How PM Nehru mishandled China
Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure as independent India’s first Prime Minister (PM) was marked by an intense engagement, in different forms, with China. From the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 till his death in 1964, Nehru’s approach evolved from being trusting and having an almost fatal attraction for China to being ambivalent to finally turning hostile.
In a recent book, Nehru Tibet and China, based on extensive archival work and examination of official documents, including highly classified ones accessed for the first time, I have attempted to capture Nehru’s tryst with China.
First, a blunt truth. The conventional understanding that the two countries had developed such a close relationship that it qualified the two peoples to be brothers, captured in that evocative slogan, Hindi-Chini bhai bhai, is false. As the classified documents reveal, Nehru’s friendship with China was one-sided with little reciprocity.
Suspecting India of having a hidden agenda on Tibet, China gave no space, minced no words and told India not once, but several times, that Tibet was its internal affair and it would not tolerate any interference from India. India’s lack of understanding of the depth of China’s sentiments against the Simla Convention (which determined the status of Tibet in 1914) was a key problem. Beijing argued it had not signed the treaty, treated it as an unequal pact, and blamed it on the imperial legacy. When China squeezed India out of Tibet in the Panchsheel agreement of 1954, Nehru called the five principles “wholesome” and erroneously described it as “a very important event”.
India also remained immune to the use of undignified language against Nehru. China referred to him as a “lackey” of the British and the Americans and used disparaging language, calling Nehru’s resolution in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on repatriation of prisoners of war in Korea as “parent of all evils”. But India ignored it because it needed to work with China, which was then not in the UN.
Even when China was seen to be more sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns at the cost of India’s, Delhi ignored it. China went to the extent of describing India’s relations with Bhutan as part of the dark vassal system, and said the UN should examine what China called Bhutan’s enslavement. Tibet’s revolt in 1956 against Chinese occupation too was blamed on India.
Yet, despite clear negative signals, Nehru remained anxious to protect the illusion of a bhai bhai relationship, keeping the contradictions in their relations hidden from the people. This was possible in the pre-internet age, when the only source of information was the government and what it chose to dish out was the only news available to the public.
On the question of borders, which proved the Achilles’ heel and where accommodation of each other’s point of views was essential, and China showed flexibility, Nehru remained rigid. He declared that India’s borders were what they were, map or no map, ignoring the many infirmities that existed.
In the eastern sector, the McMahon Line, set up as the border between Tibet and India in 1914, ceded the area called Tawang to India. But this remained under Tibetan occupation until 1951, when India finally occupied it.
In the western sector, the border in the Aksai Chin area was undefined in the Survey of India maps when India became independent in 1947, and continued to be undefined when the maps were reprinted in the subsequent years. In 1954, after the agreement on Tibet had been signed, Nehru issued instructions to withdraw the old maps and print new ones, showing a firm line as India’s border that would not be open for discussion with anyone.
But remember, this was an international border and needed consultations/discussions with the other stakeholder before a line was drawn. Nehru, however, remained uncompromising and would insist that the border was well-known by usage and custom and by the principle of watershed; and, hence, there was no need for fresh surveys and China should accept it. This was an unrealistic expectation which was the prime factor that led to the 1962 conflict.
Unfortunately, Nehru himself was not sure of India’s borders. He said in Parliament, on December 8, 1959, that, in hindsight, he and his ministry had doubts about India’s position. Still, he said, that India should hold its position, the lapse of time and events would confirm it, and by the time a challenge came, India would be in a much stronger position to face it.
A couple of months earlier, on October 28, 1959, foreign secretary Subimal Dutt said, “The Sikkim-Tibet boundary delimited in 1896 was the only boundary along the entire frontier which was properly delimited.” Distilled to the core, what this meant was that out of the entire stretch of an almost 3,500 km boundary line, only 220 km were delimited, and there was an obvious need to delineate the remaining boundary too.
But PM Jawaharlal Nehru remained in denial. India paid a price in 1962 and continues to pay a price till today for his tragic mistake.
Avtar Singh Bhasin served in the ministry of external affairs for three decades, retiring in 1993 as the head of its historical division. He is the author, most recently, of Nehru, Tibet and China
The views expressed are personal