‘Blaming Nehru would not solve China problem’: Nirupama Rao
Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao’s new book, The Fractured Himalaya, looks at the early years of the India-China relationship. She spoke to Sunetra Choudhury about writing the book amid the protracted India and China border standoff.
Did the situation along the border prompt you to write the book?
The confrontation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, and all the events that unfolded in summer of 2020, certainly accelerated the completion of the book. My objective really was to inform the younger generation of Indians about the very nuanced and complex nature of this entire narrative. I’ve also tried to underline that while many blame (Jawaharlal) Nehru for everything that went wrong with China, I tried to say that it was not as if Nehru was not aware of the dangers and risks of dealing with this big neighbour... When the Chinese entered Tibet, it was famously said by one of our officials posted in Lhasa, Sumul Sinha, that the Chinese have entered Tibet, and the Himalayas no longer exist.
I think to some extent, Nehru was also aware of the basic challenge... He understood the nature of the challenge. But at the same time, I think he was also quite focused on the need for a peaceful environment in which India could develop to consolidate its neighbourhood. Therefore, he felt that friendship with China, dialogue, or some kind of understanding was needed.
He thought these two big countries of Asia could work together to become the third force in world politics that could benefit India. Now, as it turned out, he was proved wrong in his calculations about China. But I’ve tried to emphasise in the book that he was concerned about the security along India’s frontiers. He was the one who took the decisions to consolidate our administration closer to the Himalayan borders, extend connectivity and improve infrastructures. So, blaming Nehru may not entirely solve the problem for us.
Was there was a difference of perception between how Vallabhbhai Patel saw the Chinese as a threat versus how Nehru saw it?
I believe Patel had an aversion to communism and he distrusted Communist China. He did not see any good coming about with the Chinese entry into Tibet, and I think, to a large extent, Nehru also understood that subconsciously. Patel, unfortunately, passed away in December 1950, so he was not around when a lot of the decisions in regard to the China policy were taken subsequently. So, we really don’t know how things would have played out if he had lived and been an important constituent in the making of our policy towards China. I can’t conjecture about what might have happened if he had lived.
From my research and from my study of the papers, it was very clear that from 1949 onwards, Nehru was worried about the fact that the Chinese were going to enter Tibet which was going to change the scene along our frontiers and have implications for our security.
He had a foreign policy where he felt that, in the time of the Cold War, he didn’t want India to be dragged into supporting either side. He wanted India to be part of the third force in world politics. He felt that cooperation with China was necessary to open a dialogue with each other and to come to some degree of understanding about the situation in Asia.
But his frontier policy was about not yielding an inch to China. The problem lay in the fact that when it came to Tibet, we gave up whatever rights and privileges we had in Tibet. We did not seek an understanding simultaneously with China in regard to our common frontier.
What role did India’s first envoy to China KM Panikkar play?
I think Nehru and Panikkar had a very good understanding. Even if the rest of the foreign office distrusted Panikkar because he was being too appeasing of the Chinese, he was somehow able to write his dispatch in a manner that really pleased Nehru, and established direct communication with Nehru. So, yes, to that extent I believe that Nehru did listen to Panikkar.
He was also an envoy before the collapse of the nationalist regime. Once he came to Beijing as the ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, his attitude seemed to have a degree of awe to this new regime that had established itself, won the civil war against the nationalists, and consolidated power at a rapid pace within China’s frontiers. So, what he was communicating back to Nehru was in a sense saying that if it came to Tibet, there was very little that India could do... That Tibetan dispensation led by the Dalai Lama and the clergy could not face the force of the new Chinese regime. Therefore, India would have to come to terms with these realities. So, that’s where I believe in taking Panikkar’s advice, perhaps Nehru set aside his very real reservations about the implications for India’s security...
With the 13th round of talks happening with China, do you think we are misreading the Chinese?
I don’t believe we’re misreading the Chinese. We’ve dealt with them for over seven decades. Many lessons have been learned and many conclusions have been drawn. I think we understand the terrain so much better. We understand the problem more clearly. I don’t believe we’re losing ground. We have a terribly complex territorial dispute with China. It’s the longest-standing land border dispute I think anywhere in the world. Now what has happened along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, and in some other areas of the border, is that the Chinese have become so much more active, assertive, and aggressive. That has entailed a drastic change in the situation along the LAC for India. Tensions have arisen and most importantly the mechanisms, regimes, and the arrangements and agreements that we had for maintaining peace and tranquillity to build confidence between the two sides have essentially broken down which is extremely unfortunate.
India is on the right track in trying to seek through patient negotiation, de-escalation, and disengagement so that the situation can revert to normal, and the status quo can be restored. So we are on the right track, but it’s proving complex, protracted and very complicated. But obviously, what is the choice? As I said in my book quoting Martin Luther King: “Wars are imperfect chisels to carve out peaceful tomorrows.”
There is no choice but to continue to seek de-escalation and to arrive at some degree of disengagement so that we’re able to reduce tensions. But don’t forget the underlying territorial border dispute between the two countries. Unless we’re able to solve it, we will not have a permanent lasting solution.
Isn’t it time for a political resolution?
I think we must seek a political solution. Our Prime Minister and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, established a channel of communication through the informal summits and the various meetings. Unfortunately, since the Galwan Valley incident, we haven’t had that kind of direct communication. Galwan was such a shock to the entire structure of the bilateral relationship, and this situation that we see today was to be expected. We have kept the channels of communications open and that these matters are being discussed.