Doklam was Just a Precursor
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”
After carefully choreographed postures, China chose, finally, to play the ball with India over the long-played sordid Doklam episode. Primarily, I believe the foremost consideration that prompted the Chinese shift was the BRICS summit that it hosted. Intriguingly enough, there has so far been no official assurance, verbal or written, from China to India that it won’t resume the construction of the Doklam road ever again.
So, dear readers, brace up for part two of the Doklam melodrama any time of China's choosing. Meanwhile, let’s learn a lesson or two from all what we let happen.
In the year 1950, two momentous events shook Asia and the world. One was the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and the other, the Chinese intervention in the Korean War.
The first was on India’s borders, the other, far away in the Korean Peninsula where India had, and still has, little at stake. By all canons of logic, India should have devoted utmost attention to the immediate situation next door i.e., in Tibet, and let interested parties like China and the U.S. sort it out in Korea.
However, Jawaharlal Nehru, the great internationalist, did exactly the opposite because of his overweening ambition and the readiness to pay any price to be remembered as the apostle of world peace. No wonder he treated the Tibetan crisis in the most haphazard fashion, while getting thoroughly involved in the Korean imbroglio. India, today, is paying a formidably heavy price for this folly by being the only country of its size in the world without an official boundary with its giant neighbor China which shares its borders with 14 countries: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal who were wise enough to come to some settlement.
Tibet soon disappeared from the map. As in Kashmir, Nehru sacrificed national interest at home in pursuit of international glory abroad.
India, you may recall, at the time maintained missions in Lhasa and Gyangtse. Due to the close relations that existed between India and Tibet going back centuries and also because of the unsettled conditions in China, Tibet’s transactions with the outside world were often conducted through India. Well into 1950, the Indian Government regarded Tibet as a free country.
The Chinese announced their invasion of Tibet on 25 October 1950. According to them, it was to ‘free Tibet from imperialist forces’, and consolidate its border with India. Nehru announced that he and the Indian Government were ‘extremely perplexed and disappointed with the Chinese Government’s action…’ Nehru also complained that he had been ‘led to believe by the Chinese Foreign Office that the Chinese would settle the future of Tibet in a peaceful manner by direct negotiation with the representatives of Tibet…’
This was not true, for in September 1949, more than a year before the Chinese invasion, Nehru himself had written: “Chinese communists are likely to invade Tibet.” The point to note is that Nehru, by sending mixed signals, showing more interest in Korea than in Tibet, had encouraged the Chinese invasion; the Chinese had made no secret of their desire to invade Tibet. In spite of this, Nehru’s main interest was to sponsor China as a member of the UN Security Council instead of safeguarding Indian interests in Tibet.
Because of this, when the Chinese were moving troops into Tibet, there was little concern in Indian official circles. Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador in Beijing, went so far as to pretend that there was ‘lack of confirmation’ of the presence of Chinese troops in Tibet and that to protest the Chinese invasion of Tibet would be an “interference to India’s efforts on behalf of China in the UN”.
So Panikkar was more interested in protecting Chinese interests in the UN than India’s own interests on the Tibetan border! Nehru agreed with his Ambassador. He wrote, “our primary consideration is maintenance of world peace… Recent developments in Korea have not strengthened China’s position, which will be further weakened by any aggressive action [by India] in Tibet.” So Nehru was ready to sacrifice India’s national security interests in Tibet so as not to weaken China’s case in the UN!
It is nothing short of tragedy that the two greatest influences on Nehru at this crucial juncture in history were Krishna Menon and K.M. Panikkar, both communists at heart. Panikkar, while nominally serving as Indian ambassador in China, became practically a spokesman for Chinese interests in Tibet. Sardar Patel was forced to remark that Panikkar “has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions.”
India eventually gave up its right to have a diplomatic mission in Lhasa on the ground that it was an ‘imperialist legacy’. This led to Nehru’s discredited ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ philosophy. Mao, on the other hand, had no love lost for India and never spoke of ‘Chini-Hindi Bhai Bhai’— or its Chinese equivalent. As a matter of fact, he had only contempt for India and its leaders. Mao respected only the strong who would oppose him, and not the weak who bent over backwards at his bidding.
Sardar Patel warned Nehru: “Even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as friends.” He wrote a famous letter in which he expressed deep concern over developments in Tibet, raising several important issues. In particular, he noted that a free and friendly Tibet was vital for India’s security, and everything including military measures should be considered to ensure it.’
On November 9, 1950, two days after he wrote the letter to Nehru, Patel announced in Delhi: ‘In Kali Yuga, we shall return ahimsa for ahimsa. If anybody resorts to force against us, we shall meet it with force.’ But Nehru ignored Patel’s letter. The truth is that India was in a strong position to defend its interests in Tibet, but gave up the opportunity for the sake of pleasing China. In 1950, India had both military and diplomatic clout to prevent China from taking over Tibet.
Patel understood that China then was in a vulnerable position, fully committed in Korea and by no means secure in its hold over the mainland. For months General MacArthur had been urging President Truman to “unleash Chiang Kai Shek” lying in wait in Formosa (Taiwan) with full American support. China had not yet acquired the atom bomb, which was more than ten years in the future. India had little to lose and everything to gain by a determined show of force when China was struggling to consolidate its hold.
In addition, India had international support, with world opinion strongly against Chinese aggression in Tibet. The international community in fact was looking up to India to take the lead. The highly influential English journal The Economist echoed the Western viewpoint when it wrote: “Having maintained complete independence of China since 1912, Tibet has a strong claim to be regarded as an independent state. But it is for India to take a lead in this matter. If India decides to support independence of Tibet as a buffer state between itself and China, Britain and U.S.A. will do well to extend formal diplomatic recognition to it.”
So China could have been stopped. But this was not to be. Nehru ignored Patel’s letter as well as international opinion and gave up this golden opportunity to turn Tibet into a friendly buffer state. With such a principled stand, India would also have acquired the status of a great power while Pakistan would have disappeared from the radar screen of world attention.
Much has been made of Nehru’s blunder in Kashmir, but it pales into insignificance in comparison with his folly in Tibet. As a result of this monumental failure of vision—and nerve—India soon came to be treated as a third rate power, acquiring ‘parity’ with Pakistan. Two months later Patel was dead.
Even after the loss of Tibet, Nehru gave up opportunities to settle the border with China. To understand this, it is necessary to appreciate the fact that what China desired most was a stable border with India. With this in view, the Chinese Premier Zhou-en-Lai visited India several times to fix the boundary between the two countries.
Quintessentially, the Chinese proposal amounted to the following: they were prepared to accept the McMahon Line as the boundary in the east—with possibly some minor adjustments and a new name—and then negotiate the unmarked boundary in the west between Ladakh and Tibet. In effect, what Zhou-en-Lai proposed was a phased settlement, beginning with the eastern boundary. Nehru, however, wanted the whole thing settled at once. The practical minded Zhou-en-Lai found this politically impossible.
And on each visit, the Chinese Premier in search of a boundary settlement heard more about the principles of Pancha Sheel than India’s stand on the boundary. He interpreted this as intransigence on India’s part.
China in fact went on to settle its boundary with Myanmar (Burma) roughly along the McMahon Line following similar principles. Contrary to what the Indian public was told, the border between Ladakh (in the Princely State of Kashmir) and Tibet was never clearly demarcated.
As late as 1960, the Indian Government had to send survey teams to Ladakh to locate the boundary and prepare maps. But the Government kept telling the people that there was a clearly defined boundary, which the Chinese were refusing to accept.
What the situation demanded was a creative approach, especially from the Indian side. There were several practical issues on which negotiations could have been conducted—especially in the 1950s when India was in a strong position.
China desperately needed Aksai Chin because it had plans to construct an access road from Tibet to Xinjiang province (Sinkiang) in the west. Aksai Chin was of far greater strategic significance to China than to India. (It may be a strategic liability for India—being expensive to maintain and hard to supply, even more than the Siachen Glacier.)
Had Nehru recognized this he might have proposed a creative solution like asking for access to Mount Kailash and Manasarovar in return for Chinese access to Aksai Chin. The issue is not whether such an agreement was possible, but no solutions were proposed. The upshot of all this was that China ignored India—including Pancha Sheel—and went ahead with its plan to build the road through Aksai Chin.
This is just the first part of the dismal story.
On the heels of this twin blunder—abandonment of Tibet and sponsorship of China with nothing to show in return—Nehru deceived the Indian public in his pursuit of international glory through Pancha Sheel.
Pancha Sheel, which was the principal ‘policy’ of Nehru towards China from the betrayal of Tibet to the expulsion of Dalai Lama in 1959, is generally regarded as a demonstration of good faith by Nehru that was exploited by the Chinese who ‘stabbed him in the back’. This is not quite correct, for Nehru (and Krishna Menon) knew about the Chinese incursions in Ladakh and Aksai Chin but kept it secret for years to keep the illusion of Pancha Sheel alive.
General Thimayya had brought the Chinese activities in Aksai Chin to the notice of Nehru and Krishna Menon several years before that. An English mountaineer by name Sydney Wignall was deputed by Thimayya to verify reports that the Chinese were building a road through Aksai Chin. He was captured by the Chinese but released and made his way back to India after incredible difficulties, surviving several snowstorms. Thimayya thereby had proof of Chinese incursion. When the Army presented this to the Government, Menon blew up. In Nehru’s presence, he told the senior officer making the presentation that he was “lapping up CIA propaganda.”
To be continued....
The above quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often mistakenly attributed to the Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curran and frequently to Thomas Jefferson.
In fact, Curran’s line was somewhat different. What he actually said, in a speech in Dublin on July 10, 1790, was: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”
And, according to Jefferson scholars there is “no evidence to confirm that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ or any of its variants.”
Traditionally, the most famous use of “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” that’s included in books of quotations is from a speech made by the American Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips on January 28, 1852.
Speaking to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that day, Phillips said:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”
Many witty variations on this old saying have been created since then. Here's on by the novelist Aldous Huxley. In an introduction to the 1965 radio version of his novel Brave New World, Huxley said: “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”