Watchers of Asia's two big rising powers are getting it wrong, says The Diplomat's Madhav Nalapat. In focusing on economics and a border dispute, they are overlooking the biggest irritant to ties: a soft-spoken monk who was granted asylum in India 50 years ago.
History in India is written almost entirely by individuals reliant for their livelihood and research on state funding. It’s no surprise, therefore, that there’s been almost no serious analysis here of the consequences of the 1959 decision by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to ignore Chinese Premer Zhou Enlai’s warning not to give asylum to the Dalai Lama.
This is a crucial omission, because although most commentators on Sino-India affairs focus on the border issue or the economic rivalry between the two nations, the root of Beijing’s mistrust of Delhi is actually the soft-spoken monk who has been an honoured guest in India for decades.
Nehru’s decision to disregard his Chinese counterpart’s request was momentous and his welcoming of the Dalai Lama created a fissure between India and China that persists even today. It’s one which has also prompted China to hold up agreement on matters, including the border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, in an effort to press India to make the Tibetan community within its borders as unwelcome as possible.
Indeed, that single decision has had so momentous an effect on Sino-Indian relations that it seems extraordinary that this ‘Tibet factor’ in India-China relations has generally been so little commented upon, with most scholars in the United States and European Union apparently reluctant to draw attention to the consequences of the decision to welcome the Dalai Lama and, indeed, any Tibetan who fled China and sought asylum.
Although often strident in language, in practice both Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru softened their positions when confronted with opposition–a stark contrast with the leaders at the cusp of taking over India’s largest neighbour, China. While the Nehruvian narrative put India front and centre of the struggle against European colonial powers, the Chinese Communist Party version was that Nehru and his team were mere quislings who pretended to be independent but were actually bound almost as firmly to the apron strings of Europe and the United States as they were when still a colony. The true heroes of de-colonisation in this competing view were China’s communists themselves, led by Mao Zedong in their battle against first the Japanese, and later the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-Shek.
As one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and even decline a tentative US offer of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (in place of China), India under Nehru sought to ensure that Beijing became as close an ally as was Nasser’s Egypt and Soekarnov’s Indonesia. Nehru even disregarded the advice of Deputy Prime Minister Valabbhai Patel and gave up all the rights that had been enjoyed by the Indian government in Tibet, including free access.
All these sacrifices were pocketed by Mao as nothing more than his due. Of course this isn’t how Nehru saw it–he saw the moves as creating a moral debt that the Chinese needed to repay with a policy of adjustment toward Indian concerns. But China did not, meaning Nehru effectively wrote off Indian interests without getting anything in return.
In 1955, Indonesia was the venue for a gathering of African and Asian rulers, including from the Koreas, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran and Turkey. Nehru saw himself as the senior anti-colonialist present, representing the country that was among the first–and certainly the biggest–to win freedom from European powers. But Zhou returned to Beijing with a growing conviction that the smooth and sugary talk of Indian officials was actually a cover for more nefarious activities being undertaken in sync with other nations out to destabilise China.
Zhou returned to Delhi in 1956, and it was at this point he explicitly stated to Nehru how important Tibet was to Beijing–a veiled warning over any dealings that the clearly unhappy Dalai Lama might have with Delhi. By warning Nehru about the adverse consequences should the (then visiting) Dalai Lama decide to stay back in India, Zhou was in effect cautioning Nehru against offering asylum to the monk. During that same visit, Zhou urged his Indian hosts to accept the ‘colonial’ McMahon Line (a boundary China now rejects), pointing out that the Sino-Burmese frontier too was based on this line, and offering a border settlement based on this. Nehru, for reasons that remain obscure, declined to take the Chinese up on their offer.
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