Sardar Patel’s letter to Nehru on Tibet

Tibetans across the world, especially in India, celebrated the 50th anniversary of their failed uprising against China on Tuesday. The March 10, 1959 riots in Tibet against Chinese rule resulted in a brutal crackdown and led to Dalai Lama’s flight to India.

Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, slammed China on the anniversary for turning Tibet into “hell on earth”.

The Western nations have appealed to China for maintaining human rights in Tibet, but India’s response to the entire issue has been muted since last few decades.

After gaining independence from the British, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried his best to prevent the Chinese military occupation of Tibet, which was an autonomous region and a buffer between India and China.

According to George N Patterson, in his paper China and Tibet: Background to the Revolt, “On October 25, 1950, Peking radio broadcast that the process of “liberating” Tibet had begun. However, it was still not publicly admitted to be a military action. When the Indian ambassador in Peking lodged a strong protest from his government, “the Chinese reply was equally strong. It practically accused India of having been influenced by the imperialists, and claimed that the Chinese had not taken any military action but were determined to liberate Tibet by peaceful means…”

Although India provided some military aid to Tibet initially, there was nothing much that could be done in the face of a firm People’s Liberation Army (PLA) response.

Analysts say India then did not take a strong position in the hope that further antagonizing China on the issue would aggravate matters. The only option for Tibetans then was to reach to a compromise with the Chinese, who eventually took over the region in 1959.

There are different views on the Indian policy towards China and the Tibet issue. I will write more on that some other day. I have reproduced here the letter written by then Deputy Prime Minister of India Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on November 7, 1950 on Tibet issue.

The letter throws light on the thought process of the Indian government vis-a-vis Tibet and China in the initial years after the independence.

The letter is sourced from Claude Arpi’s collections of historical documents pertaining to India.

Letter from Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vhallabhbhai Patel to Prime Minister Jahawarlal Nehru

New Delhi
7 November 1950

My dear Jawaharlal,

1. Ever since my return from Ahmedabad and after the cabinet meeting the same day which I had to attend practically at 15 minutes’ 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 thought I should share with you what is passing through my mind.

2. 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 instill 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. Inspite 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Side by side with these external dangers, we shall now have to face serious internal problems as well. I have already asked (HVR) lyengar to send to the F.A. 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 with the long sea board. 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 Warangal we may have to deal 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 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 defense 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 problem in the weak spots along the frontier to which I have already referred.

6. 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 Military and Intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India both on the frontier and internal security.
  • 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.
  • An appraisement of strength of our forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of our retrenchment plans to the Army in the light of the new threat.
  • A long-term consideration of our defense needs. My own feeling is that, unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we should be making a defense position 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.
  • The question of Chinese entry into UNO. In view of rebuff China has given us and the method which it has followed in dealing with Tibet, I am doubtful whether we can advocate its claims any longer. There would probably be a threat in the UNO virtually to outlaw China in view of its active participation in Korean War. We must determine our attitude on this question also.
  • The political and administrative steps which we should take to strengthen our Northern and North-Eastern frontier. This would include whole of border, i.e. Nepal, Bhutan. Sikkim. Darjeeling and tribal territory of Assam.
  • Measure of internal security in the border areas as well as the state flanking those areas such as U.P., Bihar, Bengal and Assam.
  • Improvement of our communication, road, rail, air and wireless with these areas and with the frontier outposts.
  • The future of our mission at Lhasa and the trade post of Gyantse and Yatung and the forces which we have in operation in Tibet guarding trade routes.
  • The policies in regards to McMahon Line.

These are some of the questions which occur to my mind. It is possible that a consideration of these matters might 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. i.e. 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 of taking early measure to deal with them.

Vallabhbhai Patel

2 thoughts on “Sardar Patel’s letter to Nehru on Tibet

  1. Visionary like Sardar Patel are borne after centuries. His views that China is potential threate came true after 12 years from his letter to Nehru i.e. in 1962 when India lost thousands of kilometers of land to China.

    It is greate unfortunate for India that he did not became first prime minister. The country has paid very heavy price of this political blunder.

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