Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was one of the greatest sons our mother India has produced in the modern era. His contribution to India’s freedom struggle is well documented. His most notable service to independent India was assimilation of the princely states, which gives us the Union of India as we know her. He was a man of principles. He was a realist. His mind was not on sentimental drama. He understood what India needed, which was governance. His priority was governance. He was rightly known as “Iron Man of India”, and his death in December 1950 was an incalculable loss to India. What is often less understood is that with his demise, the Tibetan people also lost a true friend, in their most trying times.
I am deeply indebted to Shri Claude Arpi and his path-breaking book ‘Born in Sin: The Panchsheel agreement – the sacrifice of Tibet’. I am also indebted to http://www.friendsoftibet.org. I will quote extensively from these sources.
When the Chinese communists were rapidly occupying Tibet in 1950, Indian government of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, guided by India’s ambassador to China, K M Panikkar, had demonstrated sad confusion and policy paralysis. As a result, Tibet was lost to imperialist machination of communist China, resulting into the gory plunder of Tibet that continues even today. This also enabled the communist China to directly threaten India. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s was one of the very few voices of reasons within the Indian government at that time, and Sardar Patel unequivocally opposed the Nehru governments indecisions. History proves how right he was.
Sardar Patel had written a detailed letter on the 7th November 1950, to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, where he had deplored Indian ambassador K M Panikkar’s actions, and had also clearly warned about dangers from China. His words were prophetic. The words within quotes are produced from this letter ad verbatim.
He was clear that “The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention”.
He had no doubt that when China was corresponding to the Indian government through the ambassador Panikkar, “the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet”.
He considered the Chinese action of invading Tibet “little short of perfidy”.
He felt really sad with the way the Indian government had let the Tibetan people down – “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”.
He had noticed the effort on part of India to justify the Chinese actions – a trend, sadly, continuing even today – “Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions”.
His foresightedness had enabled him to call the bluff of the Nehru governments pet theme of eternal friendship with China – “even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends”.
He clearly saw danger ahead, with China’s sharp and rude response to India’s mild protest when the Chinese PLA entered Tibet – “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.”
He had foreseen the dangerous portends for India with disappearance of Tibet as an independent nation between India and an expansionist communist China – “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”.
Sardar Patel had clearly sensed that the communist China will soon tear the 1914 Simla convention which had clearly laid out Tibet’s independent status and India’s special relationship with Tibet. “We can, therefore, safely assume that very soon they will disown all the stipulations which Tibet has entered into with us in the past”.
Sardar Patel’s earthy wisdom had enabled him to see that communism is imperialism, just in another name – “the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other”.
The sagacious Sardar Patel was able to foresee the massive security preparedness India had to undertake, which, sadly, Nehru government had neglected so shamefully – “for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously”.
The redoubtable home and deputy prime minister of India, Sardar Patel had also seen how the Indian communists would be able to easily collaborate with the Chinese communists and trump up trouble in India – “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”.
This wise patriot had provided specific measures that had to be undertaken by the Indian government, to counter the Chinese threat, and possibly retrieve the situation in Tibet. Pandit Nehru’s government had shamelessly ignored this wise advise. “a) A military and intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India both on the frontier and to internal security. b) 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. c) An appraisement of the strength of our forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of our retrenchment plans for the Army in the light of the new threat. d) A long-term consideration of our defence needs. My own feeling is that, unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we would be making our defence 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.”.
On the 15th of December, 1950, Sardar Patel had passed away, and there wasn’t anymore anyone with his stature, to continuously push the Indian government for implementing the above measures. India had paid the price in October and November of 1962, in the icy heights of Arunachal Pradesh and desolate plateau of Ldakah. Tibet continues to pay the price even today.
It is hoped that the future Indian governments will pay heed to governance and statecraft, as the late Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel did, and formulate a principled and pragmatic Tibet policy.