This is our only foreign debt, and some day we must pay the Mantzu and the Tibetans for the provisions we were obliged to take from them.
—Mao Zedong, when he had passed through the border regions of Tibet during the Long March

In the 8th century, Tibetan King Trisong Dentsen had defeated China, which was forced to pay an annual tribute to Tibet. To put an end to mutual fighting, China and Tibet signed a treaty in 783 CE where boundaries were confirmed, and each country promised to respect the territorial sovereignty of the other. This fact is engraved on the stone monument at the entrance of the Jokhang temple, which still stands today. The engraving is both in Chinese and in Tibetan.

I [Sardar Patel] have been eating my heart out because I have not been able to make him [Nehru] see the dangers ahead. China wants to establish its hegemony over South-East Asia. We cannot shut our eyes to this because imperialism is appearing in a new garb…He is being misled by his courtiers. I have grave apprehensions about the future.
— Durga Das, reporting his talks with Sardar Patel

Nehru allowed Tibet, our peaceful neighbour and a buffer between us and China, to be erased as a nation, without even recording a protest in the UN, thereby making our northern borders insecure, and putting a question mark on the future of the water resources that originate in Tibet.

The Tibetan Government protested to the UN against the Chinese aggression. But, as Tibet was not a member of the UN, it was simply recorded by the UN Secretariat as an appeal from an NGO. Their appeal, in a way, was pigeonholed. In view of this handicap, Tibetans requested the Government of India to raise the Tibet issue in the UN. But, India was not willing to do so, lest China should feel antagonised! What to speak of helping our neighbour who had appealed to us for help, we shamelessly advised the victim to seek peaceful settlement with the aggressor China. Even worse, when through others, the Tibet’s appeal came up on 23 November 1950 for discussions in the UN General Assembly, we opposed the discussions on a very flimsy ground—that India had received a note from China that the matter would be resolved peacefully!

Even though China had invaded Tibet, KM 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 show China in bad light—as an aggressor—which would have a negative effect on India’s efforts of ensuring entry of China in the UN! Such was the crazy Nehru-Panikkar line! Tibet and our own national security interests were sought to be sacrificed to help China enter the UN!!

With no one to sponsor the Tibetan appeal, possibility of some joint action was discussed by the Commonwealth delegation to the UN. In the meeting, the Indian representative advised that India did not wish to raise the Tibetan issue in the UNSC, nor did India favour its inclusion in the UN General Assembly agenda!

See the irony and the blunder : Nehru referred to the UN what India should never have referred—the J&K issue, it being India’s internal matter. But, Nehru refused to refer a matter to the UN that India should certainly have referred—Tibet, despite its criticality both to India’s external security, and to the survival of a peaceful neighbour. When Nehru should not have acted, he did act; and when he should have acted, he didn’t! Both, his action and his inaction, led to disastrous consequences for India. Nehru’s strategy was India’s and Tibet’s tragedy.

Given the critical importance of Tibet, India should have exerted its utmost to ensure Tibet retained its independent status. But, did India do so? Did India come to the rescue of its good neighbour, facing extinction as an independent entity? Did India fulfil its obligation as a friend and a neighbour? Did we come good on the trust that our weaker neighbour, Tibet, reposed in us?

Did Nehru walk the talk on anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism? Did India try to save its neighbour from being colonised? Did India try to protect its own crucial interests? What role did India play? What was independent India’s or Nehru’s Tibet policy? Unfortunately—None. It was actually a defeatist policy—throw up your hands and declare there is nothing India can do to save Tibet.

India was in desperate need of a Sardar Patel to drive its strategic thinking. Nehru, by stating on 1 November 1950 in an interview to the Unites Press that “India has neither the resources nor the inclination to send armed assistance to Tibet” and that “We can’t save Tibet” seemed to wash his hands off the whole affair so critical to India’s security, and seemed to suggest that other than armed intervention, which India didn’t wish to undertake, there was nothing India could do—when there was much that India could have very well done, other than its own armed intervention!


While the independent India was an indifferent India—indifferent to its own security—British-India had done all it could to keep India’s northern borders secure by ensuring Tibet remained free from foreign powers.

By the early nineteenth century, Tsarist Russia was trying to expand south into Central and South Asia. In response, Britain commenced its “Great Game”—that of checkmating Tsarist Russia. Britain rightly realised that Tibet as a buffer was vital to the security of British-India, particularly northern India. However, Britain did not wish to take the trouble of converting Tibet into a protectorate like Sikkim—it did not consider it financially worthwhile to commit resources for the purpose. Britain wanted Tibet to be neither under Russia nor under China. Autonomous or independent Tibet was the best bet to ensure security of northern India, and therefore the strategy was to ensure it remained so. Towards this end, the British took tremendous physical risks in surveying the border areas and sending missions through the difficult terrain to Tibet, spent considerable sum, did meticulous planning through the decades, arranged conventions, signed agreements, adjusted borders to make northern India as secure as possible—even engaged in “cartographic aggression”. Trained Indian surveyor-spies, disguised as pilgrims or traders, counted their strides on their travels across Tibet, took readings at night, and measured the longitude, latitude and altitude of Lhasa and other places.
According to Claude Arpi:                                                                                                                             “A few months before India’s Independence, not only was Tibet a de facto independent State and the British wanted it to remain so, but they were ready to carry out a military action to protect Tibet’s status. For this, a detailed military intervention plan was prepared by the General Staff of the British Army…The purpose of the Memo [a Top Secret Memo of 1946] was to find a solution in case of ‘domination of Tibet by a potentially hostile major power [which] would constitute a direct threat to the security of India.’…Neither Russia nor China must be allowed to violate Tibetan autonomy…since it would then be possible for them to build roads and airfields to their own advantage, which would vitally affect India’s strategic position.”

That’s foresight, strategic thinking and meticulous planning! Talking of strategic thinking, what to speak of viceroys and generals, even a British explorer, Francis Younghusband, who led the British Mission to Lhasa in 1904, had this to say in his book ‘India and Tibet’, first published in 1910:
“…apart from questions of trade, we want to feel sure that there is no inimical influence growing up in Tibet which might cause disturbance on our frontier [northern India]. That is the sum total of our wants. The trade is not of much value in itself, but, such as it is, is worth having. We have no interest in annexing Tibet…but we certainly do want quiet there… Before the Lhasa Mission, Russian influence…was the disturbing factor; now it is the Chinese influence, exerted beyond its legitimate limits and with imprudent harshness [reference to Zhao Erfeng’s invasion of 1909]. Either of these causes results in a feeling of uneasiness, restlessness, and nervousness along our north-eastern frontier, and necessitates our assembling troops and making diplomatic protests…”

Wrote Brig. Dalvi: “In October 1950 I was a student at the Defence services Staff College in Wellington, South India. Soon after the news of the Chinese entry in into Tibet reached us, the Commandant, General WDA (Joe) Lentaigne, strode into the main lecture hall, interrupted the lecturer and proceeded to denounce our leaders for their short-sightedness and inaction, in the face of Chinese action…he said that India’s back door had been opened…He predicted that India would have to pay dearly for failure to act…His last prophetic remark was that some of the students present in the hall would be fighting the Chinese before retirement.”

Olaf Caroe, Secretary to the Government of India in the External Affairs Department in 1945, and one of the foremost British strategic thinkers had at least have helped the military efforts by others, or tried to thwart China diplomatically. The Economist 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 USA will do well to extend formal diplomatic recognition to it.”

Writes Prasenjit Basu in ‘Asia Reborn’: “The Americans were keen to support Tibet’s claim to sovereignty but needed support from India (or possibly Nepal) to solidify the claim. But the proto-communist Nehru (who believed, in his simple heart, that communism was the wave of the future, and the forces of history would inevitably lead to the triumph of communism) contemptuously brushed off the American offer of support. Nehru told his cabinet that it was not possible for India to help Tibet fend off the well-armed PLA (but he did not address the question of whether American support could have augmented the military potential of a combined effort).”

Wrote Dr NS Rajaram:
“…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… 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. It is not widely known in India that in 1950, China could have been prevented from taking over Tibet… Patel on the other hand recognized that in 1950, China 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 world in fact was looking to India to take the lead… 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.”

Dr NS Rajaram further wrote: “Much has been made of Nehru’s blunder in Kashmir, but it pales 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 …”

Even if India did not have the military strength to confront and prevent China, there were so many other steps that India could have taken: express disapproval; provide moral support to Tibet; lodge protest in the UN; mobilise world opinion against Chinese action; grant recognition to Tibet as an independent nation; persuade other nations to also do so; demand plebiscite in Tibet to ascertain the opinion of the public—China had agreed for a plebiscite in Mongolia, that led to its independence; work towards ensuring complete independence for Tibet through peaceful means.

Even if the final favourable outcome took decades it didn’t matter—at least there would have been hope. Had India taken the initiative many nations would have supported India. In fact, many did pass resolution in favour of Tibet in the UN later, which India, the affected country, did not support!
One could argue that doing so would have made China an enemy of India? Well, did China care for our friendship when it attacked our friend and neighbour Tibet? Are friendships only one-sided? Foreign policy cannot be based on cowardice! Or, in being too nice to the other party in the hope that they would reciprocate. The US felt disappointed to discover that India had resigned itself to leave Tibet to its fate, and sit back, and do nothing! The then US ambassador to India, Loy Henderson, described the Indian attitude as ‘philosophic acquiescence’.

Several prominent Indian leaders and citizens decided to form a committee and observe the Tibet Day in August 1953 to protest Chinese invasion of Tibet. Nehru wrote to Balwantray Mehta of AICC on 24 August 1953:
“…Obviously, no Congressman should join such committee or participate in the observance of ‘Tibet Day’. This is an unfriendly act to China and is against the policy we have pursued during these years. There is absolutely no reason for observing such a day now… I think we should inform members of the Party that they should keep aloof from this. If you remind me, I shall mention this at the Party meeting tomorrow…”

For further details on the above please refer to the sub-section “Tibet Episode: Another Glaring Example of Nehru’s Anti-FoE Stand” under Blunder#97.

Reportedly, Nehru tried to rationalise India’s inaction on various pretexts, the most bizarre among them being that Tibetan society was backward and feudal, and that reforms were bound to upset the ruling elite, and so on. Wrote Walter Crocker: “It was being said in Delhi in 1952-53 that Nehru, in private and semi-private, justified the Chinese invasion of Tibet …”

Says Arun Shourie in “Are we deceiving ourselves again?”:
“Panditji has now come down firmly against the order in Tibet: it isn’t just that we cannot support Tibet. His position now is that we must not support Tibet . The reason is his progressive view of history! The Tibet order is feudal. And how can we be supporting feudalism?
“Panditji reiterates the other reasons for neither acting nor regretting the fact of not acting: ‘We must remember that Tibet has been cut off from the world for a long time and, socially speaking, is very backward and feudal. Changes are bound to come there to the disadvantage of the small ruling class and the big monasteries… I can very well understand these feudal chiefs being annoyed with the new order. We can hardly stand up as defenders of feudalism.’”

Crazy, perplexing and inexplicable! What does Nehru’s logic lead to? It is all right for a country that is backward and feudal to be taken over by another country if that would help it progress! By that logic, the USA could have colonised most of Asia and Africa that was backward and feudal— including India, which also fell in that category—and Nehru would have been fine with that! And, how was the brutal communism of China superior to Buddhist feudalism!!

WHY THE UNTENABLE APPROACH?                                                                                                            Why did Nehru operate in such a way?
One. Sacrifice the meek, and satisfy the bully . Wrote Arun Shourie: “…response of the [Indian] Government has been to be at its craven best in the belief, presumably, that, if only we are humble enough to the python, it will not swallow us…” Said Winston Churchill: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” It was like substituting a very peaceful and harmless neighbour for a dangerous bully. Watching the way India capitulated, Chinese perhaps developed contempt for India and its leaders. Mao respected only the strong, and not the weak who bent over backwards to please him. India’s pusillanimity must have emboldened China.

Two. It suited Nehru temperamentally. Nehru was a pacifist, and did not have a stomach to face up to difficult situations. What was the result? Those who abandon their friends and neighbours, especially weaker ones, in their difficulties, should know that their own time would also come. And it came. As India realised in 1962. What was once a most secure border became the most insecure border, thanks to Nehru.

President Dr Rajendra Prasad had famously remarked, “I hope I am not seeing ghosts and phantoms, but I see the murder of Tibet recoiling on India.” He had also written: “In the matter of Tibet, we acted unchivalrously, but even against our interest in not maintaining the position of a buffer state, for it had thus exposed the frontier of 2,500 miles to the Chinese… I have very strong feeling about it. I feel that the blood of Tibet is on us … but the Prime Minister does not like the name of Tibet to be mentioned even now and regards any mention of its liberation as ‘manifest nonsense’.”

Three . Nehru’s Marxist-Communist World View (Blunder#106-7) dictated that communist countries could not be imperialists—despite ample factual evidence to the contrary, especially with regard to the Soviet Union.

During his last days in 1964, Nehru was reported to have said: “I have been betrayed by a friend. I am sorry for Tibet .” Betrayal? One does not understand! In international politics, if you are naive and incompetent to take care of your own interests, you would keep getting betrayed.
For complete details on Tibet, please refer to the author’s other books “Foundations of Misery: The Nehruvian Era” or “Kashmir, Tibet, India- China War & Nehru” available on Amazon.

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