. The collection had gone up to Rs 297 in 1905. According to Indian censuses in 1911 and 1921, Menser had forty-four houses, eighty-seven males and seventy-three females. The final settlement report of Jammu & Kashmir in 1958 showed Menser among 110 villages in Ladakh Tehsil. Among the official Jammu & Kashmir revenue collectors from Leh were Dr Kanshi Ram, British trade agent (1939), Tsetan Phuntsog (1941), Abdul Wahid Radhu (1942), Lumberdar of Rupshu, Sonam Khansar of Leh and many others who continued to visit Menser until 1962.
In 1992, Sonam Khansar, a former Ladakhi official, told this author that the annual tribute to the Maharaja consisted of sixty sheep, twenty goats, six yaks and sixty lambskins, besides Rs 60 towards the travelling expenses of the officials. More details can be found in the ‘Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements Signed between the Governments of India and China’ White Paper IV for the period September 1959–March 1960, published by the MEA, Government of India. It appeared that officials of Jammu & Kashmir had stopped going to Menser after the Indo-Pak War of 1965, but it is now becoming apparent that India actually stopped exercising sovereign rights over Menser in the early 1950s, and that too discreetly.
Interestingly, Tibetologist Claude Arpi in his articles ‘Little Bhutan in Tibet’ and ‘One Country Which Has Not Been Nice’, said, ‘Nehru, wanting to be nice and have his Panchsheel Agreement signed, had unilaterally renounced all Indian “colonial” rights over smaller principalities including the Indian estate of Menser in 1953.’ Arpi says Nehru, though, knew about the Maharaja of Kashmir’s suzerainty over Menser, but felt uneasy about this Indian possession near Mount Kailash—hence, he surrendered it as a ‘gesture of goodwill towards Communist China’.
Arpi says Nehru’s instructions to Indian negotiators on the Panchsheel accord signed in Beijing were as follows: ‘Regarding the village of Minsar in Western Tibet, which has belonged to the Kashmir State, it is clear that we shall have to give it up, if this question is raised. We need not raise it. If it is raised, we should say that we recognise the strength of the Chinese contention and we are prepared to consider it and recommend it.’ At the same time, however, Nehru added, ‘We should not come to a final agreement without gaining the formal assent of the Kashmir government.’ Clearly, the Bhutanese enclaves of Darchen-Labrang in Tibet also met with the same fate.
Nehru’s ‘goodwill gesture’ theory cannot be substantiated, though most critics have blamed him for the situation India found itself in with China. No clear answer is found as to why India had to keep mum on the territory located near Mount Kailash that was jointly owned by Jammu & Kashmir and Bhutan. Menser was critical for India’s forward defence, especially to offset the Chinese threat to India’s Himalayan frontiers.
Tibetan Claim Over The Indian Himalayan Regions
Instead, barely after two months of India’s independence, Nehru was shocked to receive two telegrams from Tibetan Government in Lhasa asking India to return the ‘lost territories’ of Tibet. The telegram (dated October 16, 1947) forwarded through Indian Mission in Lhasa, asking India for the return of alleged (lost) Tibetan territories on boundaries of India and Tibet “such as Sayul and Walong and in direction of Pemakoe, Lonag, Lapa, Mon, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and others on this side of river Ganges and Lowo, Ladakh etc. up to boundary of Yarkhim.”
Nehru unequivocally rejected these claims and advised Tibetan authorities to maintain the status quo until new agreements could be reached out on the matters. Tibetan claim over Indian territories marked a decisive turn in India’s view on Tibet. B.N. Mullick, then IB Chief, wrote in his book ‘My Years with Nehru – the Chinese Betrayal’ that it was an “ill-advised claim” by the Tibetan authorities. On the contrary, New Delhi’s expectation was that Tibet would accept independent India’s call for ratifying the Simla Convention or the McMahon Line Treaty signed on 3 July 1914, which would have defined Tibet’s own political status. But, Lhasa Government seemingly rejected that.
India was finally relieved when the Dalai Lama’s representatives signed the 17-point agreement with Chinese authorities on 23 May 1951 affirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. It was only after this India signed the Peace Treaty on 29 April 1954 which explicitly recognized Tibet as part of China.
Nehru’s decision to cede Indian principality (Menser) probably stemmed from his dilemma whether to follow the old customary treaties or the British conventions for resetting boundaries with China. Nehru feared being called an “imperialist” if he had opted for the British colonial rights, but continuing with the old treaties could have inadvertently complicated the Indo-Tibetan frontiers settlement especially when Tibetan Government was reasserting its claims over territories from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Nehru thus decided in favour of foregoing Indian and Bhutanese rights over enclaves inside Tibet, but there is no mention about him raising territorial discrepancies along Sikkim-Tibet border and Bhutan-Tibet border or Doklam (tri-junction) in 1950s.
India, therefore, may have preferred to opt for continuing with the British policy of accepting suzerain and not sovereign status for Tibet, with one of the underlying objectives to check Tibetan irredentist claims over the Indian Himalayas. That is why India probably decided not to push the Tibetan question in the United Nations beyond the preliminaries, thus leading to a natural death of the issue. Moreover, the British government’s advice then was that neither India nor any external power could prevent the Chinese takeover of Tibet.
Nehru started to challenge Beijing’s motives, barely five years after the 1954 Panchsheel Treaty was signed, when China appeared set to ‘betray’ him. Nehru was terribly distressed after receiving Zhou Enlai’s letter of 8 September 1959 that described the McMahon Line as a product of the British policy of aggression on a weak Tibet. Zhou also claimed an additional 40,000 square miles of Indian territory; accused India of using all sorts of pressure tactics including using force on China; raised the issue of China’s non-ratification in 1842 of the Tibet–Ladakh border; and reminded Nehru of Lhasa’s 1947 correspondence claiming the return of territories.
Nehru deeply resented the allegation that India was seeking to benefit from British aggression against China. In his reply, he wrote, ‘The Government of India voluntarily renounced all the extra-territorial rights enjoyed by Britain in Tibet before 1947 and recognised by Treaty that Tibet is a region of China.’ Clearly, Nehru’s misjudgement finally resulted in China calling the McMahon Line an imperialist fabrication, hence ‘illegal’. The turnaround in Nehru’s position against China’s provocations has reflected in India’s reassertion over issues relating to the Sikkim and Bhutan boundaries especially pertaining to Bhutanese rights in Tibet but not over India’s legal rights in Menser.
The 1961 ‘Report of the Government of India and the Republic of India on the Boundary Question (Part 3)’, published by the MEA mentions among others that ‘Chinese officials have illegally dispossessed the designated authorities of the Government of Bhutan in the following eight villages situated in western Tibet over which Bhutan has been exercising administrative jurisdiction for more than 300 years which included the villages of Khangri, Tarchen, Tsekhor, Diraphu, Dzung Tuphu, Jangehe, Chakip and Kocha. ‘Bhutanese officers governed these villages, collected taxes from them and administered justice. Tibetan authorities consistently recognised that these villages belonged to the Bhutan Government. ‘At the request of the State of Bhutan the Government of India in their notes of 19 August 1959 and 20 August 1959 have represented to the Chinese Government to restore the rightful authority of the Bhutan Government over their enclaves.’
Status Of Menser
India’s rights over Menser is found mentioned in the 1961 official report that provides a full account, including India’s historical, administrative and revenue records since the time the five villages near Mansarovar came under the Kashmir maharaja’s jurisdiction. But the report surprisingly did not mention India’s sovereign claim over Menser in the same manner as India did asking the Chinese government ‘to restore the rightful authority of the Bhutan Government over their enclaves’ through its ‘Notes’ on 19 and 20 August 1959.
We do not as yet know the full story regarding Nehru’s discreet surrender of Menser to China, but some pertinent questions surrounding the case should still be raised even if they are of only academic relevance.
First, if the Tibetans and Chinese authorities acknowledged Ladakh/Kashmir and Bhutan holding certain rights in the Mount Kailash area, why did India pre-decide to hand over those rights to China?
Second, on record, Beijing apparently did not challenge Indian sovereign rights over Menser, and neither did India raise the issue in talks with China in 1953–54. So does Menser legally still belong to India?
Third, Menser’s surrender was neither referred to Srinagar nor was it ratified by the Indian Parliament. Members of Parliament from the Ladakh constituency have been seeking in vain a clarification relating to Menser since 1982 in the Lok Sabha. Till date, no convincing answer has come from the government. Was it a case of self-betrayal for which the government still owes an answer to the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh?
Fourth, if the Government of India was the competent authority to take up matters concerning Bhutan’s territory, what prevented India from raising its own issue regarding Menser with Beijing?
Fifth, having decided to forego the enclaves, why did the Government of India not ever seek any compensation payable to Ladakh/Kashmir and Bhutan?
Clearly, the fate of these enclaves has not been negotiated or settled legally so far. As John Bray wrote, ‘The status of Minsar (Menser) is no more than a minor footnote to these concerns, but one that has still to be cleared up.’ Therefore, the Menser question should not be considered by India to be entirely closed. Strangely, not only the Chinese but even the Dalai Lama has so far remained silent on the status of Menser and the Darchen–Labrang enclaves.
We must note that China in 2015 insisted on opening Nathu La instead of Demchok as an alternative pilgrimage route to Mansarovar. Beijing had done this ostensibly to put to rest any future discussion on the Menser and Darchen–Labrang enclaves located near Mount Kailash, knowing very well that they held great spiritual, emotional and political significance to Indian and Bhutanese pilgrims. Importantly, the Chinese assert their claim to Tawang based on the argument that the Sixth Dalai Lama was born there and the Tibetans paid obeisance to the sacred monastery for centuries and hence they cannot be parted. By the same analogy, Menser and Darchen-Labrang along with eight other monasteries owned respectively by Ladakh and Bhutan were visited by their people for pilgrimages to Mount Kailash (Gangs Rinpoche) or holy abode of Lord Shiva (Chang-chub-chen-mo) for centuries; hence they cannot be parted and swept away. It is much more holy for the Indians.
Importantly again, India needs to remain cautious about China possibly claiming in future people and places in Ladakh based on the argument that Lama Staksang Repa (Stagsang Respa), the sole legal owner/caretaker of the Hemis monastery, was a Chinese national. Hemis continues to hold legal ownership to large amounts of Ladakh’s agricultural land. Critically, key Indian monasteries in Ladakh have already fallen into the hands of high-ranking Tibetan (refugee) lamas and this could entail long-term implications for India.
In addition to the Menser enclave, China is today sitting on a 38,000 square km area of Aksai-Chin and a 5000 square km area of Shaksgam. Quite clearly, Chinese are intruding beyond the original LAC defined in 1959 and have pushed westward. The Chinese on-ground assertion in Depsang, Trig-Height, Hot-Spring, Chushul, Spanguur, Demchok and Chumar continues unabated. The latest assertion has been in Pangong Lake and in the Galwan Valley.
Pushing for a formal settlement in the western sector, where it has nothing to lose could be one of China’s objectives. A smart Chinese move seems to be to let India, in the first step, forego its claim over the 38,000 square km area of Aksai Chin, thereby de-linking Ladakh or the Jammu & Kashmir sector from the overall boundary dispute. By doing so, China intends to remove the Aksai Chin, Shaksgam and Menser areas from the dispute. A similar trick was applied while settling China’s borders with three Central Asian states in recent times. Ceding Aksai Chin would then alter the status of Jammu & Kashmir and would mean by implication, cede Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan.
Once India falls for the ‘magnanimous’ Chinese position over Aksai Chin, Beijing will shift focus to Arunachal, considered by it as South Tibet. They would then emphatically convey that India was occupying 90,000 square km of Chinese territory, but state that Tawang is ‘non-negotiable’ in a final settlement of the border issue. China’s ‘minimal demand’ has been aired through unofficial and academic channels. This ‘minimal demand’ tactic worked profitably in China’s favour in Central Asia.
Now that the Chinese have reopened the Doklam and Ladakh issues, it is an opportune time for India and Bhutan to talk more loudly on Menser and Darchen–Labrang in addition to Aksai Chin and Shaksgam under the illegal occupation of China. Menser cannot be seen in isolation from the issue of PoK and the launch of CPEC by China. If India’s sovereign claim over PoK, including Gilgit-Baltistan, hitherto in diplomatic abeyance, has been given a renewed impetus, why not Menser? The reopening of the hitherto forgotten question of Menser and enforcing a residual sovereign claim by India over it is rather difficult. But Menser is historically, emotionally and commercially more important for Ladakh when compared to Aksai Chin.
India’s strategy should also enable it to push to restore the web of historical, spiritual and commercial links with the Kailash-Mansarovar region. If nothing else, it would help deter China’s claiming of Tawang and other places in India on the basis of religious affiliations.
The Tibet issue is important for India. But it is not about the issue of Tibetan independence but about freeing the sacred Kailash-Mansarovar from Chinese control.
(Edited excerpts of chapter ‘India-China Relations: Ladakhi and Dogra Claims in China’ from the book titled ‘One Mountain Two Tigers: India China and The High Himalayas’, edited by Shakti Sinha and published this year.)