This is our only foreign debt, and some day we must pay the Mantzu and the Tibetans for the provisions we were obliged to take from them.
– Mao Zedong
when he had passed through the border regions of Tibet during the Long March
In the 8th century, Tibetan King Trisong Dentsen had defeated China, which was forced to pay an annual tribute to Tibet. To put an end to mutual fighting, China and Tibet signed a treaty in 783 CE where boundaries were confirmed, and each country promised to respect the territorial sovereignty of the other. This fact is engraved on the stone monument at the entrance of the Jokhang temple, which still stands today. The engraving is both in Chinese and in Tibetan.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, the Qing government of China sent a resident commissioner to Lhasa. A stone monument regarding the boundary between Tibet and China, agreed upon by Lhasa and Beijing in 1726, was placed atop a mountain near Bathang. This boundary ran between the headwaters of the Mekong and Yangtse rivers.
The 13th Dalai Lama issued a proclamation in 1913 which stated that the relationship between the Chinese Emperor and Tibet had been that of the patron and the priest, and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other. He said: “Now the Chinese intention of colonising Tibet has faded like a rainbow in the sky.” He also stated that Tibet was a small, independent, religious nation.
Tibet has a strong claim to be regarded as an independent state. But it is for India to take a lead in this matter. If India decides to support independence of Tibet as a buffer state between itself and China, Britain and USA will do well to extend formal diplomatic recognition to it.
– The Economist
The US felt disappointed to discover that India had resigned itself to leave Tibet to its fate, and sit back, and do nothing! The then US ambassador to India, Loy Henderson, described the Indian attitude as ‘philosophic acquiescence’.
K.P.S.Menon, Foreign Secretary at the time, describes how C.R. [Rajaji] 'sent for me for a talk on Tibet...and argued forcibly that we should not recognize Chinese sovereignty or suzerainty over Tibet.'
– Rajmohan Gandhi, Rajaji: A Life
I [Sardar Patel] have been eating my heart out because I have not been able to make him [Nehru] see the dangers ahead. China wants to establish its hegemony over South-East Asia. We cannot shut our eyes to this because imperialism is appearing in a new garb...He is being misled by his courtiers. I have grave apprehensions about the future.
– Durga Das, reporting his talks with Sardar Patel in India from Curzon to Nehru & After
In respect of two tremendously vital matters for India, Nehru did exactly the opposite of what he should have done. Nehru internationalised a purely internal issue of J&K by referring it to the UN, which he should not have done. On the other hand, Nehru refused to internationalise our vital external security issue of Tibet by referring it to the UN—which he should have done—despite the pleading of Tibet.
In October 1950 I was a student at the Defence services Staff College in Wellington, South India. Soon after the news of the Chinese entry in into Tibet reached us, the Commandant, General WDA (Joe) Lentaigne, strode into the main lecture hall, interrupted the lecturer and proceeded to denounce our leaders for their short-sightedness and inaction, in the face of Chinese action...he said that India’s back door had been opened...He predicted that India would have to pay dearly for failure to act...His last prophetic remark was that some of the students present in the hall would be fighting the Chinese before retirement.
– Brigadier JP Dalvi, Himalayan Blunder
Even if India did not have the military strength to confront and prevent China, there were so many other steps that India could have taken: express disapproval; provide moral support to Tibet; lodge protest in the UN; mobilise world opinion against Chinese action; grant recognition to Tibet as an independent nation; persuade other nations to also do so; demand plebiscite in Tibet to ascertain the opinion of the public—China had agreed for a plebiscite in Mongolia, that led to its independence; work towards ensuring complete independence for Tibet through peaceful means. Even if the final favourable outcome took decades it didn’t matter—at least there would have been hope.
Had India taken the initiative many nations would have supported India. In fact, many did pass resolution in favour of Tibet in the UN later, which India, the affected country, did not support!
Had India been still British-India in 1950, Britain would certainly have resisted China in Tibet in some way or the other and would have ensured Tibet remained free from China.
One could argue that doing so would have made China an enemy of India? But, did China care for our friendship when it attacked our friend and neighbour Tibet? Are friendships only one-sided?
Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador in Beijing, advised Nehru that to protest the Chinese invasion of Tibet would be an interference to India's efforts on behalf of China in the UN! That is, complaining against China on behalf of Tibet would show China in bad light in the UN—as an aggressor—when it was more important for India to ensure China's entry into the UN, for which India had been trying, and ensure that this effort of India was not thwarted by taking up China's Tibet aggression! What kind of crazy foreign policy was this? Our own national security interest and the interest of Tibet were sought to be sacrificed to help China enter the UN!!
Agreeing with Panikkar, Nehru wrote, “...our primary consideration is maintenance of world peace...Recent developments in Korea have not strengthened China's position, which will be further weakened by any aggressive action in Tibet.”
By some weird logic Nehru felt that China's entry into UN would ensure World Peace! But, what World Peace! Had India, a weakling, taken up the quixotic task of ensuring World Peace? And, did anti-colonial and anti-imperialist Nehru consider taking over of Tibet by China compatible with World Peace, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism?
Nehru had stated in the parliament that in the realm of foreign affairs he could never take so much credit as for the India-China settlement over Tibet, the Panchsheel—even though India gained nothing through it, and all benefits accrued to China! Acharya Kripalani had this to comment on Panchsheel: “This great doctrine was born in sin, because it was enunciated to put the seal of our approval upon the destruction of an ancient nation which was associated with us spiritually and culturally...It was a nation which wanted to live its own life and it sought to have been allowed to live its own life...” Dr Rajendra Prasad had said, “I hope I am not seeing ghosts and phantoms, but I see the murder of Tibet recoiling on India.”
I have been betrayed by a friend. I am sorry for Tibet.
– Nehru, 1964