Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Cover of "Tibet: An Unfinished Story"

How Tibet Affairs and India’s Inept Handling Showed Nehru as a Tragic Figure

Lezlee Brown Halper and Stephan Halper’s new book, “Tibet: An Unfinished Story”, takes the reader on a tour of a twilight zone which once many analysts referred to as another periphery of the Cold War.  But more than the mystery and religious energy associated with the frozen land of Tibet, what is gripping about this book is also its portrayal of the Cold War era and how this undeclared war between the Western and Eastern Bloc countries, resulted in grievous injuries caused to little known societies and countries away from the focus of the vicious mind game. Tibet is one of these.

The book, which hit the Indian market towards April this year, is intriguing and convincing as it is extensively based on recently declassified CIA files and Chinese government policy documents. Bearing testimony to the range and sweep of the references used in the book is the fact that nearly a quarter of the book is taken up by footnotes, many of which are interesting of their own accord, almost as much as the Halpers’ expertly told story that they support. Also of particular interest for readers in India would be, especially so in these times marked by the ascendency of the BJP and its star Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, when the politics of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru is being questioned, is that out of the book emerges a unique portrait of Nehru. The authors see him as moody, egoistic, self absorbed… But the picture of Nehru, unintended by the authors, that also comes across is more akin to a Sophoclean tragic hero. True he did not do enough for Tibet at those crucial years, at least not as much as the US wanted him to, but he had other grand and historic interests, not necessarily of India alone, to protect.

The story is not about Nehru, but he is certainly one of the important dramatis personae, and it could not have been otherwise. After all, can any truthful story of Tibet, be it spiritual or temporal, be told without reference to India, and Tibet’s most traumatic history is undoubtedly the post WWII, Cold War years, which is also when Nehru stepped into the centre stage of world politics. What is also interesting about the book is, Nehru’s personality is allowed to develop not against the familiar backdrop of India’s independence struggle, therefore also the towering figures of this momentous movement for decolonisation, but on another stage with leaders like his counterpart in China, Premier Chao En Lai, American Presidents, Harry Truman and David Eisenhower as foils.

The Cold War began, as we now know, even before the WWII concluded. The race to control Germany and Japan by the winners, by then clearly divided between the Communist and Non-Communist Blocs, is now well known. As a matter of fact, many counterfactual studies exist today that if the Allied landing at Normandy in June 1944 had not succeeded, as it almost did not, and the Western Bloc nations did not have a foothold in Continental Europe when Hitler lost the war, the two atom bombs which landed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, may well have had Moscow and Stalingrad as the targets. The course of history would have been very different had this been the case, but it was not. And by 1949, Stalin’s USSR detonated a nuclear bomb, shocking the West and taking the Cold War to a new height.

When Truman, the then Vice President of America took over charge in 1945 after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, America was a very religious nation and one which saw Communism and atheism as evil. President Truman, though a practising Christian did not push religion into politics too hard, and his chief concern was to prevent a Third World War, and this he saw was to be by checking the spread of Communism. There is merit in this, for it was not only the Capitalist world which saw Communism as enemy, but the Communist, especially under leaders like Stalin and Mao, too saw Capitalism as antithetical to the Communist movement and an ideology which would by necessity be erased in the course Communism’s arrival determined by historical materialism. Under the circumstance, in the event of the rise of Mao’s Communist revolution in China under the umbrage of Stalin’s USSR, the long forgotten Tibetan plateau suddenly came to acquire new prominence in the West. President Truman’s strategy for containing the spread of Communism was first and foremost to not allow a Communist victory in China, therefore to extend support to Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling nationalist party, the Kuomintang in Nanking. India also came to be seen as an important countervailing power, and America was indeed eager to befriend this democratic country, as an ally against Communism.

Truman’s policy outlook not only continued under his successor, Eisenhower, but it was given a stronger religious hue as well. Under him, the Cold War was also sought to be projected as a conflict between the world of God, therefore freedom, and the Godless world of Communism loyal only to “their sickle and hammer”, therefore tyranny. In this campaign, even the motto, “In God We Trust” was introduced in the Dollar bill, Halper notes. China under Chiang Kai-shek, himself a staunch Methodist Christian, was therefore a strong US ally opposing the Communist onslaught of Mao and his lieutenant, Chou En Lai. When Communist victory in China became only a matter of time towards the latter part of the 1940s, Tibet’s spirituality, though not Christian, gain added prominence in American administration’s eyes.

In 1949 USSR backed North Korean Communists attacked South Korea nearly sweeping it, but the UN troops at the behest of the US intervened pushing the North Koreans back not just beyond the 38th Parallel, but right up to Pyongyang, and at this Mao’s China sent 300,000 troops in aid of their Communist compatriots and assisted them to regain control up to the 38th Parallel.

It was at this juncture that Nehru was approached by the US to be an ally in this war. He was invited to the US by Truman in 1949, but the visit was a disaster. Nehru who was in the midst of building up the Non Aligned Movement, refused to join, and instead offered to mediate in the Korean conflict, much to the annoyance of the Americans. After Truman, Eisenhower was also not lost on the importance of India, the “biggest free nation” in the Asian region and indeed the world, to be on the side of the West, and tried to woe Nehru on many occasion. He invited Nehru to the US in 1956 too. But to the agnostic and secularist Nehru, aligning with any party in the Cold War, not the least Western Bloc, was hardly an attractive idea. He kept insisting on neutrality and the Non Aligned Movement. He was even suspicious of the religious inclination of America of the time, even ridiculing in one of his notes, US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, an ardent anti-Communist, as an Evangelist missionary.

In reciprocation, it is interesting that both Truman and more so Eisenhower, saw neutralism as not just as cowardice, but as implicit support for their enemy. Reflected in their attitude is the famous public statement of a much more recent American President, George W. Bush, who in the wake of his “War Against Terror” on the eve of his invasion of Iraq, that “you are either with us or against us.” Nehru’s neutrality, then would soon be translated as being against the Western Bloc.

Nehru’s position was clear. He was not for Communism but he wanted to deal with Communism in his own terms, and not by becoming a vassal or proxy of the West. His struggle was to remain independent of the control of the powers fighting the Cold War, for he saw dignity only in this independence for him, for India and for the recently decolonised Third World. But, as history will see, his struggle was to prove disastrous in many ways, especially his falsely held belief Communist China would always remain a friendly neighbour and can be accommodated in the neutral camp.

Nehru’s neutrality would also drive the Eisenhower administer to lean towards Pakistan, for America at the time felt the desperate need to have a non Communist anchor in South Asia. When India was unwilling to take this role, it had to, without alienating India, look for another partner, and it found a willing one in Pakistan. But this decision would have a spiralling consequence. India’s reaction was beyond the Eisenhower administration’s expectation, and Nehru too drew closer to Moscow and indeed Peking, putting another nail on Tibet’s coffin, the harshest of which is his Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 with China. In retrospect, many American analysts today see Eisenhower’s Pakistan tilt as an unparalleled blunder in American diplomacy. If not for it, South Asia’s current history, the issue of terrorism etc would have been substantially different, they say.

To do our own bit of counterfactual speculation, had Sadar Patel been at the helm of India’s affair at this period, Indian history probably would have been very different too. Patel’s November 6, 1950 lengthy letter to Nehru, which advised the Prime Minister to, among others, be wary of China and instead befriend the Western nations for there is a natural affinity of national ideology with the latter countries, is an indicator this speculation is not farfetched. This letter, it will be recalled, is infamous especially amongst scholars in the Northeast, for it also expressed doubts of the loyalty of the mongoloid races of the region “east of Kalimpong”. This apart, Patel’s hard-nosed assessment of China’s cold approach in its dealing with India proved prophetic in 1962. But the rather sceptical question remains, would India have been better off as a non-neutral nation to the Cold War, and be in Pakistan’s predicament as a US military ally today?

Also interesting is the foil Chou En Lai provides for Nehru in the book. Chou is undoubtedly a brilliant diplomat, able to size up even the flamboyant and much more popular Nehru on the world stage. Unassuming and uncaring for publicity unlike Nehru, he is shown as playing on Nehru’s vulnerability, dwelling on their shared anti-imperialist sentiments when necessary, flattering and stoking Nehru’s ego at other times, and then when he felt the time was ripe for China, bearing down on the latter’s helplessness. In 1950 when Nehru pointed out to Chou through a note that Chinese maps were showing Indian territories as China’s, Chou promptly replied these were old maps and China would take time to correct them, indicating there was no boundary conflict. But in 1958, after India came to know China had built the Aksai Chin Road connecting Sinkiang and Tibet, and Nehru once again protested, Chou coldly replied the boundary dispute between the two countries were still to be settled, and suggested India and China maintain status quo on where either have physical control and hold dialogues to settle the issue.

Chou’s “charm and guile” and his diplomatic brilliance, it comes across clearly from Halper’s accounts and interpretations of declassified files, outmatched Nehru’s. Chou would not acknowledge the existence of a problem when China’s hands were weak, but once China has established its strength in these areas and attained de facto physical dominance, it would then ask for de jure status of what it has de facto authority over. The Tibet story proved this. The boundary dispute between India and China is also another unfolding example of such diplomacy.

The peculiar thing about the Tibet policy of the US at the time was, as Halper’s book brings out quite clearly, is that though sworn to oppose Communist China, it was not willing to support Tibet openly. There was still a strong China Lobby in the US, led by among others, Time-Life publisher, Henry Luce, whose parents were once missionaries in China, and whose wife was a close friend of Chiang Kai-shek’s wife and influential men like John Foster Dulles, which would have nothing to do with Tibetan independence, and insisted the opposition to Communist China should be with the view to reinstalling Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China.

When China’s invasion of Tibet became imminent in 1949, Tibet did appeal to the UN, but all the major Western Bloc players, including the US, Britain and France refused to sponsor Tibet’s appeal. India too, did not volunteer, in spite of the US trying its best to make it do so. All had their reasons, but India’s was the most forthright: “Nobody’s is going to war with China on Tibet”. Ironically, it did end up going to war with China on a closely related issue in 1962. The US did not want to anger its China Lobby, Britan and France, were in no position to support any freedom movement as they were still imperial powers with colonies still under them. In the end, it was El Salvador which sponsored the move, but it was a foregone conclusion that it would not make much headway for the lack of support.

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