Brajesh Mishra & Mao's smile

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Brajesh Mishra. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

ON May Day celebrations in 1970, Mao Zedong singled out India’s Charge d’ Affaires Brajesh Mishra to speak to him, which he reported to the Ministry of External Affairs: “‘We cannot keep on quarrelling like this. We should try and be friends again. India is a great country. Indian people are good people. We will be friends again someday.’ I replied: ‘We are ready to do it today.’ Then Mao said: ‘Please convey my message of best wishes and greetings to your President and your Prime Minister.’ I assured him that it would most certainly be done and then congratulated him on China’s success in launching an earth satellite. Mao then moved on to shake hands with others.”

On May 6, Mishra had a talk with a senior official in China’s Foreign Ministry before leaving for New Delhi.

He said: “I would like to ask Mr Mishra what action you propose to take.” The MEA (Ministry ofi External Affairs) nstructed him to say that “we are ready to initiate a dialogue with the object of removing the state of tension and hostility over handling relations between our two neighbouring countries; that it is government of India’s firm conviction that continuance of these tensions does not correspond to the true interests of our two peoples and that we should together undertake to discuss in all sincerity the necessary steps to restore once again the five principles of peaceful coexistence as the principles guiding, animating and regulating relations between our two countries.”

China wanted India to respond with an offer to talk. India asked for consultations for a joint effort on the next step. In its issue of October-December 2006, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal published an interview with Mishra in which he revealed the Ministry of External Affairs’ coldness to China’s overture against Indira Gandhi’s stand. She told him: “We are in a box in our relations with China. I want to get out of that box.”

But Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul asked: “Brajesh why are you engaging in all this?” P.N. Haksar, the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary, “was not very enthusiastic”, either. He was not on speaking terms with External Affairs Minister Dinesh Singh.

A meeting was held with the Prime Minister in which Mishra suggested despatch of an ambassador. Kaul and Swaran Singh, Defence Minister agreed. “Indira Gandhi was also inclined to do that.... Then Haksar spoke against and he turned the meeting around.”

Mishra explained: “He [Haksar] was speaking in a very indirect fashion. And it was only later on I learnt that the negotiations were going on for the Indo-Soviet Treaty at that very time. As you know, this later on came in August 1971. Somewhat later, when I returned to Peking, I learnt from the Chinese that D.P. Dhar, who was the ambassador in Moscow, was checking with the Chinese whether they were serious or not. Yes, I am pretty sure that Mrs Gandhi didn’t know anything about that. Must be Haksar and D.P. Dhar. So the meeting ended in Mrs Gandhi’s residence and I was told, ‘You carry on the dialogue.’ I said OK, what else I could do? Then I went back. But the Chinese did not give up. They remained very cordial and their propaganda against India subsided.

“They were hopeful that something would happen. So much so that, when Mrs Gandhi went for mid-term elections in February-March 1971 and she was re-elected ... I was at a reception given by Zhou Enlai for a Nepalese dignitary. I forget now, he was Prime Minister or Speaker, whatever it was, I don’t know, but Zhou Enlai gave a reception for him and Zhou Enlai came round to all the Heads of Mission. When he came to me, he said, ‘My congratulations to Mrs Gandhi for her victory and her re-election as Prime Minister.’ The interpreter fumbled slightly. So Zhou repeated it in English. So even then, which was almost a year after, they kept at it.”

Mishra’s assessment was that faced with the Russian threat on the border, China, which was in secret talks with the United States, wanted friends. Hence Mao’s slogan: “We must have friends everywhere in the world.”

Indira Gandhi wanted to talk. “But Haksar and D.P. Dhar had a different kind of view. Whether it was connected to the Chinese actions in India or it was due to their leanings towards the Soviet Union, I don’t know. Till March 1971, Zhou Enlai was still very hopeful when he said, ‘My congratulations to Mrs Gandhi’ etc. Within a few weeks, the whole thing changed. Yahya Khan unleashed terror in Bangladesh and the Chinese were pretty sure that it would lead to some major problems between India and Pakistan. The Chinese began to hesitate because they did not want to abandon Pakistan.”

In August 1971, Mishra came to India and met D.P. Dhar and Haksar. “I said, ‘Look, in my view, you should still make a move towards China. Because, if a war comes and I think a war is imminent, then you would become even more beholden to the Soviet Union. And then the Chinese would feel that there was no way India would act against the wishes of Moscow. So it is in the interest of the country to make a move before the war.’ P.N.Haksar said, ‘No, no, no, Brajesh this should not be done.’ D.P. Dhar was even more critical about it. He said, ‘Why do you want us to bend to China?’ So I said to Haksar, ‘I will take my case to Mrs Gandhi and convey my message to her.’ He said, ‘Yes of course, it is your right.’

“So I wrote a letter to Mrs Gandhi giving these arguments. She called me a couple of days later. P.N. Dhar was there. This was the first time I met P.N. Dhar. She [Mrs Gandhi] said to me, ‘What is it that you propose?’ I said, ‘It is very simple. You are going to be heavily dependent on the Soviet Union in case of a war between India and Pakistan. There is no doubt about that. Whether it is arms material or it is the Security Council. And then you will feel more obliged to the Soviet Union. And all these arguments of not doing anything in relation to China so as not to displease the Soviet Union will be strengthened. So before there is a war, you must make another move to China.’

“So she said, ‘What do you have in your mind?’ I said, ‘I will go there and I will say that we have decided to send an ambassador to China. And while saying this in Parliament, we will say that we have no reason to believe that the Chinese will not reciprocate. This is all.’ ‘What will this achieve?’ she asked. I replied, ‘The Chinese will know that we are very keen to have normal relations even after having signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty. And this they will know before a war.’ She said, ‘OK, you go and draft something.’ So P.N. Dhar and I went to the office of the Principal Secretary, which I occupied so many years later, and I drafted something. I insisted that I needed written instructions and could not proceed without them.”

By then the situation had changed. But even if talks had been held, what could have Indira Gandhi offered?

India never offers concession. It accepts them, obligingly. It always wants the other side to commit itself first and responds only when the offer gives it all it wants.

A.G. Noorani

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