To commemorate his visit to China in the autumn of 1939

Fifty years on after the end of the India-China war on November 21, 1962, a Chinese city has announced plans to open a museum to commemorate a much-forgotten visit by Jawaharlal Nehru to China in the autumn of 1939.

Chongqing, a municipality in southwest China that hosted Nehru when it was the wartime capital of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government under the Kuomintang (KMT), plans to mark his visit to the city by opening a museum at the site of the old Indian Embassy residence building, which is today a protected heritage site.

Nehru sailed up the Yangtze river and arrived in the city as a guest of the KMT leader in August 1939, according to city officials. An essay by scholar Lin Chengjie noted, drawing on press reports from the time, that Nehru was “honoured as the great leader of the Indian people” and as “an intimate friend of China” for showing solidarity during the war with Japan. Nehru also reached out to the Communists, who were then in their revolutionary base of Yan’an, and received an invitation from Mao Zedong to visit. The Second World War, however, forced Nehru to return early to India.

The India-China war in 1962 dramatically altered Chinese perception of Nehru, who was in subsequent years vilified by the State media — upon Mao Zedong’s direction — as a “bourgeois Imperialist.” More recently, however, Nehru’s role in promoting relations — even during the time of the KMT, a period usually portrayed by the Communist Party only in negative terms — has been given more prominent attention, as the Chongqing initiative suggests, with the 1962 war a fading memory in China today.

The sprawling old Indian Embassy residence building, where Nehru stayed sits on a remote hilltop in the Nanshan mountains. The foggy mountains were a popular site for government and Embassy residences in the 1930s, seen as providing shelter from Japanese air-raids. Today, the estate is the site of the Chongqing Nanshan Botanical Gardens — a popular tourist destination during the Cherry Blossoms season — and also houses old residences belonging to the Spanish, French and Russian Embassies.

Few people in Chongqing are, however, aware of the old Indian Embassy residence building’s history. The only clue to its history is a small sign on the wall of the building which reads: “It was here in 1940 that Jawaharlal Nehru, the late leader of the Indian National Congress, once lived.”

Peng Kelei, who is the project manager of the site, told The Hindu that the municipality was keen to set up a museum at the site to mark Nehru’s visit.

“The building has been kept exactly the same way since the time Nehru visited,” he said. “In the year 2000, the government decided to make this site a provincial-level protected heritage building. We want to do more to mark Chongqing’s connection with Nehru, and are hoping we can get support, and more information, from our friends in India about Nehru’s visit to Chongqing.”

The second floor of the building, including the bedroom where Nehru once stayed, had been left untouched, he said. The first floor is now a library that holds collections related to the Botanical Gardens. Mr. Peng said the plan was to set up a museum that would commemorate Nehru’s unique link to Chongqing and his contribution to India-China ties – provided, he added, enough material could be gathered from India.

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