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Diplomats' Reminiscences



IN THE  1960S AND 1970S

K. S. Rana


I went to China on my first substantive Foreign Service assignment in July 1963, well before I completed the 2-year Chinese language programme at Hong Kong University. I packed off from the relative comfort of a familiar academic environment, thanks to an on-the-spot decision by Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai. A couple of months earlier, while transiting through Hong Kong airport he had heeded a complaint voiced by the Head of Mission at Beijing P.K. Bannerji, who had lamented that he did not have a single Chinese-speaking officer. 'Take one of these youngsters”, he replied, pointing to Bhupat Oza, then in the first year of his language studies, and myself in the second year. Before I knew what was happening, I was posted to China! Quite a distant cry from the styles of Foreign Service Board meetings, and the structured formalities of decision-making on personnel issues! This was the first of my encounters with chance, a powerful force which took me on a career full of excitement and discovery.

I travelled from Hong Kong by train, with senior colleague A.K. Damodaran and his family. He was moving from Bonn to take up his assignment as the First Secretary (Political) and the No. 2 in the Indian mission. He became in time valued elder brother, graced as he has been with a particularly calm and generous temperament, and a degree of concern for others, which is a rarity in any profession, much less in our Service. That day as we progressed through the measured formalities of crossing into China, walking across the famous bridge at Shenzhen, which marked the separation of the British colony from the mainland,

it was difficult to restrain my enthusiasm. One was finally getting to the country which has been such a parallel - and contrast-to India, the other Asian giant embarked on its own drama of human and social engineering.

In Beijing I found that life in the Indian Embassy was one of camaraderie and immersion in a collective enterprise. It was only much later, when I served and observed elsewhere, that I understood the extraordinary character of our Mission and its special esprit de corps. The India-China Border War of 1962 represented for all Indians a huge trauma. For someone immersed in Chinese language studies at that time at Hong Kong University’s Language Institute, it became a routine humiliation to study in class an editorial from a mainland or Hong Kong journal, scorning India’s case, or to listen to comments form a Chinese perspective on the unfolding events. Living in that environment one felt even more sharply the disbelief of most Indians that things could go so wrong, so fast. It put under cloud one’s fascination with China and the saga of its nation-building. But on reaching Beijing I found that it did not extinguish one’s admiration. If anything, it sharpened curiosity and the quest for personal understanding, as a “beginner China-watcher”. And truthfully, it also at times engendered a kind of “schadenfreude”, some glee at China’s own troubles, an attitude of “it serves them right!". Thus the little Indian community in the Chinese capital, made up exclusively of the diplomats and staff, found its own equilibrium in a cocktail of emotions. There was a collective sense or purpose at being located in a country at whose hands, we sensed, our nation had suffered. For myself, the other dominant mood was of excitement at living in a place where things were happening, not all of them clearly discernible; where information was at a premium. Among the small number of foreign diplomats and even fewer journalists, there was a special affinity, and friendships came easily, For the handful of us who spoke Chinese -or as non-Chinese would call it, the Mandarin dialect-there was direct access to local people, despite the severe restraints which were then enforced for the most innocent of such contacts. It may seem hard to imagine today, but for foreigners, China of yesteryear practised the most stringent internal controls, hardly in any after place found. In that environment the Indian Embassy came to win a reputation for professionalism, which has endured over the decades.It was a privilege to be on such a team.

In the early 1960s there were barely 35 diplomatic missions in Beijing, and just around 5 international correspondents. Besides the twice daily staple of the English language Hsinhua (Xinhua) News Agency bulletin, there were the 4 national dailies in Chinese, and a handful of weeklies and other periodicals. Those in the Embassy who travelled to Hong Kong on weekly courier duty with the diplomatic bag (and all of us took turns, from the Charge d’ Affaires downwards) could liven up the boring 30 hour journey by scrounging for local newspapers, simply unavailable in the capital, for little nuggets of local information. That journey was rather more adventurous than most would have preferred, starting off from Beijing at 6 o’clock in the morning in a Russian IL-14 or IL-16 aircraft (country-cousins of the World War II vintage Dakota and the like), with refueling stops at 3 cities before reaching Guangzhou, for an overnight halt in a hotel, and the next morning a train to the border, the walk across the bridge, and on to the cornucopia of consumerism which the Crown Colony represented even then. Bad weather at any point on the air journey meant an unscheduled halt at Changsha or Wuhan, when fellow-travellers - the odd diplomat or businessman among the passengers - learnt the virtues of bonding!

Right up to the 1970s when I came back to China as a First Secretary and second-ranking diplomat in the Mission, travel by resident foreigners was limited to a radius of 20 km. from the centre of the capital, the Forbidden City, the 3 permitted exceptions being the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs - both located to the west, at a distance of 45 and 40 km. respectively, and the airport to the east. All other trips required the specific authorization of the Foreign Ministry, and in the usual course, only the “open” cities could be visited - Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and the like. The list expanded gradually, when places like Chongqing in Sichuan were made accessible. The travel privileges first went to the "friendly” countries, in a subtle political hierarchy of favour-dispensation. One could say that for China, this was no more than the traditional way of dealing with foreigners.

For someone who spoke Chinese, travel was a special joy, because one had direct access to new experiences, and could learn a bit about the provinces and the far-flung regions which were not accessible as a matter of course. Sometimes there were unexpected encounters with people one could not meet in the tightly regulated conditions of life for foreigners in China.

I vividly recall a journey made from Beijing to Shanghai by train sometime in 1964. In the “soft” class 4.berth sleeper I had only one travelling companion - a professor of some sort (as I made out from his conversation with his wife and teenage daughter who had come to see him off at the railway station). After the train started we began a conversation and I was delighted to have a distinguished academic as a companion, We had dinner together in the dining car, quite a fine meal. The professor gradually disclosed that he had in fact visited India and knew Gandhiji’s secretary Mahadeo Desai, whom he had met in Poona. Respecting the circumstances and the context, I steered clear of political or sensitive issues, but got along very well with him. The next morning when I woke up I found that sometime during the night we had acquired a third travel-mate, a rather loud person who turned out to be an army officer. He engaged in a noisy conversation with the professor on international affairs, speaking of unspecified “reactionary countries” and how China would deal with them. I ignored him, and some time later, when we were alone in the train corridor, the professor said in a soft voice that some people had not liked the idea of his conversation with an Indian diplomat. and it was better if we did not have lunch together on the train before it reached Shanghai. I replied that I understood, and hoped I had not inadvertently created difficulty for him. He laughed and said that it was a small matter. There is a footnote to that chance encounter. When I narrated the incident later to one of our senior China scholars, he said that the professor had been his teacher, and that he was also one of the distinguished India experts in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (later the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). The professor had been too discreet to speak much about himself. It was inconceivable at that time that open and friendly contacts could be sustained between the Embassy and such personalities,

Another such chance meeting took place during my second China assignment, in early-1971, during the course of a tour for the diplomatic corps to the historic cities of Luoyang and Xian. As we visited a museum devoted to stone tablets commemorating the deeds of historical figures of the Song dynasty, I paused to admire an inscription in Chinese and Sanskrit - quite rare -recalling the journey of Faxian to India. One museum staff member, with whom I had been in conversation volunteered the observation: ‘With such a shared history, how can we persist in our existing problems!“. It was good to learn that even in the harsh climate of what then was the last phase of the Cultural Revolution, there were some who made private gestures to affirm mar our relationships should be rather different.

In early 1964 Jagat S Mehta took over as the Head of Mission, the de facto ambassador but officially carrying the title of “Charge d’Affairs ad interim”, in keeping with the formally reduced level of representation in the two capitals, which was to persist till 1976. He provided strong leadership to the Embassy, and became for many of us a persuasive role model. For the junior-most diplomatic official, as I remained till fellow China-specialist, Bhupat Oza, arrived on the scene a year later, it meant working on a series of essays and studies on specific themes, ranging from aspects of China’s economy, to the education system and the pattern of basic technical education and culture. Under Jagat, the pattern was established, which was to persist for many years, that the Embassy would devote energy to as much in-depth reportage as was possible, given the scarcity Of data and independent information, The goal was thematic analysis covering the internal scene, with the object of understanding the complex nation, and disseminating our reports within the governmental system in Delhi and to other Indian Missions. This was the classic mode of dispatch-writing, modelled in style on the British diplomatic method. I recall particularly well the papers written on China’s “pan-work part-study schools”, a bit akin to vocational schools in other countries, as also the early notes on the intense debate which was emerging on cultural issues around early 1965. For instance, little could anyone imagine that the controversy which suddenly erupted in mid-1965 over a sensitive film, “Early Spring” (which some friends and I managed to see in the few weeks it was screened, before being banned), would herald the storm of the Cultural Revolution. No one could then decipher the complex and indirect signals. But even for those who were ignorant of the master-plan saw that an artificial controversy was being generated. Cultural objects like that film were being offered deliberately as scapegoats. The ulterior purpose was invisible till the time I ended my first tenure in China in September 1965.

It was in 1964 that some of us took the initiative to set up a lunch club, consisting exclusively of second and Third Secretaries - the foot-soldiers in every embassy. The first meeting took place in my home with the 6 founders, and the group soon expanded to 12, which we set as the outer limit. New participants were admitted only when someone left on transfer, or was promoted - in the latter case, the person was ceremoniously thrown out after a farewell lunch. When the lunch sessions became too convivial, ending at 4 P.M. or so Jagat Mehta expressed a bit of displeasure, and gave us the sobriquet “The Tails of Mission Lunch Club”. The name stuck, and the group was in vigour at least till the mid-70s when I was invited to the monthly meetings as one of the founders!

In the diplomatic missions (other than the socialist embassies of that time), there were a handful of Chinese-speakers. Roping in some Chinese personnel who either worked in embassies, or were teachers to diplomats learning the language -and were thus permitted to have contacts with these foreigners - some of us cobbled together a “club” where we could practise speaking skills, and enjoy the cultural and culinary ambiance of the capital. The socialist embassies had a phalanx of language-specialists, but not all of them spoke English, and in addition the Westerners had their inhibitions in dealing with them. We, on the other hand, straddled both camps. Clearly, from the perspective of the Chinese authorities who kept us under scrutiny, this was a “permitted” contact network, perhaps useful from their perspective in giving an insight into the diplomat fraternity. Special care was exerted by all the participants of what we came to call the “Yenjing Club” (after one of the historical names of Beijing) to steer clear of any issue which might embarrass our Chinese friends, or worse, lead to the end of that experiment. We met every couple of weeks, either in the home of a diplomat-member, or by preference, in one of the 140 restaurants that operated in the city, sometimes after a visit to the Beijing Opera, or one of the many regional operas, or to a film or the circus. Friendship developed, even within the constraints of cautious conversation, and we learnt a little of the fun of Chinese life, like the wine-drinking games. And we were zealous in our search for varied and exquisite cuisine -which was then outrageously inexpensive. Of course such a club could not survive the Cultural Revolution, and when I got back to China in 1970 such open contact, however innocent, was unthinkable. I cherish the frayed navy-blue club tie which David Wilson - then fellow-member and now Lord Wilson - had obtained from Hong Kong for each of us, inscribed all over with the Chinese characters "Yan Jing”.

One great institution of our China experience was the diplomatic tour, an annual event which brought to the fore the great organizational talent of the Chinese system. The traditional pattern was that the Head of Mission and spouse ware invited by the Foreign Ministry as guests, together with one other diplomat to accompany them. Under the latter provision, junior officers had their chance to visit far places, including some not on the list of “open” cities of that time, in the course of what was usually a week-long excursion, Sometimes the tour covered places which in those days were completely inaccessible, save under special arrangements-such as the lengthy car journey which took one group to the “national model” agricultural village of Dalian. This was also the opportunity to practise and utilize language skills. It was a challenge for the language-speakers to ferret out some local information which hopefully added to one’s fund of knowledge, or gave a special insight, even while this was resented by the Protocol Department “handlers” who were usually watchful to see that this particular segment of their charges did not stray too far. The group travelled mainly by special train, accompanied by a Foreign Ministry Vice Minister, the Chief of Protocol, and a bevy of officials. The hospitality was lavish, and the provinces vied with one another in offering to the “foreign guests” the best of the local cuisine specialities. If Lawrence Durrel had been around, he would have found a treasure hove of amusing anecdotes and ego jousts within the Diplomatic Corps, given the fact that a shared journey of a week or more brought out some of the rivalries and petty jealousies, already accentuated in the hot-house atmosphere of a restricted diplomatic post. During the car trips the Foreign Ministry took scrupulous care to ensure that the assignment of vehicles were in the correct protocol order. With the Dean of the Corps in the lead, seated naturally in Car No, 1. This led me once to wonder as to the vehicle number of the car in which the Vice Minister travelled, since he seemed always to be ahead, besides, of course, the escort and security convoy. His car bore No. 0 - a perfect compromise!

In 1964 one such trip took us to the fabled Huang Mountain of Anhui province. This mountain range, dotted with Buddhist temples, accessible only by steep foot-track and arduous series of steps, is a place of remarkable scenic beauty and has inspired much Chinese painting and poetry. It also became the revolutionary base of Marshal Chen Yi in 1927, after the collapse of the short-lived co-habitation between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communists in Shanghai. In f 964, the Marshal, in his role as China’s Foreign Minister, joined us for that particular segment of the trip, his very first return to a region which had many memories for him. As we scrambled up the seemingly endless gradients and steps - much like our own mountain places of pilgrimage - and were lodged in what must have originally been spartan dormitories for the travellers, we caught glimpses of him and wondered at the panorama of emotions which he must have experienced. The photographs I took of the mountain peaks in the early dawn, and of the pine trees along the many perpendicular crags, are a souvenir of a memorable and exhausting journey.

One might ask, did life in the Chinese capital give any special insight which might otherwise not have been available? Of course, one gained some flavour on matters of detail, in the ways narrated above. On the really big hidden events, it gave partial information, which could not always be interpreted fully. For instance, those who lived in Beijing through the hardest years of the suffering and deprivation of the Great Leap Forward, knew that the situation in the interior provinces was hard. But none could fully estimate the scale of the self-inflicted agricultural crisis which unfolded after 1958, immediately following the much-acclaimed initial phase. I recall attending a lecture by the noted Cambridge economist Joan Robinson at Delhi University in 1959, in which she had waxed eloquent about the Great Leap, to an audience composed mainly of students like myself, who could not possibly imagine that a person whose textbooks were mandatory reading, could be so wrong. The impact of the Leap persisted for many years, and was evidenced in the 60s in the efficient system of food coupons and travel permits which enforced tight rationing and also ensured that the cities - which were much better off - did not become magnets to a population exodus. Winston Churchill’s memorable phrase describing Russia could equally apply even more forcefully to China: “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Often it took hindsight to interpret the events that took place right under ones’ nose. An incident vividly underscores this factor.

In the days of my first assignment, I was a bachelor and shared a rather comfortable house within the Old City with another bachelor officer - it had originally housed our Counsellor, a post left vacant after the post-1962 scaling down in diplomatic representation. We had a couple of good friends who enjoyed dropping in on Sunday mornings, for coffee and conversation. One of them was a young colleague from an Asian country which enjoyed significantly better relations in China than we did, and he was a useful source of information. One morning, probably in early 1965, when this friend came and narrated this experience of a visit by their education minister, who ended his substantive programme with a meeting with Chairman Mao, customary for foreign visitors of that road in those days. Mao asked the visitor about his travels and his impressions, The visitor responded with fulsome praise of the things he had seen, the institutions visited and the education system in general. To this Mao gave a curious reply, saying that the visitor should not believe everything he had been told, and that things were not as good as apparent outwardly, This was said in the presence of the Chinese Education Minster, and we could not figure out what the Chairman had meant. It seemed to go beyond the typical expressions of Chinese politeness, when after the foreign guest who offers fulsome praise is told, in phrases which are part of the ancient syntax, that the praise is not merited. We could not believe that Mao was profoundly dissatisfied with the shape of the education system. Or that the entire polity needed a sharp cleansing action, to usher in a “permanent revolution” as subsequently claimed during the Cultural Revolution. As in the case of the artificial - or rather guided - debate on culture which unfolded at around the same time, we simply did not see the master design of the Great Helmsman.

Another good friend in those days was the journalist Jacques Marcuse, a Belgian who represented AFP in the Chinese capital in the 1960s. At a time when the Western media were represented only by Reuters and this agency, he was a familiar figure, distinguished by his monocle, and his sardonic humour. He had lived in Shanghai in the late 1930s and knew some of the leading figures from that time; this made him a cynic and sometimes rather sharp in his judgments. Jacques also had a fund of jokes, most of which he swore were true stories. His book “Peking Papers” contains many of the outrageous stories which I had heard first-hand from him - not always to be taken literally, but poking fun at some officials and others who were excessively serious. An example was his habit of inventing his own so-called sayings of Confucius - Jacques claimed that there was no one who ever responded that the “saying” cited was bogus, or that he did not recall any such statement by Confucius. Jacques was admired by his friends for another reason; at the bar at Beijing Airport, he had a standing arrangement to have “his” bottle of Maotai. Friends were welcome to dip into it as they awaited delayed flights - all one had to do was to call for Mr. Marcuses’ bottle!

When I came back to China in mid-1970 with a family, a wife, two children of 3 and 1 and a nanny in tow, the country had been through the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, though the likes of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing were very much in power, and the curtain would really come down on that particular experiment of Mao only some years later. In marry ways contacts between foreigners and the Chinese were even more difficult, but the presence of the children usually gave rise to friendly comment and gestures of natural affection, which tempered a little the alienation which arose in those artificial circumstances. This was particularly true of the outings to the parks, and the shopping forays for souvenir-hunting to which all diplomats fell prey in Beijing. For a Chinese-speaker, it was a particular joy to listen to the children prattle in the bell-like tones of perfectly spoken Beijing dialect, which they picked up so effortlessly from the Chinese cook and maid. Alas, they lost the language with equal speed when we left after a two-year stay. Diplomatic life was a bit changed from that of the 1960s with the number of embassies more than double the earlier figure, and the presence of many more African and Arab missions, besides the Western nations which set up representation in one large surge, after the French recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1964 (the French Game with the zeal of new converts, to “interpret China to the world”). A second surge more or less coincided with the Nixon visit of 1971, Canadian recognition of the PRC, and the stationing of a shoal of Japanese correspondents, as a prelude to Japan’s recognition of its great neighbour. All this made for a much larger number of diplomats, journalists and business visitors, changing the intimacy of the former period for a more “normal” major capital. In other ways, life was less interesting than before, since the performing arts were still to revive from the decimation of the Cultural Revolution, and one encountered only the standard fare of revolutionary art, drama and music. The number of restaurants was also much reduced from the earlier numbers, and many of the fabled places-like the ”San Jwor" of the inner city with its memorable dishes of fresh-water eels - were gone! The subsequent period saw a gradual revival, of cuisine and of the arts, but I left China in September 1972, much before the real “normalization” of the post-Cultural Revolution life of China.

Living in China in those years enabled one to observe a complex political process, the shaping of a great, but secretive, Asian power. The early 1960s coincided with the intense ideological debate with the Soviet Union, and the early 1970s with the terminal phase of Mao’s last major social experiment. We said in those days that one sometimes wrote an analysis of China in the first 6 weeks of arrival, when the first encounter gave what seemed to be definitive insights. The alternative, especially for those who were not short-term visitors, was that one realized the limitations of one’s understanding, and chose the gradual unraveling of the many areas of ignorance, before venturing forth in print. It was rather like Einstein’s response to a gushing admirer who praised his vast fund of wisdom; he replied: What I know is but a fraction of what I do rot know!“. In the 1960s the air was thick with heavy polemical debate between the two communist giants, whose bilateral relationship deteriorated progressively. The smaller communist states were proxies in the debate, or were drawn into the vortex through their geo-political compulsions. Beijing was a useful observation point also for the evolution in these inter-relationships, ranging from the ultra-privileged status of Enver Hoxja’s Albania (which received massive material support in exchange for its total identification with China), to the fence-sitters like North Korea and North Vietnam of that time. The behaviour of the diplomatic missions of these countries in the rarefied atmosphere of Beijing became a side drama for outside observers like ourselves. Yugoslavia (in whose name the entire Sine-Soviet debate had first commenced, when the “Peoples’ Daily” thundered in 1961:“ls Yugoslavia a Communist Country?“) was for us the coolest of the lot, both on account of the uniform high professionalism of their diplomats, and because of our natural empathy and proximity to them. I was not in China in the difficult period of 1966-68, when the Cultural Revolution was at its climax, and when diplomatic missions were attacked by mobs manipulated by Jiang Qing and her ilk; the Beijing Diplomatic Corps showed its weakest face at that time through disunity, and currying of favour by a few embassies who believed that this was their road to narrow advantage. This is a small sad foot-note to that era.

Immediately after the India-China border war of 1962 which ended wiith a unilateral cease-fire and partial withdrawal of Chinese troops to their pre-war claim-line, China took the high road of urging negotiation and freezing of the difficult ‘issue, pending improvement of relations on other fronts. This was sound strategy from their perspective, but overlooked the extent of injury to India. In the treatment of the Indian Embassy in Beijing this sometimes took the form of petty pinpricks, combined with a few gestures of special consideration for about a year immediately after the war. This coincided with the remaining term of P.K. Banejee as the Head of Mission, who was summoned to meetings with Premier Zhou Enlai from time to time, almost invariably at no notice at all, and usually at night - since this legendary Zhou of the time (and almost the only one to have kept his repute intact) kept an owl’s hours, and commenced his work after sunset! My only personal encounter with him occurred in late-1963, when P.K. Banejee was given the special favour of a personal farewell call, and took with him 5 of his embassy colleagues, Premier Zhou was suave and smiling, essentially repeating the message loudly proclaimed by China to Asia and to the world, that China sought a negotiated border settlement, that it was prepared to wait till India was ready for this, and that in the interim the two countries which had so much in common should improve relations in other areas. At that meeting we had a taste of Zhou’s renowned alertness and charm. At one point he said something humorous, and noticing that I had smiled before the interpretation was completed, he immediately remarked that I spoke Chinese. After inquiry as to where I had learnt it, he complimented me on my accent! It should be said in parenthesis that the accent business is very serious for foreigners learning Chinese. At the same time, among the Chinese themselves, the range of accents is so vast that other than the few born in the immediate vicinity of the capital - which is where the Oxford accent of Chinese is located - speak in tones which betray their places of origin, even to the extent of incomprehension. Thus Mao’s Hunan accent was so strong that he needed interpreters to make himself understood to his own compatriots not used to him. Lin Biao was another one whose accent tested the limits of one’s comprehension range. While at the Language School at Hong Kong we cultivated several North Chinese friends, through lunch clubs and the like, to get speaking practice. One example was Steve Chou, a good and generous friend to many generations of Indian students,

I once mentioned to one of my teachers that Steve’s Beijing dialect was superb. How can that be, she responded, since he was born in Tianjing (150 km. away from the capital) and moved to Beijing only when he was 10 years old!

During the years I spent in China, there was no real India-China dialogue. After the Border War it was simply too early for India. In the 1964-65 period there was some gentle probing of intentions, given Jagat Mehta’s easy equation with the then Director of the Asia Division Zhang Wenjin, his counterpart in the futile “Official Talks” held in 195960, (he later became China’s Ambassador to the US, and Vice-Foreign Minister; a member of the Premier Zhou's top team), But this led to nothing, white preventing further downslide in relations. Some petty slights were received by the Indian Embassy, but for the main part the relationship was correct and the attitude of senior officials was constructive. When Asian or other diplomatic groups were received jointly, we were handled with perceptible coolness, but never in discourtesy. The Middle Kingdom has long practised a finely-turned method of subtle differentiation, and these habits ware a great deal deeper than the patina of communism. Seen with detachment, the Chinese manner of handling foreigners was a delight to watch, rooted as it has always been in profound self-confidence and a holistic vision of content and form.

My second sojourn began just after Chairman Mao’s deliberate gesture of reconciliation to the Indian Charge d’Affairs Brajesh Mishra at the top of the Tienanmen rostrum at the May Day parade of 1970, when he said directly to our envoy that “the two countries had long been friends and we could not go on quarrelling”. We know now through diverse sources that this was a calculated gesture bearing Mao’s personal stamp, and was meant to be taken seriously. And this was precisely the manner in which it was interpreted by the politically astute Head of Mission. One suspects that the premature manner in which the move was leaked to the Indian media, just at the time when Mishra was in Delhi to help in full assessment, and the gesture was even held to mild ridicule through its characterization as “the Mao Smile”, bore the stamp of our domestic pro-Soviet lobby. Further, we were even then probably not ready to move towards that window of opportunity.

1971 saw the build-up to the Bangladesh crisis and the 19.day war of December in the same year, and again the view from Beijing was revealing. China did not support the actions of Pakistan in its then Eastern wing, and clearly counselled caution, while making pro-forma expressions of support as the events moved to their denouement. The Indian brief was clearly to keep China informed of the increasingly impossible situation and the very limited goals of Indian policy, i. e. containment of the crisis. Brajesh Mishra played the vital role as the dialogue partner in this communication link, and was responsible for the accurate assessment that China would make public expressions of support to lslamabad but would stay out of any conflict. Thus the Embassy’s task for virtually the entire year was to manage this issue in a complex environment, and it came to dominate the bilateral relationship. It took China several months’ after the creation of Bangladesh to begin to come to terms with the realities of South Asia, and this produced an amusing incident.

As the Bangladesh crisis escalated, increasingly open criticism of India became the norm in Chinese speeches delivered at national day celebrations of various embassies and state banquets in honour of visiting foreign delegations, By local custom the diplomatic receptions took the form of sit-down dinners, while the Chinese banquets were even more formal, and again by local custom included all Heads of Missions in the guest-list. Mishra made it clear from the outset that he would not sit through direct criticism of India, and would walk-out, it soon became our internal and deliberate Embassy practice to inform the Chinese chauffeur of the flag-car that he should stand by with the car at the main entrance, in anticipation of likely walk-out. This worked well. Sometimes the speeches were delayed fill the meal was over - rather than delivered at the beginning as per Chinese custom -and this provoked comment in the diplomatic corps that it was to ensure that the Indian Charge finished his meal before making his exit! In the event, there eventually came the reception around the middle of 1972 when contrary to form, India was not criticized in the Chinese dignitary’s speech, marking the end of that particular phase, As it happened, the Soviet Union was attacked in that same reception speech, and the Soviet envoy, accompanied by his bloc phalanx staged a walk-out-much more impressive in sheer numbers. The effect was spoilt when the group came down the steps of the huge Palace of the People complex and were met by the Indian flag-car, tricolour and all, but alas not their own vehicle. They were not amused at the delay in mobilizing their transport to go home!

The Bangladesh war also produced for us the melodrama of assisting the then Pakistani diplomats of Bengali origin to establish contact with their own new government-in-the-making, since in the politically charged atmosphere of Beijing there were none but the most formal contacts with Pakistani diplomats - mainly I should add at the preference of the latter, who may have found that even routine courtesies, or return of courtesies to Indian counterparts, detracted from their self-image of victims of Indian machinations. This was my only, exposure to the cloak-and-dagger style, as roundabout means were mutually used to make soundings and first contacts, often via the spouses, since the latter often had their own friendships and equations! The establishment of these first links with the Bangladeshis, who became major players in their new nation, was a heart-warming experience. It also provided relief and counterpoint to the tension generated by the war, We celebrated the signing of the surrender documents by

the Pakistani generals in Dacca with champagne - the first and only time that my wife cultivated a high-class hangover. As we drove home she wondered why there were so many people on the road that late hour; I responded that they were just the early morning shift going to work!

A small instance of the quality of the evolving India-China relationship of 1970 was the visit to the Embassy by the renowned Mao biographer Edgar Snow, who was on what represented his last visit to China. I had met Snow a couple of years earlier, at the home of Professor Gilbert Etienne in Geneva (inviting me to that lunch meeting Gilbert had warned me not to get into an argument with Edgar Snow over India-China relations; I had replied that one could not argue with a legend!). Reading in the Chinese press around October 1970 that he was in Beijing as Mao’s personal guest, I tried to phone him and failing in that, sent him a note seeking a call. He telephoned some weeks later and said that he had been travelling in the provinces, and that he would come and meet me at the Embassy. He turned down my offer to call, and some days later drove up in his official limousine, for about 40 minutes of general conversation. He was too wily to give away any hard information and spoke in general terms of his positive impressions of the changes in the country. He also pumped me for information on some new document, which had emerged in the Hong Kong press about events on the mainland, relating to Chinese personalities, if I recall correctly. There was nothing of substance in the meeting. The significant aspect was that it took place at all, and that Snow made it a point to visit the Indian Embassy. It was a straw in the direction of normalization.

Another encounter with an author, perhaps a year later, had more in content. On the way back from a routine courier trip to Hong Kong I travelled with a Chinese-speaking American academic, who seemed interesting and we got into a conversation. She gave her name as Roxanne Witke, and she spoke of her interest in meeting Chinese leaders - rather a difficult task for an unknown visitor. A couple of weeks later I read in the Xinhua news bulletin that she had met Jiang Qing someone who seldom met foreign visitors. I tracked her down at the then premier lodging in the capital, the Beijing Hotel, and invited her to join my wife and myself for dinner at the Mongolian restaurant on Hou Hai lake, at the back of the Forbidden City. She accepted and, over the meal, she proceeded to unfold her extraordinary experience. This is narrated in her biography of that complex and, of course, controversial leader of the Cultural Revolution. The difference was that she spoke fresh from her first meeting with Madame Mao, at a point when Witke did not know that on her way out of the country through Guangzhou (still the only viable entry-exit point, even though direct flights to Shanghai from the West and Addis Ababa had commenced), she would be summoned back by the imperious lady for a series of additional meetings. The story of how later on attempts were made in the mid-70s to stop the publication of her book, at a time when Jiang Qing was under political attack and headed for downfall, are well-known.

The striking aspect for me in that dinner-meeting with Witke was the tale she unfolded, and her unerring prescience. She had earlier met Deng Yingchao, the spouse of Premier Zhou Enlai. Witke narrated the meticulous manner in which she had to prepare herself for the audience with Jiang Qing, listening to unpublished speeches where she could take notes but not see the text or record the reading on tape. She recounted that Jiang was truly concerned that she was not viewed with sympathy by the outside world, and felt that Witke could help in depicting a more human picture of her. Witke remarked that someone was trying to make her into a latter day Edgar Snow, and perhaps she was not displeased at the prospect. Jiang told her that Premier Zhou had urged her to go ahead with this meeting. Witke also spoke of the thorough investigation made into her academic and family background, plus the ways in which different Chinese interlocuters made known their knowledge of this. Then she went on to add her initial conclusion based on that first meeting, that someone was giving Jiang a long rope to hang herself. Witke also felt that she had unwittingly become enmeshed in China’s internal politics, and might be used in the manoeuvring by various personalities. This proved to be remarkably close to the truth, as the world learnt subsequently, when some of the inside stories on the events in China of the Mao era began to emerge. But to go back to that evening in the Mongolian restaurant, Hoxanne Witke told a story which gave deep insight into the inner workings of a land of enormous secrecy, and she seemed credible just for the reason that the account was vivid in personal detail.

My account of an Indian diplomat’s life in China some decades back, perhaps looks disjointed and sketchy. It describes some events and people that stand out in memory. It is intended to evoke some of the flavour of that time, and to underscore the wonder of one’s first start in a service career. Truly, it was a privilege to be exposed to China at a young age. It imprinted on me the enormous will and courage which this Asian giant mobilized, in its successful efforts to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The circumstances of India are so different that direct comparisons are hard. But there is a great deal in the Chinese model which is relevant for us. The goals of democracy and freedom are absolute, and should not be compromised for economic achievement. A full 50 years after independence when the basic needs of our people are yet to be met, in education and health, in three square meals per day, in shelter and jobs, and even in drinking water, it can legitimately be asked - is this freedom? China’s record, evident in the excesses of the Great Leap and of the Cultural Revolution, suggests that it has swung in cycles of normalcy and extremes. The post-1979 economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping have brought great achievement and prosperity. But the tension between political and economic freedom, the contradictions and disparities between coastal and interior regions, and the restraints on individual freedom are among the issues which may pose for China its future challenges. Is individual liberty possible without the satisfaction of basic needs? Each society gropes for its own answers to these dilemmas. The comparable features and circumstances of India and China provide a basis for stronger cooperation, particularly in functional areas like agriculture or applied research. As we move to the next millennium, we must put aside the past, and seek out new ways of working together.

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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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