In a dramatic stealth operation in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama slipped out of his palace in Lhasa in Tibet, and made his escape to India. This would have significant knock-on effects that would shape the relationship between India and China in the decades to come.
On 10th March 1959, the 23-year-old Dalai Lama was invited to a dance performance by a Chinese General – but without his bodyguards. This alerted the Tibetans of the Chinese trap to abduct their spiritual leader.
China had annexed a large part of Tibet in 1950 and intended to force the Dalai Lama to accept a total military takeover of Tibet. On the day of the performance, thousands of Tibetan supporters of the Dalai Lama had gathered outside his palace and began protesting.
This led to rumours that the Chinese would take over. On the night of 17th March, disguised as a soldier, the Dalai Lama, his family and several top officials escaped. The Dalai Lama had already requested the Indian Consul in Lhasa for asylum in India.
India had always treated Tibet as an independent nation and shared strong commercial and cultural ties with it. The border had remained peaceful. That changed in 1954, when India signed the Panchsheel agreement with China and acknowledged it as the ‘Tibet Region of China’.
After fleeing Lhasa, the Dalai Lama and his companions crossed the Himalayas and the Brahmaputra and took refuge in India. Their caravan reached the border on 26th March 1959, from where the Dalai Lama sent a letter to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
India took measures for his protection and welcomed him. His entourage stayed briefly at the Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. After meeting Nehru in Mussoorie, India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama on 3rd April 1959.
Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh had already become a sanctuary for thousands of Tibetan exiles fleeing Chinese repression. The Dalai Lama permanently settled there later and set up the Tibetan government-in-exile. This bold move angered China.
China claimed total sovereignty over Tibet and alleged that India had violated the Panchsheel agreement. This aggravated the already deteriorating tensions on the India-China border. In January 1959, China told India that China did not recognize the McMahon Line.
This was the boundary agreed upon by Tibet and British-India as part of the 1914 Simla Convention. Tibet, a buffer zone between India and China, brought them into direct contact and eventually led to the India-China war of 1962. The territories remain disputed to this day.
Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons
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