Lieutenant Colonel Sir Vincent Arthur Henry McMahon demarcated the eastern border between British India and Tibet, confirmed by both countries at the Simla Convention in 1914. Tibet was represented by Lonchen Satra. China repudiated the draft agreement of April 27 and its representative, Ivan Chen, refused to sign the final document on July 3, 1914. McMahon’s own career became controversial when in 1917 he was forced to resign as High Commissioner in Cairo after the Russians stepped out of World War I and revealed details of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, carving up Arab lands between their empires after the war, instead of giving Arabs what they had been promised in return for their support.
But there was no ambiguity in British minds, till the last days of the Raj, about the independent status of Tibet, despite the fact that Chiang Kai-shek was a critical ally in World War II. One story from the sixth volume of the Transfer of Power papers is sufficient to illustrate this.
On March 3, 1946, the penultimate Viceroy, Lord Wavell, reported in his cable to London that an official mission from Lhasa had called on him, laden with gifts and formal letters for both him and King George. Wavell noted that Chiang Kai-shek’s ambassador in Delhi (the name is not mentioned in the British records but we can surmise that it was Lo Chialuw) had attempted to force himself into the delegation and gatecrash the lunch, arguing that Tibet was part of China. He was snubbed with a ‘stiff’ letter pointing out that he had not been invited. The only unusual part of the lunch was that it had to be rushed since the Tibetans did not want to miss the start of the Delhi races.
This was the policy that Nehru sought to subvert, and then reverse, even before he became Prime Minister of independent India, in late 1946 and early 1947.
The world, ravaged by a devastating war on the one side and dislocated by the surge of anti-colonial sentiment on the other, was in a fluid phase. In India, the trauma had begun.
The Muslim League was on a rampage after the Great Calcutta Killings of August 16, 1946, described in its pamphlets as the beginning of a ‘Jihad’ for Pakistan. A gruesome reaction followed in Bihar and Noakhali in Bengal.
In the first week of September, Nehru was sworn in as head of an Interim Government as part of the process towards freedom. Strangely, at the top of Nehru’s mind was not an immediate conference on national unity, but one on Asian amity.
Within days of taking a transitional office, Nehru announced that an Asian Relations Conference would be convened in March 1947. It was obvious to him that China’s presence would be vital to its success. The organizing committee, exercising a latitude which included Georgia in the west and both Jewish and Arab delegations, invited Tibet as well.
A livid Chiang Kai-shek threatened to stop the Chinese delegation from attending. The first moment for clarity on Tibet had come. After all, the organizing committee was Nehru’s creation. It was following the prevalent international consensus on Tibetan independence. Lhasa had an independent government. But Nehru demonstrated, in his first test, that for him relations with China were more important than the freedom of Tibet. He buckled.
He sent word through K.P.S. Menon that Tibet’s status would not be raised at the meet. Chiang Kai-shek relented, and the four participants from Lhasa were given instructions to keep quiet.
This was not enough for the Chinese. Chiang undermined Nehru’s desire to make India the permanent host of pan-Asian gatherings. Another leader might have taken diplomatic umbrage, at least temporarily. But Nehru continued to stretch the elasticity of concessions to China during the next 10 years over Tibet in public, and over the United Nations Security Council seat in private, with a generosity that can only be described as mind-boggling.
The cost of brotherhood
India became the first non-socialist country to recognize the communist government in Beijing after Mao Zedong seized power in late 1949 and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan.
In May 1950, Nehru sent an ambassador to Beijing who, till the end of his tenure in September 1952, seemed more comfortable justifying Communist China’s actions to Delhi than conveying India’s concerns to Beijing. K.M. Panikkar was an Oxbridge historian drafted into the foreign service; his Left-leaning formulations were consistent with the anti-colonial sentiments of progressive opinion in that age. The problem was that when this clashed with India’s national interests, the compromise was often at the cost of the latter.
Mao did not waste much time on Tibet. Between October 6 and 7, 1950, his troops routed the militarily weak Tibetan resistance at Chamdo. A trade delegation from Lhasa was in Delhi at that time; it had no clue. The official word from Beijing over the next fortnight was “no comment” but the People’s Daily reported that Tibetan women had begun to sing “Mao is the rising sun of Tibet,” always an ominous sign.
China only confirmed on October 24 that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been ordered to free three million Tibetans from “imperialist oppression.” Delhi protested on October 27, more evidence that the official policy of India was still firmly on the side of Tibetan independence. The protest added that this would make it difficult for India to support China’s membership of the United Nations—yet another policy that Nehru would quickly suborn in pursuit of his romantic visions of Indo-Chinese brotherhood. The communist regime sent a firm reply: “Tibet is an integral part of China, and the problem of Tibet is entirely a domestic problem of China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army must enter Tibet, liberate the Tibetan people and defend the frontiers of China.”
This said it all. The PLA would defend the frontiers of China and the frontiers would now run along the Himalayas.
The one senior colleague to warn Nehru of dire consequences was deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who wrote a letter on November 7, 1950, predicting that the Chinese would soon disown all border agreements with Tibet. Nehru dismissed these concerns in his reply of November 18, 1950, saying: “If we lose our sense of perspective and world strategy and give way to unreasoning fears, then any policy is likely to fail.”
There was nothing unreasonable about Patel’s fears.
On November 20, Nehru told India’s Parliament that the “McMahon Line is our boundary and that is our boundary—map or no map.” But there was now a crucial difference on the ground. That line was now a border with China, not Tibet. Since China did not recognize the independence of Tibet, it was under no obligation to accept what Lhasa had signed.
While the PLA consolidated its hold on Tibet, Beijing applied the soft touch on Delhi as it first brought Lhasa into line. Mao attended the Republic Day celebrations at the Indian embassy in 1951. On May 23, 1951, the Tibetans accepted the 17-point ‘Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ and the annexation was legalized. Tibetan delegates were initially puzzled by the first point, which asked them to ‘unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet’, for the only aggressive forces they had seen came from the east. They wanted to know who the imperialists were. But victors do not have to answer questions.
Perhaps the Indian mission was not reporting back to Delhi that the Chinese media was describing Nehru as a ‘bourgeois imperialist’ and ‘running dog’ of British imperialism. This too has become a familiar practice. Beijing uses a section of its obedient media to send aggressive signals while officials make official noises.
In September 1951, Zhou Enlai provided an opportunity for closure with a statement that there was no territorial dispute with India. The experienced bureaucrat, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, first Secretary General in External Affairs but now governor of a state, asked his old ministry to seize the chance as China was likely to activate disputes later, when it might not be to India’s liking or interest.
But Nehru, after consulting Panikkar, decided that raising the issue then would force China into renegotiations that might become hostile. It would be better to let sleeping boundaries lie. Nehru had clearly made a mistake.
This error, made in the public domain, was nothing compared to a colossal misjudgment made in the secrecy of private confabulations.
(M.J. Akbar is an MP and the author of, among other titles, Nehru: The Making of India. The views expressed are personal).