The Simla Convention of 1914- an appraisal
Phayul[Saturday, November 09, 2013 10:53]

By Norbu Tsering

The British Indian government had always nurtured the fear that Russia might be secretly planning to extending its influence over the strategically placed Tibet. However, most of the observers of political developments in Central Asia were of the view that this British fear was more a fear of potential Russian clout in Tibet than a real one. However, the Mongolian Russian monk Dorzhiev's proximity to the 13th Dalai Lama triggered British suspicion of Russian intentions with regard to Tibet. His real name was Aquang Dorji which when Russianised became Dorzhiev. He was a very erudite Buddhist scholar and a study-mate to the Dalai Lama. It was said that he had even led a Tibetan delegation to Moscow. The political influence he wielded over the Tibetan government can easily be understood from the fact that the treaty between Tibet and Mongolia in Ulan Bator in 1913 was signed by him as the Tibetan plenipotentiary in his Tibetan name Khen-chen Lobsang Ngawang. Questions about the validity of the treaty were raised because of this. The Japanese monk Kawaguchi Ekai who was in Lhasa in 1901 and who had studied at Sera monastery also alludes to Dorzhiev's clout in Lhasa.

This British suspicion had given rise to what is popularly known as the Great Game- the game of political manoeuvring being played by British India in gaining a foothold in Tibet. In order to keep Russia's hands off Tibet, the British Indian government used the ploy of involving China as the country having the ultimate say in matters pertaining to Tibet. The British Younghusband Expedition to Lhasa in 1904 was a fall-out from this political intrigue. The privilege of opening British trade agencies at Gyangtse, Yatung and Gartok gained from this expedition was the fulfillment of a long cherished British political ambition in Tibet. The trade agencies had very important political assignments. The appointment of British trade agents in Tibet, especially one at Gyangtse brought British India at Lhasa's doorstep. The years from 1904 to 1947 were a period during which the two countries came very close to each other. However, the Britishers were finding it difficult to take the Tibetan government in Lhasa into confidence. All their efforts to establish direct communications with Lhasa were rebuffed. The British trade agent in Gyangtse in 1905, Captain W.F.O'Connor, therefore, started looking at the 9th Panchen Lama in the nearby Shigatse as a potential confidante.

As Lhasa was discouraging any British move to get closer, the alternative was to take advantage of the Panchen Lama's influence over a vast area bordering northern India. The plan was to create an autonomous region in the north west of Tibet owing allegiance to the Panchen Lama independent of Lhasa. That was considered as a good strategy to secure India's northern border. In 1905 Captain O'Connor went to Shigatse with an invitation for the Panchen Lama from the British Indian government to visit India. This visit happened in 1906. But, because Lord Curzon had already been replaced as the Viceroy by Lord Minto and also because London was not any more enthusiastic in promoting the Panchen Lama, the visit didn't get much attention. It is possible that this visit to India by the 9th Panchen Lama could have sown, in no small measure, the seeds of acrimony between the Dalai Lama's government in Lhasa and Tashi Lhunpo monastery. Scott Berry, in his book 'A Stranger in Tibet- the adventures of a wandering Zen monk', writes that the Panchen Lama those years was 'courted by the British, pushed by his attendants at Shigatse and paraded by the Chinese'. In 1911, when the Dalai Lama was away in India, the Chinese authorities brought him to Lhasa and put him up in the Norbu Lingka.

These developments were leading to the holding of the Simla Convention at the behest of the British Indian government in 1913-1914. The other impetus for British India to sponsoring this convention with a sense of urgency came from the manner the Chinese general Chao Erh-feng forced his way into Lhasa in 1910. The Dalai Lama had to escape to India. The Dalai Lama ended up spending a little over two years at Kalimpong in India. His exile from Tibet in India brought him face to face with the western democratic way of governing. The knowledge he gained about the modern system of administering a country had a profound effect on him. On his return to Tibet in 1913, he set about introducing changes in many areas of government administration despite opposition from individuals and organisations who were afraid of losing their privileged position in the society.

History had more surprises. In 1911, the rule by the Manchu imperial dynasty in China ended. The republican nationalists assumed power. Yuan Shih K'ai became the first president of the new republic. In April 1912, he issued a proclamation making Tibet a province of China. It took one year for the new Chinese government to agree to participate in Simla Convention proposed by British India. It was out and out against the idea of Tibet sitting at the Convention table on equal footing with British India and China. The Chinese proclamation of declaring Tibet a province of China backfired. British India didn't like China as its neighbour to the north. On August 1912, Jordon- the British Minister in Peking presented a memorandum to the government of China. One point was about Tibet. It said that although the British government recognised Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, it didn't recognise China's right to intervene in Tibet's internal administration and keeping unlimited troops in Tibet. It further stated that unless China gave a written acceptance of this position, the British government would not accord recognition to the new Chinese republic and all communication with Tibet via India would be closed.

China was, thus, compelled to agreeing to participate in the Simla Convention.
For Tibet, the offer of a tripartite talks with British and China was a most-welcomed development. Tibet required international acceptance of its independent status as a nation separate from China. It came Tibet's way as the country, after the triumphant removal of the last vestiges of the symbols of Chinese authority in Tibet, was looking for any international acceptance of its independence. Lonchen Shatra Paljor Dorje was chosen as the Tibetan plenipotentiary. He was to be assisted by Trimon Norbu Wangyal and Khen- chung Tenpa Dhargyal. Documents supporting Tibetan independence were collected for him for presentation at the Convention. As thorough a preparation for his participation as possible was made. The Tibetan government could not afford to let this opportunity go unused.

The Convention began on October 13, 1913 with British India's plenipotentiary Sir Henry McMohan, the foreign secretary of the British Indian government as the chairman. Ivan Chen was the Chinese representative. Sir Charles Bell, the Political Officer for Sikkim. Bhutan and Tibet was the advisor to Sir McMohan on Tibetan matters. He got to know the Dalai Lama well during the latter's stay at Kalimpong when in exile from Tibet. Lonchen Shatra brought to his attention four points that that the Dalai Lama hoped the Convention would decide in favour of Tibet:

1. Only Tibet will have full authority over both its internal and external affairs.

2. The British Govt. of India will be consulted only on a few important foreign affairs issues.

3. Only those Chinese who run private businesses in Tibet will be allowed to stay on in Tibet.

4. Dhartse-doh will be the Tibetan border to the east with China.

As it turned out later, the Dalai Lama's aspirations for Tibet from the Convention were ignored.

Lonchen Shatra made vehement efforts to explain to the Convention the independent status of Tibet throughout its long history. His presentation was supported by valid documents. Documentary evidences of Tibet's administrative control over the traditional Kham and Amdo areas were produced. The Chinese representative, as usual, claimed Tibet as a part of China. This had gone on for days. This article does not have the scope to going into all the details.

On February 27, 1914, McMohan, to the great incredulity of Lonchen Shatra, suggested division of Tibet into two parts- Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet. He presented this suggestion as a means to finding a common ground for the irreconcilable views held by Lonchen shatra and Ivan Chen. River Drichu- the Yangtse was to be the border between Outer and Inner Tibet. U-tsang and western Kham formed Outer Tibet and Amdo and eastern Kham Inner Tibet. Lhasa would have full authority over Outer Tibet and China unlimited presence in Inner Tibet. After communist China's occupation of Tibet in 1959, it turned Outer Tibet into Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965 and merged areas in Inner Tibet with adjacent Chinese provinces. He further announced that British India would accept China's suzerain authority over Tibet. Suzerainty means the right of a country to rule over another country. In the Tibetan translation of the Simla Agreement, suzerainty was translated as 'Ming-tsam'- only nominal,not in reality. This obviously is not the intended meaning of the English word.

Finally a document consisting of 11 articles resulted from the Convention known as the Simla Agreement of 1914. All the three delegates initialed it in April, 1914. When the time came for the delegates to sign the Agreement, Ivan Chen- China's delegate refused. Sir Henry McMohan and Lonchen Shatra signed it July 03, 1914. Article 2 of the agreement recognises China's suzerainty over Tibet. Article 9 deals with the division of Tibet into Outer and Inner. The full content of this agreement and other treaties/legal documents relating to Tibet are available for easy perusal on Tibet Justice Centre's website ''. Those who prefer to peruse this legal document in Tibetan can do so from W.D.Shakabpa's book 'Political History of Tibet- Vol 2' in Tibetan language. Alongside the main convention Sir McMohan, assisted by Sir Charles Bell, engaged Lonchen Shatra in negotiations regarding Tibet's border with India's north-eastern frontier areas. These resulted in the drawing of the McMohan Line delineating Indo-Tibetan border. Aftermath of this Line is that Tibet ceded Mon Tawang and some other areas to British India.

Shakabpa writes that Lonchen Shatra had chosen to sign the agreement as at every stage of the progress of the convention he was in touch with the Tibetan government in Lhasa for consultation and discussion. Lonchen Shatra, finally, signed the agreement for the sake of, what Shakabpa calls, the future security of Tibet. The unfortunate result for Tibet from the Simla Agreement was a legally truncated Tibet.

Opinions differ with regard to the outcome of the Convention. Alex McKay, in his book 'Tibet and the British Raj- the Frontier Cadre 1904-1947', writes that when Lonchen Shatra returned to Lhasa, the Dalai Lama showed his displeasure with him by summoning him for an interview at 6.00 a.m. and making him wait till 5.00 p.m. This reaction is possible considering the manner in which the Convention disappointed him by almost contemptuously neglecting his hopes for some gains for Tibet. Tethong Rakra Thupten Choethar, the widely respected erudite Rinpoche, has this to say this about Mon Tawang in his book in Tibetan about Gedun Choephel: " When I was the Ge-Kod (discipline enforcer) at Gyud-me (the Lower Tantric College), one official informed me that a group of people from Mon Tawang had come to the monastery asking us to do prayers for their people so that they could come back into the fold of Tibet. They had no wish to live under foreigners. They had already met with the concerned Tibetan government authorities with their request. But, they had not much hope from them. At that same time rumours were rife in Lhasa that the British Indian govt. had gifted certain quantity of gold to Kashodpa. In my view, it was probably the McMohan Line that had caused this predicament to the people of Mon Tawang. I am the person this group of people from Mon Tawang came to ask for prayers. I am not yet dead and I am in my right senses. I told Gedun Choephel La about this incident..."(This translation is mine). Shakabpa also writes that the content of the Simla Agreement was not made public and that it was even kept away from many government officials.

Unfortunately, Tibet has benefitted nothing from the Convention. China annexed all the Tibetan areas in the so-called Inner Tibet and made them parts of various Chinese provinces. British India bequeathed Mon Tawang and other Tibetan areas taken from Tibet with the McMohan Line to independent India. Tibet was finally usurped by China. The lesson from the history is that so long as you are weak, the stronger neighbours are on standby to pounce on you.

References used
1. Political History of Tibet Vol. II in Tibetan by W.D. Shakabpa
2. Tibet and the British Raj- the Frontier Cadre 1904-1947 by Alex McKay
3. Introduction to the Chapters in 'Britain and Tibet 1765-1947: a select annotated biblography of British Relations with Tibet and the Himalayan States including Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan by Julie G. Marshal

The author is a a Tibetan living in Toronto, Canada. He is a former principal of TCV school Ladakh. He is also a former lecturer at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.