How to make sense of a China-India encounter

Mao and Nehru. After years of friendly engagements, bilateral ties were in deep freeze for long.The Hindu Archives

Mao and Nehru. After years of friendly engagements, bilateral ties were in deep freeze for long.The Hindu Archives  

Differing Indian interpretations of a brief May Day exchange between China’s Chairman Mao Zedong and India’s charge d’affaires Brajesh Mishra in 1970 delayed the return of an Ambassador to Beijing by six years. The diplomatic opening to India from the Chinese came after years of non-contact and has been the subject of much analysis in both countries.

In a note for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Natwar Singh — posted in the PMO at the time — said the encounter was “not an earth shattering event”. Mr. Singh, who went on to become India’s External Affairs Minister, felt it would be wrong to dismiss the meeting as a “casual encounter”, but at the same time one should not “read too much into it”.

This note is among hundreds of documents collated by Avtar Singh Bhasin, formerly with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in a five-volume documentary study of India-China relations, published in association with the policy planning division of the Ministry.

After his encounter at the Tiananmen Square, Mr. Mishra sent a “most immediate” cable to Mrs. Gandhi and External Affairs Minister Dinesh Singh, the same day quoting Mao: “‘We cannot keep quarrelling like this. We should be friends again. India is a great country … we will be friends again someday.’ I replied ‘We are ready to do it today’.”

“In anything connected with Chinese leaders it is difficult to say whether it [the conversation] was premeditated or not. My judgment is that Mao was fully briefed before arriving on the [Tiananmen] rostrum [where other diplomats were also present]. In any case, expression as above of friendship by Mao himself should be given the most weighty consideration,” Mr. Mishra informed New Delhi in a four-paragraph cable.

Guiding principle

On May 6, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Yang Kung Su, told Mr. Mishra after repeated queries, “Our great leader, Chairman Mao, has talked to you personally. That I think is the greatest concrete action on our side and it is the principle guiding the relations between China and India.”

During the meeting, Mr. Mishra lamented the fact that there had hardly been any contact between the two countries in the past 11-12 years and suggested “concrete action” to improve relations. “There is no trade between us. Even our Embassies are not full fledged.”

In June 1970, Mr. Mishra came to Delhi and met Mrs. Gandhi and her trusted officials including P.N. Haksar and T.N. Kaul. He suggested that India should send an Ambassador to Beijing since G. Parthasarathy had completed his term and Delhi did not appoint a replacement.

In a 2006 interview to the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal , Mr. Mishra, who went on to become Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s Principal Secretary, said Mrs. Gandhi was inclined to support sending an Ambassador but Mr. Haksar “turned the meeting around”. Mr. Mishra suggests in the interview that negotiations for an Indo-Soviet friendship treaty were at an advanced stage at the time.

The late diplomat also said in the interview that in early 1971, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai conveyed his congratulations through him in Beijing to Mrs. Gandhi for her election victory, suggesting continuity in Chinese policy of making up with India from the May 1 conversation.

It would be further five years before External Affairs Minister Y.B. Chavan announced in the Lok Sabha on April 15, 1976, that K.R. Narayanan, who rose to be President, would be India’s new ambassador to China.

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