Nehru’s Advisor and Tibet’s Tragic Fate
I recently came across a telling note written on October 31, 1950 by Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, who served as Secretary General of Ministry of External Affairs and Commonwealth Relations in the early days of Independent India.
This note is interesting for several reasons. One, it was based on this note, that Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister sent his famous prescient letter on Tibet to Jawaharlal Nehru (tragically, Patel’s letter was never answered and 5 weeks later, he passed away).
The note starts by pointing out that as early as July 15, 1950, “the Governor of Assam reported that …Chinese Communist troops, in unknown strength, had been moving towards Tibet from three directions, namely the north, north-east and south-east.”
The Indian Embassy in Beijing was aware of the fact, rumours had been widely “prevalent during the last two days that military action against Tibet has already begun,” Delhi was informed.
Bajpai then instructed the Ambassador, “a friendly enquiry should be made from the Foreign Office in Peking [Beijing] regarding these reports and the desirability of settling Sino-Tibetan relations by friendly negotiations should be emphasized.”
Things soon started going on the wrong track. K.M. Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador in China wrote that “in spite of what he himself had reported in his telegram, he did not consider the time suitable” for inquiring from the Chinese government.
His arguments were that “the Chinese had been anxious to settle the question by peaceful negotiations and had offered Tibetans autonomy, …[and] Tibet had been stalling negotiations on one excuse or another.”
Both arguments were absolutely false and during the weeks to come, South Block would remind Panikkar about it time and again.
But worse, Panikkar said: “since military action was reported to have already started, any such suggestion now will only meet with rebuff.”
The Ambassador’s conclusions were: “time for direct approach will come if Tibetan opposition is serious and there is possibility of a prolonged conflict.”
Panikkar was told that he was wrong, in fact, it was the Chinese Government which was ‘stalling negotiations; South Block added “if China had embarked on military action, such representation would be desirable,” whatever the Chinese reactions.
Unfortunately for Tibet (and for India), the Ambassador was not ready to listen to his direct bosses in the ministry, simply because he had Nehru’s ears and he could directly ‘advise’ the Prime Minister passing over the ministry’s hierarchy (this should remind us of the 1962 fiasco when a Corps Commander went above the military hierarchy to ‘advice’ Nehru?).
On August 3, Delhi was informed that General Liu Bocheng had issued a notification, he had been “assigned to liberate Tibet …The People’s Liberation Army will soon march towards Tibet with the object of driving out the British and American aggressive forces so as to make Tibetans return to the Great Family of the Peoples Republic of China.”
The fact that there was no ‘foreign’ presence in Tibet, except for the Indian Mission, did not strike Panikkar.
While Delhi was surprised about Liu’s words about the “control of the Imperialists over the Tibetan authorities”, Panikkar was not.
Delhi however told its Ambassador: “We consider it a friendly duty to draw the attention of the Chinese Government to this aspect of their proposed action and to urge [that] the proposal military march be stayed.”
The Ambassador was specifically instructed to make a representation to Zhou EnLai the Chinese Premier, on these lines.
On August 13, Panikkar met Zhang Hanfu, the Vice Foreign Minister but ‘forgot’ to mention “the inappropriateness of military operations.”
On August 15, Lhasa informed the Ambassador that the number of Chinese troops near the frontier ‘is now increasing’, but this did not change Panikkar’s view and after meeting Zhou Enlai a few days later, he reported to Delhi: “I am satisfied that the representations we have made have had two important results; they (the Chinese) will NOT now proceed to attack Tibet unless all efforts at peaceful settlement have been exhausted. …Short of giving Tibet its privileged position, China, I am convinced, would do everything to satisfy Tibetans.”
A week later, the Ambassador was instructed to hand over an aide-memoire to the Chinese Foreign Minister. In this, the Government of India repeated that “they have no political or territorial ambitions in Tibet and no desire to seek any novel privileged position for themselves or their nationals in Tibet.”
On October 7, 1950, Tibet was invaded. India lost a Buddhist neighbor and a peaceful border.
Panikkar was told to “draw the attention of the Chinese Government to our grave concern about this development.”
He was asked to inform Beijing that Tibet and India had ancient relations “owing to geographical contiguity and cultural and economic links, to point out that all that we had suggested for Tibet was autonomy within the framework of Chinese sovereignty to be attained by peaceful negotiations.”
It is here that Panikkar changed ‘sovereignty’ but ‘suzerainty’ which had a completely different legal meaning. Though it has pointed to him several times, the Ambassador refused to correct his ‘mistake’.
Moreover, Panikkar continued to deny the invasion of Tibet: “As far as can be seen from here (Peking), NO military action against Tibet has so far taken place”.
He had been “unable to discover any information about new developments in regard to Tibet”.
Panikkar further argued: “Further I should like to emphasise that the Chinese firmly hold that Tibet is purely an internal problem …Chinese Government will not for a moment accept that they would be committing aggression if they were forced to take military action against Tibet, as they have all along claimed the right …NO one had claimed that it was international action.”
Even Nehru was worried. On October 25, he wrote: “It is difficult for us to understand how any intelligent person can consider Chinese security to be threatened along the Tibetan frontier, whatever might happen, including a world conflict. …If the Chinese Government distrust and disbelieve us, in spite of all that we have said and done, then there is nothing further that we can say.”
Bajpai’s conclusion was: “Peking’s objective has been to settle the problem of its relations by force. Much ingenuity has been exercised to invent unconvincing excuses for armed action.”
He then wrote: “I feel it my duty to observe that, in handling the Tibetan issue with the Chinese Government, our Ambassador has allowed himself to be influenced more by the Chinese point of view, by Chinese claims, by Chinese maps and by regard for Chinese susceptibilities than by his instructions or by India’s interests.”
Based on this Patel took the issue to the Prime Minister, but the latter never answered. Nehru had faith in his advisor in Beijing.
What a tragedy for Tibet and India!