Vice President Hamid Ansari is travelling to Beijing this week to join the official celebrations of the five principles of peaceful existence, or Panchsheel, unveiled 60 years ago. A discerning observer, however, might ask why the celebrations are all in Beijing and barely any in New Delhi. The answer, put simply, is that India has long been ambivalent about Panchsheel. Many Indians view Panchsheel as a remarkable “discovery” of new principles of international relations — non-intervention in internal affairs of nations and peaceful coexistence. For some others, Panchsheel is the best example of Jawaharlal Nehru’s idealist folly.
The five principles first made their appearance in Indian diplomacy as a preamble to an agreement that Delhi signed with Beijing in April 1954 on transborder trade and cultural engagement between India and the Tibet region of China. For its part, India had to come to terms with the changed political conditions in Tibet. In the decades before China gained control over Tibet, it was the British Raj that exercised primacy in the region. For centuries before the Raj, India and Tibet were bound by a shared culture and commerce.
The 1954 agreement came at the peak of the “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” phase in bilateral relations. Five years later, Delhi and Beijing began to squabble over Tibet and fought a brief war in late 1962. Nehru was unwilling to renew the 1954 agreement, which lapsed after eight years in early 1962. Speaking a few years after Nehru’s death, his close confidant and defence minister Krishna Menon criticised the deification of the five principles. He insisted that Panchsheel “was not a revelation. It was not a creed or part of the formulation of our foreign policy”.
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If Panchsheel, in Menon’s words, became “a mantra, slogan and a prop” for India, it was very central to communist China’s worldview. The essence of the five principles figured prominently in Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the new republic on October 1, 1949. Mao was cautioning the West against intervention and reassuring them that the new China would not destabilise Asia.
When it came to India, the five principles had great salience, for Mao had no reason to accept Delhi’s special relationship with Tibet and the multiple privileges that the government of India had inherited from the Raj. For Mao and his able premier, Zhou Enlai, the Panchsheel was about getting India to accept Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. So long as Tibet remains restive, China will put Panchsheel at the heart of its diplomacy towards India. The latest celebrations in Beijing are a mere reflection of that.
Ironically, China and India may have adhered to Panchsheel more in breach rather than in observance. Beijing has often accused Delhi of meddling in Tibet and Delhi frequently fulminated at Beijing’s support to secessionist movements in the Northeast and beyond.
What keeps China and India away from excessive intervention in each other’s internal affairs today is political prudence and not high principle. Delhi and Beijing know they can hurt each other by playing the secessionist card; therefore, both of them have the incentive to keep their involvement below the other’s threshold of tolerance.
While rhetoric is common in diplomacy, Ansari might want to look beyond Panchsheel formalism and explore the prospects for expanding overland commerce and contact with China. After all, the 1954 agreement allowed customary transborder intercourse between India and Tibet. It permitted local traders and pilgrims to travel across the border without passports and visas. Those positive elements of the 1954 agreement have long been forgotten amidst the hype on Panchsheel.
To its credit, China today is proposing substantive transborder cooperation with India under new conditions. Beijing’s ambassador in Delhi, Wei Wei, has called this week for a “Trans-Himalaya Economic Growth Region”, powered by China and India. Instead of being defensive, Delhi must seek more details on this very interesting idea and offer a vision of its own for a productive engagement with Beijing all across the Tibetan frontier.
For one, Delhi and Beijing could agree to modernise the infrastructure at the Nathu La pass connecting Tibet and Sikkim and initiate full-fledged trade. They could also find ways to expand the current limited opportunities for Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who want to visit places of worship on both sides of the border. The Narendra Modi government should be particularly interested in a significant expansion of Indian access to the holy sites of Kailash Manasarovar.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’