When Nehru left the Tibetans to their fate
Developments have shown just how wrong Jawaharlal Nehru had been in handling the China-Tibet policy, not just ignoring the advice of a capable IFS officer but also brushing aside Sardar Patel’s warnings
When China walked into Eastern Tibet on October 7, 1950, the Tibetan Army could offer only a minimum resistance. During the following week, the Indian Government started to cautiously react to the invasion of its neighbour; Delhi wanted to be sure not to ‘upset’ communist China.
It is in these circumstances that a young Chinese-speaking IFS officer, Sumul Sinha, took over as the Head of the Indian Mission in Lhasa. Sinha was heading for tough times: India’s Tibet policy was in the process of changing radically under the impulsion of KM Panikkar, India’s Ambassador in China, suddenly promoted to being Jawaharlal Nehru’s chief advisor for Tibet affairs. To make things worse, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister, would pass away in December.
On November 17, at the age of 15, the Dalai Lama had to assume temporal power over the Land of Snows; the same day, Delhi sent a cable to the Political Officer in Sikkim: “If danger to Mission develops, all Top Secret papers and other secret papers should be destroyed by burning.” A wind of panic had stared blowing over the Indian capital.
It is in these circumstances that the relationship between the new Indian Representative in Lhasa and the Prime Minister started souring. On November 23, Nehru, who also held the Foreign Minister’s portfolio, cabled Sinha: “Government of India have noticed that certain communications from Lhasa and Sikkim regarding Tibet are dogmatic, disputatious and admonitory… Once a decision has been taken by Government [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’s reports did not fit into Nehru’s global vision of the world — the ‘larger vision’, as he used to call it. Sinha had expressed too much sympathy for the Tibetan people, at a time when their nation was being erased.
The cable from Delhi continues in the same vein: “While local officers may be experts in their field, they CANNOT be fully aware of the wide considerations involved and the repercussions of a particular course of action.” This invective returned again and again in Nehru’s dealings with sincere and competent officers (whether in the civil services or the Army); particularly those who tried to warn him of the consequences of his ‘friendship at any cost’ policy with China.
The famous ‘larger vision’ was then expounded: “India’s policy is primarily based on avoidance of war and maintenance of peace, as we consider world war most terrible of calamities for humanity.” On the altar of this new ‘political’ dogma, Tibet was sacrificed, as were India’s national interests in this affair.
Nehru’s reaction against Sinha has to be seen with the background of Sardar Patel’s prophetic letter to Nehru written early November: “The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention… at a crucial period they manage to instill into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese... is little short of perfidy.”
Nehru could not admonish Patel the way he did Sinha, so he chose to ignore the letter while changing India’s Tibet policy.
Nehru gives Sinha the crux of his new credo: “Emergency of strong centralised Government of China, with a revolutionary urge, has been most significant fact of present generation. This affects India more particularly and future of Asia depends upon relationship of India with China.”
Twelve years later, the same China humiliated India on the slopes of the Thagla ridge, but, in the meantime, Sinha, the young IFS officer was blamed for not being able to grasp India’s novel policy. The cable continues to eulogise China’s revolution: “For this reason we tried to cultivate friendly relations with China and we believe that this became a stabilising factor when Korean war started.” The Korean war and the role ‘India’ (read Nehru) was eager to play as a peace-maker, would become the pretext to let down Tibet and sell-out
Two years later, soon before the end of his tenure in Lhasa, Sinha upset the Prime Minister again. Sinha got the bad 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 tells off Sinha; it would be “improper and unwise for our representative to get involved in Tibetan domestic affairs
Sumul Sinha left Lhasa in September 1952 and was replaced by his Foreign Service colleague AK Sen, but his problems with the pacifist Prime Minister were far from being over. On March 5, 1953, Nehru dictated a note in a reply to a memo prepared by Sinha, now an Officer on Special Duty in the External Affairs Ministry. The title of Sinha’s note was, ‘Chinese designs on the North-East Frontier of India’.
The Prime Minister was mad at Sinha for having dared speak about Chinese ‘designs: “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.”
Only six years later, when the Chinese attacked the Longju Post in Subansiri Frontier Division, Nehru began to appreciate the meaning of Sinha’s analysis. By that time, it was already too late; further, India reacted by designing an ill-conceived ‘Forward Policy’ which eventually triggered a War. But in 1953, Nehru believed ‘communist China is our friend; it will never attack us’.
Sinha’s note, even if rejected due its ‘tone’, forced the Government to think about the policy to be pursued to take care of India’s borders. Unfortunately, no action followed for years. Sinha’s problem was that he was not a ‘darbari’, writing only what his master wanted to hear. He had also warned Nehru that the Chinese could infiltrate Nepal through communist sympathisers (how true it was!). Nehru had answered: “There is danger in Nepal, but this too is due to internal chaotic conditions than to outside interference. As a matter of fact, the outside interference that is troubling us is American and not Chinese.”
Nehru concluded: “It appears that Mr Sinha does not appreciate our policy fully. He should be enlightened.” Thereafter, the officer was a dejected man.
History has proved Nehru wrong and Sumul Sinha prophetically right. A posthumous justice?
(The accompanying visual is of Sumul Sinha in Lhasa along with senior Tibetan officials)
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