Flawed greatness

Two volumes that cover, among other things, a period of tension in India-China relations over the boundary issue and Nehru’s role in it.

Published : Apr 17, 2013 00:00 IST

Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou En-lai in Beijing on October 19, 1954. Nehru ordered the withdrawal of  'all our world maps' a mere two months after the Panchsheel Agreement of April 29, 1954, and a few months before his visit to China. The McMahon Line was properly depicted as a clear line in the official map.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou En-lai in Beijing on October 19, 1954. Nehru ordered the withdrawal of 'all our world maps' a mere two months after the Panchsheel Agreement of April 29, 1954, and a few months before his visit to China. The McMahon Line was properly depicted as a clear line in the official map.

THESE volumes ( Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru: 1 November-31 December 1958 and 1 January-28 February 29 Second Series; Volumes 45 and 46) cover a critical phase in the relations between India and China as they glided from the “bhai-bhai” phase to estrangement. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru does not come out well from the record. The compiler of his works, Madhavan K. Palat, comes out worse and confirms the impression of ineptness commented in an earlier review.

Nehru’s important letter to Prime Minister Zhou En-lai on December 14, 1958, complaining of Chinese maps, which initiated the correspondence in which the dispute was laid bare, is editorially sourced to “Subimal Dutt Papers, NMML. Also available in JN Collection and PIB [Press Information Bureau].” A competent editor, equipped for the job, would have properly provided the only authoritative source—the first White Paper, published on September 7, 1959. Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt’s papers are a secondary source. The PIB could not have released it before the White Paper. A footnote on Walter Lippman ends with his books published as far back as in 1913 and 1915, to the neglect of more relevant and copious writings later.

As far back as on November 20, 1950, Nehru declared in Parliament that “the McMahon Line is our boundary” while “the frontier from Ladakh to Nepal is defined chiefly by long usage and custom”, which is untrue. It was never defined. The McMahon Line was defined by an Indo-Tibetan exchange of very brief notes on March 5, 1914, which confirmed the line drawn on an annexed map.

This is what Nehru wrote to Subimal Dutt in a note dated November 11, 1958: “In regard to the controversy we are having with the Chinese government about our frontier in Ladakh , there is one point which we should bear in mind. I am told that the frontier as claimed by us is not only marked in our maps but is part of the McMahon Line . If we touch the McMahon Line in one place, then there is no particular reason why it should not be varied elsewhere” (emphasis added, throughout). These words should prod serious reflection. They expose the arrogant unilateralism which marked Nehru’s approach. Forget the contradiction between the 1950 declaration and this 1958 sophistry. But if anyone “told” the Prime Minister of India this utter falsehood, what prevented him from simply sending for the agreed map? What he was “told” was indeed an utter falsehood. The McMahon Line did not extend to Ladakh. It was confined to the north-east. To think that India’s Prime Minister entertained the idea he apparently did is disturbing.

He made, however, an even more consequential assertion later. On September 12, 1959, well after the boundary dispute erupted in the open, Nehru told the Lok Sabha apropos the McMahon Line, that “in the Subansiri area or somewhere there, it was not considered a good line and it was varied afterwards by us, by the Government of India”. The line was not defined in words but on a map, which was an agreed treaty map. If a party can legally and morally alter a treaty map, so can it the words of a treaty, an unthinkable proposition. But if Nehru could vary the line in the east so could he in Ladakh, he evidently felt. He had done so earlier.

On July 1, 1954, Nehru wrote a memo ordering the withdrawal of “all our old maps”. The White Papers on the Indian States published in 1948 and 1950 had official maps which showed the entire northern boundary from the Sino-Indo-Afghan trijunction in the west right up to the Sino-Indo-Nepal trijunction in the east to be “undefined”. This was historically true. The McMahon Line was properly depicted as a clear line.

The 1954 map, which followed the memo, showed a clear boundary line in the Aksai Chin, a line which had no basis in history or geography, in law or morality. It is over this line that the Nehru-Zhou talks in New Delhi in April 1950 collapsed. It is over this line that New Delhi routinely blocks out foreign maps. The Economist of March 30, 2013, is the latest victim. The map on page 21 is defaced by the authorities; but, anticipating this, the paper provides, at page 20, helpful guidance for “using our interactive map at Economist.com/asian borders” .

There is a yet graver aspect. Our media and academia revel in accusing others of deception and cheating. They would do well to reflect on Nehru’s unilateral change of maps a mere two months after the Panchsheel Agreement of April 29, 1954. Its pledge to respect “each other’s territorial integrity” applied to India’s maps of April 1954, not those of July 1954. What would the Chinese have made of the change, which was made shortly before Nehru’s visit to their country in October 1954.

India was well aware of the existence of a boundary dispute with China even before the issue was joined in the correspondence with Zhou’s letter of January 21, 1959. Subimal Dutt warned Nehru on January 9, 1959: “The Chinese have not yet raised a dispute with us about Tawang, but I am not sure that they will not do so some time in future”. Zhou did so on September 8, 1959, but conceded it in April 1960. Tawang was ceded to India by Tibet in 1914. Now, China demands its return, which no Indian government can accept.

In the phase covered by these two volumes, there must have been considerable internal debate with Nehru as the prime participant. The volumes yield little information.

Nehru’s note to Subimal Dutt on February 6, 1959, was typical of the man—condemn sin, but practise it. It read thus: “I agree that a discussion in Parliament at this stage will not be desirable. But I do not like asking the Speaker to disallow this question. It creates a bad impression on Parliament as people get to know about it . I think it should be possible, as you say, to give an answer to the question without embarrassing ourselves or the Chinese. I do not see any harm in mentioning that some negotiations have taken place and will be continued, though Barahoti need not be mentioned. We might say that there are small pockets or territories on the border in regard to which there has been some controversy and discussions have taken place. In one or two of these disputed pockets, we receive a report that some Chinese soldiers came there just when the winter set in. Owing to climatic conditions, it is not easy to go there till the winter is over.” There was no excess of candour here.

Sheikh Abdullah's arrest An editorial footnote tells the reader: “Sheikh Abdullah was under house arrest from August 1953 to January 8, 1958.” House arrest means confinement in the detainee’s house as in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi. On August 8, 1953, Sheikh Abdullah was taken to Udhampur under armed escort after his arrest and dismissal from office as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. He was imprisoned in Tara Niwas Palace Jail. It was a military operation as ordered by Nehru (vide Major General Hiralal Atal; Nehru’s Emissary to Kashmir ; 1972). A critic, Mir Qasim, described what followed in Srinagar. The New Delhi-installed stooge, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, stopped his daily walks. His house was under attack ( My Life and Times ; page 70). This writer has described in detail the planning and execution of that constitutional crime in his book due to be published in April ( The Kashmir Dispute 1947-2012 ; Tulika Books, New Delhi). To this day both separatists and unionists denounce Nehru’s action. The wound is yet to heal.

Sheikh Abdullah’s prosecution on false charges of plotting to accede to Pakistan was also ordered by Nehru. His letter to Nehru on October 27, 1958, soliciting his advice in the selection of a suitable counsel to defend him might seem odd, but not if one knows the background. As Sheikh Abdullah writes in his memoirs Flames of the Chinar: “We tried to engage top lawyers for our defence, but under pressure from the government they all refused.”

The letter was not a request for advice. It was a taunt. Having installed Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed in power, Nehru defended the rigged polls he staged for mutual benefit. The protege knew he was indispensable to New Delhi and began to expand his reach. “It is not a normal situation. And difficult situations have to be faced sometimes in abnormal ways. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, elections have been held in Kashmir twice. You may say—and you may perhaps be right—that the elections are not of that high standard as we would like them to be or as they have been held in the rest of India. Nevertheless, whatever be the standard, it does give a great opportunity to the people. It has given them that opportunity. There are those difficulties. We cannot have it in ideal conditions anywhere. In these conditions, the situation throws up men to deal with those conditions. And the present Prime Minister of Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, is a person who undoubtedly has shown quite remarkable qualities of organisation and leadership. He has done something. I am quite free to confess here that sometimes he has acted in ways which I have not liked at all—just as all of us may act in some ways—and I have ventured to draw his attention to these too. But the fact is that here is this great problem and this great responsibility which he is shouldering, and carrying this burden.”

But when Bakshi attacked Nehru himself, he had to be admonished albeit “as a friend and colleague”. He downplayed it, “Probably you lost your temper.” This is what Bakshi said at his press conference on October 2, 1958: “I would have kicked this prime ministership long ago but I don’t know what holds me here. It is preferable for the Muslims of Kashmir to eat pork rather than take the rice from Delhi. Does not smuggling go on in India? There is corruption in India everywhere. What is going on in Central government? Look to LIC [Life Insurance Corporation of India] and other concerns. Those fat Lallas—with their big bellies—are taking lakhs of rupees and dealing in smuggling day and night. Why they are not exposed? If a Kashmiri Muslim takes a four anna bit as a bribe, he is being bad named everywhere. But those Lallas are Hindus. Those smugglers and corrupt people are bearded Sikhs also. But Kashmiri Muslims—bastards—are Muslims because they have acceded to India.” Bakshi was rattled by charges of corruption which were being aired in New Delhi.

Would Nehru have permitted any other person to talk thus? This leniency was strange in a person so intolerant as Nehru. He denounced Prof. Nirmal Kumar Bose for his book My Days with Gandhi because of his comments on the Mahatma’s “experiments with his own sexuality”. According to Nehru, “he ran Gandhiji down”. Nehru had his friend Mridula Sarabhai thrown out of Constitution House in New Delhi because of her support to Sheikh Abdullah.

Volume 46 is rich in material on M.O. Mathai, who resigned as Special Assistant to Nehru on January 12, 1959, following press reports of corruption. Nehru wrote to Y.B. Chavan on January 28, 1959. “Mathai was of great help to me in a variety of ways. He was with me long before I joined government. I found him to be a man of integrity , loyalty and efficiency. His work did not directly deal with governmental problems. It was partly to organise my office, which he did very efficiently, and partly to process papers which came up to me. This saved me a good deal of trouble. It was not the kind of work which would normally be done by other Secretaries. In fact, I have today a Principal Private Secretary, who is a senior ICS officer, apart from a number of other secretaries, who do various kinds of work for me adequately. I do not at present intend having anyone in place of Mathai, because I do not think that particular type of work can be done by anyone else that I know of.” It was a unique relationship. To him Nehru confided about V.K. Krishna Menon’s waywardness. Mathai was an employee of the American forces in Assam drawing “a very high salary” before joining Nehru’s staff in January 1946. His assets were in the range of Rs.2-3 lakh. (How much would they be worth in 2013?)

The question cannot be evaded. How did Nehru, a man of refinement, allow so coarse a person as Mathai to get close to him? He was close also to Indira Gandhi. She sought his advice on her desire to visit Sheikh Abdullah very shortly after his imprisonment. Clearly, she did not believe in the charges her father had levelled against him. Mathai’s written opinion will be published soon enough.

Tyagi's letter A letter by Mahavir Tyagi to Nehru on January 31, 1959, warned him against making Indira Gandhi president of the Congress. “Please don’t be under the misapprehension that this lining up of supporters for the proposal to put up Indu’s name is due entirely to the force of her personality. It is being done hundred per cent to please you. If you are unable to understand this little fact, then I would say that there is a curtain over your eyes. I am writing this harsh letter because it is only with alum that this cataract can be excised from your eyes though the alum itself gets dissolved in the process. You must understand that today there is such an atmosphere of self-serving greed for position and that you would be hard put to point to two individuals who are true friends and can talk to each other openly. You must accept that the old values and dreams when we would take people of all hues to our bosom have shattered. Today the dreams of our individual ambitions are separate and we are all running after them. This is what is known as individualism. In this atmosphere, it is natural to have a mindset of fear, selfishness and suspicion.

“Today when the structure of governance is weakening, bribery and black-marketeering are holding sway, each one is engaged in stabbing the other in the back, when most of the leaders are adorning ministries and the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies and only the four-anna ordinary members are left in the Congress cadres, how is poor Indu going to hold up this weakened frame? So far the people have been forgiving you, saying what is poor Jawaharlal to do when he gets no time from government preoccupations. The responsibility for reforming the Congress is Dhebar Bhai’s. Indu’s election will take away this safety valve. People will start calling the Congress an offspring of the government.”

Under Indira Gandhi that came to pass, but not before she, as Congress president, forced Nehru to sack the democratically elected E.M.S. Namboodripad government in Kerala from office in 1959. Her ideas of “reforming” the party and the government were different from those of poor Mahavir Tyagi’s. Nehru suffered him. Indira sent his likes packing.

Tailpiece: Beyond a doubt, Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the most clear-headed statesmen of modern times. This is very evident in his address to the International Commission of Jurists in New Delhi on January 5, 1959.

He said with breathtaking clarity and consistency: “There is, as the Attorney-General [M.C. Setalvad] said, the judge who protects the individual from the dangers of wrong executive action that is very necessary. I think, and yet it may be that in a changing society, the judge may be left a little behind by the changes that have come over society and may not quite represent that mood which happens to be the mood of society and which perhaps represents reality more than the statute law which the judge administers. It may be even the executive represents that much more for the moment, it may of course be that the executive acts wrongly and oppressively and should be pulled up, but there are all these aspects of these questions, which are not so simple as to be put down in a phrase, in a simple phrase.” Nothing can be, of course.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment