‘Nehru, Tibet and China’ review: The elephant in the room

In the late 1940s, when the Communists were making steady gains in the Chinese civil war, Jawaharlal Nehru sensed trouble in Tibet and on India’s northeastern borders. On September 10, 1949, the Prime Minister sent a letter to Finance Minister John Mathai in which he expressed the need to improve and develop communications in the border areas. He also wrote that India’s mission in Lhasa must continue, while avoiding “any action which may be considered [a] challenge to Communists”. Nehru knew that if the Communists took over Beijing, their policy towards Tibet would change — and that China would come face to face with India in the Himalayas. But he was confident that “whatever be the final shape of China’s policy in Tibet, there was ‘no chance of any military danger to India arising from any possible change in Tibet’,” writes A.S. Bhasin in Nehru, Tibet and China.

Costly misjudgement

Nehru had to pay a heavy price for this misjudgement. He bet big on Asian solidarity and India-China friendship. He reached an agreement with China on Tibet. He made unilateral moves on the border. But he never expected China to attack India in 1962. Bhasin, who retired from the Ministry of External Affairs in 1993 after 30 years of service as the head of its Historical Division, writes there were “too many contradictions in the policy that Nehru had enunciated”, which, of course, did not end well for India. Almost 60 years since the war, China still remains India’s largest foreign policy challenge.

The long border between the two countries has neither been demarcated nor delineated. After a relative calm on the border for four decades, violence broke out again last year, at Galwan Valley in the western sector, one of the hotspots during 1959-62. Writing a book on the boundary dispute, without getting into the familiar us-versus-them narrative, is a daunting challenge. Bhasin is calm throughout the 403 pages and provides perhaps the most accurate account, based on primary sources and archival insights, on what went wrong between the two countries.

Bhasin doesn’t go into the Tibet-has-never-been-part-of-China argument. For centuries, China had enjoyed at least suzerainty over Tibet, and has been consistent on its Tibet position. China never recognised the Simla Convention, which produced the McMahon Line between British India and Tibet in the eastern sector. When, after initial military moves, the Communists hosted a Tibetan delegation in Beijing to discuss the future of Tibet, India had offered diplomatic support. But the Tibetan delegation stayed away from the Indian Embassy, and finally signed the 17-Point Agreement, which brought Tibet under the direct control of Beijing, and the People’s Liberation Army could move soldiers towards the region.

Boundary issue

In 1954, Nehru’s government signed the Tibet trade agreement with China. This was an opportunity for India to raise the boundary issue, but it didn’t. Nehru’s stand was that he had already publicly declared the McMahon Line as India’s international boundary. Contrary to the advice of Girija Shankar Bajpai, former secretary-general of the MEA, Nehru dismissed the idea of India discussing “our borders”. As part of talks with China on Tibet, India agreed to turn its mission into a consulate and withdraw its military escort, without discussing the boundary question. But “China’s game plan was to first end India’s special rights in Tibet and only then rake up the issue of borders, and it followed this strategy meticulously and successfully,” writes Bhasin.

A wasted summit

The Delhi summit between Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in April 1960 was another opportunity for both countries to find a solution to the border crisis. As the border showed signs of conflict, Nehru’s views on China started changing. At the summit, Zhou “conceded India’s claim to the McMahon Line but in a renegotiated agreement.” In return, China wanted India to recognise its claims on the western sector — Aksai Chin — where “maps had until 1954 shown the border as undefined”. But Nehru rejected the proposal, and the talks, as then Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt recalled, “failed to resolve even a single point of dispute.”

Here, Nehru made two fundamental mistakes. One, he failed to take up the boundary issue with China and made unilateral moves — calling the McMahon Line the international border, changing the status of the border in the western sector and launching the forward policy. Two, after making unilateral moves, he did not move to build the defence capabilities to defend those changes. “Nehru was aware that India had to build up its strength. That strength, to Nehru, meant not so much the frontier outposts or the defence forces but internal strength — political and economy,” writes Bhasin.

This book is not about villains and heroes, nor about the victor and the vanquished. It’s about how policies were made at a critical period of India-China relations and what drove those policies, the effects of which continue to impact both countries. As Bhasin writes in the preface, it is fundamentally a book of history. “History has no friends and foes. It traces the footprints of people who influence the events that make history.” He has traced those footprints meticulously in Nehru, Tibet and China.

Nehru, Tibet and China; A.S. Bhasin, Penguin/Viking, ₹699.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 7:31:01 PM |

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