Published: April 17, 2013
Two volumes that cover, among other things, a period of tension in India-China relations over the boundary issue and Nehru’s role in it. By A.G. NOORANI
THESE volumes (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru: 1 November-31 December 1958 and 1 January-28 February 29 Second Series; Volumes 45 and 46) cover a critical phase in the relations between India and China as they glided from the “bhai-bhai” phase to estrangement. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru does not come out well from the record. The compiler of his works, Madhavan K. Palat, comes out worse and confirms the impression of ineptness commented in an earlier review.
Nehru’s important letter to Prime Minister Zhou En-lai on December 14, 1958, complaining of Chinese maps, which initiated the correspondence in which the dispute was laid bare, is editorially sourced to “Subimal Dutt Papers, NMML. Also available in JN Collection and PIB [Press Information Bureau].” A competent editor, equipped for the job, would have properly provided the only authoritative source—the first White Paper, published on September 7, 1959. Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt’s papers are a secondary source. The PIB could not have released it before the White Paper. A footnote on Walter Lippman ends with his books published as far back as in 1913 and 1915, to the neglect of more relevant and copious writings later.
As far back as on November 20, 1950, Nehru declared in Parliament that “the McMahon Line is our boundary” while “the frontier from Ladakh to Nepal is defined chiefly by long usage and custom”, which is untrue. It was never defined. The McMahon Line was defined by an Indo-Tibetan exchange of very brief notes on March 5, 1914, which confirmed the line drawn on an annexed map.
This is what Nehru wrote to Subimal Dutt in a note dated November 11, 1958: “In regard to the controversy we are having with the Chinese government about our frontier in Ladakh, there is one point which we should bear in mind. I am told that the frontier as claimed by us is not only marked in our maps but is part of the McMahon Line. If we touch the McMahon Line in one place, then there is no particular reason why it should not be varied elsewhere” (emphasis added, throughout). These words should prod serious reflection. They expose the arrogant unilateralism which marked Nehru’s approach. Forget the contradiction between the 1950 declaration and this 1958 sophistry. But if anyone “told” the Prime Minister of India this utter falsehood, what prevented him from simply sending for the agreed map? What he was “told” was indeed an utter falsehood. The McMahon Line did not extend to Ladakh. It was confined to the north-east. To think that India’s Prime Minister entertained the idea he apparently did is disturbing.
He made, however, an even more consequential assertion later. On September 12, 1959, well after the boundary dispute erupted in the open, Nehru told the Lok Sabha apropos the McMahon Line, that “in the Subansiri area or somewhere there, it was not considered a good line and it was varied afterwards by us, by the Government of India”. The line was not defined in words but on a map, which was an agreed treaty map. If a party can legally and morally alter a treaty map, so can it the words of a treaty, an unthinkable proposition. But if Nehru could vary the line in the east so could he in Ladakh, he evidently felt. He had done so earlier.