Nehru saw China as a partner to create a new post-colonial world, and his aspirations for a global role linked to a big power neglected India’s national and security priorities at great cost. This should be an enduring lesson for our present and future governments.
Given the current tensions between India and China, Claude Arpi’s recently completed four-volume India-Tibet Relations 1947-62, is germane and significant. It uses primary and secondary sources, though New Delhi has inexplicably not released the records of 1961-2 and those of the Political Officer in Sikkim, who had oversight of Tibet, have ‘disappeared’. At independence, India had a mission in Lhasa and three trade agencies in Gartok, Gyantse and Yatung, the last two with military escorts, and control of post, telephone, telegraph, some rest houses and Minsar near Kailas, all to be progressively abandoned.
Arpi unveils the remorseless Tibetan marginalisation under Chinese expansionist claims, abetted by Prime Minister Nehru and Ambassador Panikkar in China, distracted by ambitions of playing a global role along with China. Whether before or after Mao Zedong, China never accepted Tibetan autonomy under China’s suzerainty, a status promoted by the British raj. In 1950, when Panikkar intentionally or otherwise changed China’s suzerainty to sovereignty over Tibet, the die was cast.
Nehru was fearful of being called a neo-colonial stooge while Indian diplomats, echoing Nehru, claimed to see a western hand in sponsoring friction between China and India. Nehru was anxious to repudiate India’s colonial legacy in Tibet, but not the borders which were created by the Raj’s quest for security based on natural geographic features. The Tibetans were also guilty; greed and infighting weakened their resolve. Timid and bewildered, they were hesitant to uphold the 1914 Simla Convention as a proof of autonomy, or India as Britain’s successor state.
When the Dalai Lama was a minor, his Regents and advisers misruled and misguided the people; monks felt leaderless while the rich and some clergy cooperated with the Chinese, and only the poor people opposed. Many Indian leaders felt Tibet needed to be modernised and the lama hierarchy eliminated. Nehru was not alarmed at China as a northern neighbour and felt that a ‘small dose of socialism’ was overdue.
Sardar Patel, Morarji Desai and Radhakrishnan were sceptical of China’s intentions, but were brushed aside by Nehru’s circle of Panikkar and Defence Minister Krishna Menon. In1950 India published maps showing Ladakh and the central sectors as undefined, but not the McMahon Line. When Tibet tried to assert some independence with a list of ‘lost territories’ including Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and other areas mainly south of the McMahon line, these claims were later adopted by the Chinese. In 1951 China imposed a 17-point agreement on Tibet, which stated that China entered Tibet to eliminate imperialist aggression and return it to China’s big family.
Nehru said: ‘We had nothing to do with it and we have not been consulted at any stage either by the Tibetans or the Chinese.’ In September 1951, the Chinese army entered Lhasa. Tibet appealed to the United Nations, Britain and India asked for deferment, and the issue has remained dormant ever since. The 1954 Indo- China agreement on Tibet ended Tibet’s autonomous status. Although the India-China border is in fact our border with Tibet, it was not discussed: India took it ‘for granted that the existing frontier line must continue;’ if the Chinese did not raise it, nor would India and Zhou Enlai’s position was that ‘all outstanding questions between us which are ripe for settlement can be resolved smoothly.’
By this agreement, in which Tibetans did not participate, all Indian extra-territorial privileges were given up and thereafter the first Chinese intrusions took place in the central sector, where no agreement between India and Tibet existed from colonial times. Nehru held that Tibetan resistance would lead to greater repression by China and ‘therefore it was not proper for us to raise any hopes… the only policy we can adopt is to remain quiet observers.’ He first dismissed the Tibetan uprising (1955-59) as rumour, disbelieving reports that the Dalai Lama was unhappy and the Panchen Lama derided as a Chinese stooge.
1956 was the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s birth and both lamas visited India. Zhou Enlai came to Delhi thrice in 1956/7 to counter any support India might give them and ensure they returned to Tibet. Zhou then gave Nehru to understand that China accepted the McMahon Line ~ ‘it is unfair to us, but we feel that there is no better way than to recognise this Line… we should try to persuade and convince Tibetans to accept it.’ Nehru was in a nervous hurry to stabilise Indo-China relations, though the Dalai Lama told him that ‘every time I thought I had reached an understanding with the Chinese, they broke my trust.’ India had first-hand information on Tibet.
In 1957 Political Officer Apa Pant in Gangtok noted ‘the Tibetans have no love lost whatsoever for the Chinese,’ and correctly predicted massive Chinese immigration and exploitation of resources. There were reports from the Consulate and visits like Nehru himself in 1958, who noted, ‘the general appearance was of foreign military occupation, in certain parts of Tibet there is an active rebellion going on.’ In 1959 the Consul General reported ‘almost 99 per cent of Tibetans did not want Chinese rule though many were leading a hard life under the (previous) feudal system.’ In 1958 the first border negotiation took place, the second two years later, when India asked China to indicate ‘precisely where according to them the international border lies.’
The only response was that the Chinese repudiated both the ‘colonial’ version and the watershed principle, which remains their position till today. Zhou pertinently added, ‘historically, no treaty or agreement on the boundary has ever been concluded between the China and India governments.’ In 1960 Zhou used the term ‘Line of Actual Control’ for the first time and hinted at a package deal ~ Aksai Chin for the McMahon Line. India chose to restate its maximalist position rather than negotiate, convinced that China would never attack; Krishna Menon declared ‘neither this nor any other government could make compromises regarding sovereignty and territory.’
Arpi observes that ‘these crucial talks were conducted in an extremely unprofessional manner without briefing, debriefing or proper note taking.’ The Aksai Chin Chinese road constructed in 1952-7 was reported from Gartok, Beijing and firsthand accounts in 1955 and 1957 from Wignall and Basera sent by Army Headquarters, but Krishna Menon denounced them in Nehru’s presence as ‘American CIA propaganda’ and the army was rebuked by Nehru for sending the patrols. In 1957 Beijing media announced the completion of the road, forcing Nehru in 1959 to admit it ran across Indian territory. Krishna Menon disbelieved Wing Cdr Nath who flew secret missions over Tibet in 1960-2 to confirm that China had no air force there.
Accordingly, India never used its air force in the 1962 conflict. After the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, the Chinese claimed they liberated Tibet to emancipate the serfs and denounced the Dalai Lama’s followers as ‘Tibetan rebel clique.’ All manner of harassment of Indian posts, traders, Kashmiri Muslims and pilgrims was perpetrated to bring the Indian presence to an end. In 1962, the Consulate in Lhasa and Indian trade agencies were closed, never to be reopened. Regarding the border, China stated that India had occupied big tracts of its territory and laid claims to even bigger ones, and that trade and bilateral relations and the boundary were two separate issues.
That position continues today. Other tragic stories to New Delhi’s discredit need retelling; 2100 Chinese, some with Indian nationality, were interned for years and everyone of Chinese origin numbering over 20,000 suffered unspeakable indignities and privations. India took scant interest in the welfare of nearly 4,000 Indian prisoners including 27 officers (war was never formally declared) who were repatriated in 1963 only due to efforts of the International Red Cross, arriving home to a frigid reception lacking compassion. Nehru saw China as a partner to create a new post-colonial world, and his aspirations for a global role linked to a big power neglected India’s national and security priorities at great cost. This should be an enduring lesson for our present and future governments.
(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)