Lt Col Arthur Henry McMahon was formally nominated to represent the British government at the Simla Conference. With the rank of “secretary” in the foreign department of the British Government of India, McMahon was “empowered to sign any Convention, Agreement or Treaty, which may be concluded at the Conference”.

As a young captain, he had spent two years demarcating the Durand Line that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan today. He was moulded “in the furnace of responsibility and the anvil of self-reliance and relished the creation and laying down of boundaries”. His task at the Simla Conference, however, was neither enjoyable nor easy.

...China, wary of a Britain-Tibet deal, took a while to announce their representative or plenipotentiary for the Simla Conference. Eventually, when they did so, the Chinese first stated that Ivan Chen, an experienced diplomat, and Hu Hanmin would be their representatives. However, China decreed that they would be called pacificators, and would carry “no territorial powers”.

The British objected. It was only after threats and prodding that a Chinese presidential order was signed appointing Ivan Chen as their plenipotentiary and authorising him “to sign articles that may be agreed upon in order that all difficulties which have existed in the past may be dissolved”. He just about made it in time for the opening convention of the conference.

In contrast, the Dalai Lama was decisive and swift in appointing Lochen Shastra Paljor Dorje, his prime minister who later impressed everybody with his quiet dignity, as his choice for the tripartite talks. Shastra was described as “a man of great ability and patriotism”. Moreover, an official statement from the Grand Lama stated “the Chief Minister Shastra Paljor Dorje is hereby authorised to decide on all questions which may benefit Tibet and to seal all documents relating thereto”.

Both sides made their positions known in the very first meeting held at Simla on 13 October 1913. With the Chinese defeated and evicted from Tibet, Lhasa made it known that it had an “independent” status and placed a document to this effect. But the Chinese still insisted that Tibet formed an integral part of the Chinese territory and no attempts shall be made by Tibet or by Great Britain to interrupt the continuity of this territorial integrity.

For China, unlike the British Government of India, Tibet’s precise boundaries weren’t important. The British hosting the conference wanted a defined boundary for Tibet, not just with India, but also with China. This was the primary reason for the Simla Conference to have dragged on for over six months, with contestable results.

The Chinese also made a range of ridiculous claims over Tibet, most notably over its territories from the Kunlun Mountains, southeast and south of the River Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) on to the River N’Maikha in Burma (now Myanmar). Even though McMahon was prepared for some surprises, he didn’t expect this cartographic aggression based on inconsistent and vague historical assertions.

However, there were factors that restrained McMahon from defining the boundaries. For one, a draft prepared by officials at Britain’s India Office had only envisaged a two-party meeting between representatives of Peking and Delhi. With Tibet’s entry in the deliberations, McMahon had to put up appearances to hide his limitations.

In reality, in the absence of clarity about the southern limits of Tibet, McMahon was awaiting some survey reports from the expeditions along the Himalayas, particularly from India’s northeast and the tri-junction between India, Tibet and Bhutan. This region had many unsurveyed “grey areas” along a frontier of over 1,000 kilometres and was often covered with mist or clouds with many snow-covered mountains that couldn’t be easily accessed from the Indian side. This prevented McMahon from presenting a clear proposal to the conference plenipotentiaries on this part of the boundary.

Thus McMahon opened the “second meeting” of the conference on 18 November 1913 by sharing his dilemma with colleagues. He placed a skeleton map of what should be “Tibet”, admitting – after both sides had made widely divergent claims – that he was “at a loss as to what really was Tibet”.

Thereafter, he conveyed to both the Chinese and the Tibetans that without an agreement on the “limits of Tibet”, further progress was not possible. China’s Chen first said he’d have to refer the matter to Peking and then he took to bed after the meeting, claiming he was ill! Thus, with no hope of an immediate headway and with the winter in Simla bringing life to a virtual standstill, the conference venue was shifted to Delhi. It was over subsequent meetings in Delhi, both formal and informal, that there was some movement forward.

The Tibetans brought to these meetings more than ninety records and documents and backed their boundary claims with historical records in their original form, including fifty-six different registers, with numbers of monasteries and details of families, “where the writ of the Dalai Lama was unquestioned”. The Chinese, on the other hand, made historically refutable claims based on scanty evidence.

Moreover, the Tibetans’ statements were extremely critical of the “scorched earth” policies of the Chinese, especially its military commander Zhao Erfeng, who had destroyed many of their temples and villages and massacred hundreds of lamas and people. Erfeng was known to have made paper shoe soles from the leaves of Buddhist scriptures containing the teachings of Lord Buddha!

The Tibetans were thus unwilling to accept Chinese claims based on the ruthless military campaigns by Erfeng, stating that “Chao Erh-feng had been guilty of such glaring misdeeds and that even if he had a hundred lives he should forfeit every one of them to the law...”

Thus, the hotly contested territorial claims of the Chinese and Tibetans put McMahon in a spot in his attempts to find common ground, to end their “state of war” and to move the conference towards its conclusion. However, given his vast experience in map-making, McMahon proposed the division of Tibet into two zones – with the approval of Whitehall in London – by drawing lines on a map to mark: Inner (by a blue line) and Outer (by a red line) Tibet.

But the Chinese were unwilling to accept the concept of Inner or Outer Tibet. Even then, McMahon was hopeful of a settlement at the fifth conference in Delhi that was to be held on 11 March 1914. At the fifth conference, McMahon, apprehensive that China–Tibet hostilities would stall his best efforts, warned both parties that any attempts to change the ground realties to attain a favourable deal at the conference would have grave consequences. He demanded instead statesmanship from Ivan Chen and Lochen Shatra.

There was, however, a quiet spoiler lurking on the sidelines. Lu Hsing Chi was a Chinese spy at the conference, who set alarm bells ringing in China about a possible outcome that would put China at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Tibet, and thus, Peking virtually rejected the entire draft that McMahon and his team had painfully put together, demanding a better deal. Sensing that the conference might collapse, McMahon threatened to present proposals that were more stringent. This kept the Chinese team on board until the conference shifted back to Simla in April 1914, when McMahon had a private chat with Chen.

McMahon warned that if Chen failed to initial the documents in the final meetings, it would be withdrawn. Deep inside he was also prepared for the conference to end without any results even though McMahon had hoped that this was to be a decisive phase of the conference. Thus, he resorted to theatricals.

He began with a summary of earlier conference proceedings and when he ran into resistance by the Chinese and then by the Tibetans, his patience ran out. As a shocker to those in attendance, he ordered the withdrawal of the convention “with as much ceremony as possible”, as recorded by observers, to drive home his frustration with the negotiations.

This unnerved Ivan Chen, the Chinese plenipotentiary in Simla. However, in one last attempt, the conference was reconvened the next day, to give them a final chance to reconsider their positions. Facing the distinct possibility of China being left out of the border arrangements, Chen made up his mind to initial the draft and the map and, much to the relief of all, proceeded with the formalities.

However, Chen announced that he was still “bound to await definite authority from his government in Peking before the convention was formally signed and sealed”. Even as it appeared that matters had finally come to a successful conclusion, this was not to be. Chen informed McMahon’s office that his government had refused to accept – “repudiated” – his signing of the convention! McMahon was disappointed, given his multiple attempts to accept Chinese demands.

It soon became known that the man who influenced Peking to put the brakes was Lu Hsing, their Calcutta-based spy, who was elevated to an official position to negotiate with Lhasa. London was brought into these talks and soon Chinese officials suggested that Chen had been forced to agree to the terms of the convention, whereby its venue should be shifted to Peking or London. There is a view that this process reflects a conflict of interest as McMahon was both the arbitrator and the interested party here.

On the brighter side, however, the conference yielded another outcome. After Beijing and Lhasa had presented enough documentation to back their conflicting territorial claims on the Sino-Tibetan frontiers, which had led to no agreement, the focus of the conference shifted to the Indo-Tibetan boundary. On this, the Chinese delegate opted to stay out, as he claimed he wasn’t authorised to discuss it.

Thus, McMahon and the Tibetan delegate agreed on an Indo-Tibet boundary on 24-25 March 1914. To that effect, McMahon drew a line on a small-scale map and this line came to be known as the McMahon Line. This boundary was marked in red ink along the crest of the Himalayas—the watershed that gave northeast India a defined boundary with Tibet. This was a major outcome after many months of negotiations, even though this was a secondary objective of the Simla Conference.

Contested Lands: India, China and the Boundary Dispute

Excerpted with permission from Contested Lands: India, China and the Boundary Dispute, Maroof Raza, Westland Non-Fiction.