Tibet: The Panikkar Factor
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Issue Book Excerpt: Tibet - The Lost Frontier | Date : 04 Mar , 2011

One of the most important factors in the relation between Tibet and the Government of India was the appointment of K.M. Panikkar as the Ambassador to ‘two Chinas’.

It is unusual that the Indian Ambassador to Nationalist China was re-appointed to the Communist regime. It was probably Panikkar’s proximity to the Indian Prime Minister that helped him get the second posting to Beijing in spring 1950. He himself remarked that it was not normal to be re-appointed to the same post under drastically different circumstances.

Click to buy: Tibet: The Lost Frontier

More interestingly, Panikkar’s attitude changed drastically between his tenure in Nanjing and his subsequent posting with the Communist regime in Beijing. Posted in Nanjing as the first Ambassador of Free India1 to Nationalist China, Panikkar had been friendly towards the Nationalists but later in Beijing, his ‘leanings’ shifted so much towards the Communists that Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel was obliged to remark: “My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instil into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means.”2

Panikkar in Nationalist China

A confidential note from Panikkar to the Government of India written on 22 November 1948, helps to understand the ‘political’ evolution of Panikkar.

In India, it was not the general opinion that Red China should be immediately recognized. Many like C. Rajagopalachari, the then Governor-General, Sardar Patel and others wanted to go slow on the matter.

“In Sinkiang and Kham areas (the territories bordering on Tibet) also this policy is likely to be pursued. Kham is what is known as Inner Tibet, portions of which are under the effective control of the Central [Chinese] Government, while over a great part Tibet still exercises authority. The establishment of Kham republic will enable China to follow a forward policy in Tibet.”3

At the Simla Convention, the British had divided Tibet into Outer Tibet4 and Inner Tibet.5 Some Khampa leaders were not against this 2-tier approach provided they were given full autonomy. In fact the Chinese government had very little control over these areas which were controlled by local warlords.6

Panikkar clearly acknowledged that Chinese suzerainty over Tibet and other neighbouring countries was ‘vague and hazy’. Being a historian, he must have gone through the records and the Chinese annals before coming to that conclusion.

In 1948, he was still preoccupied with strategic considerations for India: “It is necessary to examine how Chinese policy in regard to these areas will work and how they will affect the interests of India.”

As a good Ambassador, Panikkar then went on to analyse how the changing political and strategic situation would affect his country.

This was not the case a few years later when G.S. Bajpai, the Secretary General in the Ministry of External Affairs,8 had to compare Panikkar’s protests on Tibet with Neville Chamberlain’s protest in Nazi Germany on behalf of Czechoslovakia. “Our Ambassador has allowed himself to be influenced more by the Chinese point of view, the Chinese claims, the Chinese maps and by regards for Chinese susceptibilities than by his instructions or by India’s interests.”9

Also read: A vision for India

But in 1948, he was still motivated mainly by India’s interests.

Let us come back to Panikkar’s analysis in 1948:

“Tibet: A more vital area to us immediately is Tibet. Recent Chinese diplomatic action (e.g. the denunciation of the already invalidated treaty of 1908) shows clearly the direction in which a strong Central government of China may move. Not only the Macmohan [sic] line, but the entire boundary from Ladakh to Burma may become a new area of trouble. With the Tibetan republic established in the Kham area, the 15th century regime of ignorant lamas will crumble to pieces and new republics with different names will come into existence on the Roof of the World.”

“¦but Nehru and Panikkar prevailed and Communist China was recognized in a great hurry on December 31, 1949

“The authorities in Tibet, however, backward they may in be other respects, are said to be aware of these dangerous possibilities. Information available here points to the conclusion that if the Kuomintang Government falls Tibet will make a public declaration of her independence and request recognition from India, Britain and the United States. The British position has always been in favour of recognizing the independence of Tibet and in the changed circumstances America may not also hesitate.10 If Outer Tibet’s claim of independence is recognised by Britain, America and India, there may be some hope of keeping the new Chinese Communist State away from the Indian border.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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