All this talk of a 2,500-mile, state-of-the-art railway line to Lhasa built by the Chinese takes me back a hundred years when the Indian Army reached Lhasa and signed a treaty there. ‘Rumours of a persistent kind’ were reaching the then Indian capital of Calcutta about Russia having sent a monk, Dorjieff, to establish contact with the Dalai Lama. This was when Britain and Russia were engaged in the Great Game.
Throughout the 19th century, the British government were phobic about the Russians invading the north-west frontier of the Indian Empire. Towards the end of the century, the Russian government started constructing the Tashkand-Orenberg railway which was to be completed by 1904. This would have obliterated distance, a factor perceived by the British government as the best defence against a Russian attack.
The government in Calcutta and London worked out the number of soldiers needed to meet the Russian forces, the number of horses needed to be transferred beyond railheads and even the number of camels needed to carry fodder for the horses. Yet, a winning combination eluded them.
Even the Amir of Afghanistan was not ready to serve the British cause. The British government watched Russia’s initiatives in Tibet with alarm. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, with the full support of London, sent a ‘friendly’ mission under Colonel Francis Younghusband with soldiers of the Indian Army.
The mission and the troops reached Gyangze, halfway to Lhasa. Tibetans offered some resistance, but refused to negotiate. The contingent reached Lhasa but the Dalai Lama had left for Mongolia. The monks in charge signed a treaty which, among other things, provided that Tibet would pay an indemnity and until then, the Indian Army would occupy Chumbi Valley.
At this stage, the British government had the opportunity to make a settlement with Russia, and under the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, Britain and Russia promised not to interfere in Tibet’s internal matters and recognised the nominal sovereignty of China over Tibet. A far cry from the ‘settlement’ made between Beijing and New Delhi today regarding Lhasa.