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Part 1 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 1

Dalai Lama in India

On March 10, 1959, Chinese general Zhang Chenwu invited the Dalai Lama to a performance by a Chinese dance troupe. Soon after though, he received a message from the General asking him to appear without any soldiers or armed bodyguards. The peculiar request by the Chinese was expectedly met with a large amount of suspicion from the Tibetans who had in any case been suffering the oppression of the Chinese for over a decade.

By the beginning of the 1950s, a large part of Tibet had been forcefully acquired by the Chinese. The next few years were witness to the Dalai Lama trying to evade a full-scale military takeover of Tibet by Chinese forces. The Chinese on the other hand had been trying their best to indoctrinate him into the Communist ideologies.

Given the backdrop of Chinese aggression in Tibet, the officials surrounding the Dalai Lama were quick to guess a sense of deceit in the Chinese invitation. As a cautionary measure, he was soon advised to escape from Tibet. On March 17, 1959, therefore, the Dalai Lama dressed up as a soldier and slipped out of the shelter of the monastery that he would never see again. Accompanying him were 20 of his officials. Barefoot, the spiritual leader made his way across the arduous Himalayan region, which included crossing the 500-yard-wide Brahmaputra river.

He finally reached India on March 30 and settled down at the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. The following month he reached Mussoorie in present-day Uttarakhand, where he was later met by then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to discuss the future of the Tibetan refugees who followed him.

Meanwhile, back in Tibet the Chinese imposed a curfew in Lhasa and close to 2000 people died in the ensuing battle between the local people and the Chinese forces. Close to 800 artillery shells were fired into the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. A day later, China announced the dissolution of the Tibetan governing body and a Tibetan autonomous region was established within the People’s Republic of China.

Nehru with Dalai Lama, 1959

Politically, the arrival of the Dalai Lama in India was a crucial moment in Indo-Chinese relations. For Nehru, maintaining cordial relations with China was always seen as a diplomatic necessity. According to historian Ramachandra Guha, “Nehru saw China at once as a peer, comrade and soul mate.”

However, over time arguments emerged between India and China, particularly around the issue of border creation post the departure of the British. In this atmosphere of antagonism, India’s grant of refuge to the Dalai Lama was an essential trigger that pushed both countries to the point of the war. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 which was eventually won by China, was one of the most critical products of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India.

Five days after Dalai Lama fled with the help of the CIA, (2) on March 22, 1959, Nehru noted that the sector from the trijunction of the Nepal, India, and Tibet boundary up to Ladakh (Ladakh-Aksai Chin sector) was traditional and known by custom, usage, the application of the principle of watershed and old revenue records and maps, etc. These facts are important inputs when negotiating an agreement, but by themselves could not constitute an agreement.

Despite suffering from doubts, Nehru insisted in Rajya Sabha on December 9, 1959, that India should hold its position, hoping that “lapse of time and events would confirm it, and by the time challenge came, we would be in a much stronger position to face it”. There was an opportunity to clear the doubts at the summit talks in April 1960, but that too was allowed to slip because India insisted on China accepting its maximalist position — not realising that in a dispute, both sides have to make compromises to come to a settlement.

Even after the 1960 talks, China tried to bring India to the negotiable table many times, but Nehru’s rigidity did not help. Yet he did accept in Parliament the undemarcated status of the border.

China continued to insist on the need for a well-defined demarcation of borders on scientific lines. Unfortunately, India remained in denial. The result was 1962.

(To be continued in the next article……….)

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