India: Great Protector of the Tibetan People

Delhi, India. Call me an Ugly American, but India has made great sacrifices to safeguard the Tibetan people and continues to protect them to this day at enormous cost against the Chinese, and I had neither understanding nor appreciation of their efforts. This was not covered in my high school history class.

1864_Mitchell_Map_of_India,_Tibet,_China_and_Southeast_Asia_-_Geographicus_-_India-mitchell-1864Map of China and Tibet in 1864 by Samuel Augustus Mitchell.

I have also recently learned that, further to the east, the British were repeatedly begged to help Tibet before the Chinese occupation of 1949 — even offering them Tibet — and the Brits with their hands full in Greater India basically sent someone to check it out on horse and decided not to bother.

The first situation began with “The Sino-Indian War” and took place about three years after Indian Prime Minister Nehru offered sanctuary to His Holiness the Dalai Lama who escaped persecution in Tibet and trekked across the wilderness with 80,000 of his followers in 1959, settling in three areas:

  1. Dharamshala (Province of Himachal Pradesh, so “Himalayan” in the north between Pakistan and Chinese Tibet). This is the mountaintop capital of the Tibetan Government in Exile and home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
  2. Tawang (Province of Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast corner jutting out, surrounded by Bhutan, Chinese Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh. At 10,000 feet and two days by jeep over the Se La Pass, this is part of Historic Tibet, once administered by the British as the “North East Frontier Agency.” This are was temporarily overrun by the Chinese in 1962.
  3. South India. Tibetans were relocated to various communities far away from Tibet in search of employment.

And then, sadly, India mistreated its own Chinese population. Seemingly, no nation is ever perfect…


The year 1962: the 2,000-mile border between China and India is remote to say the least, and the Brits had not really nailed it down during their colony. After Independence in 1947, India and Pakistan were separating (much to Gandhi’s disgust) along Hindu and Muslim lines. This partition included East Pakistan (becoming Muslim-majority Bangladesh in 1971).

India had its hands full internally and dealing with the border with China was not its priority. The border being shaky from the Brits, Indians perhaps focused on it even less. Interestingly, the border is almost the exact same length as ours with Mexico.

The British mapped India’s northern boundary in 1909, calling it the “Outer Line.” The government of China in 1917 published a postal map that was staggeringly different. Neither side seemed to pay much head to the other.

Along this border are small states such as Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. Sikkim was once an Indian protectorate, now an Indian province. Sikkim is central to this region, sandwiched between Chinese Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Indian province of West Bengal.

At its western end is the Aksai Chin region, an area the size of Switzerland, that sits between the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang and Tibet (which China declared as an autonomous region in 1965). Both its western end, Aksai Chin, and its eastern border between Burma and Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh (Tawang), were overrun by China in the 1962 conflict.

Are you with me so far? So, in 1959, at the same time the Dalai Lama escapes over the Himalayan mountain to India from Tibet, India initiated a ‘Forward Policy’ in which it placed outposts along the border, including several north of the McMahon Line, the eastern portion of the Line of Actual Control proclaimed by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959.

Nehru’s sanctuary of the Dalai Lama after a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet was said to have enraged Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist party. China’s Xinhua News Agency began to report on “Indian expansionists” operating in Tibet.

INDIA - CIRCA 1965: The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), the traditional religious and temporal head of Tibet's Buddhist clergy poses for a photo circa 1965 in India. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The Dalai Lama pictured in India circa 1965.

The Chinese were not only angry with India about the Dalai Lama, but also disagreed on these borders. They continued their westward expansion from Tibet into Historic Tibet which was in India (Braveheart: think how for centuries the English-Scottish border was moved back and forth through force and treaty). In 1962, the Chinese crossed the McMahon Line, overwhelming Indian troops in Chushul in the western theatre and Tawang in the eastern theatre. China quickly declared a ceasefire and withdrew to its claimed ‘line of actual control.’

Note that much of these battles took place in harsh mountain conditions, with large-scale combat at altitudes of over 15,000 feet (Mt. Fuji is 12,000 feet, by comparison). Many peaks are 23,000 feet and the Chinese Army had possession of one of the highest ridges in the regions. Many soldiers on both sides perished from the horrific weather conditions alone. Indian forces suffered heavy casualties, with dead Indian troops’ bodies being found in the ice, frozen with weapons in hand.


Coincidence or not, perhaps the main reason we do not know this significant story well is that it occurred at the exact same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All eyes were on JFK and Kruschev, not Nehru and Mao. Interestingly, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev defended Nehru in a meeting with Mao. The American Ambassador to India at this time was none other than John Kenneth Galbraith.

This border war and he international response reinforced China’s impression that the Soviet Union, the U.S. and India all had expansionist designs on China. China believed that India was simply securing its claim lines in order to continue its “grand plans in Tibet.” The People’s Liberation Army went so far as to prepare a self-defence counterattack plan.


The Kennedy administration was disturbed by what they considered “blatant Chinese communist aggression against India.” This was further triggered by Mao’s views that, “The way to world conquest lies through Havana, Accra, and Calcutta.” In 1963, in a U.S. National Security Council meeting, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recommended America use nuclear weapons if the Chinese attacked India again. America was wary that China wished to regain control of everything it considered “traditionally Chinese,” which in its view included the entirety of Southeast Asia.

Britain also agreed with the Indian position completely, with its foreign secretary stating, “We have taken the view of the government of India on the present frontiers and the disputed territories belong to India.”

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This 1962 war united India as never before. India lay claim to to 32,000 square miles of disputed territory. The new ‘non-aligned’ Indian republic had avoided international alignments; by asking for help during the war, India demonstrated its willingness to accept military aid from several sectors. And, finally, India recognized the serious weaknesses in its army. It would more than double its military manpower in the next two years and it would work hard to resolve the military’s training and logistic problems to later become the second-largest army in the world.

However, it came with a cost. As Indonesia had purged its Chinese (‘The Killing Fields”), with purportedly half a million massacred, India regrettably focused on internment and deportation of its Chinese population. Soon after the end of the war, the Indian government passed the Defence of India Act in December 1962, permitting the “apprehension and detention in custody of any person [suspected] of being of hostile origin.” The broad language of the act allowed for the arrest of any person simply for having a Chinese surname, Chinese ancestry or a Chinese spouse.

The Indian government incarcerated thousands of Chinese-Indians in an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, where they were held for years without trial. The last internees were not released until 1967. Thousands more Chinese-Indians were forcibly deported or coerced to leave India. Nearly all internees had their properties sold off or looted. Even after their release, the Chinese Indians faced many restrictions in their freedom. They could not travel freely until the mid-1990s.


  1. The Dalai Lama & Dr. Kazuko: A 47-Year Friendship
  2. Tibetan Children’s Village: Step One to Success
  3. India: Great Protector of the Tibetan People
  4. With Incredible Tibetan Orphans, Reflecting on How I Got Here
  5. Meet Japanese Grandmother of Tibetan Orphanage in India
  6. Lama Thupten Phuntsok: Tibetan Monk’s Life Outside Monastery 
  7. First Trip to Tibetan Orphanage High in Himalayas
  8. Dharamshala for Americans: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Hometown
  9. Himalayas: From India/Pakistan to Bhutan & Nepal + Chinese Tibet
  10. Himalayas: Once Greater Tibet, Now Tragically Divided 
  11. Meet American Lobsang Sangay, President of Tibet
  12. Dr. Kazuko: Planning Nine Orphanages Globally Through Gaia
  13. Viewpoint: Whatever Faith Tradition, It’s All About Kindness
  14. Orphanage Burns in Indonesia; Matt Luce Pledges to Rebuild
  15. At Fifty, I Gave Away My Wealth; at Sixty, My Possessions
  16. Autumn Elegant Evening to Highlight Charity Efforts Around World
  17. New Look: Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness at Tenth Year
  18. Luce Leadership Experience Looks to Israel after Greece, Indonesia Trips
  19. Charities at Twenty Confer Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Kazuko
  20. New Look: Orphans International Website Refreshed for 20th Anniversary


  1. On Pilgrimage: Following the Footsteps of Buddha Across N.E. India
  2. Under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya Where the Prince Became The Buddha
  3. Photo Essay of Bodh Gaya, Where Buddha Became Enlightened
  4. Next Step of Indian Pilgrimage: Vultures’ Peak Where Buddha Preached
  5. Touching the Untouchable in a Rural Indian Village
  6. Rediscovering the World’s First Great University in Buddhist India
  7. Buddhism for Beginners: Insights from a Non-Buddhist
  8. Buddhism and the Universal Concept of Social Responsibility
  9. Help Me to Support Education & Orphan Care in Bihar, India
  10. Most-Photographed Man in the World Prepares to Retire
  11. Yoshimitsu Nagasaka Photo Exclusive: The Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya
  12. Varanasi: Holy City of Buddhists – As Well as Hindus, Jainists, Jews
  13. On the Banks of the Ganges: Reflections of a Journey in Time
  14. My Pilgrimage Complete: Life Continues Like a Wheel
  15. Pilgrimage Postscript: Pneumonia and Possible T.B.


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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce ( writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (, he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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