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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Laying out the Red carpet

How China’s leadership tried to ingratiate themselves with Nehru

Written by Inder Malhotra |
October 18, 2010 5:24:28 am

In October 1954,Jawaharlal Nehru paid his first — and,as it turned out,also the last — visit to China after its 1949 revolution. The Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai era was at full blast,but Nehru personally had no illusions on this score,even though he was grievously to misread Chinese intentions in 1962 — and grievously did he pay for it. Briefing a goodwill delegation to China well before his visit,he had told it that India’s problems with China lay “across the spine of Asia”. However,he was keen on the journey to a country most of the world was excited about.

Sadly,I was too junior then to be included in the press party accompanying the PM but I read every word in every newspaper within reach on the “historic visit.” Nothing could have revealed Nehru’s own exceptional interest in this journey than that for precisely five days in his whole life — from October 15 to 19 of that year,when he was in China after a stopover in Vietnam — he maintained a diary. He looked upon the sojourn as a continuation of his “discovery of Asia.”

On Nehru’s arrival in Peking (as the Chinese capital was called then) nearly a million people turned out to line the 12-mile route from the airport to give him a reception that the Indian press corps accompanying him described as “breathtaking.” The correspondent for the London Daily Mail reported that the Chinese had offered Nehru “a Roman triumph.”

Nehru’s own take on the welcome was that he discerned in it an “element of spontaneity.” As he confided to the Congress parliamentary party,“I sensed such a tremendous emotional response from the Chinese people that I was amazed.” His overall impression of China was that of a country “smoothly running with enormous potential power which was being translated gradually into actual strength.” The country was “large not only in size but also in spirit and character”,and the Chinese people,“unified,organised,disciplined,and hardworking exuded a tremendous sense of vitality.”

However,greatly impressed by China though he was,he wasn’t overawed. To quote his speech to the Congress parliamentary party again,“I am impressed by China. Having said that,let me also tell you that,having been to China,I am very much impressed by my own country.” In today’s circumstances,it surely looks highly ironic — but,at that time,Nehru also assured his party that India was “unlikely to be outstripped by China economically.”

Nehru’s extended conversations were with his opposite number,Zhou En-lai,who had earlier stopped over in New Delhi on his way back from the Geneva Conference on Indochina,and had received a very warm welcome. He had also invited Nehru to visit China at an early date.

Now that the record of these conversations,as that of the previous talks,is available — even if very belatedly — thanks to the publication of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru,it is possible to perceive the pitfalls in the negotiations between the two prime ministers. Zhou was both ingratiating and cunning. Nehru,who found him to be “still very India-conscious” and “as eager as in Delhi to be as friendly as possible,” was both cordial and frank. Yet he got taken in,as in Delhi in June,by Zhou’s spiel that the Chinese government hadn’t had time to “review” the Kuomintang-era maps. Zhou also cleverly added that none of the boundaries of China “including those with the Soviet Union and Mongolia,had been precisely demarcated.”

Surprisingly,Zhou took no offence when Nehru drew attention to the “fear of China (and perhaps of India) that prevailed in the minds of the smaller nations of Asia.” Nehru added that there was the problem of “overseas Chinese” and the possibility of “interference in the internal affairs of other countries through the medium of local Communist parties.” Zhou claimed,whether accurately or otherwise,that he had “repeatedly advised the government of Pakistan to draw away from the United States and improve relations with India.”

The high point of the visit,however,was Nehru’s long meeting with Mao Tse-tung. As Nehru later recorded,it seemed to him as if he was being “ushered before a Presence,” and that Mao talked to him like “an elderly uncle giving good advice.” China’s Chairman made the usual references to “ancient ties as well as new friendship between India and China,” and underscored China’s need for at least 20 years of peace for development.

What stunned Nehru was Mao’s utter insensitivity about a nuclear war. Atomic weapons,Mao argued,had made “no basic change” in warfare except that more people would be killed. Nehru disagreed strongly. Atomic warfare,he said,was not a matter of a greater quantity of deaths but of a “qualitative change in killing.” A third world war would be very different from earlier wars. Mao contended that even if half the population died in a nuclear war,the other half would build socialism,and imperialism would be dead for ever.

Let me end on two notes,one amusing and the other bizarre,in that order. At Nanking Nehru had to place a wreath at a memorial to reach which he had to climb 300 steps. Then 64,he practically ran up,as was his habit. Halfway,while coming down,he saw his doctor huffing and puffing on his way up.

Secondly,it is not just bizarre but also tragic that Nehru wrote the top-secret note on his visit to China on November 11,1954,yet it never saw the light of day until the 1990s when it was published first in Nehru’s Letters to Chief Ministers first and then in the Selected Works. But I read it in 1987 in Britain’s Public Records Office. How did it get there? Well,Nehru had sent a copy to Winston Churchill while the latter was still Prime Minister. At the expiry of 30 years Downing Street had duly declassified it. I published a gist of it in my column. Mercifully nobody prosecuted me for violating the Official Secrets Act.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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