NEW DELHI: Was Nehru too indulgent of China to work out a sensible policy on Tibet and on the border question? Was he misguided? Or were Indian diplomats merely poorly prepared, which led to not only a disastrous war with China but also an intractable border question. Two new books by former foreign service officers, Avtar Singh Bhasin and former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale delve into the details of India's policies towards China.
Bhasin’s latest book, “Nehru, Tibet and China” using official documents, shows the bumbling and naivete that accompanied Indian policymaking on Tibet and China in the run-up to 1962. Speaking to TOI about Nehru’s campaign to get China a UNSC membership, Avtar Singh Bhasin said, “In the early years that India went out of its way to woo China for the larger objective of achieving Asian solidarity. No threat was as yet perceived from it. Nehru’s desire for China to replace Kuomintang China in the UN Security Council reflected his sense of fairness, since communist China controlled the whole mainland and India too had recognised it.”
If, in the UN, Nehru was intent on getting China into the UNSC, on the other side, India appeared unprepared and reluctant in their boundary negotiations with China. Bhasin says, India “somehow felt that the talks would not lead to any results. Nehru had even told Premier Zhou before the talks that ‘respective view points of our two governments ...were so wide apart and opposed to each other that there was little ground left for useful talks’. A week before the talks began, he had taken the Nepalese prime minister into confidence at the prospects of the talks, and said ‘as far as I can see, there will be no real approach to any kind of agreement between India and China in the course of my meeting with Premier Chou En lai next week’. Evidently India’s half-hearted approach did not help. The border dispute leading to the possibility of conflict remained present.”
In his masterful account, The Long Game: How China Negotiates with India”, former foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, writes that Nehru accepted Zhou En Lai’s proposal to convert the Indian mission in Lhasa into a consular post “without apparently realizing either its legal of political implications.” India, he writes, “went about the negotiations in an ad hoc fashion and without adequate internal consultation, leave alone proper research on facts.” China’s negotiating strategy, on the other hand, was methodical and practical. They “persuaded” India into withdrawing its military escorts from Gyantse and Yadong, leverage he says, India gave up in 1953. “Ignoring inputs from Lhasa that the Chinese were studying all documents relating to the India-China boundary in Tibet, a policy note from the prime minister on 3 December 1953 decided once and for all that the question of the frontier would not be raised or discussed during the forthcoming India-China talks about Tibet, because it was already a settled issue.”
India, he writes, brought more pressure on itself by becoming anxious about concluding a settlement before the Geneva Conference began in May 1954… the primary consideration for this was not national security but India’s international image.” China stretched out the negotiations, forcing more Indian concessions.
Bhasin writes about India glossing over the importance of China’s road-building exercise in Aksai Chin in the 1950s. Talking about it, he says, “If we look at Nehru’s attitude towards China at this time, he appeared too indulgent towards it. His note to the defence minister KN Katju on 28 July 1956 says it all. He had said that he was more worried about the Naga trouble... ‘than about anything the Chinese may do’. In his perception the Chinese were friends and he expected no trouble from them. Even when making a “protest” on the road, the wording of the note was so weird that it lacked even an iota of seriousness giving the Chinese impression that India was not seriously concerned about their road.”
Are there any lessons India of 2021 can learn from Nehru’s dealings with China in the 1950s and 1960s? Bhasin says, “The situation over the years has become too complicated. The past has ceased to be relevant to the present. In my opinion, the people need to be educated of the correct position of the borders that existed in the past so that the vested interest, which indulges in motivated debates and leaves the T.V driven public more confused than ever, making the settlement of even smaller issues impossible, are enabled to take an informed and independent view of the situation. A people fully armed with facts are an asset otherwise they are a liability and force the government’s hands into directions that often are unwarranted. Throw open all the archives and let the truth come out.”