INTERVIEW: Nirupama Rao


Nirupama Rao is a career diplomat who served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009 to 2011, as well as being India’s Ambassador to the United States, China and Sri Lanka. She is one of the foremost China experts among the diplomatic corps of the country. On 2021 end she has authored a detailed book on the India – China dispute with reference to India, Tibet and China.  Her book, ‘The Fractured Himalaya’ India Tibet China – 1949 to 1962 traces the entire history of India’s relationship with its neighbouring China in the said period and the role of Tibet which is vital in understanding the India – China relationship. The author draws upon numerous documents regarding the stand which was adopted by India, China, USA, UK, Soviet Union among other countries with reference to Tibet and its issues with China. Excerpts from a detailed interview with Nirupama Rao on the basis of her book.   INTERVIEW: Nirupama Rao, Interview by ABHISH K. BOSE

ABHISH K BOSE: As an Ambassador to China and involved in several rounds of discussions with the Chinese leadership. What is your take on the future of India-China relationship?

NIRUPAMA RAO: My book ‘The Fractured Himalaya’ is aiming to enlighten the public about the complex nature of the dispute between India and China.  I have studied the issue in close proximity and I also present an understanding of all the issues and the policy factors involved in this very complex narrative. As far as the present and the future of the relationship are concerned, I think we first have to understand the past. If you are not understanding the past you are condemned to repeat it, as they say. The nature of the issue is extremely complex and there is no solution to it other than patient negotiations.  A solution cannot arrive through conflict from either side or confrontation. Unfortunately, at the present moment we have a lot of tensions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries, both in Ladakh, and now in pockets along the Arunachal Pradesh border with China. China is engaged in various activities leading to more tensions in the area. Now both countries are in touch with each other through their military commanders and diplomatic establishments to sort out the tensions, to achieve some disengagement and some de-escalation. So there are two aspects related to this, one is to reduce the tensions along the border that is the (LAC) and that effort has to continue and we have to see the reduction of tension first of all. India has been very firm that China must return to the status quo, and that the new transgressions as they are called are removed especially in Ladakh.  So we have to achieve a return to the status quo since first of all the relations were affected by what happened in Galwan last year. We lost 20 soldiers. There was a lot of tension for the first time in the last 45 years along the border which is very unfortunate. This affected the whole structure of the relationship. First, we have to deal with that. As far as resolving the border is concerned it requires a concentrated effort by the leadership of both countries. It is not an easy matter as each country has its positions and claims and we have to see a reduction of differences on the issues to reach some agreement. Thus there are two aspects to this problem. At the moment the focus and concentration are on how to reduce the tension along the Line of Actual Control.

ABHISH K BOSE: In your book, you are quoting the diary of the Soviet ambassador in Beijing, PF Yudin, who records a conversation with Deng Xiaopeng – the then general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, in 1959, June. While referring to the Dalai Lama, Deng told Yudin ‘ Nehru calculated that the Dalai Lama would play a huge role in the Indian plan and that chaos would begin in Tibet without Lama. According to the conversation this prompted Nehru to give asylum to Lama. Quite the opposite, in Tibet, things are going without Lama. The Lama had turned out to be a burden.  Is there any other historical document to prove this thought prevailed in Nehru’s mind and whether the Dalai Lama was given asylum on the basis of this assumption? What is your view on this?

NIRUPAMA RAO: The Dalai Lama was given asylum since he had to leave Tibet in 1959. There was a Tibetan revolt at that time, The Dalai Lama’s life was in danger and he had no option but to leave Tibet and to seek refuge in India. India’s position was quite clear at that time. We did not want to interfere in the Tibetan issue. We had recognized Tibet as a part of China. Nehru told the Dalai Lama that he should adjust and come to terms with realities and work with the Chinese. But that did not succeed as the Chinese introduced new reforms in Tibet, which the Tibetan people were unhappy with and there were a lot of disturbances and revolt that ensued and the Dalai Lama had no option at that time but to leave Lhasa. At that time I do not think that his intention was to seek refuge in India, but as the situation worsened he had no option but to cross the border and come to Arunachal Pradesh, and that way he entered India. It all happened because there was a cause and an effect; I don’t think there was any interference from the part of India at all in the Tibetan situation. But the affection the Indian people always had for Tibetans and especially for the Dalai Lama I think was foremost in Nehru’s mind – he saw the difficulties that the Dalai Lama was facing and India offered refuge to him.

ABHISH K BOSE:  It was after the Dalai Lama was given asylum in India that the relations with China deteriorated. It was after this that the Chinese supreme leader Mao Zedong had written an essay in the People’s Daily on May 6, 1959, in which he would emphasize how Nehru and his government had sought to block political reforms in Tibet and harboured territorial ambitions towards Tibet. Do you think that the decision of Nehru in giving refuge to the Dalai Lama was a well-thought-out decision giving adequate bearing to its long-term political ramifications?

NIRUPAMA RAO: It was not political asylum but refuge on humanitarian grounds. I think at that time India had no option but to act on humanitarian grounds.  Because public opinion in our country and a majority of the people apart from the Communists did support Nehru’s decision to give refuge to Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees. So it was a popular decision and I don’t think Nehru could have acted otherwise. I don’t think Nehru could have denied the Dalai Lama’s entry into the country because it was a humanitarian question. Dalai Lama’s life was in danger, his life was at risk let us say and it was the correct decision to allow him to come to India. Of course, the Chinese had their own interpretation of it, but that is the Chinese outlook.  But as far as India is concerned India acted correctly and in the best humanitarian interests to offer refuge to the Dalai Lama. It was very clear from the beginning that the Dalai Lama should not engage in any political activity while he was in India. That he was here as a guest of our people, of our government and we see him as a religious figure, not as a political figure.  

ABHISH K BOSE:  Which means you are refuting the conversation PF Yudin had with Deng Xiao Peng. While referring to the Dalai Lama, Deng told Yudin ‘ Nehru calculated that the Dalai Lama would play a huge role in the Indian plan and that chaos would begin in Tibet without Lama.

NIRUPAMA RAO: That’s not absolutely the case. I don’t think Nehru had any plan or any plot or there was any Indian conspiracy.  The Dalai Lama has to leave Lhasa, his life was in danger and I said it was a popular decision supported by all the political parties to offer him refuge. . It was not something that the opposition questioned Nehru about. This was one issue on which there was a national consensus in India that we offer asylum to the Dalai Lama and whatever the Soviets or the Chinese were saying that was the Communist point of view.   From the beginning, the Chinese wanted to establish a Communist order in Tibet.  I don’t think the Chinese were interested in promoting religion or the culture of the Tibetan people and that I think was the root cause of the problem. The Tibetans were uneasy with all the reforms the Chinese were introducing there and if you read the Soviet papers very carefully what the Soviet leaders were saying at that time, they were faulting the Chinese leadership for all the wrongs they made in Tibet.  The Soviets were not blaming Nehru or India but were blaming the Chinese for having created a situation which had led to all these complications.

ABHISH K BOSE: Did Prime Minister Nehru take the Chinese transgressions into Indian territory with the required seriousness? There are options on his behalf to raise these Chinese transgressions before the UN. However, he didn’t make use of any of these forums. When he raised the issue of the continuing depiction of Indian territory as Chinese in its official maps with Chinese PM Zhou Enlai during his October 1959 visit to China, Zhou Enlai said that the maps in question were based on the old Guomindang maps which had not yet been revised by the people’s government. This is perceived to be a tricky stand. In fact, this is also pointing to the expansionist agenda inherent in the Chinese establishment. How do you explain the Chinese tactics? 

NIRUPAMA RAO: The Chinese were waiting to consolidate their claims.  As you know in the early part of our history, up to 1957 or so the Chinese were studying the issue, they were making the plans, they were improving their infrastructure, and by 1957, 58 and 59, that is when the whole border problem became evident, especially to India, India had assumed that the Chinese were not going to make these claims.  That I think is the time we should have understood Chinese intentions more correctly. I don’t think there was ever a question of taking it to the United Nations. Even to this day, regardless of the changes in the government and the political parties assuming power in New Delhi, the approach has always been that both countries should work this problem out and solve it bilaterally, not by referring it to the United Nations. So there was no question of referring it to the UN. That never arose. As far as the border is concerned throughout all these decades the approach from both sides is that we have to sit and resolve these issues through patient negotiations and in a fair and reasonable way. That continues to be our stand to this day.

Jawaharlal Nehru signing the constitution

ABHISH K BOSE: The double standard adopted by the Chinese establishment to Nehru regarding the continuous depiction of Indian territories was that the maps were prepared on the basis of old Guomindong maps not revised by the Chinese establishment. Wasn’t it a tricky stand?

NIRUPAMA RAO: Yes it’s true that the Chinese wait to strike at the opportune moment, there is no question about it.  The Chinese adopted an expansionist approach to the territory all across their borders. You had the incidents in the India – China border, you have this happening in the East and South China Seas, and they had a war with Vietnam.  So the Chinese have border problems with all their neighbouring countries. In the case of India, it is a very long border, an unsettled border and that continues to generate tensions between the two countries.  The Chinese had made these claims in the territory from the 1950s onwards and at that point in time we should have been more alert to what they were doing along our borders, and secondly, there was an opportunity at that point of time since positions on both sides had not crystallized fully to sort out these problems, to come to some conclusion where both sides would sit down and work out a border settlement that would safeguard the national interests and the security of both sides. That opportunity definitely existed in the 1960s as for example when Zhou Enlai came to Delhi in April 1960. So those opportunities I think could have been used to settle the issue.

Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, waves to journalists at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 23, 2022. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei/IANS)

ABHISH K BOSE: Was Nehru’s non-alignment policy a burden for India while India faced a number of crises in its immediate neighbourhood as a result of the presence of China and Pakistan? Nehru’s non-alignment policy was a bit idealistic taking into account the territorial disputes with China and Pakistan. The book says that Nehru was against the view of his colleagues in the cabinet that if China is allying with the Soviet Union, India should move closer to the US. However, Nehru was apprehensive that if India moved close to the US it would have disastrous consequences in its relations with China. Nehru was the proponent of a balanced relationship with China and the US thereby not hurting or moving close to both of them. Could India block the aggressive moves of China at the border by allying with the US? What are your views on this?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I don’t think the US could come to our rescue regarding our issues with China. I think history teaches us that we have to have a policy of multi-alignment when it comes to dealing with such situations. We have to create balancing factors whereby we can deal with these threats better.  This includes strengthening our defence forces, it also includes reaching out to other countries with whom we can form partnerships which can balance the threats from others. These countries may not fight our battle for us, but they can augment our resources whether they are security, or economic. In the fifties and sixties of the last century, India was a very young, new nation, and as individuals when you are young, and when you are inexperienced in life you do make mistakes that you regret in later years.  But I think Nehru’s intentions were honourable. Nehru did not want to be part of either block, east or west. He thought China as a country could not just be categorised as a Communist country, that China is a civilizational state that China and India could build a partnership that could promote the interests of the developing world which would be of positive contribution to the cause of peace in Asia. So these were the intentions Nehru had in his mind. But I think in retrospect maybe we should have been more flexible in our approach with the US at that time.  History teaches us that. But you cannot reach an assumption based simply in isolation. Every decision is in a specific context. We should see it in that light and there are no absolute truths in history.

ABHISH K BOSE: In his autobiography, former Foreign Secretary of India MK Rasgotra reveals that China’s war on India could have been stopped if Nehru accepted the proposal from then-US President John F Kennedy for transferring nuclear bomb technology to India. It was in the 1950s when Kennedy was the president. However, Nehru declined this offer after consulting with his advisors. If Nehru had accepted this proposal do you think it could rein in the territorial ambitions of China? Are there any documents or other evidence in your research to prove that Kennedy put forward a similar proposal and Nehru declined it. What is your view?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I have not come across any other sources to prove this. Ambassador Rasgothra, of course, has pointed out this in his book. I have not addressed this in my book. I have dealt with the India – China relationship in my book and what resulted in the conflict of 1962.  The point is that in the 1960s, the Chinese and the Soviet Union fell out and what the record suggests is that the Soviet Union had begun to help China in building its nuclear weapon capability with some exchange of blueprints. We don’t know the full truth of this, but the inference is that the Chinese received a lot of help from the Soviet Union in building nuclear weapons. At that time, you are right that the options were available for India also. But Kennedy died in 1963, and Nehru died in 1964. Nehru was very clear in his mind that he did not want India to become a nuclear weapon state.  He was a proponent of universal nuclear disarmament, he was of the view that nuclear weapons can cause unwanted destruction that could even eliminate the human race. He did not want a third world war, and that was Nehru’s philosophy and his ideology as we can call it.

ABHISH K BOSE: Do you think that Nehru was more often idealistic in his foreign relations?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I don’t know if he was entirely idealistic. He was knowledgeable of the ground situation. We have to study the issues in more depth and see what lessons history has taught us. But we cannot indulge in this quarrel with the past. If we continue yo do so, it will affect our present and it will affect our future also. We have to learn from these lessons and understand this is what history has taught us and how we must safeguard our interests and utilize our resources better. Indulging in a constant quarrel with the past will drag us down.  Understanding the past should liberate us.

ABHISH K BOSE: Do you have any suggestions to reach a permanent solution to the disputes with the Chinese? Is dialogue a way ahead?

NIRUPAMA RAO: Dialogue is the only solution. It is the solution. The Indian government is very clear that we are not for conflict, we do not want tension. But if the other side creates these tensions we will defend ourselves. We are very clear that our territory will be defended. We will take whatever means to prevent any taking of what we consider as our territory by the other side. This has been the approach of every government in power in Delhi. So while we are supporters of a peaceful solution at the same time on the ground we are clear that our territory will be defended and we will not barter away the nation’s interest.

ABHISH K BOSE: As the relations with China deteriorate countries such as India and the US should need to focus on how the identity of the Tibetan people as a distinct cultural community, can be safeguarded and fostered as the current Dalai Lama is advancing in age and China increasingly asserts her right to name a suppliant successor while clamping down further on the human rights of Tibetans and their communication links with the outside world. How can Tibetan interests be protected?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I think from both the US side and from our side also, our approach has always been to support the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetans. India has given refuge to hundreds of thousands of Tibetans since 1959 onwards and new generations of Tibetans have grown up in India. Today if you visit the Tibetan settlements, if you go to Dharamsala you see that Tibetan culture is alive in India. I think it is the greatest contribution that India has made to the Tibetan cause. We have not interfered politically in Tibet, whatever the Chinese say. It is absolutely untrue to suggest that India has in any way caused the problems that they face in Tibet. That is totally an assumption from that side that needs to be rejected unequivocally. India is not indulging in any such activities. I think the world supports India and appreciates what India has done to foster and to preserve Tibetan culture, to preserve the religious and cultural identity of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is a respected spiritual leader who is respected not only by the Tibetans but also by the Indians. Now the question of his succession, obviously India cannot interfere nor the US. We have not interfered in these issues. If you talk to the Tibetans anywhere they hold the Dalai Lama in the highest respect. They worship him. I hope that he lives as long as possible, and his welfare is our uppermost concern. What happens hereafter, we hope that a solution is found that will be in the interests of the Tibetan people.

ABHISH K BOSE: On Tibet, India’s primary concern were that her frontiers with the region should be regarded as fixed and determined, and not open to alteration. But the implicit acknowledgement by India of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet after 1950s without ensuring as a quid pro quo, that China would affirm and endorse the traditional Indo – Tibetan frontier had fateful repercussions. Is it a diplomatic lapse from the part of India to ensure that China adheres to the Indian interests?

NIRUPAMA RAO: I have laid out the facts in my book. If we had raised the issue of the India-China frontier at the time of negotiating the Agreement on Tibet in 1954, history would have been different. Let us put it in those terms

ABHISH K BOSE: Despite India – China tensions the trade between the two countries has grown over the years to an unprecedented level. Due to the mutual financial ties between the two countries the India – China relationship needs to be revamped for the benefit of the two countries.  How do you evaluate this contradiction in its relations with China?

NIRUPAMA RAO: In the last few decades, the relationship between India and China had grown in several areas including trade and economic ties, people-to-people contacts, communication links between the two countries, leadership-level dialogue, a whole architecture of the relationship was built up over the last 30 years.  It is true that there is an unbalanced trade between the two sides with Chinese exports to India being much more than Indian exports to China.  This has always been a cause of concern. Now after what happened in Galwan, there is a lot of talk on how to reduce our dependence on China. But we can’t do it that easily. Because it is not something that happens overnight. A lot of steps have to be taken to safeguard the supply chain, to diversify our sources of imports, to build more ‘aatmanirbhar’ as the government says within the country. It is a process that is ongoing and will take some time. The relationship with China has developed in many areas in the last 30 years.  It is much more developed than it was in the 1960s when we did not have much trade with China.  The economic relationship between the two countries as it had evolved over the last few years cannot be broken overnight.

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