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Diplomats' Reminiscences



A. K. Damodaran


It was during an unusually interesting period not only in the history of India-Chin relations but also of China’s interaction with the rest of the world that I happened to be posted in Beijing. I reached there in August 1963 almost a year after the border conflict and left in November 1965 after the very first premonition of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. India had been extremely careful in not breaking up diplomatic relations after what we thought to be the betrayal of 1962. The Chinese were also happy to carry on with a modest but, by no means, unimpressive presence in the Indian capital. There were no Ambassadors and the two missions were headed by Counsellors acting as Charge d'Affairs. At a time when China had de jure relations only with some socialist and Afro-Asian countries, the Indian Mission was an important one. The specific conditions in Beijing made the normal diplomatic duties of observation, monitoring and reporting a little more demanding than in normal capitals. The diplomats formed a fairly small closed seminar of sorts exchanging views, conclusions and speculations with a certain amount of exuberance. The Indian Embassy was also free of the normal protocol duties of looking after visitors and arranging the itineraries of official guests. This made the task of political analysis much more exciting than in any other capital I have served, not excluding Moscow. We spent a lot of time in talking to each other and comparing notes of our problems with the Chinese. It was a very limited and unusually serious group of people. It had many young diplomats who would distinguish themselves in their careers later on. One of the Third Secretaries in the British Office (there was no British Embassy, only an office, since there was no full recognition), David Wilson, later on became the Editor of China Quarterly and also the Governor of Hong Kong. Most of the Russian diplomats went back to very high levels in the Soviet Foreign Office.

Our relations with the Chinese Foreign Office, Waijiaobu, were extremely tense because of the almost continuous series of “incidents” which affected our relations: but they were always very polite. Both the Chinese and the Indians are reasonably civilized people and would not permit the private feelings of the negotiators to affect the negotiationsThe diplomatic protocol was scrupulously observed when we called on the Foreign Office on business. The protest letters were read out in a serious solemn voice and frigid exchanges were made. At the end of it all, there was the inevitable cup of delicious Chinese tea. Then we relaxed for a few minutes and discussed the weather and other things. There was only one occasion when there was a breach of this genteel convention. In September 1965, when the Indo-Pakistan War had broken out, the Chinese gave us a rather well-known “ultimatum” accusing us of straying across the Nathu La border between Sikkim and Tibet with 365 sheep. Other "gross” violations of the border were also mentioned like the building of bunkers. Jagat Mehta, the Head of the Indian Mission, said he would like to discuss the problem after the Chinese diplomat had finished reading out his statement. The Chinese official told us that there was no time to waste. The message should be telegraphed to India immediately. Or, else...

That was the only occasion when we did not have our obligatory cup of tea. We used to exchange notes with great enthusiasm those days, notes about land and air violations on the border. All these protest notes have been printed in the White Papers and they seem a little trivial now compared with the major developments which were happening in the relations of China with the world outside of which we were beginning to be aware. The Vietnam conflict was beginning and the great AfroAsian diplomatic crusade of Zhou Enlai was initiated at the end of 1963. The Afro-Asian idea had caught the imagination of the Chinese as a possible alternative to Non-alignment. Behind all this, slowly inevitably, the fuse was burning in the Sino-Soviet dispute which had come out into the open well before the end of 1963. China’s relations with Pakistan were warm as also was her special equation with Sukarno’s Indonesia. Burma was happy to be friendly with her difficult neighbour.

In India-China relations, it was a period of mild inactivity after the diplomatic excitements of third-party negotiations initiated by the Colombo Powers. The Chinese gave us some indications about this time of their willingness to improve the relations marginally without any commitments about the substantive issues in the conflict. The war prisoners had returned home: a few Chinese expatriates had gone back to China, all in 1963. There were really no serious problems on the border itself even though peace continued to be fragile. However, there was eyeball to eyeball confrontation and there were also small incidents, mercifully without casualties, across the undemarcated border. Considering the fact that a major war had taken place ally a few months earlier, it was a stable enough situation. That stability was shown by the manner in which the Chinese indicated to us their willingness to return to something of the status quo ante not on the border, but in the general, wider, relationship, about the end of 1953. This is an interesting enough diplomatic episode to recall at this distant time.

Our Charge d’Affairs, P.K. Banerjee, was due to leave Beijing. He had been incharge throughout the border conflict and later, and had a special personal rapport with many senior members of the Chinese hierarchy. However, it was something of a surprise to us when we were told that the Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, would himself receive him for a farewell call. I was one of the officers who accompanied the head of the mission. It was a memorable occasion by any standard. Zhou Enlai had a lengthy conversation with Banejee and repeatedly expressed his hope that the present uncomfortable period would be over soon. He was at his delightful best. One thing he said has stayed with me all these years as an example of what might have been if the domestic situation in China and the Sino-Soviet relationship had not changed totally during the next two years making it necessary for Beijing to put India-China relations on the bade burner. Zhou Enlai told us that as Prime Minister he had to read and scrutinize every single bit of diplomatic correspondence between the two countries. “Can’t we stop this war of words”? he said. He went on to talk generally on the relations between the two countries but was careful enough to avoid all the details of the border dispute. It was a very important signal. This request at the highest level was followed up a few weeks later when the new Charge d’Affairs, Jagat Mehta, arrived in Beijing. In an unusually warm gesture reminiscent of earlier days, he was invited for a special dinner by the Director of the Asian Division of the Foreign Office, Zhang Wenjin. It was a happy coincidence that the host and the chief guest had an earlier association. They had prepared the officials’ report on the border together. Zhang Wenjin seemed to be anxious to repeat Zhou Enlai’s signals at his own level. We were all happy and mildly optimistic.

But things went wrong during the next few months. The Sine-Soviet dispute and the India-China alienation intersected in our sponsorship of the Soviet Union as a member of the proposed Second Afro-Asian Conference. This was in April 1964. A few weeks later came Prime Minister Nehru’s last, sensible offer to clarify a point of contention in the Western Sector. In Bombay, during the third week of May, he suggested that instead of the two sides nagging each other about the number of posts in the disputed region, a sensible solution would be to have no posts at all. China’s response was unpleasantly quick and negative. Within a few days Nehru passed away. The Afro-Asian idea also vanished from history without a trace inspite of China’s anxious campaign in several capitals. The Sine-Soviet dispute and the Vietnam War entered the centre of the stage effectively preventing an earlier solution of subsidiary problems.

Panditji’s death on May 27, 1964 provided yet another occasion for the exercise of Thou Enlai’s charm. As is the practice on these occasions, we had arranged a condolence book in the Embassy, to be signed by local dignitaries and diplomats. All the foreign diplomats had come and gone but there was still no sign of the Chinese. Towards the end of the second day, just before the time was due to end, we received a message from the Foreign Office that an important visitor would be coming. It was Zhou Enlai accompanied by senior Foreign Office officials. After signing the condolence register he stayed bad to talk to us for about ten minutes about his long and extremely eventful association with Jawaharlal Nehru. There was not the slightest hint of acrimony. It was a very graceful gesture. He could have left it to a comparatively junior official to carry out the minimum protocol obligations. But he had a remarkable capacity for being nice and generous.

The other memories I have of Zhou Enlai in those years is his unique personality as distinct from that of his colleagues. He had an easy relationship with large crowds very much like Nehru’s. Whenever a foreign delegation came to Beijing, there was a ceremony at the airport to which a large number of students and other young people had been brought. Before the chief guest got down the plane, the group of Chinese dignitaries, Liu Shaoqi, Chen Yi, the Foreign Minister, and some times Zhu De and other senior ministers would move towards the tarmac. Zhou Enlai would suddenly get away from his companions and go to the crowd who would be excited at being greeted by him. Only Zhou Enlai could get away with this sort of behaviour on any Occasion, I remember how two years later, when the Cultural Revolution was celebrated by a huge rally in Beijing attended by Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai, we were shown the official film about the rally in the Chinese Embassy. Here again, while Mao looked tired and distant, and Lin Biao made an unimpressive speech, it was Zhou who was happiest with the crowds.

The Foreign Office was full of Zhou Enlat’s personal recruits. Zhang Wenjin had been his interpreter during the Chongqing years, When we knew him, this polished and handsome diplomat never spoke to us in English. The absolutely rigid rule was to have always the use of the interpreter. Marshall Chen Yi and Zhou Enlai divided the Foreign Office functions between then without any apparent difficulties. During the violence of the Red Guards in 1968, Zhou Enlai protected Chen Yi. From our point of view, an equally important diplomat was Zhang Tong, former Military Attache in India, who was Deputy Director in our time Later on, he became Director when Zhang Wenjin was promoted as Assistant Minister.

In spite of our great difficulties, thus, our official relations continued to be correct and even friendly. During the tours of the provinces of China, arranged for the diplomatic corps by the Foreign Office, the Indians did not have any occasion to fee isolated. I remember going on two of these tours, It was a uniquely Chinese convention. We got an opportunity to visit commune: and also factories. We had occasion to see the Beijing Opera and the shadow plays apart from climbing up tall hills in search of non-functioning monasteries, Each diplomatic tour lasted about ten days and included visits to at least three provinces. The diplomats and their wives were both welcome and the chief hostess was the utterly charming Madame Chen Yi.

Apart from these tours we could, with the friendly assistance and also surveillance of the Chinese authorities, visit some permitted cities of the country on our own. I had a very interesting visit to Shanghai to return the buildings of the former India Consulate General to the Chinese authorities. We got a rather angry note from the Foreign Office saying that the premises of the consulate had not been well maintained. We got the whole thing cleared up very soon with the help of the small India community of Sikhs and their Chinese wives in the city. They were wonderful people - these last remnants of the old India community in the foreign concessions, Most of them belonged to the old police force in the British concession; when the arrangement ended in 1945, some of them decided to stay back and turn their gifts to the dairy industry. They stayed on until the middle sixties when during the Cultural Revolution all of them left for Hong Kong. There was only one rather elderly gentleman, Mr. Das from Calcutta, who was a wholesale merchant in bay leaves. We helped him to sell to the State his remaining stock and return to India via Hong Kong. These are desultory impressions. Looking back 30 years later, what one can recapture mar is the ease and comfort with which we used to go about Beijing in those politically difficult days, The ordinary people of Chin; the merchants, the shopkeepers, the servants, the Chinese staff in the Embassy were not hostile to us inspite of the enormous political resentment on both sides. India meant to most of them a distant but friendly western country and Indians were new made to feel unwelcome. This is the reason why so many of us, who were posted in Beijing, look back to our days there wit nostalgia.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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