One Who Warned the Ostrich

About Looming Dangers Ahead

Reassessment of Patel

Continued from “One Who Understood Realpolitik”

The Ostrich, one of the species flightless birds’ native to Africa, is more known for its contribution to expressive phrases in English language than for any other attribute. And the expression “burying your head in the sand”, in common usage, usually refers to one who just refuses to confront a problem which others may see looming large. That’s what how Jawaharlal Nehru’s critics describe his attitude towards China and the sit-pretty-for-ever stand.

Supposedly, sensing a possible danger the ostrich hopes its enemy will mistake it for a mound of earth or a bushy growth when its head is lowered. In fact, the world's largest bird really fools none but the blindest hyena. It’s tantamount to thinking an elephant seal as a rock in the sea.

However, by our refusing to confront them, problems, unfortunately, don’t just go away. In fact, neglect on our part further aggravates them. And that’s what happened in case of the China problem which neglected all through the 1950’s hit us straight in the face in 1962.

The one person who as early as 1950 saw it coming was Vallabhbhai Patel. And he wrote to Nehru about it in some detail.

Few documents in history embody such rare prescience and acute perception of reality of international relations between States emerging from centuries of domination by others as Patel’s letter. For us it has as great significance as the 1776 Declaration of Independence in American history. Each and every Indian of this generation and generations to come should, I suggest, read the following letter, which wasn’t till recently in public domain. The Iron Man had warned Nehru in the letter which I’m reproducing in full:

Sardar Patel’ s Letter to Jawaharlal Nehru
(7th November 1950)

Full text of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s Letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on November 7, 1950 not only deploring Indian Ambassador KM Panikkar’s action but also warning about dangers from China

My dear Jawaharlal,

Ever since my return from Ahmedabad and after the cabinet meeting the same day which I had to attend at practically fifteen minute’ notice and for which I regret I was not able to read all the papers, I have been anxiously thinking over the problem of Tibet and I thought I should share with you what is passing through my mind.

I have carefully gone through the correspondence between the External Affairs Ministry and our Ambassador in Peking and through him the Chinese Government. I have tried to peruse this correspondence as favourably to our Ambassador and the Chinese Government as possible, but I regret to say that neither of them comes out well as a result of this study. The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instil into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet.

The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama. Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of their telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf. It is impossible to imagine any sensible person believing in the so-called threat to China from Anglo-American machinations in Tibet. Therefore, if the Chinese put faith in this, they must have distrusted us so completely as to have taken us as tools or stooges of Anglo-American diplomacy or strategy.

This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. With the Communist mentality of “whoever is not with them being against them”, this is a significant pointer, of which we have to take due note. During the last several months, outside the Russian camp, we have practically been 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, to allay its apprehensions and to defend its legitimate claims in our discussions and correspondence with America and Britain and in the UN. In spite of this, China is not convinced about our disinterestedness; it continues to regard us with suspicion and the whole psychology is one, at least outwardly, of scepticism perhaps mixed with a little hostility.

I doubt if we can go any further than we have done already to convince China of our good intentions, friendliness and goodwill. In Peking we have an Ambassador who is eminently suitable for putting across the friendly point of view. Even he seems to have failed to convert the Chinese. 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.

In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. Throughout history we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. They had their own domestic problems and never bothered us about frontiers.

In 1914, we entered into a convention with Tibet which was not endorsed by the Chinese. We seem to have regarded Tibetan autonomy as extending to independent treaty relationship. Presumably, all that we required was Chinese counter-signature. The Chinese interpretation of suzerainty seems to be different. We can, therefore, safely assume that very soon they will disown all the stipulations which Tibet has entered into with us in the past. That throws into the melting pot all frontier and commercial settlements with Tibet on which we have been functioning and acting during the last half a century.

China is no longer divided. It is united and strong. All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.

Recent and bitter history also tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include the important part of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also. Burma has the added difficulty that it has no McMahon Line round which to build up even the semblance of an agreement. Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national or historical claims. The danger from the north and north-east, therefore, becomes both communist and imperialist.

While our western and north-western threat to security is still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the north and north-east. Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India's defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. Our defence measures have so far been based on the calculations of superiority over Pakistan. In our calculations we shall now have to reckon with communist China in the north and in the north-east, a communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed towards us.

Let us also consider the political conditions on this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices.

During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians. In Sikkim, there was political ferment some time ago. It is quite possible that discontent is smouldering there. Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap. Nepal has a weak oligarchic regime based almost entirely on force: it is in conflict with a turbulent element of the population as well as with enlightened ideas of the modern age. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult task indeed and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy.

I am sure the Chinese and their source of inspiration, Soviet Union, would not miss any opportunity of exploiting these weak spots, partly in support of their ideology and partly in support of their ambitions. In my judgement the situation is one which we cannot afford either to be complacent or to be vacillating. We must have a clear idea of what we wish to achieve and also of the methods by which we should achieve it. Any faltering or lack of decisiveness in formulating our objectives or in pursuing our policies to attain those objectives is bound to weaken us and increase the threats which are so evident.

Side by side with these external dangers, we shall now have to face serious internal problems as well. I have already asked Iyengar to send to the External Affairs Ministry a copy of the Intelligence Bureau's appreciation of these matters. Hitherto, the Communist Party of India has found some difficulty in contacting communists abroad, or in getting supplies of arms, literature, etc., from them. They had to contend with the difficult Burmese and Pakistan frontiers on the east or with the long seaboard. They shall now have a comparatively easy means of access to Chinese communists and through them to other foreign communists. Infiltration of spies, fifth columnists and communists would now be easier. Instead of having to deal with isolated communist pockets in Telengana and Warrangal we may have to deal with communist threats to our security along our northern and north-eastern frontiers, where, for supplies of arms and ammunition, they can safely depend on communist arsenals in China. The whole situation thus raises a number of problems on which we must come to an early decision so that we can, as I said earlier, formulate the objectives of our policy and decide the method by which those objectives are to be attained. It is also clear that the action will have to be fairly comprehensive, involving not only our defence strategy and state of preparations but also problem of internal security to deal with which we have not a moment to lose. We shall also have to deal with administrative and political problems in the weak spots along the frontier to which I have already referred.

It is of course, impossible to be exhaustive in setting out all these problems. I am, however, giving below some of the problems which, in my opinion, require early solution and round which we have to build our administrative or military policies and measures to implement them.

a) A military and intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India both on the frontier and to internal security.

b) An examination of military position and such redisposition of our forces as might be necessary, particularly with the idea of guarding important routes or areas which are likely to be the subject of dispute

c) An appraisement of the strength of our forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of our retrenchment plans for the Army in the light of the new threat.

d) A long-term consideration of our defence needs. My own feeling is that, unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we would be making our defence perpetually weak and we would not be able to stand up to the double threat of difficulties both from the west and north-west and north and north-east.

e) The question of China’s entry into the UN. In view of the rebuff which China has given us and the method which it has followed in dealing with Tibet, I am doubtful whether we can advocate its claim any longer. There would probably be a threat in the UN virtually to outlaw China, in view of its active participation in the Korean War. We must determine our attitude on this question also.

f) The political and administrative steps which we should take to strengthen our northern and north-eastern frontier. This would include the whole of the border, i.e. Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal territory in Assam.

g) Measures of internal security in the border areas as well as the states flanking those areas such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Assam.

h) Improvement of our communication, road, rail, air and wireless, in these areas and with the frontier outposts.

i) The future of our mission at Lhasa and the trade posts at Gyangtse and Yatung and the forces which we have in operation in Tibet to guard the trade routes.

j) The policy in regard to the McMahon Line.

These are some of the questions which occur to my mind. It is possible that a consideration of these matters may lead us into wider question of our relationship with China, Russia, America, Britain and Burma. This, however, would be of a general nature, though some might be basically very important, e.g., we might have to consider whether we should not enter into closer association with Burma in order to strengthen the latter in its dealings with China. I do not rule out the possibility that, before applying pressure on us, China might apply pressure on Burma. With Burma, the frontier is entirely undefined and the Chinese territorial claims are more substantial. In its present position, Burma might offer an easier problem to China, and therefore, might claim its first attention.

I suggest that we meet early to have a general discussion on these problems and decide on such steps as we might think to be immediately necessary and direct, quick examination of other problems with a view to taking early measures to deal with them. (Highlights added)

Vallabhbhai Patel
7th November 1950

There is a background to this famous letter. The civil servants in the Ministry of External Affairs which Jawaharlal himself headed, had perceptions about the Chinese, that were completely different from that of the Hon’ble Prime Minister. But so self-opinionated was Nehru that he was not prepared to listen to a view contrary to his. That’s why the great sycophants around him, including some Kashmiri Pandits who had direct access to him, always fed him with version of events that he liked to hear in the tradition of Mughal durbars.

Many scholars of the period have pointed out that Patel’s November 07, 1950 letter was drafted by Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai ICS who was the first Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs. And it reflected the views not only of Sardar Patel but that of the mandarins of the Government of India whom the Prime Minister was not prepared to pay heed to.

Let’s also recall that in November 1950 Patel knew as well as his doctors, which included Dr. B C Roy that he didn’t have much time left. His heart ailment had worsened. Next month, i.e., in December he was shifted to Bombay because he wasn’t deemed fit enough to withstand Delhi’s winter. He passed away on December 15, 1950 in Mumbai.

In Parliament, for purposes of record, Nehru praised the “great story” of Patel’s life, which he said “history will record ... in many pages and call him the builder and consolidator of the New India”. Indeed. And that’s what history has recorded, and much more. But was Nehru honest and spontaneous in his tribute? Unfortunately, no.

We have it on the authority of his Secretary, N K Seshan in his autobiographical reminiscences entitled With Three Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv that Nehru had addressed a day or two before Patel died, a very strongly-worded letter almost on the lines of his January 1948 letter to Gandhi to the effect that either of them had to quit to give the country a coherent policy. The letter is not in public domain. If it still exists, it must be with the “family”. My guess is it might have also said that Patel had no business to tell him anything in matters dealing with foreign affairs, which were his exclusive domain. Seshan thinks that Patel most certainly would have immediately resigned from the Cabinet after getting the letter. The day it was to be delivered to him, Patel passed away. And with that, ended the strong note of dissent within the Cabinet over Nehru’s policy towards China. For the country, however, it proved to be most unfortunate.


With Patel gone there set in the decision-making process of the Government of India what is referred to, in the jargon of corporate management, as groupthink - a subject that was first studied in detail by Irving Janis. He pointed out in his monumental study Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes how, without open disagreement, the decision-making group becomes cohesive but it also systematically shuts out divergent opinions. The result is that any new information that surfaces is deemed inappropriate or irrelevant and hence, summarily dismissed. Janis cited the famous 1962 Bay of Pigs misadventure of the United States against Cuba as an example of groupthink. President Kennedy and his close advisors did not (willingly or unwillingly) tolerate dissent about the situation. The result was the humiliatingly disastrous military intervention based on unquestioned and unexamined assumptions.

This is exactly what happened in 1962 regarding the Government of India's stand on the Chinese threat to our northern borders. Would Patel have allowed the above to transpire if he was still around? Another conjectural ‘if’ of history....

Continued to “The Great Consolidator” 

Sardar Patel Assessed (All the Links):


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3479      Comments: 4

Comment I would say to TagoreBlog that his is the blind conditioned reflex based on hatred of the British, whereas I have no hatred, and am able to speak the truth.

To Dinesh, I would concede that I do take opportunities to put thimgs in a right perspective.

06-Dec-2013 09:10 AM

Comment Such reaction of Ashby is nothing but a kind of 'conditioned reflex' which Pavlov found out from his experiments on DOGS.

04-Dec-2013 21:24 PM

Comment RDASHBY leaves no opportunity to thank Brits for whatever good India has...

01-Dec-2013 13:13 PM

Comment Even with a cursory knowledge of Indian history, one is aware that any sense of India being one country owes to the very invading forces over the centuries, most consummately, the British whose rule was complemented with the suzerainty over hundreds of princely states. Thus the unity and ultimately the concept of India as a nation owes to its erstwhile foreign conquering powers, especially the British. When independence dawned, India was a unity in concept. V Patel's speech is in the nascent untried idealistic grasp of such an independent India, one he engineered from, to keep the metaphor, the available parts lying on the ground, courtesy of the British. In his speech, the distinction between us and them, the Chinese, is sharp and untrammelled by the unforeseen difficulties of what was to prove a degradation of the political fabric of India in the subsequent decades, with internal corruption in high places become a lamentable statistic. Yet, as in writers like yourself, there is still that ideal of a united and strong India, almost as a wish, needing to defend its borders against China.

30-Nov-2013 22:06 PM

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