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

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.

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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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