History repeating

Indians visiting China, then and now

By DiplomacyK.P. Nayar
  • Published 1.06.16
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A precious nugget of information, which I gathered while preparing to accompany President Pranab Mukherjee to Guangzhou and Beijing last week was that resourceful junior officials and translators have traditionally enjoyed rare liberties at the Indian diplomatic outpost in China. Among the first Indian officials to reach Beijing after China became a People's Republic was Mahindar Singh, who joined the British department of external affairs in 1941 and migrated at the time of Independence to the ministry of external affairs and commonwealth relations (as the ministry of external affairs was then known).

In his 127-page, brief, but very interesting Undiplomatic Memoirs, Singh recounts a struggle, which lasted many months, by those who set up the embassy in Beijing - especially the chargé d'affaires, A.K. Sen - to get China's Communist rulers to accept Sardar K.M. Panikkar as the first ambassador to the People's Republic. When Panikkar finally arrived in Beijing to present his credentials, the small mission staff held a welcome party for the new ambassador and his wife. At this party, Panikkar asked John de Silva, a mere assistant, what he thought of Jawaharlal Nehru's quick decision to recognize Mao Zedong's new China. India was then only the second state - after Burma - outside the Communist bloc to shift recognition from Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang to the then fledgling People's China. De Silva told Panikkar that hasty recognition by New Delhi was a grave mistake, which India would regret.

Taken aback by the assistant's bold reply, Panikkar perhaps thought it was better to stay on course and continue the conversation with de Silva in the same vein. It would demonstrate to the rest of the embassy staff and their families that the ambassador was not easily shaken. So, he asked the assistant if there was any other mistake, in de Silva's opinion, that Nehru had committed. This time, de Silva was not merely bold, but insolent. "Yes, sir," he replied. It was a mistake "to send you as ambassador here." That truly shut Panikkar up.

Singh writes in his memoirs that "I, having hosted the party, felt that my job may be in jeopardy", but nothing untoward happened. Actually, the assistant's view of Sardar Panikkar's posting to Beijing had more than a ring of truth to it. Panikkar had already been ambassador to Chiang Kai-shek's China. Mao's China needed a new face, new ideas, not tired old thinking. Nationalist China and the People's Republic would become two vastly different societies although their geographical jurisdiction was the same territory - barring Taiwan, of course. The country that Panikkar would be newly accredited to was, therefore, the same as the one where he was head of mission earlier.

Singh writes, "It seldom happens that the same person is concurrently appointed as the Ambassador to the same country. We were already familiar with the reporting of Ambassador Panikkar from Nanking... he had a reputation for mixing fiction with fact and in his reporting he had a tendency to believe what he wanted to believe." De Silva had served with Panikkar in Nanjing, along with Singh and Sen. What he had seen of the ambassador's cipher telegrams to headquarters may have influenced his reply that Nehru's decision to send Panikkar as his envoy to Mao was a mistake.

Then there was V.V. Paranjpe, an interpreter at the embassy in Beijing, whose imprint on Sino-Indian relations was so profound that he rose to be India's ambassador to Ethiopia and later to South Korea. Anecdotes about Paranjpe from the Nehru years all the way to Atal Bihari Vajpayee's time are so many that they could fill an entire book. Paranjpe, a student of Peking University, has himself acknowledged that during the initial years of the People's Republic, he had trouble following Mao's Hunan accent.

The one time he scored big was when Mao was meeting an Indian delegation and the "great helmsman" told the visiting Indians to " ho" with Pakistan. This time Mao's own interpreter had trouble understanding the Hunan accent. Paranjpe later explained that this Chinese sound could either mean 'peace' or 'unite' or 'merge'. Was Mao suggesting that India should reunite with Pakistan? Paranjpe had the presence of mind to quickly consult Zhou Enlai, who was present. Zhou wrote down the correct Chinese character, which meant 'peace' and there was all-round relief.

Refreshing my recollections about Paranjpe in preparation for Pranab Mukherjee's visit to Guangzhou, I was alerted to the high symbolism of the president's decision to make Guangzhou his first stop in China last week. It is best described in Paranjpe's own words: "The last time I saw Mao was when Ambassador [R.K.] Nehru paid a farewell call on Mao in Canton in January 1957 and Mao... entertained us to a private dinner... During the dinner Mao spoke about his decision to relinquish Chairmanship of the Republic, and handing over power to his younger colleague Liu Shaoqi."

It is beyond imagination that today any Chinese leader would share such highly privileged information about the core of his country's future with an Indian leader, let alone an ambassador. An aside about the dinner is tempting. Mao treated R.K. Nehru and Paranjpe at that dinner to "a special Chinese wine, called 'snake spleen wine' or shedan jiu, strongly recommended by Mao for making the eyes 'shining and bright'".

Padma Bhushan, Tan Chung, is an authority on Sino-Indian relations for the better part of the last century and all of the new millennium. His late father, Tan Yunshan, was the founding director of the department of Chinese language and culture at Visva-Bharati, which conferred a Deshikottama degree on the son three years ago.

A chapter in Tan Chung's scholarly work, Across the Himalayan Gap: An Indian Quest for Understanding China, dealing with Rajiv Gandhi's historic visit and the celebrated handshake with Deng Xiaoping in 1988, has an unerring similarity to what is now taking place in India and China's engagement with each other, of which Mukherjee's visit was a cornerstone. Paranjpe, of course, figures in it but he is not the hero of the story. Nor is his role the reason for citing the episode below.

Tan Chung writes about the meticulous and detailed preparations that went into Rajiv Gandhi's visit, which changed the course of Sino-Indian relations, derailed by the border war of 1962. Just as perspicacious analysts can see that the way China and India deal with each other will change dramatically under Narendra Modi and that Mukherjee quietly has been, and will be, integral to this important bilateral relationship, Tan Chung "had the confidence that things could change for the better in Sino-Indian relations".

In 1987, he was teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University and travelled to Beijing. He was aware that for a good 15 years, Indian diplomats had stopped walking out of diplomatic receptions in the Great Hall of the People to protest against some speech during the formal toast. "Two days before I arrived in May 1987, Mr. P.N. Haksar came as Special Envoy of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, accompanied by Mr. V.V. Paranjpe. The evening of my arrival we were invited to a fabulous dinner by the late Prof. Wu Xiaoling, a close friend of Mr. V.V. Paranjpe and a great Sanskrit scholar... Haksar had by then finished rounds of discussions with then Premier Zhao Ziyang... The message conveyed by Mr. Haksar was that India was prepared to be forward-looking, that India did not consider China to be an adversary and that both countries must make efforts to put the past behind."

As follow-ups go in South Block, where the prime minister's office and the ministry of external affairs are located, it was remarkable that N.D. Tiwari, then the external affairs minister, was in Beijing in no less than a fortnight. The Chinese vice foreign minister, Liu Shuqing, discussed with Tiwari a two-year-long tense situation in the Kameng frontier in Arunachal Pradesh where "Indian and Chinese troops had stationed themselves in close proximity to each other in an action-reaction sequence... leading to speculation... that India and China were headed in the direction of... an armed conflict".

The Tiwari visit resulted in an end to public discussion on the tension, which then eased. In December, 1987, Liu Shuqing went to New Delhi with a formal invitation to Rajiv Gandhi to visit China, which he immediately accepted. The rest is history.

What is happening in relations between India and China now has parallels from that period of history. Tiwari's visit cannot be compared with that by Mukherjee, who is a head of state. But his visit, to be followed by Modi's for the Group of Twenty summit in Hangzhou very soon and President Xi Jinping's to Goa in October, albeit multilateral, is history repeating itself, hopefully for the good of the peoples of India and China.

telegraph_dc@yahoo.com