India-China border dispute: When Atal Bihari Vajpayee drove 800 sheep to Chinese embassy

Atal Bihari Vajpayee arranged for a herd of around 800 sheep and drove them to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi in September 1965.

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When Atal Bihari Vajpayee drove 800 sheep to Chinese embassy
In 1965, 42-year-old Atal Bihari Vajpayee drove around 800 sheep to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi protesting its bullying tactics on India-China border. (Photo: AFP file)

Exposing China has been a challenge for the world. China never fails to surprise the world, particularly India with deception in its policies, domestic or foreign. But for once, it was rattled by the sheer political brilliance by a young Indian parliamentarian Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1965.

One of the excuses that China had used for a military confrontation with India in 1967 was the charge that Indian soldiers had stolen its sheep and yaks. China made this claim in August-September 1965.

This was the time when China was itching for another territorial expansion by appropriating Sikkim, which was a kingdom under India's protection. It was also the time when India was busy fighting infiltrators from Pakistan in Kashmir.

Just three years ago, India had suffered a humiliating defeat in war. China was again threatening to "teach" another 1962-like lesson to India. However, as it turned out in the end, China miscalculated India's preparedness this time around.

China wrote a letter to the Indian government accusing Indian soldiers of stealing 800 sheep and 59 yaks. The Indian government obviously wrote back denying the ludicrous charge but the response that Vajpayee, then a 42-year-old Jan Sangh leader, gave left China fuming.

Vajpayee arranged for a herd of around 800 sheep and drove them to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi in late September. The sheep had placards tied saying, "Eat me but save the world."

This incensed China so much that it shot off another letter to the Lal Bahadur Shastri government. China had called the protest by Vajpayee an "insult" to the Chinese nation and alleged that it happened with the backing of the Shastri government.

In its response, India replied confirming that "some of the citizens of Delhi took in procession about 800 sheep" but said, "The Government of India had nothing to do with this demonstration. It was a spontaneous, peaceful and good-humoured expression of the resentment of the citizens of Delhi against the Chinese ultimatum and the threat of war against India on trumped-up and trivial issues."

In its original complaint, China had alleged that four Tibetan inhabitants had been kidnapped by the Indian soldiers. India had responded saying, "Like other Tibetan refugees these four people had come into India on their own volition and without our permission and taken refuge in India. They are free to go back to Tibet at any time if they desire to do so."

China might actually have gotten infuriated with the two Tibetan women, who escaped the eyes of Chinese authorities and crossed over to India. They approached a police station on Indian side and complained about atrocities committed by Chinese officials and soldiers. China wanted India to hand over these women and some other Tibetans who had fled seeking refuge in India.

On the question of stealing of sheep, Indian response was: "Apropos the 800 sheep and 59 yaks the Government of India have already given a reply in the clearest terms possible. We know nothing of the yaks and as regards the sheep it is up to the two herdsmen concerned to take them to Tibet if and when they choose to go back to their homeland."

The entire episode of Vajpayee mocking China's bullying tactic had become a talking point during those weeks of tension leaving people in splits in public conversations.

Two years later, China did come to "teach" India a lesson but returned with a bloody nose. The lesson that China learnt in 1967 ensured peace on India-China border for several decades until Xi Jinping became the president and resumed the salami slicing policy once again.

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