Monday, May 20, 2019
A Truce that was not to be
One of the strangest characters who appeared on the political scene after India’s Independence was VK Krishna Menon.
PK Banerjee, the Indian chargé d’affaire in Beijing in 1962, who often encountered the arrogant politician, wrote in his memoirs: “Krishna Menon's appearance in the Indian political arena was as sudden as it was unexpected. …he had his education and was enrolled as a Barrister. He hardly had any legal practice …[but] became a protégé of Palme Dutt, a lawyer and founder member of the British Communist Party.”
An Unlikely Minister
Why after Independence, he was suddenly nominated Indian High Commissioner in UK, is not clear.
A few years later, he came back to India and was made Minister of Defence: “In addition, for all practical purposes, he functioned as Foreign Minister de facto,” noted Banerjee.
The Nehru Memorial and Museum Library (MNNL) recently opened the VK Krishna Menon Papers to the public. The first surprising thing to note is that a politician can walk away with so many government documents; of course it has been done by many bureaucrats too (scholars nevertheless rejoice to be able to access these ‘stolen’ files, as the ‘official’ ones remained classified in the different ministries).
In the case of Krishna Menon, he was certainly a smart politician; it can be seen from the fact that he did not leave many ‘traces’ behind.
I was hoping to find the records of his meeting with Marshal Chen Yi, the tough Foreign Affairs Minister of China.
A few years ago, The Hindu quoting declassified Chinese documents asserted that on July 23, 1962, Chen Yi met Krishna Menon in Geneva over breakfast. The Chinese Foreign Ministry reported that Menon suggested that both sides make clear their perception of the western boundary: “both sides could establish posts, but they would not attack each other. There should be a distance between posts of each side …Mr. Chen instantly opposed the suggestion.” The Aksai Chin was Chinese, he argued.
Sixty seven years later, it is a tragic fact that we still have to depend on Chinese archives to know what happened in 1962; I had hoped that a report of the breakfast with Chen would be in the Krishna Menon Papers; unfortunately, it was not. Another problem is that the brash Indian Defence Minister often believed that he did not need to keep proper minutes of his meetings.
However, I found the undated and unsigned transcript of his 1960 encounter with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier; it is an important document as it is the only record not available in the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru which consecrate some 300 pages to Zhou’s meetings with Indian leaders (the Prime Minister alone had 17 hours of talk with his Chinese counterpart to try to unlock the disputed border issue).
Tryst with Zhou
The visit of Zhou Enlai in Delhi in April 1960 was clearly a turning point and the last opportunity to settle the Sino-Indian boundary issue peacefully.
As they met, Zhou Enlai told Menon that he had been told by Nehru that he wanted to see him; this was not a fact, noted Menon. Zhou then insisted that Menon spoke first.
The Defence Minister told the Premier that India’s foreign policy was “we were by far the best of friends and the world also thought so.” The minutes were obviously not taken in a professional manner and the English is often poor; for example when Zhou explained that despite “the Tibetan affair [the flight of the Dalai Lama], both in the world and even here although a great many of our people understand, they were very shocked” (sic).
The clever Zhou said that friendship with India was the basis of China’s foreign policy, and whatever happened does “not make any difference to this.”
Zhang Hanfu, the Chinese Vice-minister remained ‘inscrutable’ during the monologue, watching every move of Zhou, noted Menon.
Interestingly, for the Eastern Sector of the boundary, though China did not recognize the McMahon Line, “[Zhou] suggested that we leave it alone.” This meant that Beijing was ready to accept the Line minus the ‘imperialist’ name (McMahon); the Premier however objected to the Indian advance in Khinzemane (north of Tawang) and in Longju (in Subansiri Frontier Division).
Zhou then mentioned the Western Sector.
The Hint of a Swap
He said there had never been any delimitation and only an old treaty (of 1842), which did not mention any area; the Aksai Chin was part of Sinkiang (today’s Xinjiang) and the road built by China was on Chinese territory.
Zhou also spoke of Chinese total sovereignty over Tibet and the autonomy granted to the Tibetans. Though he had no problem with the Dalai Lama, he was shocked by the reception given to him in India. Menon noted: “I think he referred at this stage, though I am not quite sure, about a considerable amount of talk against China in India.”
The entire transcript is in this vein. It is rather surprising, not to say shocking, that such vital talks were handled in such an amateurish manner.
There was a second round of talks: “I think he [Zhou] said much and I think there is no purpose in repeating what he said about the past, but about the frontiers. …I cannot remember the whole of the conversation.”
The conversation had lasted two hours (apparently Zhou had spoken Nehru to say that he wanted another half hour with Menon). Zhou was testing the ground for a ‘swap’: India acknowledges that the Aksai Chin as Chinese and Beijing recognizes NEFA as India. The duo met a third time during the dinner; Zhou again alluded to a deal.
It is evident that these crucial talks for the nation were conducted in an extremely unprofessional manner, without briefing, debriefing or proper note-taking. A chance was probably missed, leading two years later, to the worst possible debacle for India.