The Chinese invasion of Tibet, which culminated in the 1962 war between India and China, has often been portrayed as the “Great Chinese Betrayal”—“a stab in the back”, as Jawaharlal Nehru would say with much pain and anguish. Claude Arpi, in his 2017 book, Tibet: The Last Months of a Free Nation, proved with fresh shreds of evidence that the notion of “betrayal” was a farce. It was “a stab from the front”, as M.J. Akbar observed in his eloquent biography on Nehru. For, the then Prime Minister and his comrades refused to see the writing on the wall for more than a decade.
In his latest book, Will Tibet Ever Find Her Soul Again?, Arpi comes up with another explosive revelation: that Nehru’s India supplied rice for the invading PLA troops in Tibet when they were busy rampaging and decimating the Tibetan way of life and culture in the early 1950s. “The most grotesque incident of this period was the feeding of the PLA’s troops with rice coming through India,” writes the France-born expert on Tibet and China who is now settled in India. “Without Delhi’s active support, the Chinese troops would not have been able to survive in Tibet.”
Tibet, before the massive Chinese influx of the 1950s, was a self-sufficient society. The locals had, for centuries, practiced sustainable development, and starvation was unheard of. But the PLA avalanche triggered a breakdown in the Tibetan economy. Before the arrival of the Chinese Army in the forbidden kingdom, Arpi writes, few Tibetans had ever eaten rice. Roast barley, known as tsampa, had been their staple food for centuries. “The influx of fresh troops brought the first serious problem in the new co-existence between the Chinese occupants and the Lhasa government: the availability of foodstuff,” he writes.
To overcome the food crisis in Tibet, Chairman Mao and his comrades looked towards India. S.K. Krishnatry, the Indian Trade Agent (ITA) in Gyantse, mentioned that the Chinese government had requested the Government of India “for an agreement allowing facilities for the transport of food and other supplies through India”. The Chinese government wanted transit facilities for 10,000 tonnes of food grains through India, as a special case. Delhi first agreed after careful consideration to allow the transit of about 3,000 tonnes of rice to Tibet. “While pointing out the transport problems involved in the proposal, the Government of India expressed their (sic) willingness to consider it together with all outstanding issues regarding their position in Tibet,” wrote Krishnatry. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Tibetan part of the story was soon forgotten.
Blinded by dark ideological lenses or even duped by China’s “bhai-bhai” chimera, India refused to see the true nature of communist China and its devastating presence in Tibet. It didn’t even grasp that China was hitting out in India when it gave a call in the 17-Point Agreement, signed in May 1951, to “drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet”. Who were these imperialist forces? “Very few realized then that it could be against India,” Arpi writes matter-of-factly.
This rice diplomacy continued for well over four years. On 20 October 1954, it was re-emphasized that India would continue to supply rice to the PLA stationed in Tibet. “Rice which China would buy was intended exclusively for Tibet, and only difficulties of transport have necessitated this purchase by China,” reported The Hindu then. Ten months later, the first truck would reach Lhasa from the Chinese side. Rice via India wasn’t required anymore.
One wonders what would have happened had India not sent rice. Would the PLA have consolidated so easily its hold over the Roof of the World? Instead of confronting China over its forceful annexation of Tibet, which replaced a peaceful neighbor for India with an aggressive, imperialist one, the Nehru government felicitated the same by providing food for the invading troops.
Arpi brings out another never-told-before saga of four Indian “prisoners of war” caught during the 1950 invasion, and a couple of them were in the PLA’s confinement for almost two years without the “friendly” Chinese government even caring to inform India. Ironically, these PoWs were not soldiers or even spies; they were “employed by the Tibetan government and worked under Robert Ford, the British radio operator in Chamdo”. Ford recalled how the four young Indians had been trained to man a wireless station. The fact that China kept them in jails without informing India, should have shown the Indian government that China was not a friend. Nonetheless, as Arpi writes, “in this particular case, Indian diplomacy showed firmness and determination, allowing the release of four Indian ‘prisoners of war’.”
There’s another interesting thing that comes out from the book: That Nehru may have been blinded by his deep ideological moorings, but his love for the nation was paramount. It’s evident from the way he handled the case of four Indian “PoWs”. The same, however, can’t be said about his trusted lieutenants.
K.M. Panikkar, India’s ambassador to China from 1950-52, often acted like Mao’s envoy rather than Nehru’s, invariably defending the Chinese acts of omission and commission. Even when the Chinese were caught napping with their wrong, aggressive foot forward, he would defend them. “The Chinese attitude about these issues has all along been that these arise from unequal treaties and are ‘scars left behind’ by the British,” he would say. Even when the PLA was busy disrupting and distorting the Tibetan way of life, Panikkar would send a note back home, saying: “Not much news has been appearing about Tibet of late and it is expected that the work of re-organization there will naturally take time and will be handled with tact and care by the Chinese authorities.”
Panikkar wasn’t alone, however. The most prominent among others being the then Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, who, according to his biographer T.J.S. George, was such a votary of self-reliance that he refused to import defense equipment and turned the military factories into production lines for hairclips and pressure-cookers. Akbar takes the story forward when he writes in Nehru: The Making of India, “The Army was convinced that Menon was more concerned about promoting himself than defending his country at home… Even Nehru was perturbed at Menon’s foreign tours. When the Chinese advanced into Ladakh in 1959, the defense minister was in New York and showed no desire to return till Nehru rebuked him.” Shockingly, Menon had allowed a Chinese military mission to tour India’s major defense establishments as late as in 1958.
Will Tibet Ever Find Her Soul Again? is a scholarly work which even a lay reader would find interesting. It’s lucidly written and well argued with a lot of facts sprinkled across the book. The common thread being how India couldn’t see China’s dirty designs even when the latter never tried hiding them, whether it was the closure of the Kashgar consulate and the downgrading of the Lhasa consulate or the Chinese military’s consolidation on the plateau. There’s, however, a sore point for the reader. At Rs 1,550, it’s an expensive book to buy, but then good things don’t necessarily come cheap.