Inviting an Invasion: Jawaharlal Nehru's Tibetan Blunder
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Inviting an Invasion: Jawaharlal Nehru's Tibetan Blunder

Jawaharlal Nehru was more concerned about China's membership into the UN Security Council than the existence of Tibet as an independent sovereign nation

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On August 20, 1950 Chou En-Lai was of the opinion that the liberation of Tibet was a sacred Chinese duty, but that would be done only via negotiations. On October 7, 1950, the Chinese attack on Tibet started. As Chou En-Lai was filling sand in hourglass in which the Tibetans were trapped, on October 21, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Chou En-Lai emphasising the need for a peaceful settlement of the Sino-Tibetan problem. It was not because Nehru was concerned about Tibet but because it would be detrimental to China's admission to the UN Security Council. The letter emphasised that the timing was bad:

In Tibet there is not likely to be any serious military opposition, and any delay in settling the matter will, therefore, not affect Chinese interests or a suitable final settlement. The Government of India's interest in the matter is only to see that the admission of the Peoples' Government to the United Nations is not again postponed due to causes which could be avoided.

This is from the great man who gave speeches like "It is not right for any country to talk about sovereignty or suzerainty over any area outside its own range... The last voice in regard to Tibet should be the voice of the people of Tibet and of nobody else." Nehru's pompousness as well as cowardice was known to Gandhi, who once observed:

Jawaharlal is extreme in the presentation of his methods, but he is sober in action. So far as I know, he will not precipitate a conflict.

There were two reasons why Nehru should have recognised an independent Tibet. First, it was the morally right thing to do. Except for a short period in history, Tibet was never under Chinese rule. For the past two centuries it was under a vague relation and even then the Chinese did not have a viceroy at Lhasa. In 1912, the agent known as Amban was driven out and since then there was no Chinese control. The fact that there was nothing in common between Tibet and Hans — in culture, religion, language and script —- was known even to Nehru. Tibetans had their own coins and currency, their own postal system and army. From 1912, there was nothing resembling China in Tibet. Even the passports issued by Tibet in 1948 were recognised by other countries. In a book written by Nehru (Glimpses of World History), he showed an independent Tibet, lying outside the Chinese empire.

Second, it was important for India's security and many Indians recognised it. On March, 17, 1950, a member from Assam said in the Parliament:

There should be no loose ends in our relations with the Tibetans...with the success of the Communists and also the likelihood of Tibet being swallowed up, there is great danger and apprehension of complications arising in the near future... something has to be done to strengthen our relations with the Tibetan authorities in this area.

Even the British recognised the strategic significance. According to General Tucker from British Army, Tibetan plateau was a good airfield to cover eastern India and for the airborne assault and occupation of U.P, Bihar and Bengal. Thus it was in India's strategic interest to prevent the military occupation of the Tibetan plateau.

This was not the first time Nehru messed up with Tibet. On October 16, 1947, the Tibetans sent a telegram to New Delhi asking for the return of certain territories. There was no response. At that time the Tibetan border with India, Nepal and Burma were not properly delineated. Nehru could have rejected this territorial claim and instead recognised Tibet as independent. If he had done that, Britain, USA and maybe even the USSR would have recognised it. Instead the great anti-imperialist kicked the can down the road.

Why did Nehru sacrifice Tibet? The simple answer was given by Gandhi. Another reason is that Nehru was scared of China. He was an admirer too. The First Asian Relations Conference was held in New Delhi in March 1947 and Tibet was one of the 28 delegates invited by Nehru. When the Chinese protested at the invitation, their status was reduced to that of a representative. The boundary line on the big map of Asia dividing Tibet from China was at the same time erased. During the conference Nehru declared that he was not going to offend China by recognising Tibet. A few months after Indian independence, the Tibetans sent a delegation to persuade Nehru to recognise Tibetan independence. Nehru refused.

When China attacked Tibet in 1950, Nehru forgot all his anti-imperialistic speeches. Krishna Menon too argued that there was no historical background for Tibet's independence. When the Tibetan invasion took place, Prime Minister, Nehru, told the country that a backward feudal country like Tibet could not remain isolated from the world and that it was not an independent country. What was leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretence that the decision was based on reason?

When Chinese troops advanced to Tibet, Lhasa wanted to appeal to the United Nations. Since it was not a member of the United Nations, it asked India for support. India did the typical panchayat officer manoeuver and asked Lhasa to talk directly to the UN. Meanwhile Nehru's sister had already declared that India would not change its attitude of neutrality, despite the invasion. The country which had the courage to sponsor Lhasa was El Salvador. India, meanwhile, influenced Britain and made sure that this issue did not pop up in the General Assembly. Like how Chamberlain sacrificed Czechoslovakia, Nehru sacrificed Tibet.

After messing up the Kashmir issue, Nehru was looking for a larger opportunity to mess up. The opportunity to be a better fiddler than Nero and a better windmill chaser than Don Quixote presented itself real soon. The secular liberal god requires human sacrifice and the Tibetans were sacrificed at its altar. This vertiginous enigma of blunder and stupidity will baffle any sane person, but Nehru was not done yet. Sometimes it’s darkest before it’s pitch black. In 1954 the Panchasheel was signed and India recognised the end of Tibet's autonomy.

This crime was hidden with myths. The Tibetans have forgotten who looked away while they were being attacked. The one redeeming act in the whole episode was granting asylum to a young Dalai Lama. We should not let that one act whitewash the historical crime of letting a culture be purged.

(Adapted from Six Thousand Days: Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister by Amiya Rao and B.G. Rao)

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