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Diplomats' Reminiscences



A. K. Damodaran


I am merely going to have a straight forward frank indulgence in nostalgia along memory lane. Thirty years ago, I and Kishan Rana who shared with my China experience on his first posting there. The difference between me and the others who spoke I the morning was that I was at the worm’s eye level not at the birds eye level, and I was at the functioning level in the embassy. It was a fascinating period and before I begin with the most eloquent testimony to the presence of the Chinese material in the Indian spirit is in Kalidasa’s “Sakuntala”. Please remember that beautiful line in “Sakuntala” when Dushyanta goes away after meeting Sakuntala for the first time and then he says: ‘the body goes in front but the mind goes backwards like the ‘Chinbhatambra’". He was depicting the Chinese silk, fluttering in the breeze. It is important for us to recognize this reality, not mere sentimentalism. It’s a fact and this is what Nehru meant when he went on repeating these things. Please remember that six weeks after the India-China conflict, in December 1962, Jawaharlal spoke at the convocation of Visva-bharati about Chin in the same passionately affectionate manner, he did not allow temporary difficulties to affect this picture of China.

My stay in Beijing between 1963-65 was a fascinating period. Our troubles had just been over, and by the time we le China, she herself had begun her Great Cultural Revolution. It was from the point of political analysis and diplomatic study, I retrospect, an extremely fascinating period. The interesting thing was the diplomatic corps in Beijing had about 13 missions, an out of these 13 missions, 15 or 20 young men like Kishan Rana, were extremely charming people who also knew Chinese. remember Krishan, who was the first in our Embassy who thought the change in the tone about the inheritors of the revolution Late 1963 and early 1964 in our actual daily life there was not the slightest reflection, in our relations with ordinary people into whom political problems had not penetrated. The word, “India”, was a known word in Chinese history ‘western land”, they did not know much about Pakistan. This small diplomatic corps was very much concerned about the biggest change that was happening at that time, and that had nothing to do with India -the Sino-Soviet dispute. It was coming up and so we had this fascinating experience of watching China through Soviet eyes, through Romanian eyes. This made us extremely sensitive I things that were happening. The type of interactions which we noticed between the great Chinese leaders from the distance was very great, Zhou Enlai was comfortable in his countenance, Mao was a recluse and Liu Shaoqi was a very shy person. These differences made our diplomatic work extremely interesting. This had a dramatic consequence 16 months later, in May or Jun 1965, suddenly in the papers there was news of the swimming episode in which both Chairman Mao and Chairman Liu ha participated in the Shisanling (Ming Tomb) reservoir. This story came 6 months after the National People’s Congress (NPC) which had registered the period of readjustment of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping and which had really put Mao’s position in the bad We reported to Delhi and we were convinced that this was something of great importance, of course the story was project probably by Liu Shaoqi’s side.

The Chinese are a very hospitable people. Their wonderful diplomatic tours, every embassy send two people, and their were about 60 people in the group which was usually led by a worthy person no less than the Foreign Minister Marshal Che Yi and Madame Chen Yi. The first trip was to Nanjing. Hangzhou etc. and all the beautiful places. The discussions we had with the Chinese during that time had nothing of our bilateral political problems, unhappy thoughts were not allowed to intervene in our conversation. It was a very important way of interaction. The second trip was to Changsha and Mao’s birth place Shaoshan. Then we went to Guangdong. the place where the second (economic) revolution was going to flower exuberantly i.e., prosperity backed by the investment from the overseas Chinese.

In our excitement, we overromanticized the Chinese situation. I remember my first report to Delhi, in December, 1963. I got excited. It was Mao’s birthday and I wrote in the report: ‘Mao is Lenin gifted with longevity”, I did not realize that within two years the Mao fraternity in the Chinese leadership will splinter into many parts. I thought the solidarity was permanent since the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949, a phenomenon so happily demonstrated in China. One political memory. In 1995 October/November before I was leaving, thought I should take a final tour in China, I first went to Wuxi and Suzhou and then went back to Beijing via Shanghai. In Shanghai the Chinese guide asked me what I would like to see. I said I would like to see a play based on Lin Biao’s great victory at Pingxingguan in North China in 1937 against the invading Japanese army. One day later, Lin Biao’s voice was blared out from the radio again and again. That was the great Occasion of another “people’s war”, the beginning of another great chapter in Chinese history - the Great Cultural Revolution. Such an exciting place of politically sensitive people cannot be duplicated in any other part of the world.

I will end on a mildly optimistic political note. We have talked about the problems remaining between India and China - the border dispute. I have watched the India-China relations from near and from afar, from all over the world. The fact that this troubled border between the two countries had only three incidents in thirty years suggests that this is one of the quieter borders in the world. Secondly, although India-China bilateral obsession is very interesting but the world is not interested. All the books about Chinese foreign policy written by Americans do not count the India-China border dispute at all. Thirdly, at no point, during the 1960s or during the 1970s either China or India played the zerosum game on non-bilateral problems. At the global level, throughout this period we were on the side of the havenots in their struggle with the haves. After the Chinese became member of the United Nations India and China cooperated well in the UN despite of earlier expectations or speculations about some frictions and troubles. Why? Unobtrusively, with no fuss made about it, these positive things should be noted at this point, the resumption of diplomatic relations since 1976 and the visit of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 were merely representing the expression of the general feeling of an absence of crisis, whatever our seminarists and professional commentators might like to say.

I personally would not hurry, the famous formula of 1961 July when R.K. Nehru and Zhang Wenjin has evolved in their talks that, “Either solve the problem immediately by official talks or leave it to the politicians to discuss, if that is not enough, leave it to the shelf and let destiny decide”. That I think is a sort of attitude which we can take, we are two large nations, made not to worry about one momentary episode in our long histories.

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

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher. 

Published in 1998 by 

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New Delhi - 110 002.