One month before he passed away in December 1950 and a good 12 years before the Chinese attacked India in 1962, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had drawn Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's attention to Beijing's shenanigans and warned him against trusting the neighbour.
In a letter to Nehru, which finds place in JN Dixit's book, Makers of India's Foreign Policy: From Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Yashwant Sinha, Sardar Patel noted that the “Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intent”. Nehru did not heed his Home Minister's advice, and the nation paid the price. Now, we have yet another Congress regime which is showing a similar disastrous tendency in the wake of many recent Chinese incursions into Indian territory, including the very latest at Daulat Beg Oldi in ladakh sector, where China's Army personnel have pitched their tents for more than a fortnight now. The question is not if, but when will India pay another price for its meeknessIJ
The context of Sardar Patel's letter may have been different from the crisis that we have today. He had concentrated his concerns over Beijing's designs in the North-East and along the Tibet border. But the larger narrative then, as it is now, remains the same: That New Delhi must stop appeasing China and taking the latter at face value. Instead, it should be assertive and aggressively mindful of its sovereignty and security needs.
Contrast our virtual state policy today to bend over backwards to please China with that of Sardar Patel's strong disapproval of our then Ambassador to China's supine overtures to Beijing. On the issue of settling its dispute with Tibet, China had apparently so softened up the Indian Ambassador that the latter had turned almost apologetic about having sought a clarification from Beijing on its intentions regarding Tibet. Patel wrote, “Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions”. Does a similarly pathetic attempt to be an apologist for China not resonate todayIJ Various senior Ministers of the UPA regime too have taken great pains to explain away the latest incursion. Union Minister for Home Affairs Sushil Kumar Shinde justified the intrusion on the ground that it was in a “no man's land”, while Union Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid trivialised the incident as an “acne” that will go away with the application of an “ointment”. Would these worthies have dared to make such foolish remarks if they were answerable to a man of Sardar Patel's statureIJ
In his letter, Patel dealt in detail on why we should have been proactive on the Tibet issue. The Tibet matter is now considered settled, with New Delhi accepting the region as a legitimate part of China. But, while we have been so accommodating to Beijing even in the face of protests by the Tibetan people, China has showed no such consideration to our sensitivities on the border issue. Back in 1950 even, as the then Home Minister pointed out, Beijing had been treating India with disdain. He drew Nehru's attention to the fact that “even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends… this is a significant pointer which we have to take due note”. Nehru did not take due note then, and Manmohan Singh is not taking due note now.
Patel did not stop at that. He pointed to the language the Chinese had used in their correspondence with New Delhi on a range of issues including India's so-called proximity with the West and its stand on Tibet. Referring to one such correspondence, he said, “Their last telegram to us is an act of gross discourtesy not only in the summary way it disposes of our protest against the entry of Chinese forces into Tibet but also in the wild insinuation that our attitude is determined by foreign influences. It looks as though it is not a friend speaking in that language but a potential enemy”. How prescient Sardar Patel had been to call China a “potential enemy”! In recent times, leaders such as George Fernandes and Mulayam Singh Yadav, besides those of the BJP, have taken a similarly realistic line.
Sardar Patel was scathing in his observation over the manner we had been appeasing China, and said the nonsense had to end. In the November letter, he bluntly told Nehru, “I doubt if we can go any further than we have done already to convince China of our good intentions, friendliness and goodwill”. But here Patel was wrong; in subsequent years, particularly during the last decade, India has gone further than he would have imagined. Indeed, we were to go ‘further’ soon after Patel's demise, when Nehru, now free from constraint, revelled in his ill-conceived Hindi-Chini bhai bhai campaign.
Patel had understood the Chinese better than not just many of his peers but also those who followed him in politics and other public space. He wrote in the letter to Nehru, “Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or the imperialism of the Western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous”. This should serve as a corrective lesson to those who today believe that the regular Chinese intrusions are ‘localised' developments and are unrelated to larger ideological or military goals which Beijing is pursuing in its neighbourhood — on land and in water.
The frustrations of the Iron Man must be placed in the context of recent developments in one other aspect: India's consistent attempt to boost China's image before the world even as Beijing does everything to ridicule New Delhi in the international community. For instance, China made fun of India when the latter successfully tested the inter-continental ballistic missile, Agni V. Is this how one friend behaves with anotherIJ In Patel's time, the Prime Minister had spoken about China's ‘goodness' to all and sundry abroad and even gone to the extent of seeking a permanent place for Beijing in the US Security Council. Patel had referred to that rather sarcastically in his letter, “During the last several months, outside the Russian camp, we have been practically alone in championing the cause of Chinese entry into UN and in securing from the Americans assurances on the question of Formosa. We have done everything we could to assuage Chinese feelings…”
One of the suggestions with which Sardar Patel rounded off his letter to the Prime Minister was this: “An examination (must be done) of military position and such redisposition of our forces as might be necessary, particularly with the idea of guarding important routes which are likely to be the subject of dispute”.
Had Sardar Patel been alive, how would he have dealt with the recent Chinese misdemeanourIJ Perhaps the Chinese wouldn't have dared to intrude in the first place.