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  • Mohinder Gulati

Sardar Patel on China: Prescient and Still Relevant

India-China border stand-off seems to be receding, but is it? Will this game of ping-pong continue to keep the northern border on a boil? Sardar Patel raised some questions in a letter of 7th November 1950 to Jawaharlal Nehru, five weeks before his death on 15th December 1950, and suggested a meeting to discuss the issues, clearly define the policy objectives and methods to be adopted to achieve those. The meeting never happened but his letter shows how prescient was Sardar Patel and how relevant is his prognosis even today. He had predicted that China would resolve border dispute with Burma first and it did so by Burma-China Border Treaty in October 1960- good two years before attacking India. I have placed below an abridged version of the letter. Italics and highlights are mine. Have we learnt our lessons; you decide.

Key takeaways from his letter, which were not acted upon until after the 1962 debacle and then too, for several decades, only perfunctorily:

(i) China does not consider India as a friend, regards us with suspicion and the whole psychology is one, at least outwardly, of skepticism, perhaps mixed with a little hostility. Its ideological façade hides its ambitions and historical claims.

(ii) A peaceful Tibet, for centuries, was a buffer between India and China. India’s betrayal of Tibet brought China to our doorstep and compelled us to defend on two fronts. Patel highlighted the need for more communication links, roads, railway and air links, and wireless- low investment in infrastructure in border areas, sounds familiar?

(iii) Border contiguity, arising from disappearance of Tibet, would also create internal security problems from Indian Communists. I paraphrase what he said: Earlier they (Communists) had to contend with difficult Burmese and Pakistan frontiers on the east or with the long seaboard to obtain arms and ammunition. They shall now have easy access to Chinese Communists, and through them to other foreign Communists. Infiltration of spies, fifth columnists and Communists would now be easier. Instead of having to deal with isolated Communist pockets in Telengana and Warrangal we may have to deal with Communist threats to our security along our northern and north-eastern frontiers where they can safely depend on Communists arsenals in China.

And look at his recommendations: a military and intelligence appreciation of Chinese threat; re-disposition of army in the north; development of infrastructure in the border areas- road, rail, air, communication; re-consider retrenchment of Army; increase supply of arms and ammunition; increase internal security in Bengal, Bihar, UP; reconsider support to China’s entry to U.N.O. Finally, he was disappointed that our diplomats had been lulled into a false sense of confidence and were at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions.


Sardar Patel’s letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on 7 November 1950

(abridged; italics and highlights added)

DO No. 821-DPM/50

New Delhi, 7th Nov. 1950

My dear Jawaharlal,

Ever since my return from Ahmedabad and after the Cabinet meeting the same day which I had to attend practically at fifteen minutes’ notice and for which I regret I was not able to read all the papers, I have been anxiously thinking over the problem of Tibet and I thought I should share with you what is passing through my mind.

2. I have carefully gone through the correspondence between the External Affairs Ministry and our Ambassador in Peking and through him the Chinese Government. I have tried to peruse this correspondence as favourably to our Ambassador and the Chinese Government as possible, but I regret to say that neither of them comes out well as a result of this study. The Chinese Government have tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intentions. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they manage to instil into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that, during the period covered by this correspondence, the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet.

The final action of the Chinese, in my judgment, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of their telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf…. even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. With the Communist mentality of “Whoever is not with them being against them” this is a significant pointer, of which we have to take due note. During the last several months, outside the Russian Camp, we have practically been alone in championing the cause of Chinese entry into the U.N.O. and in securing from the Americans assurances on the question of Formosa. We have done everything we could to assuage Chinese feelings, to allay its apprehensions and to defend its legitimate claims, in our discussions and correspondence with America and Britain and in the U.N.O. In spite of this, China is not convinced about our disinterestedness; it continues to regard us with suspicion and the whole psychology is one, at least outwardly, of skepticism, perhaps mixed with a little hostility. I doubt if we can go any further than we have done already to convince China of our good intentions, friendliness and goodwill. In Peking we have an Ambassador who is eminently suitable for putting across the friendly point of view. Even he seems to have failed to convert the Chinese. Their last telegram to us is an act of gross discourtesy not only in the summary way it disposes of our protest against the entry of Chinese forces int Tibet but also in wild insinuation that our attitude is determined by foreign influences. It looks as though it is not a friend speaking in that language but a potential enemy.

3. In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, was we know it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. Throughout history, we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalaya has been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. They had their own domestic problems and never bothered us about our frontiers. In 1914, we entered into a convention with Tibet which was not endorsed by the Chinese. We seem to have regarded Tibetan autonomy as extending to independent treaty relationship. Presumably, all that we required was Chinese counter-signature. The Chinese interpretation of suzerainty seems to be different. We can, therefore, safely assume that very soon they will disown all the stipulations which Tibet has entered into with us in the past. That throws into the melting pot all frontier and commercial settlements with Tibet on which we have been functioning and acting during the last half a century. Chinese irredentism and Communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the Western Powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. Our defence measures have so far been based on the calculations of a superiority over Pakistan. In our calculations we shall now reckon with Communist China in the north and north-east—a Communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendlily disposed towards us.

4. Let me also consider the political considerations of this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern or north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the Tribal Areas in Assam. From the point of view of communications, they are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There too, out outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of there areas with us, is, by no means, close and intimate. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult tasks indeed, and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy. I am sure the Chinese and their source of inspiration, Soviet Russia, would not miss any opportunity of exploiting these weak spots, partly in support of their ideology and partly in support of their ambitions. In my judgment, therefore, the situation is one in which we cannot afford either to be complacent or to be vacillating. We must have a clear idea of what we wish to achieve and also of the methods by which we should achieve it. Any faltering or lack of decisiveness in formulating our objectives in pursuing our policy to attain those objectives is bound to weaken us and increase the threats which are so evident.

5. Side by side with these external dangers we shall now have to face serious internal problems as well. I have already asked Iengar to send to the External Affairs Ministry a copy of the Intelligence Bureau’s appreciation of these matters. Hitherto, the Communist Party of India has found some difficulty in contacting Communists abroad, or in getting suppliers of arms, literature, etc. from them. They had to contend with difficult Burmese and Pakistan frontiers on the east or with the long seaboard. They shall now have a comparatively easy means of access to Chinese Communists, and through them to other foreign Communists. Infiltration of spies, fifth columnists and Communists would now be easier. Instead of having to deal with isolated Communist pockets in Telengana and Warrangal we may have to deal with Communist threats to our security along our northern and north-eastern frontiers where, for supplies of arms and ammunition, they can safely depend on Communists arsenals in China. The whole situation thus raises a number of problems on which we must come to an early decision so that we can, as said earlier, formulate the objectives of our policy and decide the methods by which those actions will have to be fairly comprehensive involving not only our defence strategy and state of preparation but also problems of internal security to deal with which we have not a moment to lose.

6. It is, of course, impossible for me to be exhaustive in setting out all these problems. I am, however, giving below some of the problems, which in my opinion, require early solution and round which we have to build our administrative or military policies and measures to implement them:

(a) A military and intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India both on the frontier and to internal security.

(b) An examination of our military position and such redisposition of our forces as might be necessary, particularly with the idea of guarding important routes or areas which are likely to be the subject of dispute.

(c) An appraisement of the strength of our forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of our retrenchment plans for the Army in the light of these new threats.

(d) A long-term consideration of our defence needs. My own feeling is that, unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we would be making our defence position perpetually weak and we would not be able to stand up to the double threat of difficulties both from the west and north-west, and north and north-east.

(e) The question of Chinese entry into U.N.O. In view of the rebuff which China has given us and the method which it has followed in dealing with Tibet, I am doubtful whether we can advocate its claims any longer. There would probably be a threat in the U.N.O. virtually to outlaw China, in view of its active participation in the Korean War. We must determine our attitude on this question also.

(f) The political and administrative steps which we should take to strengthen our northern and north-eastern frontiers. This would include the whole of the border i.e. Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the Tribal territory in Assam.

(g) Measures of internal security in the border areas as well as the States flanking those areas such as U.P., Bihar, Bengal and Assam.

(h) Improvement of our communications, road, rail, air and wireless in these areas, and with the frontier outposts.

(i) Policing and intelligence of frontier posts.

(j) The future of our mission at Lhasa and the trade posts at Gyangtse and Yatung and the forces which we have in operation in Tibet to guard the trade routes.

(k) The policy in regard to McMahon Line.

7. These are some of the questions which occur to my mind. …we might have to consider whether we should not enter into closer association with Burma in order to strengthen the latter in its dealings with China. I do not rule out the possibility that, before applying pressure on us, China might apply pressure on Burma. With Burma, the frontier is entirely undefined and the Chinese territorial claims are more substantial. In its present position, Burma might offer an easier problem for China, and therefore might claim its first attention.

8. I suggest that we meet early to have a general discussion on these problems and decide on such steps as we might think to be immediately necessary and direct quick examination of other problems with a view to taking early measures to deal with them.


Vallabhbhai Patel

The Hon’ble Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru,

Prime Minister of India,

New Delhi.


India’s Ambassador in Peking at the time was K.M. Panikkar.

Sardar Patel died on 15th December 1950, within five weeks of writing this letter.

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