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.”

“Attempts will be made on the basis of recognised suzerainty to infiltrate into Tibet proper, and then the claims of Tibet in regard to the Indian border will be revived.”

It is very unfortunate that the latter reports of Panikkar have remained ‘classified’, but one day it will certainly be of great historical interest to study the evolving political thought of the Indian ambassador. However, it appears clear from the above confidential note that Panikkar could foresee the danger to the borders of India of a Chinese take-over of the Roof of the World.

In 1949, the Communists were far from having ‘liberated’ all the parts of China but were in control of most of the mainland. When the corrupt regime of Chiang Kai-shek, moved to Formosa (Taiwan), India decided to recognize the Communists in Beijing. One of the reasons given by the Government was that the Chinese like the Indians had been fighting a war of liberation against an imperialist oppressor. India was the second country outside the Soviet bloc and after Burma to recognize the new regime in Beijing.

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. “They were supported in this attitude,” wrote Panikkar later, “by a powerful section of the Civil Service, including, I suspect, some of the senior officials of the Foreign Service;” but Nehru and Panikkar prevailed and Communist China was recognized in a great hurry on December 31, 1949.

The two different currents in the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be mentioned: one was led by Bajpai, the Secretary General who advocated a stronger stance vis-à-vis China. He wanted, for example, to support the Tibetan appeal to the UN and continue the supply of arms and ammunition to the Tibetan army even as late as December 1950. The other side, led by Panikkar and B.N. Rau, the Indian Representative to the UN, felt that nothing should be done because it would only “exacerbate [the Chinese] feelings and perhaps jeopardize efforts for agreement on more important issues [Korea].”11

Also read: China supports Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir!

Panikkar and B.N. Rau had direct access to Nehru12 and most of the time their correspondence went over the head of Bajpai, their direct boss. Panikkar and Rau were able to inform and directly influence Nehru’s choices.13

Panikkar in Communist China

Less than six months after his arrival in Beijing and after a few tête-à-tête dinners with Zhou Enlai and his wife, Panikkar became so enamoured of the Communist regime that he made it a point to convince everyone of his new ‘convictions’. Patel had to remark that Panikkar “has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions.”

One would have thought that Communist China would be delighted to receive such an early recognition from India and that the exchange of Ambassadors would automatically follow.

He began propagating his enthusiasm for New China in the corridors and offices of South Block. The contagion spread even to the Prime Minister’s Office and a generation of bureaucrats and diplomats would see the future of India leaning towards the East.

Many have noted that during the course of the Chinese revolution, not once did the Indian National Congress or any other organisation struggling for the independence of India receive any encouragement or friendly message from the Chinese communists. On the contrary it was the Nationalists who supported the Indian independence struggle. The only friendly messages from Mao were for the Communist Party of India, as if the Communists had been the only ones fighting for freedom.

One would have thought that Communist China would be delighted to receive such an early recognition from India and that the exchange of Ambassadors would automatically follow. But nothing was ‘automatic’ with Mao Zedong.

During the next few months, while waiting for his posting to be ratified by Mao Zedong, Panikkar was busy rewriting Indian and Asian history from “the point of view of Asians themselves”. It was during this period that his book, Asia and the Western Dominance was revised. It would tremendously influence the Nehruvian foreign policy.

His point was that all the nations of Asia had been dominated by foreign imperialists, they had suffered the same ordeals through the centuries, therefore after their liberation from ‘Western dominance’ they should come together to fight unitedly against the return of any ‘white’ imperialism. Unfortunately for India, though the theory was sound, the reality on the ground was different. To decide that the ‘white man’ had been an imperialist and would therefore always remain an imperialist was an assumption not always borne out by historical facts.

The reverse assumption — that having once been under the yoke of a foreign power, one can never become an imperialist in future — was equally erroneous.

Book_Tibet_the_Lost_FrontieAs an Indian, Panikkar should have known the history of both India and China. During the five or six millennia of her history, from the time of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, India had never been an imperialistic nation. India had never tried to convert or amalgamate other states.14 While just a single glance at Chinese history demonstrates that China has always been an ‘imperialistic’ power.In his own 1948 Note, Panikkar was not unaware that Tibet was an independent country between 1912 and 1950. The Chinese had no power whatsoever over the internal and external policies of Tibet. Tibet had its own currency and its own postal system and Tibetan diplomats were travelling with their own handmade paper passports, but China still claimed that Tibet was part of its empire. How could Panikkar the historian not see that the Chinese move was an obvious imperialist attitude?

Click to buy: Tibet: The Lost Frontier

What was worse for India was that the Tibetan Government’s claims of a portion of Indian territory as part of Tibet, were enough for the Chinese government to automatically claim it back as a part of the Chinese empire. Tawang and NEFA are the best examples of these claims. Did any Chinese ever visit Tawang or Sikkim before 1950?

Nehru did not understand that in abandoning the Tibetans he could no longer claim to be the hero of the trampled and the downtrodden; the years ahead would prove that he had supported and defended one of the most totalitarian regimes of this century.

The Nationalists had also asserted that these areas were theirs. They even tried to take up the matter with the British government in the late 40’s. It might have been understandable coming from Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, which was corrupt and very friendly with the ‘American imperialists’, but the first thing the Communists did after coming to power was to claim the same territories.

These were the premises on which Panikkar influenced the policy of the Government of India. They were false from the start. This would become more and more evident in the course of time. The main problem was that such suggestions appealed to the idealist Indian Prime Minister who was keen to be seen as a defender of oppressed people. However, it is not clear how he could pretend to be a defender of the oppressed nations such as Algeria or Indonesia and at the same time befriend neo-colonial China.

Nehru did not understand that in abandoning the Tibetans he could no longer claim to be the hero of the trampled and the downtrodden; the years ahead would prove that he had supported and defended one of the most totalitarian regimes of this century.

Patel clearly understood the problem when he wrote: “even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends.”

Upon receiving the news of his second appointment as the Ambassador of India to Red China, Panikkar thought with an incredible pretension that he would be able to convert Mao Zedong to his views. But nobody could change Mao’s views.

Panikkar quoted Mao as saying that there can be only two camps and those who were not with the Communists were against them. “It was my mission, as I saw it, to prove it to him that a neutral position was also possible,” he said.15

Also read: Bureaucratic mischief with the Military!

While on board the ship which took him to Beijing, Panikkar was thinking:

“In fact, except for the Soviet and the Eastern bloc diplomats in Nanjing, I had not known any communists at all. All my training has been in the liberal radicalism of the West and consequently …I had no sympathy for a political system in which individual liberty did not find a prominent place.

What was worse for India was that the Tibetan Governments claims of a portion of Indian territory as part of Tibet”¦Tawang and NEFA are the best examples of these claims. Did any Chinese ever visit Tawang or Sikkim before 1950?

I had a deep sympathy for the Chinese people, a desire to see them united, strong and powerful, able to stand up against the nations which had oppressed them for a hundred years, a psychological appreciation of their desire to wipe out the humiliations which followed the western domination of their country. And to proclaim the message of resurgent Asia.”16

Soon after his arrival in Beijing in April 1950, he met with the new ‘elected’ Chinese leaders, most of them puppet leaders put in place to give a democratic face to the new regime of Mao Zedong in the first year17 after the ‘liberation’. It was clear for Mao that “from day one, they would never have a word in the affairs of China.”

Frank Moraes wrote: “Watching Panikkar, I could not help feeling that his sense of history had overwhelmed him. He saw himself projected into the drama of a great revolution, and his excitement had infected him.”18

Panikkar recalled at length his first encounter with Mao Zedong in May 1950.

Before meeting him, one question was in Panikkar’s mind: was Mao “the chosen leader of a resurgent people, driving out those who had sold out the Chinese Revolution and pushing back to the sea, from whence they came, the western nations who had enslaved the nations of Asia?”19

The historian in Panikkar should have known that the ‘foreign imperialists’ had already been pushed back into the sea by March 1950. The Japanese had long since been defeated and sent back to their island and the ‘imperialist paper tigers’ had also left China long ago. But Panikkar had two constant psychotic obsessions — to take revenge on the imperialists and to not be seen as a defender of imperialism.

Also read: Seven blunders that will haunt India for prosperity

Zhou Enlai, the ‘Grand Master’ in diplomacy would use these obsessions to his advantage. The Chinese had mastered the game and Mao knew the trick: by calling Nehru ‘a running dog of the imperialists’, he knew that Nehru would run to show the world that he was a friend of China.

Another example illustrates the new ambassador’s attitude: Panikkar was looking for a residence to house the embassy: “I had made up my mind from the beginning to select a residence for myself outside the Legation area. I had no desire to be associated with the quarter, which stood so much for European domination in the East.”20

The Chinese had mastered the game and Mao knew the trick: by calling Nehru “˜a running dog of the imperialists, he knew that Nehru would run to show the world that he was a friend of China.

It is strange that a couple of years earlier, the same Indian Ambassador had been quite at ease with the western diplomats in Nanking and his contacts with them were more than cordial.

When Panikkar went to present his credentials, he gave a speech which was to be repeated by Indian leaders during the next twelve years on the importance for world peace of friendship between China and India.

The first thing Panikkar noticed that day was Mao’s wife: he was very impressed by Chiang Ching, a ‘very good looking woman.’ Some twenty years later she became the leader of the ‘Gang of Four’ and was responsible for the death of millions of Chinese during her mad Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Describing Mao, Panikkar said: “The impression which his face conveys is pleasant and benevolent and the look in his eyes is kindly. His personality is impressive but not intimidating and he has a gift of making people at home.”21

To make Panikkar ‘feel at home’, Mao told him of an old belief: “If a man lives a good life, he would be reborn in India.” It is very doubtful if Mao believed a word of what he told Panikkar, because as a good Communist, would he have believed in reincarnation?22

And Panikkar continued: “There is no cruelty or hardness either in his eyes or in the expression of his mouth. In fact he gave me the impression of a philosophical mind, a little dreamy… Mao Zedong in his epic life must have experienced many hardships and endured tremendous sufferings. Yet his face showed no sign of bitterness, cruelty or sorrow.”23

Panikkar had fallen under Mao’s charm.24 So had India and her Prime Minister!

Was he not already the expert on China, the person who knew everything about China, and who could give a direction to India’s foreign policy in Asia?

Panikkar was no longer ‘neutral’ thereafter. He had failed to convince Mao about his so-called ‘middle way’ position. Zhou would continue to listen to him politely and smile during their many tête-à-tête dinners, but by now Mao knew that the Indian idealists would not block his plans for the ‘liberation’ of Asia.

Also read: Demographic invasion of India from Northeast

Panikkar went so far to please the Chinese that, in a telegram of October 25 1950 the Prime Minister, his only defender in the Government, had for once to rebuke him:

“We cannot help thinking that your representation to the Chinese Government was weak and apologetic. In fairness to the Chinese Government as well as to ourselves our views regarding threatened invasion of Tibet and its probable repercussion should have been communicated to them clearly and unequivocally. This has evidently not been done.”25

Book_Tibet_the_Lost_FrontieThe communication from Panikkar to the Chinese Foreign Office dated October 2, tends to confirm that he had prior knowledge of the Chinese intentions to invade Tibet. Panikkar is reported to have said that the Tibetan Delegation would be leaving India shortly for Peking. He expressed the hope that further military action would, therefore, not be necessary. “It will help the peaceful settlement of the Tibetan question if the Chinese troops which might have entered territory under the jurisdiction of the Lhasa authorities could restrict themselves to western Sikang [Kham].”

A Costly Oversight

The following incident more than anything else demonstrates Panikkar’s character.

On 26 August 1950, in an aide memoire,26 Panikkar defined India’s policy vis-à-vis Tibet as “autonomy within framework of Chinese sovereignty”. Following this note, discussions with the Chinese authorities were based on the same terminology which was a radical change in India’s Tibet policy. In fact, many believed that it helped China justify its military action in Tibet.

Click to buy: Tibet: The Lost Frontier

Though an Indian note of 1 November 1950 tried to rectify the ‘oversight’, it was too late and hereafter China kept on using ‘sovereignty’ for ‘suzerainty’. It went a step further when Beijing attributed the rectification (of November 1) to ‘outside influence’.27

“¦told by a “˜senior member of the Indian Embassy in Beijing that the change to “˜sovereignty had been deliberately introduced by Panikkar.

The Statesman in Calcutta reported its own version of the incident: according to them, it was the result of a careless slip in transcribing a coded message in the diplomatic communication from New Delhi to Beijing in 1950:

“A corrigendum did follow after the mistake (or mischief) had been detected, and was traced to inadvertence in transmission of a coded message. It was K.M. Panikkar, then Indian Ambassador to China, who held back the correction on the ground that it would mean discomfiture for the Indian Government. As the matter stands now because of this blunder, (a permanently sad commentary on the functioning of the Foreign Service), India remains committed to ‘Chinese sovereignty’ over Tibet.

For all that Nehru wondered from whom Tibet was being ‘liberated’, it passes understanding how his government could write ‘Chinese sovereignty’ when it meant ‘Chinese suzerainty’ in a reply to Beijing, and then not bother to inform the Chinese formally that the mistake had been spotted and corrected.”28

The Statesman may have not known that a ‘correction’ was eventually sent, but the fact that more than two months passed before the Chinese received it, was translated by Beijing more as an encouragement to go ahead with their ‘liberation’ of Tibet.

But the truth is that it was certainly not an ‘oversight’.

Also read: Radicalization of Paksitan will increase threat to India

John Lall, a former Diwan of Sikkim (1949-1954) and ex-ICS officer, wrote in his book, Aksai Chin and the Sino-Indian Conflict that he had been told by a ‘senior member’ of the Indian Embassy in Beijing that the change to ‘sovereignty’ had been deliberately introduced by Panikkar.

A few months later, the deliberate ‘lapsus’ landed in the Indian Parliament with Nehru stating in a light vein: “Prof. Ranga29 seems to have been displeased at my occasional reference to Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. Please note that I used the word suzerainty, not sovereignty. There is a slight difference, though not much.”

Book_Tibet_the_Lost_FrontieIt is certain that Panikkar had a lot of influence on Nehru with regard to Chinese affairs. A former Indian Ambassador to Nepal30 had at the same time, sent his assessment of the situation which was diametrically opposed to that of Panikkar, but Nehru chose to go by Panikkar’s advice, perhaps since it better fitted his ‘man of peace’ image.

It is clear that this policy was not agreed upon by all, as has been seen from Patel’s letter, and there were divergent views inside the Indian Government. One can only say that it is a great pity that two leaders like Nehru and Patel were not able to work together. India could have had an entirely different position in the world today.


  1. Earlier, K.P.S. Menon was posted in Chungqing, then in Nanjing as the Agent-General for British India.
  2. Letter from Sardar Patel to Nehru dated 7 November 1950.
  3. When China goes Communist, a report by K.M. Panikkar.
  4. More or less corresponding to what is today the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ or Central Tibet.
  5. The regions of Kham and Amdo which had been amalgamated in neighbouring Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai.
  6. In the 60’s, the Chinese further divided Kham into different counties and prefectures and attached these areas to the provinces of Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan.
  7. Mao had similar a similar vision of federal China, but changed his view after coming to power. But 1936 he had told Edgar Snow: “When the People’s Revolution has been victorious in China, the outer Mongolian republic will automatically become part of the Chinese federation, at its own will. The Mohammedan [Xinjiang] and the Tibetan peoples, likewise, will form autonomous republics attached to the China federation. The unequal treatment of national minorities, as practised by the Kuomintang can have no part in the Chinese programme, nor can it be part of the program of any democratic republic.” Snow, op. cit. p. 505.
  8. Bajpai was the immediate boss of Panikkar, but obviously Panikkar had a direct access to the Prime Minister (who was also Foreign Minister).
  9. Quoted in Gopal. Dr. S., Jawaharlal Nehru – a Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 107.
  10. Emphasis in the Report.
  11. USFR, Telegram 330/11-3050 dated November 30, 1950. The Ambassador in India (Henderson) to the Secretary of State.
  12. Who was also holding the External Affairs portfolio.
  13. The same sad story occurred in the early sixties when a Corps Commander could send letters directly to the Prime Minister, by-passing his immediate superiors in the Army. In both cases, India was lead to commit colossal blunders.
  14. In fact the only great empire in Indian history, was at the time of the Buddhist emperor Asoka, but it was a cultural empire rather than a military one.
  15. Panikkar, K.M., In Two Chinas (London: Allen & Unwin, 1955), p. 15.
  16. Panikkar, op. cit., p. 72.
  17. They would be removed after a few months by the Communists.
  18. Frank Moraes, Report on Mao’s China (New York: Mac Millan, 1953), p. 18.
  19. Panikkar, op. cit., p. 79.
  20. Panikkar, op. cit., p. 77.
  21. Panikkar, op. cit., p. 81.
  22. In 1954, Mao told the Dalai Lama in Beijing that all these religious beliefs were ‘poisonous’.
  23. Panikkar, Ibid.
  24. One long term member of the Indian Parliament who had been closely associated with China in the 50’s confided that Panikkar was ‘bribed’ by the Chinese through tête-à-tête dinners with Chinese officials, many other facilities and good treatment offered to him by the Communist regime. Although this information could not be verified, C.P.N. Singh, the Indian Ambassador to Nepal in 1950, had more or less the same opinion of Panikkar.
  25. On 27 October, Panikkar telegraphed that the “official release issued on the 25th afternoon contained merely the news of the official orders to the army to advance into Tibet first heard over All India Radio on the 25th morning.”
  26. SWJN, Series II, Vol. 15 (2), p. 349. Cable from Nehru to Panikkar dated 20 November 1950.
  27. Panikkar did not even want to issue a rectification for the ‘oversight’. He felt that it would not serve any purpose.
  28. Quoted in The Tibetan Review, March 1988, p. 7.
  29. Prof. Ranga, an Indian MP raised the Tibetan issue several times in the Lok Sabha, requesting the Government of India to take a firm stand.
  30. In 1950.
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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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