Sydney Wignall and the Chinese built Aksai Chin road
The story of how Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon kept the country in the dark about the Chinese incursion in Aksai Chin even though they had been fully informed. Later reports were kept sealed to protect Nehru’s reputation by concealing his mishandling and cowardice.
Guest Column by Claude Arpi
Editor’s introduction: As India observes 50th anniversary of the India-China conflict the country should know the truth about the people who brought on this humiliation on the nation. It was not a military disgrace, for India’s soldiers fought heroically against heavy odds; the disgrace was on the politicians and the diplomats who had failed to negotiate a border with China while being preoccupied with personal glory. Here is just one example of the Nehru-Menon blindness and arrogance.
In the next article it will be shown that Nehru, obsessed with his international image missed several opportunities to settle the border with China. Claude Arpi, India’s foremost expert on India-China-Tibet relations brings to light an interesting episode. It is edited to suit the FOLKS standards. NSR
A Welsh mountaineer
Sydney Wignall is dead. He died on April 4 in the UK. But who is Sydney Wignall? Very few have ever heard of him in India in spite of the great service he did to the country. Sydney Wignall had in the mid-fifties reported to Indian authorities on the roads being built by the Chinese along the border. He was rebuffed.
[Sic: Wignall was not the only one to be rebuffed: here is the full story. Wignall had been recruited by India’s Army Chief General K.S. Thimmaya who had provided him with logistical support. He dutifully reported what he had found out about the Chinese presence to the Government. The then Defense Minister Krishna Menon (a Communist sympathizer and a fan of China) blew up calling the senior officer making the presentation a fool who was lapping up CIA propaganda. This was the position of Nehru and Menon until the Dalai Lama escaped to India four years later. This means the country was kept in the dark about the border uncertainty even though General Thimmaya had informed them of the Chinese incursion. NSR]
Who was Sydney Wignall. His obituary in The Telegraph (London) says: “Sydney Wignall, who has died aged 89, was an adventurer who, in 1955, led the first Welsh Himalayan Expedition with the intention of climbing Gurla Mandhata, at 25,355ft the highest peak in Chinese-occupied Tibet; in his book Spy on the Roof of the World, he recounted how he was captured by the Red Army and held in jail accused of being a CIA spy.”
He was not a CIA agent; he worked for the Indian Military Intelligence, though, Thanks to General Thimmaya’s foresight who provided Wignall logistical support recognizing his value to Indian security interests.
The Economist also remembers him: “Few things annoyed Sydney Wignall more than the thought that the world’s least accessible places were divided up among the great powers. To go where he wanted among the wilds and snows-to cross that pass undetected, to find lakes unmarked on charts, to see what lay on the other side of the hill-was a fever in him.”
Service to India
Though he died unknown in India, Wignall has done something great for India.
In 1955, Wignall led a Welsh Himalayan expedition to climb the Gurla Mandhata, a peak dominating the Mansarovar and the Rakshastal lakes, not far from Mount Kailash, near the tri-junction between Tibet, Nepal and India.
The expedition was officially sponsored by the Liverpool Daily Post and Life magazine. Unknown to the public, Wingnall had agreed to collect information on the strategic road bordering India’s northern borders. Already during the mid-fifties [and earlier], the Indian Army strongly suspected the Chinese of wanting to construct a road linking their new acquired provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. Was the road crossing Indian territory?
It was in London that Wignall was first contacted by Lt Col HW Tobin, the vice-president of the Himalayan Club and editor of the Himalayan Journal. Tobin asked Wignall if he would “do some friends a favour”. He was later introduced to an Intelligence officer, code-named ‘Singh’ from the Indian High Commission in London. Wignall was briefed by this ‘Singh’ about the Chinese presence in Western Tibet and the possibility of the existence of a military road.
Different incidents occurred in the early 50s which should have woken the Government of India out of its soporific Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai dream world. First, the harassment of the Indian trade agent in Gartok, which was without doubt linked with the work which had started on the Tibet-Xinjiang highway; in 1953, the Chinese even forced Jawaharlal Nehru to close the Indian agency as the presence of an Indian official was embarrassing for the PLA. [Sic: Nehru had asked for it by surrendering Tibet to China three years earlier on the advice of his pro-Chinese colleagues, Defence Minister Krishna Menon and the Indian Ambassador in Beijing K.N. Panikkar. NSR]
Brigadier SS Mallik, then Indian Military Attaché in Beijing, also made some references to the Chinese road-building activities in a report to the Government around that time; a year later, the Military Attaché would confirm the construction of the strategic highway through Indian territory in Aksai Chin.
The mission given to Wignall by the soon to-be Indian Army Chief, General KS Thimayya, was to check the information. It was thought that the Chinese would not suspect an innocuous group of foreign mountaineers. Let us remember that, at that time there was no NTRO with sophisticated satellites able to follow the movement of vehicles in those remote areas. ‘Human intelligence’ was still the prime source of information. Wignall was, therefore, asked to get proof of the existence of the road.
Unfortunately, Wignall and his companions were captured soon after they crossed the border town of Taglakot (known as Purang in Tibetan). They, however, had by then the opportunity to witness the Chinese road-building activities.
Although the Official Report of the 1962 War prepared by the Union Ministry of Defence mentions the famous road, it does not give any detail about Nehru’s biggest blunder: Ignoring for several years that a road being built on Indian territory. The Official Report states: “China started constructing motorable road in summer 1955. …On October 6, 1957, the Sinkiang-Tibet road was formally opened with a ceremony in Gartok and 12 trucks on a trial run from Yarkand reached Gartok.”
It was Wignall who had informed the Government of India [through Thimmaya] about the Chinese scheme. Wignall was eventually caught by the Chinese Army, interrogated and kept prisoner for several weeks.
He was later released in the midst of winter in a high altitude pass. The Chinese had thought that he would never survive the blizzard or find his way back to India. But, after an incredible journey, he managed to reach India and was able to report to Lt Col ‘Baij’ Mehta, his contact in the Military Intelligence. The Army in turn informed the Prime Minister and VK Krishna Menon, the India’s arrogant Union Defence Minister.
Wignall was later told by his Army contact: “Our illustrious Prime Minister Nehru, who is so busy on the world stage telling the rest of mankind how to live, has too little time to attend to the security of his own country. Your material was shown to Nehru by one of our senior officers, who plugged hard. He was criticised by Krishna Menon in Nehru’s presence for ‘lapping up American CIA agent-provocateur propaganda.’ Menon has completely suppressed your information.” [Sic: Not quite true. Nehru was fully aware of the content of Wignall’s finding and the Army report but chose to side with Menon. Nehru partisans later put the blame on Menon alone to protect Nehru’s reputation. NSR]
“So it was all for nothing?” I [Wignall] asked. “Perhaps not”, Singh, Wignall’s contact, responded. “We will keep working away at Nehru. Some day he must see the light, and realise the threat communist Chinese occupation of Tibet poses for India.”
Nehru saw the Light on October 20, 1962. Unfortunately, it was way too late.
General Thimayya, who became Army Chief in 1957, was forced to retire in 1961. He said in his valedictory address to the Indian Army Officer Corps: “I hope that I am not leaving you as cannon fodder for the Chinese communists.”
The Government of India did not acknowledge that already in 1955, it had information about the Aksai Chin road. The issue was discussed for the first time in the Lok Sabha in August 1959 only.
Wignall later wrote that he was interrogated by General Zhang Guohua, the Commander of the Tibet Military District who later took an active part in the 1962 war with India. Wignall and his companions were beaten up. They were told: “You intended disguising your illegal armed invasion of China.” Wignall was asked to sign the confession that he was “a Western Fascist Lackey Imperialist Running Dog of the American CIA”. He was told, “We will be very good to you. Otherwise you will be severely punished.”
It is from General Zhang that Wignall heard Beijing claimed the Aksai Chin, the NEFA, as well as parts of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
Several years ago, I had the occasion to correspond with Wignall about his master coup, I realised that the Chinese interrogation techniques remained the same. Other prisoners like Robert Ford, the British radio operator in Chamdo, Eastern Tibet, who spent five years in communist jails, reported the same way of interrogating prisoners, the same psychological tactics to break the morale of the ‘imperialist spies’.
Some accounts of the Indian prisoners of war, after the 1962 Chinese attack, are also similar.
One of the most distressing parts of this story is that, when Wignall offered his manuscript to Indian publishers, he was politely told that they could not publish ‘this stuff’ in India. He had no other choice but to publish his book in the UK. [Sic: Indian publishers as effete as the politicians and the media. They prefer fluff from Chetan Bhagat to an adventure story from a hero like Wignall. As Sri Aurobindo wrote a century ago, “Politics is the work of the kshatriya, and it is the qualities of the kshatriya that we need to cultivate if are to be fit for freedom.” It has still not happened. India continues to be led by effeminate, crooked baniyas. NSR]
The only reward he received was “profuse thanks” from his Indian Army contact and some cricket bats and balls for the children of a Nepalese village school that the expedition team visited before entering Tibet.
That is not much for helping India.
Sydney Wignall was not General Thimmaya’s only source. In November 1962, as a student in Bangalore and a volunteer in the Emergency Commission, I heard Thimmaya mention in a lecture that he had deputed a young officer of the Madras Sappers (MEG) to look into rumors of Chinese presence he had heard from shepherds and nomads. He was captured by the Chinese but let off after signing some papers. Thimmaya did not mention Sydney Wignall either in the lecture or when I met him personally the following day. It is now a moot point: the important thing is the colossal incompetence of the Government in first surrendering Tibet and then not getting the boundary demarcated. A person more concerned about national interest and less over personal glory would have asked for a boundary settlement before handing over Tibet on a platter.