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Why didn’t Nehru help Tibet against the Chinese?

Nehru welcomed the Dalai Lama as a refugee in 1959 and facilitated the establishment of the Tibetan Government in Exile in India. However, he didn’t oppose the Chinese occupation of Tibet and in some ways actively facilitated it, argues Ben Byrne*.

(TibetanReview.net, Jul20’21)

1. Nehru was busy

Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of independent India on 15 August 1947. The scale of the task facing him as he assumed power was enormous. Britain’s final act as the colonial ruler of India was to divide the country along religious lines. Nehru would govern India, whilst his former ally in the Congress Party, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, would govern the newly created state of Pakistan – a geographical anomaly which flanked India on both its Eastern and Western borders. This Partition of India, with borders in Punjab and Bengal drawn up by an English jurist who had never set foot in either province, immediately displaced between ten and twenty million people and created an overwhelming refugee crisis. Hindus and Sikhs rushed to leave ancestral homes which were suddenly located in a newly formed Islamic state. Muslims, likewise, fled India in fear. The horror was bluntly described in Khushwant Singh’s book Train to Pakistan: “The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.” At least one million are thought to have died. India’s armed forces were charged with dealing with this unprecedented situation mere weeks after the British had handed them the responsibility of keeping the peace and policing the massive populace.

As the refugee crisis rumbled on, things only got worse. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the new nation, was assassinated less than five months after Nehru assumed power. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a member of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). His actions revealed deep sectarian rifts in Indian society that remain active to this day. Nehru addressed the nation: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere.” The police swung into action. 200,000 RSS members, Muslim National Guards and Khaksars were arrested.

As the years rolled by, the turmoil continued unabated in the newly independent country. Nehru and his government had a lot of work to do:

• 565 princely states had to be incorporated into India. This meant cajoling or strong-arming various Maharajas and Nawabs to join the Union. Hyderabad even had to be invaded by the Indian Army and annexed.

• Conflict raged with Pakistan over the princely state of Kashmir and the two new nations fought their first war there between 1947 and 1949.

• In 1950 India became a Republic and adopted a new constitution.

• From 1951-1952 Nehru had to run for election for the first time. The government needed to organise and carry out the country’s first and the world’s largest ever democratic election. Nehru was re-elected in 1957 and 1962.

• After winning the election Nehru set about reorganizing all of the Indian States and Union Territories along linguistic lines.

• Nehru attempted rapid industrialization; introduced land reforms that abolished giant landholdings; and implemented plans to provide free and compulsory primary education to all of India’s children.

• The Portuguese continued to occupy Goa. A diplomatic standoff ensued after the Government of India asked Portugal to open negotiations regarding the future of Goa in 1950. The Portuguese refused, insisting that Goa was not a colony but simply a part of Portugal. The Indian Army annexed Goa forcefully in 1961.

Nehru certainly had his hands full.

2. Nehru didn’t think highly of Tibet

Nehru was a lifelong critic of organised religion and famously promoted secularism. In his 1936 autobiography Nehru wrote: 

“The spectacle of organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.”

As Prime Minister of India he took a dim view of the Tibetan cause. In a note to his foreign secretary on 26 December 1956, Nehru wrote derisively about Tibet’s feudal and monastic systems:

[The] “traditional way of life” in Tibet…is completely feudal under a garb of religion. If one thing is certain, it is that this traditional way of life cannot continue, now that Tibet has come face to face with the modern world…There is bound to be land reform. If the monasteries, who own vast estates, resist this land reform, they will fail in doing so ultimately,and the whole structure of Buddhism based on these monasteries will also suffer. If Tibet wants to keep the essence of Buddhism, it will have to give up these accretions which have nothing to do with religion and which are opposed to modern conditions…”

In his direct dealings with Tibetan officials Nehru was often dismissive and short. He didn’t accept their view that Tibet was legitimately independent. In 1950, when asked by a visiting delegation to recognise Tibet’s independence Nehru replied:

“The Government of India will continue the policy of the British period in considering Tibet outwardly a part of China but internally independent…As to India acting as witness to any agreement [between the Tibetans and the Chinese], that is talk of thirty years ago and not acceptable in this day and age.”

When the Tibetans responded that they had finalised a treaty with Britain which said that the suzerainty of China over Tibet had been “wiped out”, Nehru angrily responded that no such treaty existed because the Chinese had “never accepted the Simla Convention” of 1914. Nehru continued:

“The Chinese believe that Tibet is a part of China. Tibet thinks that because China didn’t accept Simla, it is independent but at the same time Tibet did not make any clear decisions. That was a mistake. And later when you had the time and the opportunity to do something you did nothing and this was a mistake. During this period China has been very clever and have proclaimed widely in the international community that Tibet is a part of China.”

In 1956, the Dalai Lama’s attempts to bring Nehru over to the Tibetan side were also rebuffed. His Holiness asked Nehru to grant him asylum in India so that he could launch a campaign to reclaim his homeland from Chinese control: “I told him all Tibetans now pinned their remaining hopes on the government and people of India,” the Dalai Lama recalled. Nehru, according to the Dalai Lama’s second autobiography, didn’t seem particularly interested in the issue:

“At first he listened and nodded politely. But I suppose that my passionate speech must have been too long for him and after a while he appeared to lose concentration, as if he was about to nod off. Finally, he looked up at me and said that he understood what I was saying. “But you must realise,” he went on somewhat impatiently, “that India cannot support you…You must go back to your country and try to work with the Chinese on the basis of the Seventeen-Point Agreement.”

The Dalai Lama who came to India in 1956 was not the globetrotting Nobel Prize winning statesman we all know today. He was a young 21-year-old monk yet to receive his Geshe degree. He was awarded a rapturous welcome by the Indian public as a spiritual leader, but as a politician he didn’t carry much influence and wasn’t treated seriously. Nehru brushed off his advances.

3. Nehru supported China

Sardar Patel, Nehru’s Deputy Prime Minister, wrote to his boss in 1950 outlining his belief that the Chinese occupation of Tibet spelled bad news for India. He said that with a “militaristic and aggressive nation” on its border, India was under the threat of infiltration by communist spies and even invasion. Nehru conceded that India could do nothing to prevent China’s “liberation” of Tibet and admitted the threat of gradual Chinese infiltration and annexation of border territories. However, he believed that in the ultimate analysis “the real protection we [India] should seek is some kind of understanding with China.”

Nehru was a whimsical internationalist who believed that the end of colonialism heralded a new enlightened world order. He saw India as being at the vanguard of an international movement that would abide by Panchsheel – The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence:

1. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

2. Mutual non-aggression.

3. Mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

4. Equality and mutual benefit.

5. Peaceful co-existing.

The first time these principles were codified in a treaty was in an agreement between China and India in April 1954. This treaty regarded trade and intercourse between Tibet and India and was the first official bi-lateral document that referred to Tibet as ‘the Tibet region of China.’ Concluding this treaty explicitly endorsed China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 as something which simply took place within Chinese territory. 

A few months after this, Nehru took his pursuit of an understanding with China and an Asian Axis to counteract the emerging Cold War blocs to Beijing. Nehru’s conversations with Chairman Mao at Zhongnanhai showed that he believed there was more that united India and China than divided them:

“We have many things in common, and this is not just because of the connection of the past [referring to ancient ties such as Buddhism]. This is also because we suffered from colonial rule in modern times, although we have had different developments in many aspects. Therefore, although we are under the influence of different conditions, we have many things in common since ancient times, and the problems we are facing now are also commonly shared by us.”

When he returned from China, Nehru waxed lyrical about what he had seen there in an official report:

“The people I saw in the cities looked well-clad and well-fed, and I noticed no depression in face or demeanour. Young men and girls and children were particularly in evidence and they were a pleasant looking crowd, jolly and full of enthusiasm… I could not help feeling during my visit to China, even more than I have done before, how completely irrelevant was the idea that this great nation could be ignored or bypassed. The idea of not allowing them to function in the United Nations appeared fantastic. The time has passed when they can be injured much by this policy. It is the rest of world that is more likely to suffer from it.”

Nehru’s goodwill towards China included providing rice for the occupying PLA troops in Tibet. Claude Arpi asserts that “without Delhi’s active support [providing rice], the Chinese would not have been able to survive in Tibet.” The rice was supplied through former British Indian trading posts at Gyantse, Yatung and Gartok and gave the Chinese time to improve its own transport connections with Tibet. Nehru was also the first non-communist Asian leader to support Communist China’s admission to the UN. In 1950, he stated in the Indian parliament: “Can anyone deny China at the present moment the right of a Great Power from the point of view of strength and power? She is a Great Power regardless of whether you like or dislike it.” He emphasised that the People’s Republic of China was a “well established fact” and said that continuing to exclude it from the UN was an “unrealistic state of affairs.” He repeated these sentiments again ten years later and added that China’s “prickly” behaviour was a result of it being on the receiving end of “insolent treatment” from imperialist powers. 

In 1959, months after the Dalai Lama had fled into exile, Nehru disparaged the voices calling for the Government of India to challenge the Chinese. The opposition were “saying hard things about China chiefly to embarrass our Government,” he cabled to the Indian ambassador in Beijing. In a speech to parliament on May 8 Nehru seemed to endorse the Chinese actions which had caused the Dalai Lama to flee: 

“Where a society has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years, it may have outlasted its utility [Nehru was speaking about the Tibetan society that the Chinese were in the process of systematically destroying]. Any kind of a forcible uprooting of that must be necessarily painful, whether it is a good society or a bad society.”

Nehru, throughout the struggle for independence, had often spoken of his desire to integrate India’s struggle against the British imperialists with the global struggle against imperialism and colonialism in general. In Mao, who included a rant against the western imperialists in almost every second sentence, Nehru appeared to have met an angry but natural ally. Consequently, Nehru was reluctant to let an issue like Tibet, which he viewed as a backward feudal state in need of reform, break his anti-imperialist coalition with the Chinese.

4. India lacked a military option against China

The departure of British military officers and the Partition of India put Independent India’s armed forces in a state of disarray: 

  • The armed forces previously under British command were forcibly divided between India and Pakistan. 
  • The replacement of senior British officers with Indians meant many of the latter held acting ranks several ranks above their substantive ones. 
  • India retained the use of six Gorkha regiments, with the other four being placed in British Army service. 

After the first Indo-Pak War it was decided that India’s armed forces would be reduced from 400,000 active personnel to 200,000 to save on defence expenditure. Civilian control of the military was taken to its logical extreme, with politicians exercising complete control over their generals. Decisions relating to matters of major military importance were often taken without the consultation of the concerned service. Anit Mukherjee has written of “an absence of a free and frank dialogue” between civilian and military personnel and an “organisational naiveté” on Nehru’s part “wherein he assumed that once orders were passed, they would be readily and quickly implemented.” PMS Blackett, a British military researcher who advised Nehru and observed him closely, remarked that he was “not a good administrator…he did not know how to get things done very well.” Gandhian pacifism also permeated Indian civil society and rendered India’s armed forces spiritually weak. 

In marked contrast to India’s armed forces, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was a well-oiled fighting machine with years of battlefield experience. From 1927-1949 the PLA had fought an intermittent civil war against the Republic of China. They had also taken a break from fighting their own countrymen to join with them in battle against the Japanese, forming the Second United Front from 1937-1945. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the PLA engaged in the “liberation” of Tibet and the Korean War from 1950-1953. China’s leader, Chairman Mao, was one of the most experienced leaders in military history and his generals were all veterans who had earned their high ranks.

The weaknesses of the Indian military would be ruthlessly exposed by the PLA at Aksai Chin, NEFA and Assam in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. China advanced 80,000 troops to the various battlefields along the border. India could only get around 20,000 troops to the theatre and suffered great difficulty in supplying these troops with air drops. In defeat, Nehru’s hopes of a new enlightened world order led by the former colonized peoples were dashed and his “brotherhood” with the Chinese was over. Nehru had sacrificed Tibet at the altar of Sino-Indian relations, but now this temple lay in ruins. Some historians have speculated that Nehru’s sudden decline in health, which began in 1962 and ended with his death two years later, was sparked by his chagrin at what he perceived as a betrayal of the trust he had placed in the Chinese.

*  Ben Byrne has a master’s degree in History and is an independent researcher.

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