“Nehru, Tibet and China” is arguably the most definitive book dealing with the reasons leading up to the India-China 1962 border war. The indefatigable research that has gone into its production would undoubtedly make it the gold standard for policy wonks, historians, and students of political science alike, whose keen interest and professional responsibility hinge on Sino-India affairs and relations.
At the epicenter of Bhasin’s book, resides Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India and a behemoth of his party, the Indian National Congress. An unapologetic acolyte of the ‘non-alignment’ tenet, Nehru or “Panditji” as he was popularly known, nursed delusions of grandiose proportions when it came to China. Effete notions about the ‘greatness’ of China (his disturbingly frequent use of the word ‘great’ in referring to China being a classic example),
The fact that Nehru spent an inordinately long period of time promoting China’s candidature for a seat on the UN Security Council than strengthening the defense at the contested borders (more about that in the succeeding paragraphs) speaks volumes about the statesman’s misplaced priorities and misguided policies.
On the flip side, this sense of security had a deleterious impact on him, since he did not feel it necessary to take any defensive measures against any possible danger to Indian security from that direction and, therefore, looked upon China’s occupation of Tibet benignly in the beginning.
Pooh pooing the apprehensions of Kavalam Madhavan Panikkar, then Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, that China could revive ‘immediate claims against Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim and also the denunciation of the McMahon Line’, Nehru remained unfathomably convinced that the mountain terrain would be an ideal foil and an ally to India and that no external force could traverse such an insurmountable terrain.
Tibet had been crossed and invaded not just once but four times—by the Dogras, the Gurkhas, the British and the Chinese. Consigning the apprehensions of the Indian representative in Lhasa, Richardson, the Prime Minister proffered a need for Tibet to introduce social and economic reforms, Nehru also out rightly rejected ‘any chance of any danger to India arising from any possible change in Tibet’ and ruled out any danger to India’s security from the north or any need ‘for our Defence Ministry or part of it to consider any possible military repercussions on the India-Tibet frontier’.
Tibet, before the massive Chinese influx of the 1950s, was a self-sufficient society. The locals had, for centuries, practiced sustainable development, and starvation was unheard of. But the PLA avalanche triggered a breakdown in the Tibetan economy.
When finally China attacked on an industrial scale in 1962 along the Eastern as well as the Western sectors, Nehru was forced to shed his incorrigible fascination for his “non-alignment” values. This was surprising for a country which until the other day had been deriding the United States. The ceasefire saved much of the humiliation by obviating the need for ‘American military boots’ on the Indian soil.”
An irredentist China was kept at bay by the British who chose to use Tibet as an unwilling and unwitting buffer against not just China but Russia as well.
China invaded Tibet in November 1950. Pursuant to this, China also formulated a 17-Point Agreement, whose preamble left no one in doubt as to the ‘lost’ sovereignty of Tibet. The phrase ‘Tibetan nationality was one of the nationalities of China’ made the status of post-invasion crystal clear.
A coterie of intransigent and hesitant advisors
In a chilling verve, the domineering persona of Nehru put paid to any kind of ‘contrary’ advice that might be offered by the senior officers in the ministry of external affairs, despite such a contrary advice being perfectly rational and totally reasonable. These officers literally cowering in the presence of their Prime Minister sorely suffered from the “Pandit-jee-knows-best’ syndrome.
Nehru also repeatedly ignored the dire warnings issued by India’s representative in Tibet as well as the political officer in Sikkim about the potential impetuosity of China in not just invading Tibet but also posing concerns across various borders of India running along Assam, Ladakh and Sikkim. In fact the United States Ambassador Henderson, conveyed to Washington his impression of a ‘certain smugness that had beset the Indian administration.
The Tibetan Faux Pas
Tibet also kept up an unrelenting albeit unfortunate series of “shooting-oneself-in-the-foot” overtures, both leading up to its occupation by China and subsequently. The Dalai Lama in a jaw dropping move wrote to Mao requesting an assurance that ‘no Chinese troops would cross the Tibetan frontier’, and added for good measure that Tibet would very much like to engage China in discussions for the return of its territories annexed in the past. China made clear its intention to ‘liberate’ Tibet and make it an integral part of its sovereign territory.
Jawaharlal Nehru comes across as a complex Shakespearean character. A man of imposing stature and indomitable presence, he was also an agglomeration of vulnerabilities. Nehru brought on grave damage not just to the territorial prospects of his nation but also to his reputation. The barometer of history is also a timely guide for learning and assimilation. India would do well to absorb the harsh lessons that led to the disaster of 1962 and ensure that the foibles and failures that caused such a great embarrassment to the nation remain aberrations and not frustratingly recurring themes.
Key Lapses of Nehru
Nehru himself nursed doubts about the boundary between India and China. Nehru himself remained immune to the advice he gave liberally to U Nu, the Burmese Prime Minister that is, to negotiate a border agreement with China by give and take and not follow a rigid line.
Jawaharlal Nehru's Tibetan Blunder
Jawaharlal Nehru was more concerned about China's membership into the UN Security Council than the existence of Tibet as an independent sovereign nation. Jawaharlal is extreme in the presentation of his methods, but he is sober in action. There were two reasons why Nehru should have recognised an independent Tibet. First, it was the morally right thing to do. Except for a short period in history, Tibet was never under Chinese rule.
Why did Nehru sacrifice Tibet? The simple answer was given by Gandhi. Another reason is that Nehru was scared of China. He was an admirer too. When the Tibetan invasion took place, Prime Minister, Nehru, told the country that a backward feudal country like Tibet could not remain isolated from the world and that it was not an independent country. What was leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretence that the decision was based on reason? When Chinese troops advanced to Tibet, Lhasa wanted to appeal to the United Nations. Since it was not a member of the United Nations, it asked India for support. India did the typical panchayat officer manoeuver and asked Lhasa to talk directly to the UN. Like how Chamberlain sacrificed Czechoslovakia, Nehru sacrificed Tibet.
The Chinese invasion of Tibet, which culminated in the 1962 war between India and China, has often been portrayed as the “Great Chinese Betrayal”—“a stab in the back”, as Jawaharlal Nehru would say with much pain and anguish.
After messing up the Kashmir issue, Nehru was looking for a larger opportunity to mess up. The opportunity to be a better fiddler than Nero and a better windmill chaser than Don Quixote presented itself real soon. The secular liberal god requires human sacrifice and the Tibetans were sacrificed at its altar. This vertiginous enigma of blunder and stupidity will baffle any sane person, but Nehru was not done yet. Sometimes it’s darkest before its pitch black. In 1954 the Panchasheel was signed and India recognised the end of Tibet's autonomy. In his latest book, Will Tibet Ever Find Her Soul Again?, Arpi comes up with another explosive revelation: that Nehru’s India supplied rice for the invading PLA troops in Tibet when they were busy rampaging and decimating the Tibetan way of life and culture in the early 1950s.