19 December 2023

How closure of diplomatic mission in Lhasa remains Nehru's lesser-known ‘Tibetan’ blunder

New Delhi seemed to have lost its nerve, which greatly helped China attain its final objective: To remove all traces of Indian presence and influence from Tibet. The blunder seems irreparable today

Addressing the Parliament, Union Home Minister Amit Shah recently remarked that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was responsible for the loss of what is known as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK): “The problem of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir occurred because of Pandit Nehru. Otherwise, that part would have belonged to Kashmir,” aid Shah, adding: “Nehru ji said it was his mistake. It was not a mistake. It was a blunder to lose so much land of this country.”

We shall not discuss here — the Kashmir blunders, though there are many more which could be listed, to cite just one: Why did India accept Lord Mountbatten as the first Governor General and Chairman of the Defence Council while Pakistan had nominated Muhammad Ali Jinnah as first Governor General?
Less known are some of the first prime minister’s ‘Tibetan’ blunders. He was assisted in this by KM Panikkar, India’s ambassador in Beijing, who often batted for Communist China; remember the words Sardar Patel wrote on November 7, 1950: “I have tried to peruse this correspondence as favourably to our Ambassador [Panikkar] and the Chinese Government as possible, but I regret to say that neither of them comes out well as the result of this study”.

Another of the most tragic events of the early 1950s was also initiated by Panikkar: It was the 1952 ‘downgrading’ of the Indian Mission in Lhasa into a Consulate General. While Delhi was dithering on whether to address the confirmation of its borders with China through bilateral talks with Beijing, the Chinese managed to gain this portentous change.

Did Nehru realise that thereafter Tibet would no longer be an independent nation?

In the exchange of letters and notes between the Indian and Chinese governments after the latter’s troops entered Tibet in October 1950, Delhi never once insisted on the rights it had inherited from the Simla Convention in 1914, with the consequence that China even today does not recognise the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh.

In 1952, India still enjoyed several privileges in Tibet; apart from the full-fledged Mission in Lhasa, there were three Indian Trade Marts managed by Agents posted in Gyantse, Gartok and Yatung. Except for Gartok, the Agents were entitled to a military escort. The Post and Telegraph Service, a chain of rest-houses and the principality of Minsar (near Mt Kailash) were also under the Indian Government’s control.

Ideologically, Nehru was not comfortable with these ‘imperialist’ advantages, though he often admitted that they were useful for trade. It is true that after the arrival of the Chinese troops, the Indian government found it increasingly difficult to retain these benefits on the ground.

On July 28, 1952, in a letter to Nehru, for the first time Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier officially requested the ‘regularisation’ of the Indian Mission in Lhasa; it meant downgrading the Mission into a Consulate General. Tibet would not be considered a separate country anymore.

Finally, on August 15, 1952, the Indian Representative was re-designated as a Consul-General under the Indian Embassy in Beijing. By downgrading the Mission, Delhi officially accepted that Tibet was a part of China. Thereafter, India had no border with Tibet anymore, but only with China, with the consequences that one can still see today.

The new arrangement continued for the following ten years. Though downgraded, the Indian presence in Lhasa could take care of the trade between India and Tibet, could look after the hundreds of Indian monks from the Himalayan region studying in Tibet, as well as the thousands of pilgrims undertaking the Kailash/Mansarovar yatra every year.

After the Border War

On December 3, 1962, two weeks after the ceasefire had been declared on the northern front, South Block suddenly decided to unilaterally close down its Consulate General in Lhasa. Despite years of research, I have never been able to find the rationale for this decision.

The Ministry of External Affairs just informed Beijing that India had decided to close its Consulate General in Lhasa as well as the Chinese Consulates in Mumbai and Kolkata.

It is not known what triggered this hasty action, especially at a time when India had nearly 4,000 prisoners of war in Tibet; there is no doubt that a Consul General would have been useful for their welfare, to provide information to their next of kin and their eventual repatriation.

On December 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing wrote to the Indian Embassy in Beijing complaining that India had “unreasonably requested China to terminate its Consulates-General at Calcutta and Bombay.”

Beijing started accusing New Delhi of having an anti-Chinese policy.

But the loser has been India, not China, which has since reopened its two consulates in Mumbai and Kolkata, while Delhi could never reopen the Indian one in Lhasa.

On December 15, 1962, the Chinese Government finally agreed to close down its two consulates general and to withdraw its staff: “But this decision does not in any way mean that the Chinese Government accepts the Indian Government’s unreasonable demand or agrees to the Indian Government’s unilateral action.”

Retrospectively, one can only say that from India’s side, it was a misconceived decision, nobody thought of the consequences.

One of the justifications was that the communications with Lhasa were completely cut off between October 9 and 25: “Even the telephone of the Consulate General was cut and outsiders were forbidden to enter the premises.” This was a few days before the treacherous Chinese attack on India’s northern borders. But it hardly justifies the closure of the Consulate, especially after the war was over.

Justifying the Closure of the Consulate

During the following months, the Ministry of External Affairs kept trying to justify its decision to close down its consulate in Tibet.

While all this haggling was taking place, China refused to speak about the 3,900 Indian PoWs kept in different camps in Tibet. This issue was never even part of the innumerable exchanges; it is most astonishing to say the least.

Why was the issue of the PoWs never raised directly with the Chinese?

Delhi reiterated the contents of the notes of November 4 and December 28, 1962: “The local Chinese authorities at Lhasa had willfully harassed the staff of the Indian Consulate General at Lhasa. Local Chinese authorities had, in every manner possible, restricted the freedom of movement of the staff.”

Beijing just rejected the allegation that it had violated acknowledged international practice or had disregarded diplomatic courtesy.

But again, all this does not explain why the Indian Consulate in Lhasa was closed? Nor how and why was the decision taken?

Could it have been a rushed and unilateral decision taken by local officials in Lhasa and later endorsed by Delhi? Perhaps the truth is that there was an atmosphere of utter confusion and chaos reigning in Delhi.

Trying to Reopen the Consulate

An Indian diplomat, Shivshankar Menon is said to have played a pivotal role in trying to reopen the Indian Consulate in Lhasa in the 2000s; however, it soon became obvious that it was easier to hurriedly close the Indian mission in 1962, than to reopen it. It has also to be noted that Nepal still has a representative in Lhasa today, with a thriving presence.

Designated as the ‘Year of Friendship between China and India’, Year 2006 seemed to offer a possibility for the two countries to leave their tumultuous past behind. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited China in May; for China and India, it was the occasion to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on defence cooperation.

Did Pranab Mukherjee officially suggest reopening a consular office in Lhasa in return for allowing China to open one in Kolkata during his visit? The rumour was that Beijing was not keen and asked Delhi to open an office in Guangzhou instead.

In July, 2006, the Nathu La pass between Tibet and Sikkim was officially reopened for border trade for the first time after 1962. Were the bilateral relations going to make a new start?

At the time of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Delhi in November, The Indian Express observed: “Though India has made it repeatedly clear that it recognises Tibet Autonomous Region, China turned down the Indian proposal for opening a consulate in Lhasa ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit.”

On March 31, 2015, PTI reported that India’s proposal to re-establish a mission “in the sensitive Tibetan capital Lhasa did not get a favourable response from Beijing.”

The news agency asserted “India is set to open its third consulate in China in the southwestern city of Chengdu after its proposal to re-establish a mission in the sensitive Tibetan capital of Lhasa which was closed down during the 1962 war did not get a favourable response.”

For millennia, China has been mastering The Art of War expounded by its great strategist, Sun Tzu. This episode is another demonstration that by attacking an enemy (by accusing the Indian diplomats of mischief) and mentioning all sorts of Indian wrongdoings, the Communist regime in Beijing managed to divert the energies of an India already weakened by the unexpected war (of 1962), but the blunder was Indian at the start.

New Delhi seemed to have lost its nerve, which greatly helped China to attain its final objective: To remove all traces of Indian presence and influence from Tibet. The blunder seems irreparable today

Originally published in Firstpost on 15 December 2023