Avtar Singh Bhasin's book explains how the past shaped Sino-Indian ties

India-China Relations 1947-2000 A Documentary Study (Vol I-V); Author: Avtar Singh Bhasin (Ed); Publisher: Geetika Publishers; Pages: 5,636; Price: Rs 15,000
Discussions of Sino-Indian relations, especially of the territorial dispute, usually resemble an echo chamber, with well-worn arguments repeated in interminable rounds of mutual agreement. The development of new perspectives runs into the difficulty of accessing primary documents, particularly for scholars far from Delhi. China documents are particularly elusive, with the National Archives and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) denying access to records relating to the Simla Conference of 1913-14 and the key policy documents that followed. Continuing sensitivity to the 1962 defeat by China keeps the official correspondence and official history of that war under wraps and the Henderson Brooks report remains “Top Secret”. The resulting vacuum of authentic, primary documents leaves the field open for biased accounts like Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War, which passed unchallenged for years.

Some of this void is filled by Avtar Singh Bhasin’s monumental compilation of documents and papers from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and other official sources, which brings together conveniently an invaluable primary resource for scholars of Sino-Indian relations.

Be warned: this is not a weekend read. Bhasin’s five volumes add up to 5,318 pages, providing value for the Rs 15,000 you will shell out for them. Each volume weighs around 1.7 kg, ensuring that your forearms will present an attractive, toned musculature by the time you finish reading all five.

Even so, it is worth the effort. For those immersed in our China-frontier saga — the nuances of the Great Game, the choice of the Karakoram-versus-Kuen Lun range border, the origins of the McMahon Line, the lead-up to 1962 and the Tawang question — this is an essential reference work. Bhasin does not tiptoe around. He begins the book with a succinct, 57-page summary of events from 1947-2000. Then, without further ado, he lays out 2,523 primary documents, indexed usefully to make navigation easy.

Bhasin is uniquely qualified to assemble this work, having worked for three decades in the MEA’s Historical Division. After retiring in 1993, he joined the Indian Council of Historical Research, and then the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He has made it his mission to publish primary documents, having previously done a five-volume study of India-China-Nepal relations up to 2005, a compilation of India-Bangladesh documents from 1971-2002 and another of India-Sri Lanka ties up to 2000. He followed those up with his best-known work, a 10-volume documentation of India-Pakistan relations up to 2007, ignoring the predictable sceptics who argued this would provide diplomatic ammunition to Islamabad. Those fears have been allayed.

Former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Dalai Lama after the latter’s escape from Lhasa in 1959; Photos: Courtesy Central Tibetan Administration archives
Bhasin’s China compilation starts with the Simla Conference of 1913-14. That is followed by the correspondence between London and New Delhi, which highlights Britain’s reluctance to extend control over Tawang — today at the centre of the territorial dispute. Next comes New Delhi’s flailing reaction to the communist takeover of China and our naïve misreading of communist China’s intentions regarding Tibet. The reader gnashes her teeth at Ambassador 

K M Panikkar’s starry-eyed assessment of the new, progressive, communist regime, and New Delhi’s fateful decision to effectively accept as a fait accompli the subordination of Tibet by China.

One can gawp incredulously at the 14-page MEA note on the strategy for negotiating the (in)famous Panchsheel Agreement of 1954, in which India, without any substantial quid pro quo, accepted China’s overlordship of Tibet. That strategy note is an object lesson in the lack of a strategy, with the MEA proposing — and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru endorsing, in a following note — that our negotiators must not raise with China the border question. Instead of demanding a full, final and favourable border settlement in exchange for throwing Tibet under the China bus, the MEA’s self-defeating ploy was to pretend the Sino-Indian border was already settled. It would “not be to our interest to open this question or give any indication that we are in any doubt about our frontier… Should, however, the Chinese themselves raise the question of the frontier, we should make it clear that there is nothing to discuss as the frontier is clearly defined.” This ostrich-head-in-the-sand strategy prevented New Delhi from discussing a border settlement with Beijing, making conflict inevitable.

Nehru and former president Rajendra Prasad with the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, 1956; Photos: Courtesy Central Tibetan Administration archives
During the negotiation of the Panchsheel Agreement, Nehru penned a note to the MEA that resonates even today. Rejecting a proposal to strengthen the border by providing military training to border inhabitants in large numbers, Nehru presciently wrote: “The defence of our border depends far more on [road] communications than on men. It would be waste of men to place them in remote places on the border where they cannot be easily reached. Therefore, the plan of making roads should be pushed ahead… I think this is important. Without such roads, no proper defence can be organized.” More than six decades later, India’s border road-building programme remains a shambles and the army compensates for the absence of roads by keeping thousands of soldiers in inhospitable, high-altitude border outposts.

Providing a riveting read are the detailed transcripts of Nehru’s conversations with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Premier Chou En-lai, during his ten-day visit to China in October 1954 — at the high-water mark of relations between the two countries. Nehru discusses the world order with Mao and Chou in mind-boggling detail, with all three agreeing that India and China must play a leadership role. Interestingly, Bhasin also includes the Chinese transcripts of the Nehru-Mao conversations, which are verbatim, more detailed and capture the atmosphere more dramatically than the dry Indian accounts. It is a rare treat to access both sides of a diplomatic negotiation. The Chinese transcripts also feature the discussion at a banquet hosted by the Indian ambassador to Beijing, N Raghavan, which is not there in the Indian transcripts. In that, Mao (falsely) assures Nehru that there are only a small number of Chinese troops in Tibet — he mentions 10,000 in Tibet and another 10,000 around nearby Chengdu — which were there only for road construction, after which they would leave. The transcript mentions: “Nehru does not make any response”. But, damagingly for India, Raghavan intercedes to say: “What China does in Tibet is China’s own business. India trusts China.” New Delhi’s lack of a Tibet discussion strategy is apparent.

Nehru and Indira Gandhi with China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai Photos: Courtesy Central Tibetan Administration archives
From thereon, relations unravel like a traffic accident in slow motion. A stream of letters and cables reference one border incident after another, first around the UP-Tibet border at Shipki La and then Barahoti. A fascinating exchange of signals — one of the highlights of the series — describes the March 1959 Tibetan uprising in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s escape and the knife-edge tension until his entourage completed its perilous journey past the vengeful Chinese, crossing into India on March 31.

Notwithstanding Bhasin’s yeoman efforts, many documents remain classified and, therefore, unavailable. This is sometimes jarring. For example, the compilation includes no communications between New Delhi and the Indian embassy in Beijing in the lead-up to, during and immediately after, the 1962 war. Even so, Bhasin’s compilation will find a place on every China-watcher’s bookshelf. And we can hope that, if and when the MEA declassifies its musty files, Bhasin will publish a second edition of this wonderful series.


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