Zhou’s First Visit to Delhi
During the years following the signing of the Panchsheel Agreement, Delhi continued its efforts to champion the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. The intellectual elite in Delhi looked at the Chinese revolution as part ‘of the great Asian Resurgence’; its politicians thought that India could enhance her image by becoming the champion of China’s cause in every possible forum and became the promoter of Beijing’s entry into the United Nations.
Zhou stopped in Delhi for three days and had five long sessions with Nehru. The most surprising aspect of these talks was that Tibet as well as the border problem which had been the main issues between the two nations, were not mentioned even once.
Two months after Ambassador Raghavan had signed the accord, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited Delhi for the first time. He was on his way back from Geneva where he had attended the Conference on Indochina. He needed some support in favour of a negotiated settlement to which the Americans would not be a party. Nehru was the ideal ‘neutral’ Asian leader to back the Chinese plan for a ‘peaceful’ solution to the Indochinese imbroglio. Zhou stopped in Delhi for three days and had five long sessions with Nehru. The most surprising aspect of these talks was that Tibet as well as the border problem which had been the main issues between the two nations, were not mentioned even once. The discussion centred on the Geneva talks and the role that India could be invited to play in a brokered solution. In the course of the discussions, Nehru repeatedly brought up the question of the acceptance of the Five Principles by the other Asian nations. This was according to him the panacea for all ills and the ultimate solution for peace in Asia (and in the world).
‘Small matters’ such the Tibet issue (and the border question) were ignored. This confirms that for Nehru at least the main feature of the Agreement was not the content (Tibet’s trade and pilgrimage), but the preamble.
Nehru’s Visit to Beijing in October 1954
The visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Beijing marks the apogee of the ‘friendship’ between India and China and perhaps also brought the first doubts in Nehru’s mind.
For the first time on October 19, 1954, the Indian Prime Minister met Mao in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The Great Helmsman began the talks by dwelling “on the age-old associations and the new friendship between China and India”. This remark speaks for itself. While the Indian leaders were speaking of 2000 years of friendship, Mao was speaking of ‘new friendship’.
Nehru had two talks with Mao, but neither party raised the Tibetan issue or the border question. Mao was more interested to know the reaction of the Indian leader on the use of the atomic bomb. It is during this meeting that Mao first termed the bomb as a ‘paper tiger’. According to Dr. Li, the private physician of Mao, when Nehru visited China in 1954, the Chairman flabbergasted Nehru during their meeting.1
The Indian Prime Minister had still not realised that the Five Principles were a one-way road. Two small incidents indicate the future direction in which the relations between India, Tibet and China would go.
During the three meetings between Nehru and Zhou Enlai, once again the ‘small matters’ were not discussed, except for a short mention about the Chinese maps which showed large parts of India and Burma within the Chinese territory. Nehru hesitantly told Zhou:
“As regards maps, I just casually mentioned to you some of the anxieties of our neighbours. We are not worried on this point. Our frontiers are clear but I mention it in the case of Burma because questions of this kind become a handle in the hands of enemy. …But as I said, I am sure, the maps were old maps and you did not mean it.”2
Finally at the end of meeting, Nehru dared ask Zhou a question directly linked to the six-month old Agreement on Tibet. For a simple matter such as the rights to go on a pilgrimage, the Indians (and Tibetans) were harassed. Nehru explained as mildly as possible to his counterpart the difficulties encountered by the pilgrims:
“There is a small matter which I may take this opportunity to mention to you. Some complaints have recently been received from pilgrims going to Tibet. Some of them are apparently being harassed by guards and I hope that Your Excellency will look into the matter. …As an example of the sort of harassment to which these pilgrims are subjected, I would mention that one of my friends was stopped by the border guards who told him that he could not be regarded as a pilgrim because he was not wearing a monk’s gown.”3
The Indian Prime Minister had still not realised that the Five Principles were a one-way road. Two small incidents indicate the future direction in which the relations between India, Tibet and China would go.
During the course of his visit, Nehru had occasion to meet the young Dalai Lama4 for the first time. As we have seen, Tibet and the border issue had been totally ignored in the talks with the Chinese leaders. This encounter with the young Lama was for Nehru like a mirror reminding him of the main provisions of the treaty (i.e. Tibet). The Dalai Lama recalls:
The Dalai Lama recalls: Zhou Enlai said: ‘This is the Dalai Lama.’ Nehru remained motionless, no speech, not looking in the eyes…[That day] I thought and felt that from Nehru’s side, there will be no support for Tibet…
“When we heard that we will meet him, there was a bit of excitement.
Pandit Nehru led by Zhou Enlai and many Chinese dignitaries were lining up when he reached the place where I was standing.
Zhou Enlai said: ‘This is the Dalai Lama.’ Nehru remained motionless, no speech, not looking in the eyes.
He just stood in front of me, without speech, without moving, motionlessly he remained like that. I was a bit embarrassed. I told through the Chinese interpreter: ‘I have heard a lot about you, and today I am very happy to meet you’. Nehru did not give a particular response, he seemed maybe happy, then he went to the next person. That was my first experience [with him].
[That day] I thought and felt that from Nehru’s side, there will be no support for Tibet and no support for the Dalai Lama. During a short moment, many things that occurred from 1949 till 1954 [passed] in his mind, like lightning.”5
Was this strange silence of the Indian Prime Minister a sign that he had begun to realize that he had betrayed his own statement four years earlier in the Lok Sabha?
The Bandung Conference
The period following the visit of Nehru to Beijing, was marked by a lull in the relations between the three nations. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa after receiving some assurances from Mao that the so-called Communist reforms would not be immediately enforced on the Tibetan people. Upon his return Nehru became busy with the preparation of the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung.
This Conference seemed the culmination of his personal ambitions. He had always wanted to be at the center of the stage amongst the newly decolonized nations. In Bandung, he was able to introduce his friend Zhou Enlai to the other Asian and African leaders.
Nehru was awed by Zhou, but was he completely blind to the danger for India of an emerging powerful China?
These encounters (in Bandung and later in Delhi) with an apparently moderate Zhou Enlai convinced Nehru of the ‘sincerity’ of the Chinese Communist rulers. He would discover the Communists’ true face in October 1962.
Though the purpose of the Conference was not to discuss ‘small matters’, Tibet was mentioned one day during a conversation between the Prime Ministers of Ceylon, Pakistan, Indonesia and Burma. Zhou explained his views on the question. Nehru later reported:
“When asked if he wanted to push communism into Tibet, Chou En-lai laughed and said that there could be no such question as Tibet was very far indeed from communism. It would be thoroughly impracticable to try to establish a communist regime in Tibet and the Chinese Government had no such wish. …Tibet was an autonomous region of China and they had no desire whatever to interfere with its customs or ways of life. They had gone to Tibet because it was an integral part of the Chinese state and because it had been used for imperialist intrigues, meaning thereby the British recently and previously Czarist Russia.”6
Later, when someone asked Zhou about Tibet, his answer was: “You cannot introduce socialism or communism into Tibet, you just cannot do it; maybe 50 years, 100 years later they may do it, I do not know.”
Unfortunately for the Tibetans, communism was already being introduced on a very large scale in Eastern Tibet and the Dalai Lama while returning to Lhasa in 1955 witnessed some of the dramatic consequences for the population of the provinces of Amdo and Kham.
During this period, the Chinese Liberation Army was busy consolidating its strategic occupation of Tibet, building several roads and airstrips. This was unquestionably their main priority.
Nehru was awed by Zhou, but was he completely blind to the danger for India of an emerging powerful China? He was probably not, though he could not grasp all the implications for India at that time.
During this period, the Chinese Liberation Army was busy consolidating its strategic occupation of Tibet, building several roads and airstrips. This was unquestionably their main priority. No doubt that ‘reforms’ could be postponed till China fully controlled the Roof of the World.
The End of a Civilization
A major consequence of the Panchsheel Agreement was the advance of the Communist ideology on the Tibetan plateau. A new way of life, less compassionate, less enlightened slowly took over the Roof of the World.
It is interesting to quote from the writings of Apa Pant, the Political Officer in Sikkim who was dealing with Tibetan affairs in the Ministry of External Affairs. Pant was aware not only of the diplomatic and strategic importance of the recent events on the Roof of the World, but was also conscious of the humane aspects of the disappearance of an ancient civilization. Pant writes: “With all its shortcomings and discomforts, its inefficiencies and unconquered physical dangers, here was a civilization with at least the intention of maintaining a pattern of life in which the individual could achieve liberation.”7
Pant readily admitted that he always felt “a great admiration for China’s culture and civilization, for its long history and indeed for its new revolution”. However, he was very saddened by the Chinese incapacity to accept (or even understand) a philosophy not fitting in with the Party line.
If the Chinese leadership appeared not to have made up their minds about the ‘reforms’, their main strategic objective was clear. Roads across Tibet and towards the Indian border were built on a war footing.
Pant like many of his colleagues felt that the Tibetans had a lot to learn from the Chinese: “In my travels in Tibet I observed how disciplined the Chinese were. All their activities were directed towards the building of a new culture, a society of ‘new men’”.
Pant often discussed with the Chinese Generals posted in Lhasa, but they could only answer in terms of efficiency and discipline.
We have to remember that during the 50’s, the ‘reforms’ had just started; Zhou Enlai’s reactions during the Bandung Conference reflect this stance. The Panchsheel was perhaps too fresh for the Chinese leaders to take a more radical approach. But the main factor which determined the Chinese approach was that the roads and infrastructure were not sufficiently in place to ‘stabilize the revolution’.
Pant had support in the Ministry of External Affairs for his ‘philosophical’ approach, but worse was the fact that even fewer could comprehend the strategic and military aspect of the events unfolding on the Roof of the World.
If the Chinese leadership appeared not to have made up their minds about the ‘reforms’, their main strategic objective was clear. Roads across Tibet and towards the Indian border were built on a war footing. We should not forget that in 1955, the construction of the Tibet–Sikiang Highway cutting across Ladakh was going on full swing and that the roads heading towards the NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) and Sikkim had already been completed.
Zhou’s words were definitely linked to the development of the communication infrastructure when he proclaimed that the Tibetan society was ‘not yet ripe’ for socialist changes.
Pant believed that Nehru understood the depth of the conflict, however “the exigencies of power, the feeling that the Chinese must in no circumstances be ‘upset’ and the needless, nervous and desperate hurry to ‘normalize’ India-China relations, lost us the larger perspective of action.”
These are some of the factors which contributed to the progressive disappearance of one of planet’s most ancient religions from the earth to be replaced by a materialistic dictatorship.
Pant was quite clear of the outcome of the situation: the Tibetans were hoping against hope. They could not get the assurance that they would get the benefits brought by the Chinese on the material plane, while “the old system and the philosophy that taught and practiced the path towards liberation of the human mind from turmoil” would be tolerated.
This is perhaps one of the most serious consequences of the Panchsheel Agreement: an open support for the forces which led to the complete loss of a ‘way of life’, based on the eternal values shared with Indian culture.
The Dalai Lama’s Visit in 1956-57
On the occasion of the 2500th birth anniversary of the Buddha (November 1956), important diplomatic activities took place with the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama to India which was followed by State visits of Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier. Zhou came to India thrice in less than 2 months; first from November 28 to December 10, 1956, then from December 30 to January 3, 1957 and again from January 24 to 26. His purpose was certainly not to enter a new record, but shows how nervous the Chinese government was about the Dalai Lama’s Indian tour.
…the Chinese Premier made some stray remarks which are worth noting: “That Tibet is part of China is a fact, but it as never an administrative province of China but kept an autonomous character…
Nehru had the occasion to have long talks with Zhou on diverse topics such the policies of the Roosevelt Administration or the happenings in Hungary. Though the situation in Tibet was discussed, the border issue was not taken up except when the Chinese Premier made some stray remarks which are worth noting: “That Tibet is part of China is a fact, but it as never an administrative province of China but kept an autonomous character. Therefore, when we started negotiations for peaceful liberation of Tibet, we from the first recognised the autonomous character of the region. When I said that India knew more about Tibet, I meant about the past history. For example, I knew nothing about McMahon Line until recently when we came to study the border problem after [the] liberation of China.”8
Is it not rather strange that he himself admits that he did not know about the McMahon line? It also means that in the fifties Zhou had no problem to grant a real autonomy to the Tibetan people.
During the following talk, he clarified his position about the Line: “What I meant was that people like me never knew about it till recently. The then Chinese Government, namely, the warlords in Peking and the KMT [Kuomintang] naturally knew about it.”9
He adds something which can appear bizarre fifty years later (when the question of recognition of the Line is still pending): “We studied this question and although this Line was never recognized by us, still apparently there was a secret pact between Britain and Tibet and it was announced at the time of the Simla Conference. And now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it. But we have not consulted Tibet so far.”
Let us not forget that in 1914 in Simla the Chinese Plenipotentiary participated for several months the discussions on the ‘secret pact’ which he initialed.10
Regarding the recognition of the McMahon Line, Zhou Enlai conveniently put it on the Tibetans. According to the Chinese Premier the Tibetans: “…wanted us to reject this Line; but we told them that the question should be temporarily put aside. I believe immediately after India’s independence, the Tibetan Government had also written to the Government of India about this matter. But now we think that we should try to persuade and convince Tibetans to accept it. …the question will be decided after Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa. So, although the question is still undecided and it is unfair to us, still we feel that there is no better way than to recognize this Line.”11
Nehru did not take this opportunity to forcefully denounce the Chinese intrusions across the Indian border; he remained rather vague: “The border is a high mountain border and sparsely populated…
Nehru did not take this opportunity to forcefully denounce the Chinese intrusions across the Indian border; he remained rather vague: “The border is a high mountain border and sparsely populated. Apart from the major question, there are also small questions about two miles here and two miles there. But if we agree on some principle, namely, the principle of previous normal practice or the principle of watershed, we can also settle these other small points.”
Once again it was ‘small’ or ‘petty’ issues. Zhou on his part remained hopeful: “the question can be solved and we think it should be settled early.”
A few days later, the Indian Prime Minister wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “Although [Zhou] thought that this line, established by British imperialists, was not fair, nevertheless, because it was an accomplished fact and because of the friendly relations which existed between China and the countries concerned, namely, India and Burma, the Chinese Government were of the opinion that they should give recognition to this McMahon Line.”12
The Dalai Lama (accompanied by the Panchen Lama) stayed for a few months in India for the Buddha Jayanti celebrations. On several occasions, he had the opportunity to discuss the Tibetan issue with Nehru.
Zhou Enlai, anxious that the Dalai Lama might strike a deal with the Indian Prime Minister, was often seen in Delhi during those months. Zhou had several meetings with the Dalai Lama who recalled one in the Chinese embassy in Delhi: “I was having a frank discussion with Chou [Zhou]. He told me that the situation in Tibet had deteriorated, indicating that the Chinese authorities were ready to use force to crush any popular uprising.”13
The Dalai Lama ‘bluntly’ replied that the Chinese were “forcing unwanted reforms, despite explicit reassurances that they would do no such thing”. The Dalai Lama recalls that the clever Foreign Minister14 used his charm and promised that the words of Chairman Mao who had announced “no reform should be introduced in Tibet for at least the next six years” would be implemented. Generously, he even added that it could be postponed for “fifty years, if necessary”.
“There is no alternative,” said Nehru, “India could be of no assistance to Tibet”. He even added that he should obey Zhou…
The Dalai Lama was not convinced; then Zhou Enlai asked him not to go to Kalimpong where he was scheduled to give to the local population some Buddhist teachings.
When the Dalai Lama met Nehru next, the Prime Minister made it clear that that he had to return to Tibet and work with the Chinese on the basis of the 17-Point Agreement. “There is no alternative,” said Nehru, “India could be of no assistance to Tibet”. He even added that he should obey Zhou and return to Tibet without stopping in Kalimpong.
However, after the Dalai Lama had explained the purpose of the stop, he suddenly changed his mind and said: “India is a free country after all. You would not be breaking any of her laws.” And eventually Nehru made all the arrangements for the Dalai Lama’s visit to Kalimpong.
After the Dalai Lama’s return to Lhasa the situation did not change for the better in Tibet. On the contrary the pressure increased, especially after the revolt of the Khampas in Eastern Tibet.
The end of the avalanche came when the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet after an uprising of the entire population of Lhasa in March 1959. This part of the story has been well documented, there is no need to repeat it here. Over the next forty years, more than 100,000 refugees would be forced to live in exile in India, Nepal or in the West.
The five years between the signing of the Panchsheel Agreement and the 1959 flight of the Dalai Lama to India saw a progressive deterioration in the relations between Delhi and Beijing. The construction of the road in the Aksai Chin (its late discovery by the Indian Government) was certainly a turning point. The Five Principles had no meaning anymore. After the Dalai Lama and his countrymen were given refuge in India, the situation worsened further. The acrimonious exchange running into hundreds of letters, demonstrates that the ‘eternal friendship’ had reached a point of no-return. The subject of this correspondence was mainly linked to the implementation of the Agreement (and the Trade regulations), the functioning of the marts and the treatment of Indian nationals in Tibet. Another part dealt with the one issue which was not settled in 1954: the border. Much suffering and bitterness could have been avoided, if the matter had been discussed threadbare in 1954.
The Chinese leadership had decided many years earlier ‘to teach India a lesson’ for having given refuge to the Dalai Lama and his people.
The last straw for India and the one that opened Nehru’s eyes was China’s invasion of India in October–November 1962. This event has been well described by many authors, and we shall not go into the details of the operations. However a few points should be made.
Some have argued that the ‘forward policy’ of the Government of India in 1962 provoked the Chinese attack on the Indian border, but this argument does not withstand closer scrutiny. The Chinese leadership had decided many years earlier ‘to teach India a lesson’ for having given refuge to the Dalai Lama and his people. The fact that the first thrust of the Chinese attack in 1962 occurred at the same place where the Dalai Lama had crossed over to India15 was an indication that the two events were directly related. The Chinese have always been attached to such details. It had taken a couple of years for the PLA to be ready for the onslaught on the McMahon line.
Mao knew that India was not prepared and that for China it would have been difficult to sustain a long war during the coming winter with the lines of supply passing through a restive ‘occupied’ territory. The sharp and sudden ‘blow’ was definitely the best strategic and political solution for Mao and it was perfectly executed by his faithful lieutenants. After the war, Nehru was physically and psychologically a broken man. He realized that he had been taken for a ride by Mao, the great strategist through his brilliant Machiavellian Premier.
The Government of India’s policy towards China changed temporarily after Nehru’s death. Lal Bahadur Shastri the new Prime Minister, decided to take a tougher stand on Tibet and his government voted in favour of the Resolution for Self-determination of Tibet in the UN in 1965. The Indian Representative to the UN declared:
Shastri who told him (Dalai Lama) that India had decided to recognize the Tibetan Government-in-exile after his return from Tashkent.
“The naked truth — which all of us must face — is that the Chinese Government is determined to obliterate the Tibetan people, but surely no people can remain for long suppressed. I have faith in the world community. I believe it will be able to help restore the Tibetans all the freedom which we have enshrined, with such dedication, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
…It is for these reasons that we support, fully and wholeheartedly, the cause of the people of Tibet.”16
The Dalai Lama told us that one day in September 1965 during the Indo–Pakistan conflict, Shakabpa, the Tibetan Representative in Delhi came down to South India17 to meet him. He was very excited; he had just had a meeting with Shastri who told him that India had decided to recognize the Tibetan Government-in-exile after his return from Tashkent. Unfortunately for the Tibetans (and for India) Shastri never returned from Tashkent.18 After the shock treatment of 1962, it took many years before India would sit with China at the negotiating table.
1. Li Zhisui, op. cit., p. 125.
2. SWJN, Series II, Vol. 27, Minutes of talks with Chou En-Lai, Beijing, 20 October 1954, p. 11.
3. SWJN, Series II, Vol. 27, Minutes of talks with Chou En-Lai. Beijing, 21 October 1954, p. 21.
4. The nineteen year old Dalai Lama had also been invited to spend a few months in China to see for himself the miracles of the Communist revolution. During this period he had long discussions with Mao on the future of Tibet. Unfortunately, the Chinese leader’s promises once again would not be kept.
5. Interview of the Dalai Lama with the author.
6. SWJN, Series II, Vol. 28, Note to the Chief Ministers, 28 April 1955. Also Letters to Chief Ministers 1954-1957, Vol. 4, pp. 159-171.
7. Pant Apa, Mandala – An Awakening (New Delhi: Orient Longman Limited, 1978), p. 112
8. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Series II, Volume 36.
10. See Claude Arpi, The Simla Convention: Ninety-two Years Later, (Colonial India, Ed Prof Surendra Gopal, Veer Kunwar Singh University, Arrah, 2006), p. 140.
12. Fifty years later, Beijing still does not recognize the McMahon line and claims Arunachal as part of China.
13. The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, op. cit., p. 133.
14. Zhou Enlai was also Foreign Minister.
15. In the Tawang District (then West Kameng Division) of NEFA.
16. Indian Leaders on Tibet (Dharamsala: DIIR, 1998), p. 84.
17. The Dalai Lama had been sent by the Government of India to South India ‘to avoid the shelling’ as he put it.
18. Shastri had gone to Tashkent for a conference with the President of Pakistan arranged by the Soviet Union, to try to find a ‘peaceful’ solution to the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965.