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Diplomats' Reminiscences



A Talk at IGNCA   

K. P. S. Menon


Mr. Chairman, Mr. Joshi, Prof. Tan Chung, our guest from the Chinese Embassy, distinguished participants.

I thank Mr. Joshi and Prof. Tan Chung for the very generous words of welcome and for the guidance that both of you have given us. In fact, I think Prof. Tan Chung’s guidance has been rather more accurate and perhaps damaging than we had expected because he described diplomacy, in my view, quite rightly, as a tension-generating activity. We like to think otherwise but it would be an interesting study to see which way diplomacy has gone. This was in fact the other cat that he let out of the bag. However, before I came here, at short notice - that is entirely my fault, because I was travelling about - I had a letter which laid down for me two directives. One was that I was to avoid controversial political subjects, quite rightly in this forum which is well above such mundane things; the second, that I was really to talk from personal memories, reminiscences, as it were, anecdotes, etc. I was happy about that because I had written an article of some length for the Indian Horizon, which I find printed here in the folder, and so I immediately told Prof. Tan Chung, well, there’s my article, there is nothing I can add now, shall we get going. But I am afraid, he would not permit that, So, I have to speak, but not to repeat what I have already written.

When I went to China, Rajiv Gandhi had been Prime Minister for only a few months. When I called upon him he looked up with his charming smile and said, What worries you?” I said, “Nothing really, but it seems to me that the official talks have run into dry sands. I don’t see any progress coming from them and if you want to make some progress, then we have to think of something else,” He replied immediately, “It has been my view that even when we leave the border alone, we try to go ahead in other fields, We should try to make progress with China in other directions.

As the Foriegn Secretary, Mr. Salman Haidar, said jus, now, this approach was perhaps already introduced in a sense during Mrs. Gandhi’s time. What Rajiv had said was an advice dear to my heart. I took it as authorised government policy and felt that I could proceed accordingly in China. I do not remember any time raising the border issue in a substantive, comprehensive way in my talks in China. The reason was that I knew the immediate response would be “What have you got to suggest, what have you got lo propose?” And I really did have nothing to propose for a settlement at that time. To the best of my memory, too, no Chinese leader raised it either, in a comprehensive way. Ofcourse, as soon as I reached China and attended the welcoming banquet, one of the Chinese leaders referred in his speach to that old analogy of an eagle from a high point taking a comprehensive view. The implication of that was obvious, but otherwise there was no further discussion, Regrettably, though, the border came in indirectly on several occasions when I had to take up with the Chinese objections to what we thought were their transgressions of the border. I had to do this more than I liked on instructions from Delhi. I felt the Chinese also found it rather irksome that I was taking up sometimes seemingly pettifogging points. But I remember particularly a long talk when the Chinese Director-General spoke at greater length than he normally did, in the course of which he said, ‘Your border management is better than ours.” The phrase was slipped in almost as if in passing and then he went on to other topics. I was glad that I grasped at the time that was really the key phrase in his exposition, judging by the events which followed a few months later. I also thought it important to cultivate the several institutions on international affairs that existed in China and, I must say, I developed a- healthy respect for them.

Today we in India have certainly excellent institutions, institutions like the IGNCA. IIC and others. But I thought at the time that the Chinese institutions were very good, very thorough, and they knew what they were talking about. I did find that they, like the Government, always spoke with one voice, somewhat contrary to our own traditions where everyone has his/her own opinion and is only too happy to express it. It was in fact from one of the Chinese institutions that I first heard the suggestion which was pressed upon me, that Rajiv Gandhi should visit China. To the best of my recollection, again, I do cot remember it being suggested by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

When I asked why they wanted Rajiv to visit, the answer was that leaders were meeting all over the world and there was no reason why the Indian and Chinese leaders should shy away from each other. When I said that a visit without concrete results might be worse than no visit at all, the answer I got was that one should not be so pessimistic about this sort of thing. There would be a change, a change in atmosphere that one can see, and the visit should take place. Subsequently I think that the Chinese assessment has proved right, judging from Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China. One of the decisions of that visit was to continue with the working group officials, but it was a different sort of meeting. It was regarded as officials working jointly together rather than as two separate teams, sometimes almost taking up antagonistic positions. During his visit to China, Rajiv Gandhi suggested not only official meetings of that sort but he also suggested that a second tier be created at the ministerial level to hold consultations between the two countries before the issue could mature for final decisions. This, the Chinese were not too keen on. They felt the official level meetings followed by decisions at ministerial level were sufficient. We now see that certain decisions taken at the ministerial meetings on trade and other matters quite helped improve relations.

Besides calling on the Government and the institutions in China, I travelled as widely as I possibly could, not only in pursuit of official duties but also in order to try to see something of that vast land and to gain an insight into her ways and thinking. One’s interest in history is often prompted by little incidents. Mine in China had been greatly prompted by readings that I had come across when I was very much younger - things like the Xian Incident when Chiang Kai-shek escaped through the window. These may be trivial incidents, but they created an interest in me. During my travels I had the fascination of seeing the very window through which Chiang Kai-shek had escaped, leaving behind only his concubine (I was told about this by the guide when I visited the site) and his false teeth. Of course, there were many other great episodes of history, the room in Shanghai where 13 persons first formed the Chinese Communist Party, the cemetery of Madam Soong Qingling. I remember also seeing the car, in Chongqing, which had been used by Zhou Enlai during the talks between the communists and Kuomintang being mediated by the US envoy General Marshal.

I happened to be in the war capital several years earlier too, and I remember a young member of the communist delegation coming to our mission and looking at the pamphlets on India strewn on the table. He stood there reading them. He must have known English because he looked at them for a long time and then asked whether he could borrow them. We were very happy to let him have them. I do not know whether the Kuomintang suspected the Indian Mission of being in league with the communists!

Besides this, there was the feel of China. I remember on a trip, after going through a comparatively prosperous area, my wife and I found ourselves in a rural setting. The distant twilight shone upon two buffaloes in a field with a man following them and they were the only creatures in that vastness, providing an atmosphere of pastoral peace. I stopped the car to take a photograph of the scene. The guide looked amazed and he asked my wife: Why! Haven’t you got any buffaloes in India?”

It was also when I was in China that the economic liberalisation had just about begun. What was meant by this economic liberalization? There was fervid speculation in the diplomatic corps some holding the view that economic latitude would in due course bring about political upheaval. I asked the leader, HU Qili, whether he was afraid of other effects coming in. He then gave me a reply which has since become well used. He said, "If you want fresh air in a room you open the window. With the fresh air you get also insects but you can’t do without tine fresh air. You will have to get rid of the insects separately.” It seems to me that this is what China is doing, because the Chinese people have chown their ingenuity in making use of the changed atmosphere.

It was often emphasized to us that the new motto for China was to get rich quickly. That did seem to happen to a certain extent, and I sensed some excitement in the countryside. I was greatly impressed by the places I toured through, where every house seemed to have a television set as the antennae indicated. In the countryside people told me that they all had, or would have very soon, washing machines, apart from television, and as they now had motor-bikes, they would soul have cars. Apart from the personal interest of travelling, of seeing something of China, there was of course the old Indian factor -the places so famous in China’s cultural history, Luoyang, Guangzhou, Xian. To this very distinguished assemblage, I need not dwell upon them, but I did come across a statement in a work by a Chinese scholar recently that was unknown to me. The scholar pointed out the great cultural effect and the enhancement of cultural life because of the introduction of Buddhist ritual, Buddhist teaching, Buddhist votaries and so on. But at the same time there were other side effects. For instance, merchants had started dressing in silk and an edict was passed at one time that no merchant should wear silk any more, because it was thought that they were becoming too arrogant and vulgarly ostentatious. Again, some monasteries became extraordinarily rich and began to meddle in politics. Another Chinese scholar has said something which perhaps has occurred to all of us but I was glad to get it from him. While he felt that India gave more to China spiritually, China gave more to India in a material sense.

Of course as an example of this the famous fishing nets of my own part of the country, Kerala, are often quoted. Then the shape and roofs of our Kerala houses. The roof is made in China for the dragon to be entwined in it. There is also in Kerala, “Chinabharani”, which is a large earthenware vessel for storage. The name suggests that it was introduced from China. The people of Kerala have adopted it as a container of their daily life. I also recollect another observation, perhaps by a Western scholar which I find of great interest. He compared the different attitudes of the Westerners and the Chinese who visited South India in the early years of interchange. When the Portuguese came, they committed horrible atrocities. They had native pilots nailed to the masts of Portuguese ships and so on. They also sexually abused women in Madras. When the Chinese ships came

to Indian ports, there was no such atrocity, while Indians and Chinese treated each other as equals,

I had the privilege of seeing something of China in 1944.45 and again in 1946-47. Later, after a long gap, I went to China as India’s Ambassador in 1987. I often had the opportunity of seeing China change rapidly.

China’s poverty in 1943 was a byword. It was the most horrendous poverty that you can see anywhere. Yet I remember being amazed of how even at that time, in the midst of poverty and war the Chinese could enjoy themselves. The restaurants were always full. People were laughing, and they gambled merrily. In 1987 it was a totally different China I went to. I didn’t see any of that poverty. I was told that the poorest people were the boat people. But I sailed on the Yangtze between Chongqing and Wuhan and I didn’t see any great poverty along the river. Maybe their clothing didn’t look as bright as elsewhere, but certainly there was not the acute deprivation of poverty that still exists in parts of India. I think many foreigners would like to believe that China’s poverty is to be found in her closed cities. There were many closed cities when I went to China in 1987, which were barred lo foreigners. But I must say that the number was very greatly reduced in the two years that I was there as Indian Ambassador. I also met two foreigners who had happened to have entered some of these closed cities and they told me that they had not seen any great difference between these closed cities and the China we were allowed into. Why, then, was China so sensitive about foreigners seeing her freely? I don’t know; and I think it only tends to give a wrong impression of something being hidden.

I was lucky that I went to China from Japan, because you cannot imagine two societies of greater contrast. I was told in Japan by a foreign ambassador that if I was going to relate a joke I should precede it with a remark, “Now I am going to tell you a joke”! But nothing of the sort was required in China. Chinese reactions seemed so much like ours. They would cry, laugh at the same things. But, of course, there are also differences. I am sorry, Vasant Paranjpe, who has written fascinatingly about China, is not here. I would have liked to hear more from him. I agree entirely with him that the Chinese are more pragmatic than we are. Once they make up their minds they plunge into action. I think we are far more concerned about the next world. For the Chinese, present mirth hath present laughter, enjoy yourself when you can. Is it not Confucius who said, “You know precious little about this world, why bother about the next?” That is totally unlike our attitude. At the same time, I think we are not preoccupied with death, like for instance, Egypt of the Pharoahs. The construction of mausoleums and pyramids is so much concerned with death, providing the dead with the comforts they are accustomed to in life. T6is sort of preoccupation is not with us Indians.

What is our object in life? Even for a diplomat it is self-realization. This, it seems to me: doesn’t bother the Chinese at all. But with all their pragmatism in getting things done, some strange incidents sometimes occur. I have referred to the closed cities, One of my officers went with a group of foreigners to visit an open area. To get to it they had to pass through a closed area, They were stopped. They were told it was closed. The foreigners said they had to pass through to get to the area which was open. The Chinese said they could go to the open area, but not pass through the closed area. The foreigners asked how they could reach the one without going through the other. It was a catch 22 situation and the argument went back and forth. Finally they did get across, I was amazed at this incident, coming from the very practical Chinese.

I found the new China determined, decisive, purposeful. It knew which way it wanted to go. It was so different from the China of 1949. It was working actively for China’s entry into the information technological society of the 21st century. In our own way, perhaps, we are making similar efforts. But in that endeavor, I sometimes wonder what will happen to the Chinese character, the Chinese who is so familiar to us. There was a great similarity between the Chinese and the Indian, both with a great feeling of humanity, of community. To use an arresting phrase from a Greek writer, “China moves with the rhythm of things.” I think that is also very true of India. But in our modem society, we are forcing the rhythm of things. I think the natural rhythm of things is getting quite ignored. That old idea of leisure, a certain way to live and let live, I do not know to what extent all this is being affected. I remember a Danish boy who had been in college with me, staying with me in Delhi in the early 50’s. He came back home one day from India Gate, fascinated about seeing so many people just sitting around in the evening and chatting. This, he said, would never happen in his country. In Beijing also, when I went out on a warm evening, walking around the streets, it seemed a kind of benediction to see people enjoying the cod of the evening, all at peace, all at leisure, people sitting on the pavements getting their household chores done. Will this last in the new information technological society? I also remember a Japanese, who was once at Shantiniketan, asking me to keep a room for her in my flat when the time comes for her to die. I asked why. “Because”, she said, “I want to die in the peaceful environment of India”. I thought she was joking, but it turned out that she was entirely earnest, and she has since repeated this request in writing. Will all such things last in this new aggressive technological society? I do hope India and China cooperate more in economic, cultural and perhaps in political matters but I thank also that it is the sociological effect of technological progress that is going to be of critical importance.

I think it most worthwhile that India and China pursue their studies together, and compare their individual studies, on what it means to be a developing society in transition to a technological age. Already, there is some rethinking in China about the one-child norm. They believe it might be making for a society of selfish and self-centered people. What about the citizens of the new technological society? Today you go to a modern bank, press a button, get your money, credit money, you don’t need to meet a single soul to do any of these things. In contrast, in my good old-fashioned Indian bank, I sit with the manager, sip a cup of tea, the statement of account comes, it has a mistake, it takes another fifteen minutes to correct, but it is an enjoyable experience. All that is changing and is going to vanish. And what will this mean? Are we not evolving into a dehumanized society? I am sorry to dwell so much on this, but I think it is of extreme importance to countries like India and China with their age-old cultures of humanity and it is here I ardently wish that we can cooperate in our studies and get our scholars together on it.

Returning to my “achievements” in China, as Foreign Secretary Haidar implied, I don’t think I achieved anything very much. Of course, I tried to get trade going, talked about coal, steel, etc. I am sure my predecessors had also worked in that direction. I cannot claim that I achieved anything spectacular. But I was happy when the Chinese proposed that we should have meetings of delegations before a UN Session to see what common positions we could take. That I thought was a significant step forward. I do not know whether that had happened earlier, but it happened in my second year in China. They also suggested the visit of a team from India to advise them on auditing. I said, You don’t know what you are letting yourselves in fort” But they insisted on it and the audit team went along. They also asked for a team to advise them on running a civil service, and they repeated this when I was Foreign Secretary in Delhi. I expressed surprise: "After all, the recruitment of a civil service by open competitive examination originated in China, it is you who should teach us. “But they said, That might be, but we have forgotten!” I think they would have been happier if they had forgotten much about auditing and such like things. However, I should hot take any more of your time. I am grateful and thank you, Prof. Tan Chung, for your welcome and guidance.



Dr. Abid Husain [in the chair)


I think there are three-four very important points which we should consider. He started with a period when it looked that talks were running into dry sand and then by the time he was leaving certain greener paths became evident, and we have got to see the role of the institutions which played outside the Government in China and a lack of similar institutes in India, which, if developed at that time, could have, perhaps, brought our thinking much closer to each other. The role of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi as mentioned by K.P.S. Menon really opens the door for the solution of problems.

K.P.S. Menon mentioned about the Chinese feeling that border management of India was far better than theirs. I think this is an area we might probe more. The second point is about liberalization. The process had just begun at that time. The doors and the windows were open and the insects and the fresh air both started coming in, and we’have got to see how it developed because he told us about an era when motorbikes had started coming in, the television was being seen, the washing machines were working. On trade, he said a beginning had been made without much progress. I am happy that AR Venketeswaran is here because by that time a delegation was sent and we were to sign the first agreement at that time but nothing spectacular has happened in that particular point of time. One more area, i.e., the area of professional merit where they started seeking help from India, and I think you did very welt in dissuading the Indian auditors gdng there, because when I was in Fiji, a similar thought occurred to the Fijians. They were advised by some auditors in India and they started taking taxes to slop the rich from becoming richer, When I reached Fiji, the President and Prime Minister said, “Mr. Hussain, do something. We called an Indian expert and he has put us in the soup, what do we do?” I said, “If the auditor was from North India, call another one from the South and it will be corrected”. One very important point of K.P.S is the rhythm of things. Now he has compared China, Japan and India, in a sweep just in details, and he says there is a certain commonality between China and India and he describes it as a rhythm of things. Now can we catch that rhythm and get into the swing, when we are approaching the 21st century? Recently I have come back from China and they have repeatedly talked about going back to the glorious years of the 50’s. To this I always responded, “Do you want us to advance towards the 50’s or do you want to go back towards the 50’s.” I couldn’t get an answer. The psychological contrast between India and China that K.P.S. talked about comparing it with Japan, earmarks also the harmony between us, the sharing of a common vision of a good society, that is a good point he made.


Chari: Mr. K.P.S.. I was very intrigued by the advice that Rajiv Gandhi gave to you before you left for China, and as I understood, his advice was that the border question was to be kept aside, and Sine Indian relations were to be improved in several other directions, do you think that border dispute can be really kept out of consideration and what were the thoughts in the Government of India at that time or when Venkateswaran was there at that time about how they should proceed with the border dispute, just keep it aside for all time or do we have a brief in this regard, do we have any ideas how it should be approached?


K.P.S. Menon: “Kept Aside” in a certain sense. He didn’t mean just forget it, because he did say that the border issue should be tackled. He meant let the official talks continue, even if they are not leading to results today, continue with what you can do on the border but don’t let it stop progress in other fields. At one time, the Government of India’s attitude was that nothing could be done till the border issue was finally settled. I would guess that Government would have liked to see an equitable solution on the border. But at that time, that is, when I saw Rajiv Gandhi before leaving for China, Government had not had the opportunity to consider it in depth. Not only Government, but also Parliament. I cannot say that it was a Government decision to put it aside and certainly not for ever. But the first steps in the attitude was being taken by Indira Gandhi and, later mom firmly, by Rajiv Gandhi, i.e., let us see what we can do with China even while the border issue is kept pending.


Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea: The Chinese thought that we had a better border management system than they had, I am intrigued. Some 4-5 years prior to this the Chinese were talking about a border management system even with Mongolia and other territorial neighbours. So what is it they mean by border management?


K.P.S. Menon: He did not use the word “system” at all. He said, “Your border management is better than ours,” I think the meaning of ours is clear within the context in which he said it. We were talking more seriously than usual about what we regarded as violations of the border by the Chinese and he was responding with accusations of violations by OS. And I think he was making the point “You are able to violate the border more easily than we are able to.”


Mlra Sinha: Quite different to what I thought. I wanted to ask about China-Pak relations, the two countries of totally different systems, the Pakistan system being anti-communist, and the Communist Party being banned for so long, with very little to hold together and we in this country presume that what brings them together is really an anti-Indian attitude. What is your sense of China-Pak relations.


K.P.S. Menon: When you say they are totally different, I think this frankly does not matter a damn to the Chinese. I think they are very pragmatic and a very practical people, making good relations wherever they can. Besides bettering their relationship with Pakistan also having an economic aspect, it gives rise to suspicion in public opinion in India that they are fundamentally anti-Indian: Why should they help the country which is hostile to India? This is a very difficult question to answer. Is China just improving her relations where she can, or is it that the Chinese are very practical? There are two schools of thought on this. One thinks that it is essentially anti-Indian. This formulation makes it more difficult for us to improve relations with China. The other thinks that it is just China is doing what it thinks is the right thing in international relations, not necessarily directed against India. One can argue it both ways. I can argue that if it is anti-Indian why have the Chinese advised our neighbours to improve relations with India or why did they call off aid to dissenting movements in our border areas etc.

Ram Subramaniam: Sir, I can only rely on newspaper reports. I am not privileged to information which is very secret. Yesterday Mr. Madhavan has written in the Pioneer that on the issue of Chinese missiles in Tibet, we never raised it with the Chinese, in the Times Of lndia report of 1988 when Rajiv Gandhi was going to China, it was reported that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was quoted as saying “Why do we talk about these missiles in Tibet, there are no missiles.” could you kindly clarify?

K.P.S. Menon: To the best of my knowledge it was not raised as an issue that there were Chinese missiles in Tibet targeting India. But I cannot give that as a final reply because I would think that if, Rajiv Gandhi raised it, he would have done so only in a one-to-one talk.

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