« Back to articlePrint this article

60 years on: Unforgiving legacy of the Panchsheel Agreement

April 29, 2014 16:08 IST

It is a dark legacy bequeathed by Nehru to India. In its DNA lies the subconscious fount of India's schizophrenic geopolitics that forsook in one sweep all its historically-entrenched strategic interests in Tibet in favour of China, says R N Ravi, on the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel Agreement.

'The past is never dead. It's not even past,' says novelist William Faulkner.

The 'Agreement between the Republic of India and the People's Republic of China on trade and intercourse between India and the Tibet Region of China', popularly known as the Panchsheel Agreement, whose 60th anniversary falls on April 29, is one such past that has been relentlessly haunting the continuous present and casts ever-lengthening shadows over the future relations between the two countries, even though it is supposed to have been dead in 1962 itself.

This agreement of 1954 is a classic illustration of schizophrenia gripping India's post-colonial foreign policy establishment vis-a-vis China.

While its preamble, touted as a remarkable feat of the genius of its architects -- though in reality indeed a mere language makeover of the fundamental principles of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation laid down in the 'Treaty of Westphalia' (1648) that marked the end of the 'Thirty Years War' in Europe -- boasts to cast in stone the eternal principles of harmonious relations between India and China, its tentativeness is ironically embedded in its concluding article (6) that gives it a lifespan of a mere eight years.

Although dead in 1962, its spirit haunts Indian diplomats and dignitaries even today.

Against the backdrop of Chinese belligerence since the beginning, claiming a vast tract of the Indian territory as its own, the lofty pledges spelt out in the agreement were preposterous ab initio.

Why did India go for the Panchsheel Agreement giving away all its geopolitical and geostrategic interests and assets in Tibet accrued over centuries and so crucial to its national security, even without settling the border?

A convincing answer to this remains the Holy Grail.

Nehru, in his characteristic velleity on thorny issues, be it integration of the princely states into India or the border settlement with neighbours, wilfully avoided discussing the border with China and sought comfort in scoring over the Chinese by 'implication' (Nehru's note of June 18 and memo of July 1, 1954, on China).

A dreamy Nehru implied that since China had recognised in the Agreement a few passes along the border, traditionally used for trans-border trades, it amounted to a settlement of some 4,000 km of the border! What else was it if not a new depth of flippant diplomacy?

Among the tragedies of India were its ambassadors to China in the initial years, K M Panikkar and N Raghavan. They were Sino-philes to a fault. Their cynical perceptions and prejudices went into reinforcing Nehru's Sinophilia.

The fact that this much celebrated agreement got knocked flat within a few years of its signing, as the euphoria of 'Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai' soon evaporated and yielded to saber-rattling and eventual all-out war, holds a seminal lesson for the practitioners of diplomacy: An agreement that hinges on ethereal ideology with no firm feet on the ground will be swept away at the first adverse draught, leaving behind a bitter residue of rankling betrayal.

It also illustrates how a diplomacy rooted in the cold logic of geopolitics and national interests easily prevails over the one lacking in these. How China, playing a novice, succoured the seemingly smart and diplomatically suave Nehru and his team into self-abnegating India's long accrued geopolitical and geostrategic interests and assets in Tibet in return for absolutely nothing whatsoever.

How China got all the cheers and made India look like a chump

Unfortunately, in India, we do not have a reputation for learning from our mistakes, let alone the mistakes of others, or else the Panchsheel Agreement should be a primer for our career diplomats. It shows how an altruism-driven foreign policy conducted merely along the vectors of a factitious moral compass with scant regard for one's national interests ends up grievously hurting the country pursuing it.

Although China had smashed and grabbed Tibet in 1950, it was extremely vulnerable there. Tibetan resistance was rife. The People's Republic of China was not yet recognised by most of the world and was almost a pariah for the West. Its desperate attempts to seek membership of the United Nations were stoutly thwarted.

The Kuomintang's resistance, though routed on most of the mainland, nevertheless had vestiges of credible insurgency. Its logistics supply lines to Tibet was so decrepit and unreliable that it had to use Calcutta port and Indian territory to transport provisions, including food, for sustaining its troops there.

Notwithstanding extreme vulnerabilities, China refused to concede India's long established special relationship with Tibet, including its 'most favoured nation' status since 1914, and vehemently insisted on India renouncing its institutions, interests and assets therein lock, stock and barrel.

It remained intransigent on clinging to its imperial map insidiously fabricated since 1935 showing the vast tribal tracts of Assam -- the present-day Arunachal Pradesh in the east and much of Ladakh in the west -- as Chinese territories.

It heavily militarised the hitherto lightly policed India-Tibet border, moved decisively into Aksai Chin, deployed its troops way inside Indian territory, converted the traditional trade mule track linking Leh, Lhasa and Yarkand into an all-weather highway, thus ensuring an alternative credible military and logistics supply line to Tibet from its Xinjiang province.

While an unstable China belligerently pursued and consolidated its strategic interests along and inside India's northern border, Nehru and his team wilfully looked the other way. Nehru instead overstretched his official resources and personal international goodwill to mollify the West's hostility to China and secure a seat for it in the United Nations.

He did not even for once emphatically insist on China correcting its map and desisting its military aggressions in Aksai Chin. Nehru would rather be seen defusing the emerging threat to 'world peace' triggered by the Korean War, a far more sexy issue, than squandering the national and his personal capital by investing them in safeguarding 'sterile' and 'arid' Indian frontiers.

Nehru had little patience with any advice for strategic caution in dealing with China. He disdainfully ignored the prescient warnings of Sardar Patel on threats from China vividly spelt out in his long letter of November 7, 1950, and ridiculed other leaders like Syama Prasad Mookerjee who resonated with Patel.

The Panchsheel Agreement is India's acquiescent endorsement of militarily altered, China-centric geopolitical and geostrategic balance of power on India's northern frontiers.

It wilfully negated the shared cultural cosmology of India and Tibet organically nurtured over millennia. It voluntarily undid the centuries-old India-Tibet symbiotic relations that included free trans-border movements of pilgrims, scholars, artisans, tourists and traders, and undermined the historical treaties between India and Tibet and undercut the tenable bases of the traditionally settled borders.

It opened the frontiers, including the McMahon Line, to potential disputes.

The mischief potential of this Agreement keeps ever unfolding. The latest is China's initiative to divert waters of key Indian rivers originating in Tibet that would have disastrous human and environmental costs for India. A distressed Acharya J B Kriplani aptly called the Agreement 'born in sin'.

The Panchsheel Agreement is a damnosa hereditas, a dark legacy bequeathed by Nehru to India. In its DNA lies the subconscious fount of India's schizophrenic geopolitics that forsook in one sweep all its historically-entrenched strategic interests in Tibet in favour of China.

An India that yet is wistful of using the 'Tibet card' in its unstable geopolitical equation with China; looks the other way at Chinese belligerence at its border and continual loss of strategic Indian territory; remains indifferent to China building strategic assets in Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir; acquiesces with a whimper to China's humiliating strictures on visas to the hyphenated Indians of Arunachal Pradesh; lies through its teeth when China works to divert its life-giving waters; mafficks at India being a mere market for Chinese goods; flaunts the endless barren talks as a red herring to trick Indians into believing that the border resolution is within grasp; and facetiously underplays the severity of the sinister geopolitical reality with cheap gimmicks like celebrating 2014 as the 'year of friendly exchanges'.

Such schizophrenic geopolitics will ensure that India remains a country of 'unfulfilled greatness'. India's redemption lies in resolutely confronting this schizophrenia.

The first step is to acknowledge its existence. Because, 'a posture of defiant denial is self-defeating' reminds Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate in Economics.

R N Ravi is a retired special director of the Intelligence Bureau and monitored the China border for over 20 years.

Image: Jawaharlal Nehru releases a dove as a symbol of peace on November 18, 1954, during a ceremony held on his 65th birthday at the New Delhi stadium. Photograph: Getty Images.

R N Ravi