As we celebrate seventy years of Sino-Indian relations in 2020, it is good to remember the words of KM Panikkar, India’s first ambassador to China.
The year 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of relations between India and China. After the informal meeting last October between Premier Xi and Prime Minister Modi, it was decided that the Indian embassy will organise 70 events to commemorate the anniversary.
In 1950, the fledgling People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the Communist Party was facing a momentous task in uniting the nation (much of it including Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang were not under its control) and the dealing with the international fallback. As the fighting between the Kuomintang and the PRC reached Nanjing in 1949, the Indian ambassador to the Republic of China at the time, KM Panikkar withdrew from China along with other Indian diplomats and was evacuated with the help of the British. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to send Panikkar back as the ambassador from India to the PRC. However, there was the problem of both countries having to establish diplomatic relations. The problem, Panikkar notes in his book In Two China: Memoirs of a Diplomat, is that the question was not whether India should establish relations with the PRC but when it should do so.
In Panikkar's chronicles, he remembers that conservative members of the Indian National Congress like C Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vallabhai Patel wanted to go slow. This was primarily because there was a fear that the Kuomintang which still held power in Sichuan, Yunnan and other areas could be mobilised by the Americans, possibly leading to a civil war. While Americans dithered on support to the Kuomintang, Panikkar’s own view of the matter was that India should recognise the PRC when the Kuomintang (then based in Chongqing) stopped functioning. When they finally did flee to Taiwan, the Indian government in December 1949 conveyed its recognition to Beijing and became part of a handful of countries who first recognised the PRC.
Panikkar writes about his feeling on entering a new China as his boat docked in Tianjin, “I knew I was entering a strange and new world. I knew that my previous experience, either in the West or in Kuomintang China, would be of no great help to me. My knowledge of communism was only from books. In fact, except for the Soviet and Eastern bloc diplomats in Nanking, I had not known any communists at all. All my training has been in the liberal radicalism of the West and consequently, though I was in some measure familiar with the economic doctrines of Marx, I had no sympathy for a political system in which individual liberty did not find a prominent place. But as against all this, I had a deep feeling of sympathy for the Chinese people, a desire to see them united, strong and powerful, able to stand up against the nations which had oppressed them for a hundred years, a psychological appreciation of their desire to wipe out the humiliations which followed the western domination of their country and to proclaim the message of Asia Resurgent. In these matters the attitudes of India and China were similar."
Panikkar’s words from 70 years ago are a powerful reminder of camaraderie in an uncertain time. As we debate the breakdown of the international liberal order and celebrate the 70 years of Sino-Indian relations, it is good to look back at how far both countries have come since then. And starting here would be a good time to look ahead to see what kind of relationship we want to fashion with China today.
Hamsini Hariharan is the host of the States of Anarchy podcast and is currently based in Beijing.
First Published: IST