Published : Jul 27, 2012 00:00 IST

At every stage in the border talks with China since 1959, there was a moment for reflection, and a warning to heed, but Nehru ignored them all.

R.K. Nehru, who expressed his views on the boundary problem with China with forthrightness in various official notes, was even more candid in the interview of July 1, 1971, that was part of the Oral History Programme of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML). He was 13 years younger than Jawaharlal and was deeply impressed by him. At the same time, what struck me about Jawaharlal was his impetuosity, a rather charming trait. He recalled Ambassador K.M. Panikkars report from China, in which he predicted that the Communist government would collapse after some time, and the reason he gave was based on all kinds of historical analogies. The Prime Minister despised Panikkar, yet he acted on his advice rather than that of Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, whom he respected.

R.K. Nehru had a long talk with Zhou En-lai when he visited India in April 1960. He never allowed himself to forget Chinas Note of May 15, 1959.

What he told Prime Minister Nehru deserves to be quoted in extenso: I pointed out that if China joined hands with Pakistan, the Soviet Union and the United States would also try to wean Pakistan from China and we would be somewhat isolated. Therefore, the suggestion was: Keep your doors open in all directions; do not surrender anything border problem keep the talks going. It was on that basis, I think, because he accepted this approach, that the P.M. agreed to my going to China in July 1961. That was the last dialogue between India and China which took place on the 12th July 1961. I came back with some proposals from the Chinese, which were good proposals from our viewpoint as a basis for further negotiations, or at least for the relaxation of tension.

[B.R.] Nanda: When did you return?

[R.K.] Nehru: 15th of July, from Peking. Of course, my visit was denounced in Parliament that I had sold the honour of the country etc. But what in effect they [the Chinese] had suggested was, I am not disclosing all the proposals, but I spoke about Kashmir and their relations with Pakistan. The clear hint they dropped was [ sic] repeated what they had said in 1959: We regard you as a more important neighbour, we want to have friendly relations with you; the border problem should be settled peacefully and as for Kashmir where have we said that we do not r ecognise your rights etc? What was clearly implied was that as part of an overall settlement they would accept our sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir. That is what I had got from Peking. They had put it in a negative way because it was bargaining. When I spoke to Chou En-lai at great length on Kashmir, I said that in fact the Soviet Union had recognised our sovereignty over Kashmir, while the Chinese had not. While we had recognised their sovereignty over Formosa, we did not think it was very friendly of them to have not done so in the case of Kashmir. Chou-En-lai said, We have never said that we will not recognise your sovereignty; but then of course, we must have relations with Pakistan too. But we have never said: we would not. Show me a document. These were the words he used: Show me any document in which we have said that we do not recognise your sovereignty. Negative. Well that is how [it is] when you are negotiating, these are the first steps. So, as regards the border problem there was a basis for a reasonable settlement. The basis was some exchange, etc. But the negotiations did not proceed because after I came back here, there as a violent denunciation in Parliament and the Prime Minister too said the visit was infructuous. Why? I had told him that you could not expect the Chinese to surrender everything. Our policy was that they should accept our sovereignty over the eastern sector. So far as the western sector is concerned, Aksai Chin, they should withdraw. Give up the road. We would not advance further. Then the negotiations should be confined to Aksai Chin. While they were using NEFA [North East Frontier Agency] as a bargaining counter, so naturally

Nanda: We did not need Aksai Chin; this territory was not of much use to us.

R.K. Nehru: That is not the point. The main point is that neither India nor China has any strong claim to Aksai Chin, though our claim may be somewhat stronger. Graziers from both sides and traders used to go there, may be more from our side, but no one can live there and there was no established administration. And an interesting point is that until 1954 the boundary there was shown as undefined in our official maps. In 1954, the Prime Minister decided to change that to an international boundary. [The full text of Jawaharlal Nehrus directive to change maps was published much later in 2000 in Volume 26 of S e lected W orks of Jawahar lal Nehru, pages 481-484. It is dated July 1, 1954. The Panchseel Agreement of April 29, 1954, was based on unrevised maps which showed the boundary in the western sector as undefined.] The mistake that the Chinese made was that they did not question our claim outright from the very start. To that extent, they misled us. Just as Prime Minister Nehru used to make statements in Parliament, from 1950 onwards, that treaty or no treaty, map or no map, NEFA is ours. He never said anything about Aksai Chin; he talked only about NEFA. It was very important from our viewpoint. The Chinese too could have said the same thing but they did not. Why? Well, according to Maxwell, and I think he is right there, they were thinking in terms of a quiet exchange, in the sense that you occupy NEFA, we will keep on making our claims on our maps, etc. We will occupy Aksai Chin, then sometime later we will settle it. In 1953, while the talks were going on between the two sides on Tibet, a suggestion was given by G.S. Bajpai, who was then the Governor of Bombay, that we should discuss the border problem with the Chinese. I was the Foreign Secretary and I said, Even if we do not raise this point at number one in our list of points, we can make it point No.8. But Panikkars view was that we should not raise it. We should try to make our position effective. There was something in it. But the trouble was that we could not make our position effective because of the nature of the terrain. It bears recalling that China did not protest at all in February 1951 when India evicted the Tibetans from Tawang.

R.K. Nehru did not believe that the war of October 1962 was wholly unexpected. I had met Chang Han-fu in July 1962 in Geneva. Chang Han-fu was one of the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and an old friend of mine. He invited me to dinner in Geneva. He had gone there for the Laos Conference and there is a recorded conversation. Our Consul-General was with me. Chang Han-fu mentioned this several times. He said, in their notes they sent to us they had indicated, It is bound to lead to a serious military conflict. May be the nature and scale and magnitude of the conflict was not anticipated, but I am not prepared to say that they did not give us sufficient warning that military encounters might follow. My own interpretation is that as in India, so also in China, there were various schools of thought. May be the military elements, coming on the top, wanted a clash.

Each time he spoke to the Prime Minister he agreed with me only to add that public opinion would not accept a settlement at present. His description of Nehrus style of work is not very flattering. If a telegram came, the Foreign Secretary would take his orders, sometimes in the corridor. When I saw the reply I would state my own views. Sometimes, of course, on important matters, he would send for everyone, have a meeting. But quite often, because he was so busy, preoccupied, so many things, irons in the fire, responsibilities, I noticed that important decisions were taken (and that is not only my own experience as the Commonwealth Secretary, others also used to tell me the same) without giving full consideration, considering other views or holding a meeting where conflicting views could be discussed. The whole decision-making machinery was somewhat defective. It is true that a great statesman does not rely on experts and officials, etc. His final decision must be based on his own sound instinct, but sometimes you have got to, before you arrive at a decision, consider every aspect, every view, every divergence also and approach to the problem.

There was the usual divide, the hawks and the doves. The Prime Minister vacillated between these two positions, as you could see from his speeches in Parliament. He would try to play down the Chinese threat. Then whenever there was an uproar in Parliament, he would denounce the Chinese. I remember Chou En-lai told me in July 1961 that, Let us try to reduce tension first even if we cannot settle this border problem. If your top leaders call us expansionist, etc., and we will call you imperialists, it is not going to solve the problem. These were his words. When I told the Prime Minister about this, he banged his fist on the table and said, I will call them expansionists and they are expansionists, etc. Next day, he would agree to do something else.

On the Prime Ministers belief that he had been deceived, R.K. Nehru gave a fair explanation. Take this famous interview of his, or rather his talk with Chou En-lai in December 1956, in which Chou En-lai said, Because of our friendly relations we are prepared to recognise the illegal McMahon Line, but we must consult the Tibetans first. Well, Nehru thought that the Chinese had agreed. Actually, sometimes because of interpretation, it is very difficult if you do not get the full sense. Chou En-lai told me that he had never made a commitment. What he had said was that this was the kind of approach that they were trying to make. He did not say anything about trading Aksai Chin for NEFA, but that I guessed. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, drew another conclusion. First of all the Prime Minister as I mentioned in my article (towards the end of his life, of course, used to have others with him) preferred to meet world statesmen himself, as if world problems, conflicting national interests, could be settled on the basis of a heart-to-heart talk between two leading statesmen. I remember when Chou En-lai came here in 1956, he had brought with him Marshall Ho Lung, who was the Deputy Prime Minister and a very important figure, but he was debarred from all these talks. Ho Lung and I used to sit outside. They did not like it at all, but it was out of respect for our Prime Minister. And the Prime Minister, after his meeting, dictated a note. That was the famous note in which he says that Chou En-lai agreed to recognise our sovereignty over NEFA. Perhaps Chou En-lai might have given that indication to him, but it was just an indication. It did not mean it was no commitment from his own point of view. Perhaps he was assuming that we would not raise any question about Aksai Chin, where, according to Mullik,[the Intelligence Bureau Director], they had already built a road. The implication may have been that their claim to NEFA would be given up if nothing was said by us about Aksai Chin. This may not have been a very satisfactory way of handling the problem, but it is not unlikely that their willingness to concede NEFA was based on some such assumption.

R.K. Nehrus concern, shared by Zhou En-lai, was that talks should be kept going. I was very anxious and I never concealed that, that China should not be allowed to join hands with Pakistan. From the point of view of our national interest, it was disastrous. I was not saying that we should surrender anything, but we should keep the talks going. Chou En-lai was of the same view. That is why he wanted to keep the talks going, whatever the reason may be, and actually they wanted to settle this problem. I thought that even if a settlement was not possible at that time, we should somehow prevent China from joining hands with Pakistan. I did not think that our relying too much, depending too much on the Soviet Union and the United States because of their hostile relations with China was going to be very helpful to us in the long run.

It is a fact that China did not respond to Pakistans overture for a boundary accord for well over a year. Which brings us to the fateful Note. Actually it was a statement by Ambassador Pan Tsu-li to Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt, whose outlook was totally different from that of Secretary-General R.K. Nehru. The full text of the statement, apparently written by Mao Zedong, and Indias reply, certainly a Jawaharlal Nehru writing, are set out in White Paper I (pages 73-77).

After complaining of Indian comments on Tibet, the Ambassador conceded that India had recognised the Tibet region as a part of Chinas territory but accused India of interference there. The last paragraph deserves to be set out in full. On the whole, India is a friend of China, this has been so in the past thousand and more years, and we believe will certainly continue to be so in one thousand, ten thousand years to come. The enemy of the Chinese people lies in the East the U.S. imperialists have many military bases in Taiwan, in South Korea, Japan and in the Philippines which are all directed against China. Chinas main attention and policy of struggle are directed to the east, to the West Pacific region, to the vicious and aggressive U.S. imperialism, and not to India or any other country in the southeast Asia and south Asia. Although the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan have joined the SEATO [South East Asia Treaty Organisation] which is designed to oppose China, we have not treated those three countries as our principal enemy; our principal enemy is U.S. imperialism. India has not taken part in the Southeast Asia Treaty; it is not an opponent, but a friend to our country. China will not be so foolish as to antagonise the United States in the east and again to antagonise India in the west. The putting down of the rebellion and the carrying out of democratic reforms in Tibet will not in the least endanger India. You can wait and see. As the Chinese proverb goes the strength of a horse is borne out by the distance travelled, and the heart of a person is seen with the lapse of time. You will ultimately see whether relations between the Tibet region of China and India are friendly or hostile by watching three, five, ten, twenty, a hundred years. We cannot have two centres of attention, nor can we take friend for foe. This is our state policy. The quarrel between our two countries in the past few years, particularly in the last three months, is but an interlude in the course of thousands upon thousands of years of friendships between the two countries and does not warrant a big fuss on the part of the broad masses and the government authorities of our countries. The principles, positions and distinctions between right and wrong as set forth in the foregoing paragraphs have to be set forth, otherwise the current difference between our countries cannot be resolved. But so far as the extent of the implication of those words is concerned, it is only temporary and local; that is to say, they refer only to a temporary difference between our two countries and concern solely the region of Tibet. Our Indian friends! What is your mind? Will you be agreeing to our thinking regarding the view that China can only concentrate its main attention eastward of China, but not south-westward of China, nor is it necessary for it to do so. Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the leader of our country, talked on many occasions with Mr R.K. Nehru, former Indian Ambassador to China, who could well understand and appreciate it. We do not know whether the former Indian Ambassador conveyed this to the Indian authorities. Friends! It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts. Is it not so? If it is, here then lies the meeting point of our two sides. Will you please think it over? Allow me to take this opportunity to extend my best regards to Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of India.

The language, though unusual, was not rude at all. The approach was friendly; the plea it advanced merited consideration. Prime Minister Nehrus offensive and pompous reply verged on the preposterous. It is not only not in consonance with certain facts, but is also wholly out of keeping with diplomatic usage and the courtesies due to friendly countries. It is a matter of particular surprise and disappointment to them that a government and people noted for their high culture and politeness should have committed this serious lapse and should have addressed the Government of India in a language which is discourteous and unbecoming even if it were addressed to a hostile country. Since it is addressed to a country which is referred to as friendly, this can only be considered as an act of forgetfulness.

The Government of India realise that the system of government in China is different from that prevailing in India. It is the right of the Chinese people to have a government of their choice, and no one else has a right to interfere; it is also the right of the Indian people to have a government of their choice, and no one else has a right to interfere. In India, unlike China, the law recognises many parties, and gives protection to the expression of differing opinions. That is a right guaranteed by our Constitution and, contrary to the practice prevailing in China, the Government of India is often criticised and opposed by some sections of the Indian people. It is evident that this freedom of expression, free press and civil liberties in India are not fully appreciated by the Government of China, and hence misunderstandings arise. So far as the Parliament of India is concerned, it is a sovereign body, and each one of its 750 members has perfect freedom to express his or her opinion under the protection of the law, whether anyone likes it or not. The Peoples Government of China should understand that this is a sovereign Parliament of a sovereign country and it does not submit to any dictation from any outside authority. The sneer was uncalled for. Finally, the boast. The Government of India do not consider or treat any other country as an enemy country, however much it may differ from it.

The claim was false. In a Note to Vallabhbhai Patel on November 18, 1950 in reply to his famous letter of November 7, 1950, on the Chinese threat Nehru wrote: The fact remains that our major possible enemy is Pakistan. This has compelled us to think of our defence mainly in terms of Pakistans aggression. If we begin to think of, and prepare for, Chinas aggression in the same way, we would weaken considerably on the Pakistan side. We might well be got in a pincer moment ( Sardar Patels Correspondence; Volume 10, pages 344-345). This is precisely what happened in 1963, thanks to Nehrus arrogant shortsightedness.

In May 1959, Pan Tsu-li had realistically warned him of that prospect in a friendly manner. From April 1960 until July 1961, Nehru had a choice between writing off Aksai Chin to China which was never Indias anyway and driving China into Pakistans waiting arms. Aksai Chin was barren land, but hostility with China would blight Indias future for years to come.

K.P.S. Menon rightly held that Nehru could have put his foot down. Pant was personally loyal and Morarji Desai, almost hated by many. It was the Prime Ministers hubris that led him astray. The great merit of R.K. Nehrus analyses is that he demolishes one myth after another.

There was nothing inevitable about a boundary problem degenerating into a boundary dispute and that dispute leading to war; least of all to Chinas alliance with Pakistan. At every single stage since 1959 there was a pause, a moment for reflection, and a warning to heed. Nehru ignored them all. The political class and the media, fed on the tales he and his government told them, whipped themselves into a fury. R.K. Nehru kept his head, and history has vindicated him. But, as we see today before our eyes, the media and the political class refuse to learn the lessons it teaches. They refuse to note the positive comments in the Chinese press acknowledging that India will not gang up with the U.S. against China. Even in a worse relationship in the 1970s India refused to join Brezhnevs Plan for Asian security against China.

When the situation in Kashmir in the 1990s was bad, China shifted its stand in favou r of India. Prof. John W. Garver, a noted authority, documented the shift in an excellent essay entitled Sino-Indian Rapprochement and the Sino-Pakistan Entente ( Political Science Quarterly; Volume 111; November 2, 1996, pages 323-347. The table reproduced in this article was prepared by him and is on page 329 of his essay).

Right now there is on the table a proposal to conclude a boundary agreement on a non-controversial sector. The boundary here is defined in the Anglo-Chinese Convention of March 17, 1890. It is unhelpful to link it with other sectors. Even so limited an accord will break the logjam and improve the atmosphere. We can next move to the middle sector and finally settle the western and eastern sectors in a single package at the highest level. It will have to be a political deal.

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