When Nehru was taken for a ride by Mao
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Issue Courtesy: | Date : 10 Jan , 2016

Crossing the Upper Yangtze on October 7, 1950 (

One often-asked question is: why did India not take a stronger stand on the Tibet issue in October/November 1950, when Eastern Tibet was invaded by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army?

One of the reasons is the nefarious influence that K.M. Panikkar, the Ambassador in Communist China, played on the Indian Prime Minister and the fact that Nehru chose to follow his advice against those of senior diplomats like G.S. Bajpai or politicians like Sardar Patel of Rajaji.

Some historical facts

On August 3, 1950 General Liu Bocheng, the head of the Southwest Military Command had been ‘assigned to liberate Tibet’. In a proclamation, the great strategist affirmed:”The People’s Liberation Army will soon march towards Tibet with the object of driving out the British and American aggressive forces so as to make Tibetans return to the Great Family of the Peoples Republic of China.”

The fact that there was no American and only a couple of British nationals live on the Tibetan plateau, did not bother Panikkar and Nehru.

On August 21, the Indian ambassador met Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Foreign Minister; the latter assured him that:

it was China’s earnest desire to settle the problems by negotiations and peace, and that he [Zhou] had instructed the Chinese Ambassador to India to enter into preliminary contacts with the Tibetan Delegation in Delhi and to make arrangements for their journey to Peking.

Zhou Enlai said that he greatly appreciated the view taken by India and would do everything possible to come to a peaceful settlement “on the understanding that Tibet was an integral part of China, entitled to local autonomy and to its own institutions”.

During this meeting, Panikkar, on his own, promised that India would not move in case Tibet is forcefully liberated.

On 26 August 1950, in an aide memoire submitted to the Chinese Government, K.M. Panikkar went a step further, he changed India’s policy vis-à-vis Tibet. This would trigger the most dramatic consequences for India.

In his note, Panikkar described Tibet’s status as ‘autonomy within framework or Chinese sovereignty’, and not anymore ‘suzerainty’ as it had been done during the previous decades. The two words had a very different legal meaning and Panikkar knew it.

During the following months, South Block tried to revert to ‘suzerainty’, but it was too late, the damage was done.

Three days after presenting his aide-memoire, Panikkar send a Top Secret cable to Nehru to inform him that he had met the Director of Asian Section of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had called on him on behalf of Zhou Enlai to discuss India’s (more correctly Panikkar’s) aide-memoire on Tibet.

The Chinese officials were delighted; they conveyed the gratitude of their Government

for reaffirmation that India had NO political or territorial ambition in Tibet and stated that it is earnest desire of Chinese Government to settle Sino Tibetan matters amicably and by peaceful means.

Six weeks before the invasion, the fate of Tibet was sealed.

But Nehru and his Ambassador continued to foolishly think that the future of Tibet would depend on ‘negotiations’ in Delhi or Beijing.

It was absolutely wrong. A telegram sent by Mao on August 23, 1950, (2 days after Panikkar had met Zhou) is telling.

It is addressed the Southwest Bureau, repeated to the Northwest Bureau in Qinghai Province and entitled, ‘Strive to Occupy Chamdo This Year and Advance to Lhasa Next Year’.

Mao first refers to a communication received three days earlier from the Southwest Bureau suggesting the order of the battle (to ‘liberate’ Tibet). Mao writes:

The plan to push for occupying Chamdo this year and to leave three thousand men to consolidate Chamdo is good. You can actively make preparations according to this plan, and when it is ascertained by the end of this month or the beginning of next month that the road has reached Ganzi [also known as Kandze in today’s Sichuan province] without obstruction, the advance can go ahead.

It demonstrates that the east of the Upper Yangtze River, the Communists were not expecting (and they did not encounter later) any ‘obstruction’. Lhasa had then no control over these Tibetan-inhabited areas.

Mao continues:

It is expected that Chamdo will be occupied in October. That would be advantageous for pushing for political changes in Tibet, and marching into Lhasa the next year.

While Nehru believed that everything depended on ‘talks’ between the Dalai Lama’s government and the Communists, the reality was different. On the opposite, Mao asserts in his telegram: “Now India has issued a statement recognizing Tibet as China’s territory, only expressing hope that (the issue) can be settled peacefully, not by force.”

The Great Helmsman refers to the meeting between Panikkar and Zhou and admits that the earlier stalemate about visas for the Tibetan delegation had been sorted out: “Great Britain didn’t allow the Tibetan delegation to go to Beijing before, but now they have agreed.”

Though Mao knew that the hurdles for the ‘talks’ had been cleared, he was not interested in ‘negotiations’.

In order to understand Nehru’s mindset, let us look at a letter addressed by the Indian Prime Minister to C. Rajagopalachari, a Minister without Portfolio in his Cabinet on November 1. The Chinese had entered into Tibet 3 weeks earlier.

Rajaji had sent a note to Nehru complaining that the ‘Chinese are deceiving us’. Nehru answers: “Legally our position seems to be a weak one in regard to Tibet,” and adds that morally he finds it difficult to say that the Chinese Government has deliberately deceived India (i.e. Nehru) at any stage.

The Prime Minister explains: “We may have deceived ourselves, and they may have done wrong in the action they took, as I think they did.”

For him, the Chinese did ‘not deceive’ India:

For the last year they have been talking about ‘liberating’ Tibet as a part of the Chinese fatherland. From the 15th of July of this year there has been a great deal of talk on this, and even some Chinese troops’ movements were reported to us on the Tibetan border of China. Early in August the Chinese Government issued a text of a proclamation by the Head of their Southern Command [General Liu Bocheng], who was ‘assigned to liberate Tibet’.

The above lines show that the Government of India was well-informed about the decision of Communist China to forcefully enter in Tibet. Nehru writes to his colleague:

This proclamation stated that the Peoples Liberation Army will soon march towards Tibet etc. We sent a telegram to our Ambassador asking him to point out that any such move will be most unfortunate and that this should be settled by peaceful means. In this way telegrams have been exchanged repeatedly.

Nehru was regularly in touch with Panikkar (and Sumul Sinha in Lhasa) about the happenings in Tibet, in China and on the front; that is why Nehru could write, “at no stage did the Chinese Government say to us that they would not take any military steps.”

The Indian position was mainly the result of the foolishness of the Indian Ambassador who repeatedly informed Delhi that the Chinese would not use force.

The Communists were the worthy children of Sun Tzu and were adept of the Art of War, the ‘negotiations’ trick was just a dilatory tactic to gain time for the Chinese troops to be ready for the battle of Chamdo.

Nehru tells Rajaji:

They did say that they were always prepared for peaceful negotiations and that they had waited for a long time, but the Tibetan Delegation did not come. According to them, the Tibetan Delegation could not come because of imperialist manoeuvres.

None of the Chinese declassified telegrams/reports shows that the PLA was waiting for the outcome of the negotiations. In fact, it was absolutely clear for Mao and his colleagues that the 18th Army had to advance on Chamdo in 1950 itself so that Lhasa and Central Tibet could be ‘liberated’ in 1951.

Nehru admits: “When we informed them that the Tibetan Delegation was actually going to start, Chinese troops’ movement had already taken place some days before.”

This should have opened the Prime Minister’s (and his ambassador’s) mind to the true intentions and tactics of the Communists. It did not and very unfortunately, the Tibetan issue would get worse when, less than 2 months later, Patel will be gone forever.

The Indian Prime Minister was aware that the Chinese Government has decided to use force, “but I do not see how they can be accused of deception. They have been perfectly clear from the beginning.”

While understanding the rapidly-evolving situation, Nehru decided to remain passive, with tragic consequences for India.

In his letter to Rajaji, the Prime Minister tries to find excuses for the Communists:

We have to remember also that the Chinese Government and people are living in constant fear of attack by the U.S.A. That fear may not be justified but it is not wholly groundless. Prominent men in the U.S. have repeatedly state that this attack should be made.

…If we can put ourselves in China and see Chiang-Kai-shek with a powerful Army sitting nearby to attack China, supported by the U.S., and war coming over nearer and their own territories being bombed, then we can perhaps appreciate the temper and apprehension of the Chinese Government and people.

The argument has nothing to do the Chinese troops entering in Tibet, massacring hundreds of Tibetan soldiers and invading a peaceful nation. It is rather flabbergasting that the Prime Minister gives such a long justification on an unrelated topic.

On his August telegram, Mao had stated that the Government of India has not objected to the Chinese entering into Tibet. But once again, Nehru tries to justify the Chinese actions (or his own?):

Of course, all this does not justify military operations against Tibet, but it does explain many things. Tibet for many years has been under British influence and the British Agent there was violently anti-Chinese. He tried his best to incite Tibetans against China. Previous Chinese Governments have protested against this, and indeed I have myself been told by their representatives. Tibet was thus looked upon as a place which was under British influence. That influence is now gone, but only six months ago the same British Agent was there representing us.

This is an absolutely an unfair statement against Hugh Richardson who brilliantly served the Indian interests in Tibet for 3 years (August 1947-1950). Richardson was not only a sharp-minded ICS officer, but also a great lover of Tibet and an outstanding scholar of ancient Tibetan history.

Sumul Sinha, Richardson’s successor, was himself one of the finest young Chinese-speaking diplomats; he tried to serve India as well as he could in the difficult circumstances. His services will never be appreciated by Nehru (‘Sinha does not understand our policies’). This is one of the saddest tragedies of modern India.

Nehru ends up his letter to Rajaji by saying that he just wish to point out to:

certain considerations which have to be borne in mind to understand why the Chinese Government may have developed a state of mind bordering on fear of what is going to happen, and fear leads to wrong action. I am quite sure that the Chinese Government did not intend to deceive us or to insult us deliberately.

It is necessary to come back for a moment on Mao’s cable to the Southern Bureau; Chairman Mao says: “If our army can occupy Chamdo in October, there is the possibility of pushing the Tibetan delegation to Beijing for negotiation, begging for a peaceful solution (of course there are other possibilities too). Right now we are using the strategy of urging the Tibetan delegation to come to Beijing and reducing Nehru’s fear.”

Map of the PLA operations (Pic Courtesy:

It is ironical that Nehru spoke of the Chinese fear, while Mao tries to ‘cool down Nehru’s fears’.

The second stage of the Chinese plans are explained by Mao

When Tibetan representatives arrive in Beijing, we plan to use the Ten Points already decided as the basis for negotiation, urge the Tibetan representatives to sign it, and make the Ten Points an agreement accepted by both sides.

The Ten-Point eventually became the Seventeen-Point Agreement signed ‘under duress’ by Tibetan delegates in Beijing on May 23, 1951.

Mao concludes:

If this can be done, it will make things easier for advancing into Tibet next year. Your plan (the Southwest Bureau’s) to leave 3,000 men in Chamdo for the winter after occupying it, not to advance into Lhasa this year, and withdraw the main force back to Ganzi may be seen by the Tibetans as a gesture of good will.

This was the beginning of the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai policy.

In the process, India lost of ‘buffer zone’ with Communist China and a friendly and peaceful neighbour.

The duo Nehru-Panikkar had been taken for a ride by Mao and Zhou.

Courtesy: (The translation of Mao’s telegram is available on

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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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