The Dalai Lama came to India in an official visit from November 1956 to February 1957. On February 13, 1957, while on his way back, he wrote from Gangtok a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister in which he stated that he and his entourage ‘had a good pilgrimage’ in India.
He also expressed his heartfelt thanks to all those Indian officials who had accompanied the Tibetan delegation during their visit and requested Nehru to ‘recognize the valuable services rendered by these officials’.
About the same time, in another letter, the Tibetan leader restated that it was of the greatest importance to establish ‘on a firm basis’ a relationship between India and Tibet on matters pertaining to religion and culture.
He requested the Indian Prime Minister: "I would be very happy indeed if your good-self would deal directly with matters relating entirely to religion and cultural affairs of India and Tibet."
On May 8, 1957, Nehru sent a reply to the Dalai Lama, who by that time was back in Lhasa:
Your Holiness,During a few months, the issue of the invitation to visit Tibet remained dormant. But, on January 21, 1958, Nehru cabled R.K. Nehru, India's Ambassador to China regarding his proposed visit to Tibet (the Prime Minister referred to a telegram sent by the ambassador on January 13 on the subject). The Prime Minister wrote:
In February last I received from our Political Officer [Apa B. Pant] in Sikkim two letters which you wrote to me from Gangtok. I was at that time extremely busy with preparations for the general elections in our country which, as Your Holiness may know, took place throughout India during the first fortnight of March. I regret that owing to many preoccupations I could not answer your letters earlier.
I thank Your Holiness very much for the friendly sentiments which you have expressed in your letters. We were happy to have you in India as our guest. I only hope that you did not find the programme here too strenuous.
We reciprocate Your Holiness's desire for closer cultural relations between Tibet and India. We have accordingly given very careful consideration to the suggestions you have made in one of your letters. We see no difficulty about the extension of the Tibetan Monastery at Buddha Gaya and are prepared to consider sympathetically any concrete proposal from Your Holiness. We shall also await proposals from Tibet for the establishment of monasteries at other centres in India, which are considered holy by Buddhists.
Your Holiness has referred to the appointment of a new Abbot at Tharpa Choling Monastery at Kalimpong. As Your Holiness may know, the administration of this Monastery was extremely unsatisfactory under the old Abbot. We only hope that the new Abbot, whoever he may be, will be carefully selected. Our local officers in Kalimpong will give him every possible assistance. We shall await particulars about Your Holiness's nominee. You can rest assured that we shall give our concurrence in the new appointment with the minimum delay.
We shall also be happy to receive Tibetan scholars in India. I presume that the expenses of these scholars will be borne by the Tibetan Government.
I thank Your Holiness for inviting me to pay a visit to Lhasa. I would have liked to accept your invitation. Unfortunately, I shall not find it possible to go to Lhasa this summer. I have to go to London towards the end of June for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting and shall be out of my country for nearly a month. If I see any possibility of visiting Lhasa later in the year I shall ask our Consul-General [Major V S.L. Chibber, Officiating Consul-General at Lhasa] to approach you. I shall also simultaneously inform the Government of the People's Republic of China.
Please inform Premier Chou En-lai [Zhou Enlai] that I shall be happy to visit Tibet in response to the invitation of the Dalai Lama which he has kindly conveyed to me. I would particularly welcome meeting him there. It is difficult, however, to fix any date at present. I should like to know what possible dates would be considered suitable. Presumably sometime late in summer or early autumn will be suitable from the point of view of climate.A week later, he requested the Foreign Secretary (Subimal Dutt) to inform India's representatives at Gangtok (Apa Pant, the Political Officer) and Lhasa (Major S.L. Chiber, the Indian Consul General) that Zhou Enlai had confirmed through R.K. Nehru, that he had been invited by the Dalai Lama to visit Tibet later that year. The Chinese Premier had also confirmed that he would be happy if Nehru could go there; he had himself the intention of joining Nehru in Tibet; Zhou had never previously been there.
I suppose that I will have to make this journey by air.
The matter came again for discussion on May 13, 1958 when the Indian Prime Minister sent another note to Subimal Dutt about the ‘Proposed Visit to Tibet’:
The other day there was a telegram from Peking about the proposed visit to Tibet. It was stated there, I think, that owing to weather conditions, the Chinese Prime Minister (Zhou Enlai) could not visit Tibet before the second half of April.The Buddha's relics in Tibet?
I think that you might inform our Embassy in Peking that while I shall try my best to adjust my programme to the Chinese PM's programme in regard to the visit to Tibet, I have to be here in Delhi early in October. There is a big International Conference of the World Bank in Delhi beginning on the 5th October. [The thirteenth annual joint session of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation was held in New Delhi from 6 to 10 October 1958]. This is a very big affair and over a thousand delegates are coming from all over the world. These include some eminent personalities whom I have to meet. Indeed I have to inaugurate this conference. Therefore, I have, in any event, to be in Delhi by that time.
I would not mind going to Tibet about the middle of September so as to be able to come back by the end of September, although this will interfere with our sessions of Parliament.
This information is to be conveyed to our Embassy merely for them to keep it in mind when the question of a date for the visit to Tibet arises.
Air Marshal [Subroto] Mukerjee told me yesterday that he now intended taking me to Lhasa by the Viscount as he thought this was a safer and more convenient method. But, for this purpose, he will have to make a trial flight by Viscount to Lhasa and he intended doing this in the near future. Probably he will write to you about it as we shall have to get the permission of the Chinese Government for this.
In the meantime, The Mahabodhi Society of India established in Calcutta in 1892 by the Ceylonese Buddhist leader Darmapala Angarika conveyed to Nehru its plan to present a relic of the Buddha to the Dalai Lama.
From Manali, (Himachal Pradesh) Nehru wrote to Subimal Dutt:
Mahabodhi Society of India has decided to present a sacred Buddha relic to the Dalai Lama and they want me to take this with me when I go to Tibet. In fact, it is my proposed visit to Tibet that has made them think on these lines. They have asked me if they should send a formal letter making the offer, and if so to whom they should send it. I wrote to them that my going to Tibet itself was not quite certain yet and it will be better, therefore, to wait for the present before taking any other step.But the relations between India and China were becoming tenser with China.
On thinking again about this matter, I feel that we should let the Chinese Government know about this and then watch their reactions. You will remember that when Premier Chou En-lai came here a year and a half ago, [Zhou Enlai was in India from 28 November to 9 December 1956; from 30 December 1956 to 1 January 1957; on 24 and 25 January; and on 30 January he reached Santiniketan via Calcutta]; he brought some of the relics of Hieun Tsang [Chinese Buddhist scholar and traveller, who spent fourteen years in India from 630-644 A. D]. He gave them over to the Dalai Lama who presented them to me at Nalanda. They are being kept at Nalanda. [On 12 January 1957, Nehru received the relics of Hieun Tsang [Xuanzang] from the Dalai Lama in the premises of Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, situated in the valley of Rajgir Rills, a mile away from the ruins of the Nalanda University].
I do not quite remember who I gave them to. Did I give them to the Bihar Government on the understanding that they will keep them at Nalanda or did I give them to some museum at Nalanda? [The casket containing the relic had been deposited in the little museum at Nalanda. Nehru suggested that the casket should be kept in the Patna Museum]. Did the Mahabodhi Society of India come into the picture then?
I should like to know all the facts of this last episode. Then, keeping these in view, I should like you to send a message to our Embassy in Peking [Beijing] telling them of the desire of the Mahabodhi Society of India to present a sacred Buddha relic to the Dalai Lama through me when I go there. A Buddha relic of course is the most precious thing that a Buddhist could give or receive.
We need not ask the Chinese Government's permission about this matter. It would be better to request them to inform the Dalai Lama of this wish of the Mahabodhi Society of India.
After that, privately we might ourselves inform the Dalai Lama. But I should not like to send any message to the Dalai Lama till I have taken steps to inform him through the Chinese Government.
Though not directly linked a letter dated June 26, 1958, sent by Nehru to Humayun Kabir, the Union Minister of State for Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs about the visit of Indian scholars to Tibet brings to light of the prevalent sitiation. The Chinese were becoming more and more suspicious as the Khampa rebellion was unfolding. Nehru told Kabir:
There has been for some time past a proposal to send some Indian scholars to Tibet to visit some monasteries there with a view to examining manuscripts there and taking copies. I have seen a note in which it was mentioned that four such scholars should go carrying with them four servants, apart from an interpreter and some technical personnel. Several monasteries were mentioned.The Khampa Factor
The Chinese Government informed us that in some monasteries there were no particular manuscripts. But they were agreeable to our men visiting some monasteries and staying there for some time.
The question has arisen whether in the present circumstances we should pursue this idea. Present circumstances mean certain developments on the international scene which have resulted in making the Chinese attitude more rigid than it was previously. Also there is the question of our saving money, especially foreign exchange.
…I am inclined to think that a smaller number should go this year and should concentrate on one of the principal monasteries. Thus, two scholars can go. Indeed, one would at present be enough. I should like this to be done quietly without fuss and without publicity. We have to move rather cautiously in this matter of Tibet, as Indian intentions are suspect in China.
On July 11, 1958, the Indian Prime Minister mentioned the issue of his visit to Tibet to Apa B. Pant, the Political Officer in Gangtok. Apparently, the Chinese government was not so keen anymore to have Nehru visiting Tibet:
Your letter of July 7th. …Our relations with China are not as good as they have been in the past, chiefly because they think that we are conniving at the activities of Tibetan émigrés in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, etc. Indeed, I rather doubt now that I shall be going to Tibet at all.One of the reasons for the deterioration of the relations was the Khampa guerilla which was active in Southern Tibet and which, according to the Chinese used Kalimpong as a base.
On August 8, in a letter to Dr. B.C. Roy, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Nehru mentions: “We have received complaints from the Chinese Government about Tibetan émigrés using Kalimpong as a base for their operations against the Chinese in Tibet.”
In his memoirs (With Nehru in the Foreign Office), Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt said that Chinese believed that Kalimpong was the ‘commanding centre of the (Khampa) rebellion”. Nehru did not agree, though he conceded that “spies may have been functioning in Kalimpong.” The Prime Minister had asked the people of Kalimpong to “refrain from collecting arms to be sent to Tibet or do anything inimical to China”.
To come back to Nehru’s letter to Dr. Roy, Nehru states: “Some of these complaints have been forwarded to your Government [West Bengal]. There is no doubt that there are people in Kalimpong and round about who want to do this kind of thing. We have made it clear that we will not tolerate it, and that we shall take action I they create any kind of trouble.”
Nehru concludes: “In this connection, I should like you to be particularly careful in dealing with Tibetan émigrés. I have an idea that you have been, perhaps, not very careful in the past. This applies not only to you but to the members of your staff.”
During a press conference held on July 3, 1958 in Delhi, a reporter asked the Prime Minister: “There has been talk of you visiting Tibet. Has anything been finalized about it?”
Jawaharlal Nehru answered:
There is nothing further that I can tell you about my visit to Tibet. You perhaps know, some months back the Chinese Government conveyed an invitation to me, I think from the Dalai Lama, which came through the Chinese Government, and no date was suggested, sometime later in the year, and I gladly accepted. I hope that a convenient date will be fixed. Nothing more has happened since then. I suppose that if I go this year, it will likely to be somewhere in the second half of September, because after that, I am engaged here, and before that the weather is not particularly suitable for flying purposes, because weather comes into the picture anyhow, coming and going.The journalist asked further: “Does it mean that there is a possibility that you might not go to Tibet this year?”
The Prime Minister explained: “That simply means that no date has been fixed, and because the period when one can go there by air is relatively limited because of climatic conditions. I hope to go this year, but I said if somehow it does not come off, it will be at some later date.”
In note published in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister mentions that the visit never materialized: “Nehru was expected to visit Tibet at the invitation of Dalai Lama and then proceed to Bhutan. But the formal visit to Lhasa did not materialise. However, on his way to Bhutan from Gangtok in Sikkim, Nehru passed through the Tibetan Plateau at Yatung on 18 September 1958. On his way back from Bhutan, he again passed through Tibet on 29 September 1958.”
Crossing through Yatung
On 3 October 1958 back in from New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru had a radio and telephone encounter with Thomas E. Dewey from Portland Maine, USA and Aldous Huxley from Turin, Italy. Edward R. Murrow of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) moderated the debate which was telecast by CBS on 12 October 1958 in a programme entitled Small World.
Jawaharlal Nehru told his interlocutors that he had just come back from Bhutan. According to the Editor of the Selected Works, he had left on 16 September 1958, “using different forms of transport, including aircraft, car, pony and yak, while also trekking, he passed through Tibetan territory, spent the night of 18 September at Yatung, and entered Bhutan on 19 September; he left Bhutan from Paro on 27 September and reached Delhi on 2 October.”
Nehru explained: “I did not see much of Tibet; I spent nearly two weeks going in and out of Bhutan. It was a remarkable experience for me because it took me to a world which modem science and technology has not affected at all. There were no roads, no vehicles, no automobiles, and all communications were by mountain carts. It was a strange experience into a world perhaps of three or four or five hundred years ago or more. And yet it was not an unhappy world of peasant farmers, and fairly well off in regard to food and housing and clothing but with no modern gadgets, and there was no unemployment and no beggars. And I was powerfully influenced by it. I suppose it will change as every other part of the world has changed. Nevertheless it was an experience, I thought, worth having, to compare that with other countries where, while on the one side, we have many modern conveniences, we have many ill effects of the modem age also.”
Air Link with Tibet
Not directly linked with the Prime Minister’s proposed visit to Tibet, is the report of a meeting between Biju (Bijoyanand) Patnaik, pilot and industrialist (who later became Chief Minister of Orissa) and Nehru and the discussion about having an air connection between India and Lhasa. The issue nevertheless shows the growing suspicion from the Chinese side.
In a Note to Subimal Dutt, Nehru reported on February 24, 1958:
When Shri Patnaik saw me regarding an air transport service to Lhasa and to Peking [Beijing]. I told him that we had no objection to it if the Chinese Government agreed. Naturally, this would be entirely a matter for him to settle with the Chinese Government. I have an idea that a message to this effect was also sent to our Embassy in Peking.
Later, I was informed that the Chinese Government was not agreeable to this service to Lhasa. As regards the other one, there was no clear reply either way. Later still, I heard that he was invited to go to Peking to discuss this question with the Chinese Government. I think I told him that he was free to go there for this purpose.
There is no question of our sponsoring his visit to Peking, but we should raise no objection to it. Indeed, I shall be glad if he manages to get permission from the Chinese Government, provided our Government is not brought into the picture at all. It is quite true that Shri Patnaik is apt to indulge in general talks and sometimes drag in the Government's name into it. I told him not to do so and you might also tell him this. Apart from this, we have no objection whatever to his coming to any agreement with the Chinese Government about the air services.
Biju Patnaik had earlier spoken to Krishna Menon (sometime in 1957) about his project of a freighter-cum-passenger service to Tibet. Krishna Menon had already asked the Chinese Ambassador to mention Patnaik’s project to Zhou Enlai, who replied that the freighter or other service question might be discussed between the Governments.
At that time, Krishna Menon had asked whether he could explore this possibility with Nehru's approval.
On August 31, 1957, Nehru had already dictated a Note to Krishna Menon (the Defence Minister) about the Kalinga Airlines Services to Tibet:
You can certainly see these papers about the proposed Kalinga Airlines to Tibet.
When Patnaik came to see me about this matter some two or three months ago, I told him that I had no objection to his running a Service to Tibet from India, but, of course, the Chinese Government's permission would have to be taken. I asked him to see the Chinese Ambassador [Pan Tzu-Li ] here which, I believe, he did. About the same time, I think, we wrote to our Ambassador to sound the Chinese Government on this subject. The response of the Chinese Government, so far as I remember, was an evasive one and I got the impression that they did not wish to encourage any such service at this stage.
Patnaik talked about going to Peking to discuss this matter. I advised him to go there only if the Chinese Government expressed previously their willingness to see him. The last time I saw Patnaik, I told him to find out from the Chinese Ambassador about this matter.
Our position in this has been that we are agreeable to such a service, but we do not wish to sponsor it ourselves and this is a matter between Patnaik and the Chinese Government. We can, however, tell the Chinese Government that we have no objection to it and if they agree, we shall give the normal facilities at this end.
My impression is that the Chinese Government do not want any such service from India to Tibet at present at least. They are having continuing trouble in Tibet and they are not anxious to see many Indians going there. Recently, the Indian traders there have been badly treated and we have even protested both to the Chinese Government and the Dalai Lama.
In these circumstances I did not wish it to appear that we were over-anxious to push this service to Lhasa.
The Aksai Chin Road
Things became worse in the following months, when Delhi discovered that China had built a road on Chinese territory in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh. In an informal Note given by the Foreign Secretary to the Chinese Ambassador on 18 October 1958, the government of India stated:
The attention of the Government of India has recently been drawn to the fact that a motor road has been constructed by the Government of the People’s Republic of China across the eastern part of the Ladakh region of the Jammu Kashmir States, which is part of India. This road seems to form part of the Chinese road known as Yehchang–Gartok or Sikiang Tibet highway, the completion of which was announced in September, 1957.
The road enters Indian territory just east of Sarigh Jilgnang, runs north-west to Amtogar and striking the western bank of the Amtogar lake runs north-west through Yangpa, Khitai Dawan and Haji Langer which are all in indisputable Indian territory. Near the Amtogar Lake several branch tracks have also been made motorable.
The India-China boundary in the Ladakh sector as in others is traditionally well-known and follows well marked geographical features. The territory which road traverses has been part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries and the “old established frontiers” have been accepted by the Chinese in the treaty of 1842 as the International boundary. In an official communication, a Chinese member of the Boundary Commission of 1847-49 accepted the boundary as “sufficiently and distinctly fixed so that it will be best to adhere to this ancient arrangement and it will prove far more convenient to abstain from any additional measures for fixing them.” Accordingly, Indian survey parties have visited the region since the nineteenth century. Travellers to the area have referred to it as part of Ladakh, and Atlases like the Johnston’s Atlas of India, edition 1894, and maps published by the Survey of India show it unmistakably as part of Ladakh.
That was it for the chances of the Indian Prime Minister to visit Tibet. Retrospectively, it is probably a great pity as it would have help Nehru to have first knowledge of the situation on the Roof of the World. His attitude would have perhaps been different vis-a-vis the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
In any case, five months later, an uprising in Lhasa will forced the Dalai Lama to take refuge in India.