Tibet: When Patel and Bajpai opposed Nehru
About my latest book
It is usually assumed that Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister of India wrote the ‘prophetic’ letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister, detailing the implications for India of Tibet’s invasion. A new book proves that Patel used a draft given by Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, the Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs and Commonwealth.
On November 7, 1950, a month after the entry of the People’s Liberation Army in Tibet, Patel sent Bajpai’s note under his own signature, to Nehru, who decided to ignore Patel’s letter. The next day, meeting Bajpai in the corridors of South Block, the Prime Minister told his General Secretary: “you are marshalling the big shots”. Bajpai, deeply upset by the turn of events (which were influenced by KM Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador to China, who ceaselessly defended the Chinese interests), had also written to President Rajendra Prasad and C Rajagopalachari.
Reproduced below are extracts of Tibet: The Last Months of a Free Nation: India Tibet Relations (1947-1962). It deals with a first note of Bajpai on the sequence of events and the nefarious role of Panikkar.
The October 31’s note written by Bajpai is historically important for several reasons; first and foremost because after it was sent to Sardar Patel, the latter asked for a draft for a letter to be sent to Nehru; Bajpai’s note also shows the frustration of many senior officers in the Ministry and provides a precise chronology of the tragic events of Summer and Fall 1950.
G.S. Bajpai’s Note of October 31
…Bajpai first noted that on July 15, 1950, the Governor of Assam had informed Delhi that, according to information received by the local Intelligence Bureau, Chinese troops, “in unknown strength, had been moving towards Tibet from three directions, namely the north, north-east and south-east.” The IB had reported that one column was moving from Jyekundo in Qinghai Province, the second one from Derge in the Sikang Province. …The third column, which came from the Yunnan Province, had reached the Shukla Pass.”
The same day, the Indian Embassy in China reported that rumours in Beijing had been widely “prevalent during the last two days that military action against Tibet has already begun.”
Though Panikkar was unable to get any confirmation, he virtually justified Beijing’s military action by writing: “in view of frustration in regard to Formosa, Tibetan move was not unlikely.”
…[A few days later], Bajpai remarked that the Ambassador [Panikkar] had “answered [Delhi] that he did not consider the time suitable for making a representation to the Chinese Foreign Office. Panikkar gave the following reasons:
- The Chinese have been anxious to settle the question by peaceful negotiations and had offered Tibetans autonomy and invited Tibetan representations to Peking;
- Tibet had been stalling negotiations on one excuse or another.
- Since military action was reported to have already started, ‘any such suggestion now will only meet with rebuff’.
…Bajpai is more and more frustrated with Panikkar’s surrender to Chinese interests and perhaps also by the support that the ambassador gets from the Prime Minister. The Secretary General is clearly in a difficult position.
…Already on July 20, Panikkar’s attention had been drawn by South Block to the fact that Beijing’s argument that the ‘Tibetans had been stalling the talks’, was wrong.
Panikkar had been informed by Delhi that the Tibetan Delegation should not be blamed for something they are not responsible for “…The Tibetan Delegation have been awaiting a reply to the communication of their Government to the Chinese Government.”
Panikkar brings in philosophical issues
…India [Panikkar] attempted to change the Communist regime’s decision to ‘liberate’ Tibet, by bringing a philosophical angle to the issue: “In the present dangerous world situation, a military move can only bring a world nearer [to a conflict], and any Government making such a move incurs the risk of accelerating the drift towards that catastrophe.”
Mao was not in the least bothered about such niceties.
…As the preparations on the Chinese side continued, Panikkar wrote to Delhi on August 13 to inform the ministry that he has been unable to meet Zhou Enlai, who is ‘ill with dysentery’, but he had met Chang Han-Fu, the Vice Foreign Minister: …”Unfortunately, nothing is mentioned by the Ambassador, either about the inappropriateness of military operations in the prevailing international situation or the absurdity of General Liu Bosheng’s reference to an imperialist control over the Tibetan authorities”, comments Bajpai.
…Delhi again repeats its ‘philosophical’ position: it would be bad for Beijing to invade Tibet: “The Government of India would desire to point out that a military action at the present time against Tibet will give those countries in the world which are unfriendly to China a handle for anti-Chinese propaganda at a crucial and delicate juncture in inter-national affairs.”
…Delhi is convinced that ‘the position of China will be weakened’ by a [Chinese] military solution.
The Chinese plans are clear
… the objective of Mao and the Southwestern Bureau in Chengdu is to occupy Chamdo, it is therefore clear that the PLA is preparing to enter ‘Tibet proper’. Though the plans for the military action are ready, the logistic is not. The objective remains the fall of Chamdo before the winter, ambassador or no ambassador, negotiation or no negotiations.
On the front, the preparations are going on full swing.
On October 7, 1950, Tibet is invaded
On October 11, The Statesman in Kolkata publishes a report saying: “Communist forces had penetrated 50 miles into Tibet from the Sino-Tibetan border.” The Ministry in Delhi had not heard anything.
…Panikkar is told that if there had been Chinese military movement in Tibet recently, “he should draw the attention of the Chinese Government to our grave concern about this development.”
Sir Girja’s narrative continues
On October 17, the Indian Ambassador receives the full details of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. South Block confirms that Tibet has been invaded, it was “brought to our notice at the request of the Tibetan Government in a message sent through our Mission in Lhasa,” says a cable from Delhi.
…The next day, Panikkar continues to argue against the invasion having happened; he says that out of the incidents to which Lhasa has drawn Delhi’s attention, only one appears to be new. He adds that the telegram from the Indian Mission “did not indicate whether Changtu [Chamdo] was definitely identified as Changtu in Tibet.” Handwritten in the margin is “the suggestion was that there was another Changtu in the Chinese Province of Sikang.”
Bajpai more and more upset
…Sir Girja Bajai is obviously upset; he writes that the rest of the ambassador’s telegram deserves quotation in full. We can understand why.
Panikkar first argues: “Further I should like to emphasise that the Chinese firmly hold that Tibet is purely an internal problem and that while they are prepared in deference to our wishes to settle question peacefully they are NOT prepared to postpone matters indefinitely.”
This is written by the Ambassador of India.
On October 22, Nehru writes to Panikkar
…Nehru cables the Ambassador in Beijing: “Our information from Lhasa is that Chinese forces are still advancing and Riwoche, Dzokangdzong, Markhan and Chamdo have fallen. Also that Lhodzong is expected to fall soon. Unless it is clear that these forces are halted and there is no imminent danger of invasion of Tibet, there is little chance of Tibetan delegation proceeding to Peking.” …The Prime Minister continues: “I confess I am completely unable to understand urgency behind Chinese desire to ‘liberate’ when delay CANNOT possibly change situation to her disadvantage.”
Another aide-memoire is presented
Finally on October 24, the Ambassador presents an aide-memoire to the Chinese Foreign Office. Bajpai notes “The contrast between the tone and content of the instructions sent to the Ambassador, and his feeble and apologetic ‘note’ deserves notice.”
This raises a question, how could the ambassador present an aide-memoire without its content being vetted by South Block?
It is a mystery.
…Bajpai could only conclude that “from the foregoing narrative which I have been at some pains to document, that ever since the middle of July, at least, Peking’s objective has been to settle the problem of its relations by force.”
…As we shall see from Chinese archives, particularly from Mao’s cables, the invasion (or ‘liberation’ for the Chinese side) did not at all depend on ‘negotiations’ or ‘talks’ with Tibetans. The army action had been decided since months.
…Though Bajpai, a seasoned diplomat is aware of what is going on, he is caught up in the system with the strong-willed Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) dominating the scene and a ‘darbari’ Ambassador.
Remains the fact that Chinese excuses or pretexts (or the one advanced by the Indian Ambassador in China) do not make sense, Bajpai admits it: “What justification there is for Chinese fear of American aggression must remain a matter of opinion. What, in my opinion, is not open to dispute is that however well-founded such fears, they cannot justify either Peking’s invasion of Tibet or Peking’s discourtesy to and suspicion of us.”
Though Bajpai says that he is not interested to find ‘scapegoats’, he finally blames his ambassador to China: “In examining the larger implications of China’s policy towards Tibet, the role of any individual must have relatively minor significance. The search for scapegoats is neither pleasant nor fruitful, and I have no desire to indulge in any such pastime. Before concluding this paper, however, 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. Ample justification for this comment exists in the telegram from which I have quoted.”
This is a strong, though late indictment of Panikkar.
Patel replies to Bajpai
…When on October 31, a copy of Bajpai’s note goes to Sardar Patel, the latter writes back to Bajpai: “I need hardly say that I have read it with a great deal of interest and profit to myself and it has resulted in a much better understanding of the points at issue and general though serious nature of the problem. The Chinese advance into Tibet upsets all our security calculations. …I entirely agree with you that a reconsideration of our military position and a redisposition of our forces are inescapable.”
A few days later, Bajpai would write a draft for Patel to shoot his famous letter.
Nehru would not even acknowledge it…
Patel passed away five weeks later.
The rest is history.