Fifty years ago Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai paid three state visits to India in less than two months. It was the zenith of the brotherhood relationship. Premier Zhou was in India from November 28 to December 10, 1956, December 30 to January 3 and again from January 24 to 26, 1957.
This should undoubtedly be entered in the Guinness Book of Records, though Zhou's purpose was certainly not to establish a record. The Chinese government was simply nervous about the Dalai Lama's visiting India.
The occasion was the 2,500th birth anniversary of the Buddha's birth (November 1956) during which important diplomatic activities took place, particularly with the visit of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama to the Land of the Buddha.
But let us go back two years earlier. In April 1954, India and China had signed the 'Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India,' known as the 'Panchsheel Agreement.'
Less than three months later, the first Chinese intrusions occurred on the Tibet-UP border (in a place called Barahoti). It was the beginning of hundreds of such intrusions.
In September 1956, 20 Chinese crossed over the Shipki-la pass into India's territory. A 27-member Border Security Force party met the Chinese the same day. The BSF were told by a Chinese officer that he was instructed to patrol right up to Hupsang Khad (4 miles within Indian territory), though Shipki La was the recognised border pass under the Panchsheel Agreement. The BSF were however advised "to avoid an armed clash but not yield to the Chinese troops."
Delhi did not know how to react. A few days later, Nehru wrote to the foreign secretary: "I agree with the suggestion made in the office memorandum sent by the Ministry of External Affairs to the effect that it would not be desirable for this question to be raised in the Lok Sabha at the present stage."
The policy of the Indian government was to keep the matter quiet and eventually mention the matter 'informally' to the Chinese government.
Strangely Nehru added: "I think that if this question is raised in our Parliament at this stage, this might prove embarrassing from the point of view of the negotiations between Burma and China." What was the connection between the Chinese intrusions and Beijing's negotiations with Burma, nobody knows.
But Nehru did have some doubts. The next day, he wrote again to the foreign secretary: "This is a serious matter and we cannot accept this [Chinese] position. The [BSF] must remain there even at the cost of conflict. We would not permit them to go any further and if they did not go back, we would have to take further steps in the matter.
Finally, the MEA informed Beijing that "The government of India are pained and surprised at this conduct of the Chinese commanding officer."
This note was one of the first of hundreds of notes, memoranda and letters exchanged by the two governments. But this copious correspondence did not stop the Chinese from maintaining their claims. The Chinese probably knew that it would not go further than 'regret notes'.
The notes/memoranda war continued till the fateful day of October 1962.
This was the background of Zhou's first visit to India, during which the Indian prime minister had the occasion to have long talks with his Chinese counterpart on diverse topics such the policies of the Roosevelt administration or the happenings in Hungary.
It was Zhou who took the initiative to bring up the situation in Tibet. He gave a long briefing to the Indian PM on the historical status of the Land of Snows, while Nehru kept quiet about the intrusions.
He however made a rather strange remark to the Chinese Premier: "Historical knowledge is not important but is useful as background information. History is gone." Unfortunately for India, the border is a left over of history which can not be neglected.
Nehru never brought up the border, question though Zhou made some stray remarks on Tibet and the border which are worth noting: "That Tibet is part of China is a fact, but it was never an administrative province of China but kept an autonomous character."
Nehru acquiesced: "My impression was that for all practical purposes Tibet has all along been autonomous."
Zhou spoke again about autonomy: "When we started negotiations for peaceful liberation of Tibet [in 1951 in Beijing], we from the first recognised the autonomous character of the region." Then he interestingly added: "When I said that India knew more about Tibet, I meant about the past history. For example, I knew nothing about McMahon Line until recently when we came to study the border problem after [the] liberation of China."
Hu Jintao will arrive in India and claim that Arunachal Pradesh belongs to China, though 50 years ago, his predecessor did not know about the McMahon line. Is it not strange?
It also means that in the '50s, Zhou had no problem in granting a real autonomy to the Tibetan people, while in 2006, Hu drags his feet to open serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama on the same line.
Zhou also clarified his position about the border: "What I meant [yesterday] was that people like me never knew about it till recently. The then Chinese government, namely, the warlords in Peking and the KMT [Kuomintang] naturally knew about it."
He added something which appears bizarre 50 years later (when the question of recognition of the Line is still pending): "although this Line was never recognised by us, still apparently there was a secret pact between Britain and Tibet and it was announced at the time of the Simla Conference. And now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it. But we have not consulted Tibet so far."
Zhou had conveniently forgotten that in 1914 at the Simla Conference the Chinese Plenipotentiary participated for several months in the discussions on the 'secret pact'. He even initialed the convention (though it was later not ratified by the Nationalist government).
Regarding the recognition of the McMahon Line, Zhou Enlai conveniently put it on the Tibetans who: "wanted us to reject this Line; but we told them that the question should be temporarily put aside. I believe immediately after India's Independence, the Tibetan government had also written to the government of India about this matter. But now we think that we should try to persuade and convince Tibetans to accept it..."
Tragically Nehru did not take this golden opportunity to forcefully denounce the Chinese intrusions across the Indian border. Instead, he preferred to remain rather vague: "The border is a high mountain border and sparsely populated. Apart from the major question, there are also small questions about two miles here and two miles there. But if we agree on some principle, namely, the principle of previous normal practice or the principle of watershed, we can also settle these other small points."
Once again these important points were considered 'small' or 'petty' issues.
A few days later, the Indian Prime Minister wrote to the Foreign Secretary: "Although [Zhou] thought that this line, established by British imperialists, was not fair, nevertheless, because it was an accomplished fact and because of the friendly relations which existed between China and the countries concerned, namely, the Chinese government were of the opinion that they should give recognition to this McMahon Line."
Will the present Government in Delhi follow the same ostrich policy as Nehru's and pretend that there is no problem between friends? Or will they have the courage to put all ticklish issues on the table? If they don't they may have to wait another 50 years to see a true friendship with China.