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Roots of Nehru’s China-submissive policy: Part I

Roots of Nehru’s China-submissive policy: Part I

The evolution of Jawaharlal Nehru’s China-submissive policy on Tibet began long before India’s Independence. Its origins lie in his deep friendship with Marshal Chiang Kai-shek, leader of Kuomintang China between 1928 and 1949, and concepts of an India-China relationship enunciated by Chiang’s ideological and political mentor Sun Yat-sen, father of the historic 1911 revolution that overthrew the ‘barbarian’ Manchu Qing dynasty and ended 2,000 years of imperial rule.

This projected friendship, however, came at a price. For Chiang, as much as his rival and successor Mao Zedong, the complete integration of Tibet with China was a non-negotiable article of faith. Both believed that their border with India traced a descending arc from Aksai Chin in the west to south of the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh, or ‘South Tibet’ in Chinese parlance. Chiang Kai-shek never hid or disguised this conviction. It was up to India and Nehru to accept a future on these terms.

Reunification was at the top of the ‘Three Principles of the People’ which Sun Yat-sen established as the basis for the revival of a shattered China: Minzu (nationalism), Minquan (democratic rights) and Minsheng (welfare state). Chinese nationalism was placed in contradistinction to ‘ethnic nationalism’ and meant the merger of five broad groups into a single national consciousness based on common blood, language, customs and livelihood. Mongol, Tibetan, Manchu and Uyghur Muslims had to set aside their ‘deviations’ and merge along with the larger Han identity into this ‘revived’ consciousness. The strength of China, according to this thesis, lay in unity. Tibetan independence was dismissed as a British imperial construct, with the Communists later condemning ‘splitting slave-owners’ like the Dalai Lama as stooges of Western imperialism. Chiang, and later Mao, believed that Nehru, as a radical foe of colonialism, would view geography through a Chinese eyeglass.

<strong>Also Read</strong>:- <a href="https://indianarrative.com/opinion/roots-of-nehrus-china-submissive-policy-ii-an-encounter-in-brussels-5716.html">An encounter in Brussels</a>

Sun Yat-sen could not immediately implement what he preached. The road to power is rarely smooth for a revolution.

Sun Yat-sen abdicated as provisional president in 1912, believing that he had done his duty by overthrowing the dynasty. His ideas were quickly shredded by leftover elements of the ancient regime, one of whom, Yuan Shikai, even briefly called himself emperor.

On August 25, 1912, Sun Yat-sen launched his party, the Kuomintang, which went on to win the first elections, albeit with only 2 per cent of the population voting in a limited franchise. His candidate for prime minister, Song Jiaoren, was assassinated on Yuan’s orders, his banned party shifted its base to the south, and he went into exile in Japan. China disintegrated further as warlords retained their control over large parts.

In 1915, Sun Yat-sen married—a second marriage—his secretary Soong Ching-ling, who was three decades younger. She was the daughter of Charlie Soong, who had gone to America to train as a minister in the Methodist church but returned to make a fortune in banking and printing. Charlie Soong’s three daughters, Ai-ling, Ching-ling and Mei-ling, were three of the most remarkable sisters in any political history. The eldest married H.H. Kung, the richest man in the country; the second wed the icon of modern China; and the third became the wife and, arguably, dazzlingly attractive architect of Chiang Kai-shek’s fortunes.

Sun Yat-sen returned to China in 1917. He was only 51, and full of renewed ardor. Far more important, however, was that he returned with a new strategy. Reunification was still his core objective, but he realized that he needed more than words. The threat and use of coercive military action was essential to tame those who would not listen.

That remains the central strategy of the Chinese state while its reunification process continues into the 21st century. As Mao Zedong later put it, negotiations may, or indeed may not, constitute nine fingers of the Chinese hand, but the tenth finger was military force. The Communists added a new dimension by turning the army into a wing of the party rather than the country.

In 1921, Sun Yat-sen assumed power as head of a military government in Guangzhou with the title of Grand Marshal, and prepared for military operations against warlords of the north. By this time, Mahatma Gandhi had changed the nature and direction of India’s freedom struggle, turning a still largely elitist Congress into the primary vehicle of a mass movement. Sun Yat-sen recognized this as the ‘awakening of India.’ The British Empire, he declaimed, was a third-rate state without India. “India and China,” he asserted in 1923, “are the backbone of the oppressed peoples of Asia.” Together, they could support a post-colonial structure across the continent. This became a tenet of Kuomintang foreign policy. The need for cooperation was heightened when the British sent Indian troops to support the northern warlords in 1925.

Once again this plea for cooperation came with the Tibet rider. In 1924, Sun Yat-sen delineated his map of a Sino-Indian future which hid nothing and remains an evocative exposition of the Chinese definition of India’s limits and China’s ‘civilizational’ space. His speech at Kobe University on November 28, 1924, helps explain the Beijing view of Nepal and South Asia even a hundred years later.

The danger signals were blinking in high voltage, and everyone looked the other way.


<strong>The Nepal Syndrome</strong>

“There are two small countries situated to the north of India, namely Bhutan and Nepal,” said the Chinese leader. Tibet was not considered a third country to India’s north since it was part of China. “These countries [Nepal and Bhutan] are small in size,” he continued, “but are inhabited by a brave, strong, and warlike people…Nepal was, in fact, a great Power in Asia” which never paid tribute to Britain.

But this did not mean that Nepal was independent. Here follows a sentence which should open a few eyes: “Nepal considered China as her suzerain state and up to 1911 Nepal sent annual tribute to China via Tibet… China has degenerated during the last several hundred years, yet Nepal still respects her as a superior State… Nepal has been influenced by Chinese civilization, which, in her eyes, is the true civilization, while that of Britain is nothing but the rule of might.”

Later, the father of modern China, and an icon revered in both Beijing and Taipei, repeats this claim that Nepal was a tributary state of China, and that status continued: “So Nepal even now willingly respects China as a superior State.”

While the future is fraught with possibilities, there might be more than one explanation for Mandarin being taught in Nepalese schools at Beijing’s expense.

In the 1920s, however, Britain could be reviled but not ignored. As long as the Raj existed, Tibet would remain independent, a buffer between empire and China. It made sense to befriend a rising Congress star with a predilection for foreign policy and a worldview that placed imperialism and colonialism as implacable enemies of subjugated people.


M.J. Akbar is an MP and the author of, among other titles, <em>Nehru: The Making of India</em>.