Nehru’s Mistake in Understanding China

India is compelled to learn that China is unlikely to be a reliable neighbour, perhaps more unreliable than Pakistan which surrendered to regional big-brotherly designs of China.

By Sankar Ray

“THIS perfidy and calumny must not be tolerated”, a mentally shattered Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, said on the floor of the Indian Parliament after the aggression by the People’s Liberation Army into the Indian Territory on 20 October 1962. It was an act of a massive betrayal, signifying the demise of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai. Nehru’s speech was an epitaph to the historic bilateral treaty between China and India, agreed on 29 April, 1954 Panchsheel or the Five Principles. The first two of which read ‘Mutual Respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty’ and ‘Mutual non-aggression’.
“I do not propose to give you the long history of continuous aggression by the Chinese during the last five years and how they have tried to justify it by speeches, agreements and repeated assertions of untruths and a campaign of calumny and vituperation against our country. Perhaps, there are not many instances in history where one country, that is, India, has gone out of her way to be friendly and cooperative with the Chinese Government and people to plead their case to the councils of the world, and therefore, the Chinese Government to return evil for good, and even go to the extent of aggression and invade our sacred land. No self-respecting country, and certainly not India with her love of freedom, can submit to this, whatever the consequences may be.”


The irony of history is that Nehru turned down a feeler from the then Premier of Soviet Union, Marshal Nikolai Bulganin for India’s seat in the Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. Records have it. It was on 22 June, 1955.

Bulganin wrote: “Regarding your suggestion about the four power conference we would take appropriate action. While we are discussing the general international situation and reducing tension, we propose suggesting at a later stage India’s inclusion as the sixth member of the Security Council.”

The Leftists branded Nehru as an enemy of China and a stooge of US imperialism. Leading pro-CPC members in the CPI brass dished out a theory that ‘a socialist country cannot commit aggression’ and hence India should be termed as an aggressor

Nehru’s reply was: “Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in the USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it. Further, we are opposed to pushing ourselves forward to occupy certain positions because that may itself create difficulties and India might itself become a subject to controversy. If India is to be admitted to the Security Council, it raises the question of the revision of the Charter of the UN. We feel that this should not be done till the question of China’s admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted. What is Bulganin’s opinion about the revision of the Charter? In our opinion this does not seem to be an appropriate time for it” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Second Series, Volume 29).


This factual reality snaps fingers at the hoary-headed Naxalite biggies who exhibited canine subservience to CPC brass that branded Nehru as a henchman of imperialism. Those slavish pseudo-Marxists lacked the courage to admit that Mao openly stated in 1957 (repeated in 1959) that Tibet is be the palm of China and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and North East Frontier Association (NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh) as its five fingers. China’s responsibility, he mandated, was to ‘liberate’. But Nehru continued to think China might turn hostile towards India, even after ‘liberation’ of China. India, it may be noted, was among the first in the UN to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1950.

This writer, who was in his very early twenties, was at the newsroom of Anand Bazar Patrika in the afternoon hours of 21 October 1962, when the teleprinter flashed the news of Chinese invasion. While coming out in a speechless state, I could guess the possible repercussions among non-political people. But pro-CPC friends in CPI and its surrounding began thinking that this would shake up the Nehru government, followed by a people’s revolt leading towards a major change. They branded Nehru as an enemy of China and a stooge of US imperialism. Leading pro-CPC members in the CPI brass dished out a theory that ‘a socialist country cannot commit aggression’ and hence India should be termed as an aggressor. Among them were M Basavapunnaiah, P Sundarayya and Promode Dasgupta, while at the provincial levels were T Nagi Reddy (Andhra Pradesh), Harekrishna Konar and Charu Mazumdar (West Bengal) and Jagjit Singh Lyalpuri (Punjab).

They spread these words to their followers. They forgot that the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1940. Rabindranath Tagore, whose sympathy for the Soviets was proverbial, wrote: “Finland choorno holo Soviet bomabarshane—Finland crushed by the Soviet bombardment.”) .

A famous poet and essayist in the post-Tagore Bengali literature, Buddhadeb Bose once wrote, “ Truth is something that dazzles like a lightening” The blueprint for Chinese aggression was scripted and placed by Mao Zedong, as Chairman, Communist Party of China, at the Tenth Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of CPC, in the last week of September 1962. Mao made his presentation through a secret speech. This was revealed by Dr Hemen Ray, an outstanding scholar on Sino-Soviet matters in a well-documented book, “Peking and Indian Communists” (Bombay, 1980).

After the plenum, CPC released a communiqué on September 28, 1962 stating that PLA was “vigilant guarding the frontiers of our great motherland” and was prepared to “smash and sabotage activities of any enemy”. Obviously, the ‘enemy’ was none but India with whom China had running border disputes. Ray’s source was an article in the Winter 1968-69 issue of Chinese Law and Government.

Significantly, the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told the Soviet Ambassador in Beijing on 8 October that India “was about to launch a massive attack” and “we should resolutely defend ourselves”.


Beijing took a deliberately dubious role in its relationship with India. This was explicit in the case of Tibet. On the one hand, it promised New Delhi a peaceful way of integrating Tibet into China, while on the other hand it applied an oppressive military strategy against Tibetans.

Well-known French columnist Claude Arpi elaborated this concerted duplicity of Maoist China in an article in his blog: “When Nehru was taken for a ride by Mao” (29 January 2016). General Liu Bocheng, head of the Southwest Military Command, was ‘assigned to liberate Tibet’ on 3 August, 1950, the objective was to chuck out British and American forces and thus to integrate the Tibetans with the ‘Great Family of the People’s Republic of China’. Zhou instructed the Chinese Ambassador to India to begin preliminary contacts with the Tibetan Delegation in Delhi. He assured of doing everything for peaceful settlement “on the understanding that Tibet was an integral part of China.

The Indian Ambassador in China, Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, mainly a journalist and historian, almost blindly believed the Chinese PM and convinced Nehru accordingly, but led him to be misled and Nehru was taken for a ride. But Panikkar, being in the very good books of Nehru, crossed his bounds and said that India would not move in case Tibet is forcefully liberated.

In an aide memoire submitted to the Chinese Government, on 26 August 1950, he asserted Tibet’s status as an ‘autonomy within the framework of Chinese sovereignty’, and not anymore ‘suzerainty’. He knew full well that the two words had very different legal connotations. South Block’s endeavour to revert to ‘suzerainty’ was in vain as it was too late, for Panikkar dispatched a Top Secret cable to Nehru three days thereafter, informing him that he had met the Director of Asian Section of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who in turn had called on him on behalf of Zhou Enlai to discuss India’s (read Panikkar’s) aide-memoire.

Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai was a gigantic deception from the Chinese side in striking contrast to total Nehruvian commitment. The ruling  government seems to be diplomatically competent to learn from the mistakes of the Nehruvian era

The rest was almost a fait accompli. The PLA crossed the Jinsha River on 6 October. Two PLA units quickly surrounded the outnumbered Tibetan forces and captured the border town of Qamdo by 19 October with 114 PLA soldiers and 180 Tibetan soldiers killed or wounded. Zhang Guohua, who as the lieutenant general of PLA was very much involved in the invasion and later CPC secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region, wrote “over 5,700 enemy men were destroyed” and “more than 3,000” peacefully surrendered”.
But the Chinese claim over Tibet has never been free from doubts. According to Purshottam Trikamdas, Indian member of the International Commission of Jurists, “From 1912 to 1950, there was no Chinese law, no Chinese judge, no Chinese policemen on the street corner; there was no Chinese newspaper, no Chinese soldier and even no representative of China.” (Report on the Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law, International Commission of Jurists, 1959).

Nehru was peeved at the suppression of freedom of Tibetans after the Chinese annexation of Tibet. He rebuked China for what he termed as ‘the language of cold war’. He made a statement, refusing to be cowed down by the ultra-chauvinistic stance of Beijing. “We have no desire whatsoever to interfere in Tibet; we have every desire to maintain the friendship between India and China; but at the same time, we have every empathy for the people of Tibet, and we are greatly distressed at their hapless plight.”
In other words, Nehru reflected the libertarian spirit almost in tune with the Marxist temper in contrast to the totalitarian attitude of Mao and Zhou.


At that time, there was no Indian Ambassador in China. The embassy was headed by Purnendu Kumar Banerjee as Charge d’ Affairs, who was apprehensive of the ulterior motives of Beijing. He recollected his days in China amidst pins and needles. Banerjee, recalling the third of 11 meetings he had with Zhou, wrote: “China would agree to meet India and hold such talks but entirely on China’s terms… India should withdraw from Chinese territory and not make further excuses.” Nehru, he added, was taken for a ride by Zhou for the former’s undiplomatic faith on the latter. The Chinese Premier Zhou requested Nehru to end protest-note exchanges stating that “they were useless and counterproductive”. “If Mr Nehru would agree he would also instruct his foreign office to stop sending notes of protest. He seemed most serious and earnest… Nehru was badly advised and influenced”.

Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai was a gigantic deception from the Chinese side in striking contrast to total Nehruvian commitment. The ruling NDA government seems to be diplomatically competent to learn from the mistakes of the Nehruvian era. Chinese obstruction to India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group was expected, but this writer thinks India is not a loser for two reasons. First, nuclear electricity is proved to be economically unviable and ecologically unsustainable and non-availability of nuclear fuel will not harm the Indian economy. Second, nuclear weaponization is of no urgency, given the international experience. Lastly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to keep India out of OBOR that would have benefited India in both short and long-term.

India is compelled to learn that China is unlikely to be a reliable neighbour, perhaps more unreliable than Pakistan which surrendered to regional big-brotherly designs of China. Finally, one word for scholars and the Left: a dispassionate evaluation of media-hyped scholars such as Neville Maxwell or Alistair Lamb, whose obsession with the recent past creates bias, is needed. Commenting on Maxwell’s India’s China War, historian SP Sen wrote, “Maxwell has arranged facts and sought to interpret them in his own way with the skill of a professional lawyer arguing his case and not with the objectivity of a historian.”

Sankar Ray

Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazine, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad.

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