The fate of a visionary diplomat
Had Nehru followed the advice of Sumul Sinha, the Indian official who had warned him about the intentions of communist China, the destiny of the nation could have been different
One does not often pay homage to unknown diplomats: Had their advice been followed, the destiny of the nation could, perhaps, have been different. This is the case of Sumul Sinha, the official in-charge of the Indian Mission in Lhasa between 1950 and 1952.
Five months after forcing a 17-Point Agreement on Tibetan delegates (and forging the seals of the Lhasa Government), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered the Tibetan capital in September 1951. During the first months, the Red generals were pure honey. Sinha witnessed their changing behaviour and reported to his bosses in New Delhi.
The young Mandarin-speaking diplomat noted that the Tibetans had started to ‘shed their fears’ and they have again ‘acquired confidence for the future’. Though 11 months earlier, the PLA had brutally smashed an ill-prepared and disorganised Tibetan Army in eastern Tibet, perhaps the Chinese were not so bad after all, believed many Tibetans.
Sinha explained to Delhi: “Credit is due to the Chinese [general] who with patience and delicacy are handling the problem of leading Tibet into the fold. They had struck terror into the hearts of Tibetans, when the offensive began, and it was then essential to pulverise resistance and gain victory. …The struggle has begun for the mind and soul of Tibet in ways that are subtle and hardly perceptible.” The Chinese largesse at that time was phenomenal.
This type of language deeply irritated the Indian Prime Minister; according to Nehru, Sinha could not grasp that the Chinese had come to help the Tibetans to abandon their medieval mindset and in any case, the destiny of India and China were forever bound together for the good of humanity.
“Mr Sinha needs to be enlightened”, he once wrote; poor Sinha was only trying to report, as faithfully as possible, the situation on the ground.
On October 7, 1950, the Chinese had walked into eastern Tibet. While the population in Lhasa had started panicking, the Tibetan Government reacted ‘cautiously’ to the invasion at the beginning; they did not want to ‘upset’ the Chinese.
India’s Tibet policy had recently been taken a radical change under the guidance of KM Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador in Beijing, who was suddenly promoted as Nehru’s chief advisor for Tibet affairs. Conflict with China had to be avoided at any cost, world peace was the only objective were the new mottos …and Tibet could be sacrificed in the process.
The situation rapidly soured between the Indian Representative in Tibet and the Prime Minister. On November 23, Nehru wrote to Sinha: “Government of India have noticed that certain communications from Lhasa and Sikkim regarding Tibet are dogmatic, disputatious and admonitory. We want of course our representatives to give us full information …[But] once a decision has been taken by Government [read to abandon Tibet to its fate], it should be accepted gracefully and followed faithfully; any insinuation that Government have been acting wrongly or improperly is objectionable.”
Sinha saw another angle to the dramatically-unfolding Tibetan issue; India was suddenly acquiring a new neighbour; the Indian borders could soon be endangered. But Sinha’s reports did not fit into Nehru’s ‘larger’ vision of the world. Further, for Delhi, Sinha expressed too much sympathy for the Tibetan people at a time when their nation was being erased from the world map.
Sincere and competent officers often suffered because of Nehru’s admonishing tendencies; the Prime Minister was particularly harsh on those who tried to warn him of the consequences of his ‘friendship at any cost’ policy with China.
The reaction to Sinha’s cable has to be understood against backdrop of the letter on Tibet sent on November 7 by Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Patel to Nehru.
In the same cable, the Prime Minister said that diplomats should: “avoid as far as possible strong language and condemnation …of nations which only increases international tension.” In other words, don’t call a spade, a spade, even in internal ‘top secret’ correspondence.
The cable continued eulogizing China’s revolution: “This may be factor for stability and peace of the world or danger to us and to world peace. For this reason we tried to cultivate friendly relations with China and we believe that this became a stabilising factor when Korean war started.”
On November 27, 1950, Sinha cabled the Foreign Secretary (a young officer could not answer directly to the Prime Minister, though copies were marked for the PMO): “My short-coming is inexperience. I know, however, that I have striven to carry out Government of India’s policy to the letter. In my telegrams which had to be TERSE, I tried to reflect faithfully the reactions of Tibetan Government to situation facing them in the belief Government of India would like to know.”
In the following years, Sinha would be blasted again and again for warning Nehru of the true intentions of Communist China. Sadly, he finished a dejected man.
Just before the end of his tenure in Lhasa in Summer 1952, Sinha did it again; he upset the Prime Minister. Sinha had the unfortunate idea to ask for a loan of two lakh rupees to help the forces fighting for Tibetan independence.
Nehru was furious. In a cable sent to the Mission in Lhasa, the Prime Minister told off Sinha; it would be “improper and unwise for our representative to get involved in Tibetan domestic affairs or intrigues.”
He added that India was naturally friendly towards Tibetans, but this should not give anyone the impression of possible interference or help. He concluded by telling his Representative: “We have to judge these matters from larger world point of view which probably our Tibetan friends have no means of appreciating.”
On March 5, 1953, Nehru again got irritated by a memo prepared by Sinha, who was now posted as Officer on Special Duty in the Ministry. Retrospectively, Sinha’s note was prophetic; it was titled ‘Chinese designs on the North-East Frontier of India.’
But one can imagine that the title was not to the Prime Minister’s liking.
The Prime Minister again criticised the approach of the former Indian Representative in Tibet. He noted: “I find Mr Sinha’s approach to be coloured very much by certain ideas and conceptions which prevent him from taking an objective view of the situation. The note starts by reference to the lust for conquest of the Chinese and is throughout based on this.”
Nehru asserted that Sinha: “looks back with a certain nostalgia to the past when the British exercised a good deal of control over Tibet and he would have liked very much for India to take the place of the British of those days.”
Six years later, when the Chinese intruded in NEFA and Ladakh, the Prime Minister probably realised that Sinha was right, but it was too late. Ever since, every summer, the Chinese cross the line and ‘transgress’ into Indian territory.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)
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