Thursday, July 2, 2009

Morarji Desai and Zhou Enlai: a tough encounter

A fascinating record of a meeting between Morarji Desai, then Finance Minister and Premier Zhou Enlai. Morarji must be one of the rare politicians who dared speaking frankly with a Chinese leader. Of course, Zhou sees red after been spoken in such a manner.

Record of Finance Minister Morarji Desai's Meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai (22 April 1960)

The vice-president hosted a private lunch at his residence for Premier Chou En-Lai and Marshal Chen Yi. At 3:30 pm, I escorted Chou En-Lai to the finance minister's house located in the president's estate. Marshal Chen Yi and Deputy Foreign Minister Chang Han-Fu accompanied him. Ambassador G. Parathasarthi, Jagat Mehta, Vasant Paranjpe and myself [Natwar Singh] were the Indian representatives.

The first few minutes were taken up by inconsequential chatter.
References to common colonial past, etc., were made. The finance minister said that India had lost out to the Muslims and then to the British due to our disunity. Premier Chou agreed.
Discordance started at the very beginning. Chou En-Lai said the boundary problem was a legacy of history and would be solved. Morarji bhai disagreed saying history could not be blamed for the dispute.
Trouble started only in the last three or four years. India had not told the people or parliament about the border troubles, hoping differences would be resolved in a spirit of good neighbourliness. This had not happened. Now, the parliament and people were angry. Chou En-Lai said old maps were not accurate and had not demarcated the border properly. Both sides, however, agreed that current troubles began after revolt in Tibet. Morarji bhai said that India allowed China to become dominant in Tibet. In 1950 and 1954, India surrendered all privileges inherited from the British.
Chou En-lai made a lengthy response, blaming the Dalai Lama, his feudal and reactionary advisers. 'China respected the Dalai Lama as a religious leader that is why he was not arrested.' He pointedly said that the centre of anti-Chinese activities was in Kalimpong. The Dalai Lama was against reforms in Tibet. Serfdom existed in Tibet till China stopped it. The Dalai Lama was abusing the conditions of political asylum and was politically active. We object to this.'
On the boundary issue, he said China did not recognise the McMahon Line or the Shimla convention of 1913. Now since 1959, India wanted us to recognise both. This was not acceptable to us. We could not negotiate a settlement on this basis. He mentioned the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
In his response, the finance minister told that negotiations could only be held on the basis of agreement on facts; otherwise not. He emphatically denied any India’s role in the revolt in Tibet. He did not accept what the prime minister had said about Kalimpong.
According to Morarji bhai, it was the Chinese elements in Kalimpong who were creating trouble for India. Prime Minister Nehru in 1957 persuaded the Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa. He is highly respected in India. People of India have friendly sentiments about Tibet. 'You imposed your system in Tibet by violent means. We are not going back on the agreements we signed in 1950 and 1954.'

The FM mentioned the name of Dr K.I. Singh, who went to China to carry out political activities. 'India had not objected. India had a democratic system. We have accepted people's verdict in Kerala where the communists are in power. India had no territorial ambitions, yet we are called Imperialists.' Chou En-Lai said K.I. Singh was not permitted any political activity in China. As the PM of Nepal he actually criticised China.
Morarji bhai then rubbed in the point of India, that every year, at the UN, India supported China's case for membership. We did so because it is the right thing to do. Panchsheel has now become one-sided. We cannot for the sake of friendship give up territory, which is ours. The boundary problem can be settled not through war but through negotiations. But we must first agree on facts.'
Premier Chou agreed that matter must be settled through mutual agreement. War was ruled out.
The finance minister asserted that China must withdraw troops and then talks could begin. If this did not happen, then there could be no discussion. Premier Chou En-lai categorically stated that China would in no circumstances accept the McMahon Line. He was willing to accept Indian jurisdiction south of the line, where China had no territorial claims. He held forth on Kalimpong, which was full of spies. The Dalai Lama's relatives were active in Kalimpong. Desai responded that China too had spies in Kalimpong. [Chou En-lai went red in the face.] Chou En-lai asked how the Indian government allowed Tibetans in Kalimpong to hold an anti-Chinese convention. Desai said the convention was not sponsored by the government. All kinds of conventions are held in India, some, even against the government. He mentioned Lenin working in London. No one restricted his movements. We did not want anyone to conspire against China but we cannot prevent free speech. This is fundamental in a democracy. The Municipal Hall in Kalimpong was not a government building. Municipalities in India are autonomous bodies. They can let out their halls to anyone.
The Chinese premier again said that the Dalai Lama was engaged in political activities. Prime Minister Nehru had told him that the Dalai Lama would not be allowed to indulge in political work. But he was doing so. Desai said, not so gently, that Chou En-lai was being unjust. The Dalai Lama was not preparing to march into Tibet. All he said was that he would like to go back to Tibet. How could we prevent him from saying so?
Chou En-Lai said there was no campaign against India in China. Desai asserted that the responsible people in China had 'called us a reactionary government'. Chou En-Lai's response was quick and curt. 'The portraits of Chairman Mao and the prime minister of China were burnt in India.' Desai retorted that his effigy was burnt recently, adding that even Gandhiji's effigies had been burnt. Premier Chou En-Lai, getting a bit worked up, said Indians had the freedom to abuse China but China had no freedom to criticise India. Desai in a waspish tone said he was being frank and tried to explain India's viewpoint. Chou En-Lai retorted that the finance minister had said enough. Desai shot back, 'The Chinese prime minister said more than enough.'
He added that all he was trying to say was that he condemned his people for abusing China. If that was not so, then India would not have sponsored the case of China at the UN even after the Tibet revolt.
Premier Chou En-Lai, calming down, thanked the finance minister for helping on the UN front. He then spoke about the western sector saying it was under China for two hundred years not four or five years. China had every right to build roads there. Desai firmly replied that he did not agree with this.
Acrimony continued. Premier Chou En-Lai said that China sent troops to Tibet in 1950. Desai countered that this did not mean China could make claims on territory which belonged to India. The Chinese premier made a conciliatory reply. There was no need to quarrel. The matter could be resolved by mutual agreement and accommodation. This was not good enough for Desai who said there was no question of India giving up any of its territory. However, he was confident that a satisfactory agreement would be found.

The meeting finished at 5:40 pm. It had not been a pleasant encounter.
In the car, I sat next to the Chinese prime minister. I could feel and see how annoyed he was. Perhaps, the astutest diplomat in the world, he obviously did not feel comfortable dealing with second category Indian leaders.
Why our prime minister has inflicted Morarji Desai on Chou En-lai beats me. I suppose he has his compulsions. Morarji belonged to the ultra right wing of the Congress.

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