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

“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?

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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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