The Unmaking of Panchsheel
With India’s ongoing border fracas with China, few today remember that, at one time, China and India preached mutual peace and cooperation, and the so-called ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ slogan was based on both geopolitical necessities of the Cold War and the need to secure borders at a time of great flux in both newly reborn countries. But the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, or ‘Panchsheel’, that India and China agreed to in 1954, was undone by hypocrisy and realpolitik on both sides—aided by a generous amount of naïveté on India’s part. It cost India the 1962 war, and has shadowed Sino-Indian relations ever since.
On 16th August 1947, the sun dawned on a hopeful yet bruised, battered and nervous subcontinent.
As hundreds of millions celebrated the independence of India and Pakistan after centuries of British domination, millions were caught in the communal savagery along their borders. Meanwhile, though Japanese forces had withdrawn from China two years earlier, following their defeat at the hands of the United States, China’s civil war continued. The Mao Zedong-led Chinese Communist Party was now on the offensive, crossing the Yangtze River and pushing into the country’s northeast, steadily cornering Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces.
Despite the powerful words about a “tryst with destiny” he had declaimed as the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru could have had no illusions about the magnitude of the foreign policy challenges that lay ahead of him. The Second World War had ended but the subcontinent was still a fragile place, reeling from Partition. The confrontation between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America meant that the shadow of imperialism and renewed global conflict loomed ominously.
But Nehru had an idea that he was convinced would help restore the fortunes of India and Asia. The previous year, he had written that “A free India will link together the Middle East with China. India is so situated as to form the center of a group of Asian nations for defense as well as trade and commerce. Her cultural contacts with all these countries date back thousands of years.”
Over March and April 1947, he helped organize an Asian Relations Conference in Delhi to give some form to this concept. But many Asian countries were suspicious of Indian domination, while the Chinese delegation, in a sign of things to come, nearly staged a walk-out because Tibet had a delegation of its own.
Nehru was, however, not so easily deterred. He had been a patron of Pan-Asianism, an intellectual movement that had originated a few decades earlier and found its firmest academic root at Vishva Bharati University in Shantiniketan, in present-day West Bengal. Pan-Asianists were convinced that India and China were the two dominant forces in Asia as defined by their ‘peaceful’ history of Buddhist interaction, and that they could work together to recreate this dynamic, bringing peace and prosperity to Asia in the aftermath of colonialism.
How convinced Nehru was of this peaceful interaction is up for debate. But as China’s civil war came to a bloody end in 1949, followed soon after by the Communist-led annexation of Xinjiang and Tibet, it became clear that if India were to lead Asia or the world in any meaningful sense, it would first have to reckon with this ‘ancient’ neighbour. This would lead to ‘Panchsheel’, one of the most consequential policies that Nehru ever formulated, one that would cast a shadow over Indian foreign policy, and his reputation, for decades to come.
Crafting a New Kind of Foreign Policy
Even in the years before independence, Nehru had espoused a surprisingly global foreign policy for India, taking a keen interest in developments in the Third World. After 1947, he would attempt to carve out an independent path for India and Asia through the political minefield that became known as the Cold War. This was not an easy task given India’s lack of economic and military clout, and so Nehru engaged in a grand global balancing act instead. This involved a refusal to align India with any major power, paying close attention to how India’s foreign policy actions were perceived by global audiences, and adopting an involved and principled stance on global issues.
Nehru’s close friend, politician and occasional diplomat V K Krishna Menon, was well-known for his scathing critiques of the great powers. It was not an approach that won many friends for India: as long-time Congress leader, and, later, Congress rebel J B Kripalani pointed out, “Neutrality cannot be combined with the urge to reform the world”. On the other hand, it did succeed in conveying an impression of an active and independent India, staving off Western intervention in the fragile politics of the subcontinent in the years after Independence.
The 1950s would prove to be watershed years for Nehru’s foreign policy. The Korean War almost brought the USSR and USA into open confrontation, drawing in the forces of the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well. In a foreshadowing of events, the PRC had already proved that it was not a friendly and sensitive partner to India. Indeed, the annexation of Tibet came after assurances to India that it would not invade.
Furthermore, according to the historian Tansen Sen, both India’s Intelligence Bureau and its ambassador in Beijing remained almost totally in the dark about the “liberation” of Tibet before and while it was happening in 1950, suggesting a systemic failure of intelligence-gathering and a misunderstanding of Chinese intentions that would prove highly consequential later. The home minister at the time, Vallabhbhai Patel would write to Nehru that “...even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends.”
Nevertheless, perhaps aware of how little leverage India actually had over it, Nehru endorsed the PRC for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. This was (and continues to be) a very controversial decision.
Nehru’s reasoning for this decision was part idealism, part pragmatism, and part personal. He had considerable regard for the role of China in Asian history, and saw the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) as representing a people’s movement addressing genuine grievances held by China’s agrarian population. Furthermore, as the international affairs expert, Mohammed Ayoob points out, in the highly-charged atmosphere of the 1950s, with fears of the so-called “red terror” spreading, Nehru wished to provide China with its “rightful” place in the international and Asian system. The Sinologist, Anton Harder agrees, emphasizing also that Nehru believed that “the shared aspiration for economic progress” would “socialise” China. For her part, the scholar Jivanta Schottli argues that Nehru had a strong self-image as a “magnanimous statesman” and was convinced he understood China and global affairs better than other Indian politicians.
Nehru might have possessed a generous conception of himself but he was perceptive about China. He instinctively understood that the rise of the communists had been driven by nationalism and anti-colonialism, telling US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1953 that the communists were “accepted as rulers, because they provide a measure of internal order, but most of the Chinese are not themselves Communists”. He even prophetically foresaw the Sino-Soviet split that gained momentum in the 1960s. “Almost assuredly, Communist China will divorce itself from Soviet Russia within 15 or 25 years.”
Pan-Asian ideals were not by themselves sufficient material with which to build a durable relationship with China. However, by 1954, India and China also began to enjoy some convergence of interests in Asia. After years of violent revolution, a war in the Korean Peninsula, and the forcible annexation of Tibet, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and party chairman Mao Zedong were eager to convince Asia’s newly decolonising nations that they had peaceful intentions. If successful, they would keep these nations out of America’s system of military alliances. As Zhou would later tell Mao, a Chinese charm offensive would help “to strike a blow at the United States’ conspiracy to organize a Southeast Asia invasive bloc”.
The opening salvo of this charm offensive was directed at India, where it found ready takers. By early 1954, Indians had good reason to share China’s concerns about new US-backed alliances in the region. The most direct threat came from Pakistan, which was about to receive a steady flow of American arms.
The result of this India-China convergence was not some grand treaty but a diplomatic curiosity. By April, India and China had completed an agreement in which India effectively recognised the reality of China’s presence in Tibet and gave up the traditional privileges it had previously enjoyed there. Appended to the beginning of this agreement of 29 April 1954 was a preamble that listed the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, which the Chinese refer to as ‘Five Principles’; in India they came to be known as ‘Panchsheel’, or ‘Panch Shila’ or ‘Pancha Shila’. These principles would govern the agreement: mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.
Over the following two years, the India-China convergence only grew. Over 1954 and 1955, two US-sponsored military pacts came into being. To India’s west was the Baghdad Pact, later renamed CENTO or Central Treaty Organisation, which included Britain, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. To its east was the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization or SEATO born of the ‘Manila Pact’, with signatories such as the United States, the UK, France, Thailand and the Philippines—and Pakistan.
Pakistan had become a member of both pacts, thanks to the presence of its two wings on either end of India. Barely a decade after a global conflagration that had killed at least 70 million, India was surrounded by new military alliances that counted among their members a state that coveted Indian territory.
For India, China was a useful partner in its efforts to limit the spread of the Cold War and create an alternative vision for the future. Zhou and Nehru made reciprocal visits to each other’s countries and the two sides expounded the virtues of the Five Principles—Panchsheel.
Panchsheel added nothing new to the practice of statecraft. Its principles were bromides, perfectly consistent with both the United Nations charter and with international law. It was also not an Indian invention. The weight of evidence indicates the five principles were primarily a Chinese initiative. While the word ‘Panchsheel’ suggested an ancient Indian provenance; it was simply an effective branding exercise, most likely suggested to Nehru by India’s then-ambassador to China, K M Panikkar.
At any rate, India became an avid proponent of Panchsheel. In 1954, Nehru successfully pushed for a reference to the principles in a joint Sino-Burmese statement. By the time of the historic, ‘non-aligned’ Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, Nehru was advocating that all newly decolonised states adopt Panchsheel as the new norm for interstate relations.
Despite Nehru’s enthusiasm for Panchsheel, some veteran diplomats worried about China’s long-term intentions and wondered how long the bonhomie would last. Girija Shankar Bajpai, the first secretary-general of the Ministry of External Affairs, wrote with concern to a friend that Nehru’s advisors “completely and vehemently reject any possibility of a change in what appears to be China’s present policy of peace with its Asian neighbours”.
In the years to come, his fears would be tragically realized.
Collision with History
It did not take long for India’s espousal of Panchsheel to open it to charges of hypocrisy. In late 1956, global diplomatic attention was turned to a dual crisis: British and French forces had seized the Suez Canal in a blatantly neo-colonial undertaking, while Soviet tanks had rolled into Hungary to suppress a revolt against a Kremlin-friendly regime.
India immediately condemned the capture of the Suez but delayed its condemnation of Soviet actions. For some, like Escott Reid, an influential Canadian diplomat involved in the formation of both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Canada’s high commissioner to India in 1952-57, this was evidence that for Indians, colonialism only meant ‘the rule of a coloured people by a white people’, a view later echoed by US President Dwight Eisenhower. In reality, Nehru had publicly chided the Soviets for being one of those countries for which the five principles were “mere words without meaning”. However, it was clear the Panchsheel provided a line of attack against India every time there was a crisis or dispute.
The limitations of Panchsheel became evident in 1959, as Sino-Indian relations nosedived. Chinese repression in Tibet had sparked an uprising there and, as a consequence, the Dalai Lama fled to India, which granted him asylum. For Zhou and Mao, this was an obvious interference in Chinese affairs—and a violation of the Panchsheel pledge to not interfere in the other country’s internal affairs. Later that year, Indian and Chinese troops clashed in bloody skirmishes at Longju in the North-East Frontier Agency or NEFA, as Arunachal Pradesh was known at the time, and at Kongka La Pass in Ladakh. Zhou visited India in April 1960 in an effort to ease tensions but the two sides made little progress.
If there was one subject on which India and China still agreed, it was anti-colonialism. As Indian forces moved to expel the Portuguese from Goa in December 1961, the Chinese government instructed its envoy in Delhi to make it clear that they would “support the action taken by India against Goa”.
However, it added that India could not claim similar justification in its dispute with China since “China does not occupy an inch of Indian land, but India actually occupies [a large amount] of Chinese land.”
The End of Dreams?
At dawn on 20th October 1962, veteran soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army launched synchronised attacks on Indian positions on the McMahon Line and NEFA. Within a month, Indian forces had been routed and humiliated. A ceasefire saved India further blushes and a massive loss of territory.
In the recriminations that have followed in the six decades since India’s defeat, Panchsheel has been conferred the status of an original sin, an unforgivable act of naïveté that cost India blood and reputation. For others, Panchsheel remains emblematic of a simpler, more idealistic time in Indian foreign policy.
Yet Panchsheel deserves neither the infamy nor the fame. As an anodyne declaratory statement, it can neither be blamed for the war of 1962 nor credited for the foreign policy successes Indian enjoyed in the 1950s.
Any idealism attached to Panchsheel died in the unforgiving slopes of the Himalaya in 1962 along with the 3,000 Indian soldiers who were killed or listed as missing. In the aftermath of the war, India joined hands with the US to train Tibetan rebels and launch them into Chinese territory, while China backed insurgent groups in India. Within a decade, diplomatic alignments were transformed as the US, China, and Pakistan made common cause, while India and the Soviet Union concluded a landmark treaty. It was at that supremely ironic moment in history that India violated every one of the five principles of Panchsheel to achieve its greatest military and moral triumph: the liberation of Bangladesh.
India and China still pay ritual obeisance to Panchsheel. Yet it is an anachronism, a product of a specific time that has long-ago achieved what little purpose it could serve. If there is a lesson here for the pan-Asianist of the 21st century, it is that the principles of Panchsheel cannot be the drivers of peace, they can only be its product.
A Timeline of India-China Relations upto 1962:
March 1947: The Asian Relations Conference fails 1949: India recognizes the People’s Republic of China April 1950: Ambassador-level relations established October 1950: Communist Chinese forces enter Tibet 1954: The Panchsheel Agreement is signed in Beijing, Zhou Enlai visits India 1956: The first visit of the Dalai Lama to India 1957: Zhou makes a second visit to India as part of an eight-nation tour of Asia 1959: Zhou’s note to India in January, saying China did not recognize the McMahon Line in the east; and claimed all of Aksai Chin 1959: Nehru responds to Zhou’s letter, defending India’s position and saying neither side should take unilateral action 1959: The Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule begins in early March 1959: Dalai Lama escapes Tibet and arrives in India in late March 1959: Indian and Chinese troops clash in Longju in August 1959: Zhou sends a letter asserting that China’s maps reflected the real boundary with India 1959: A second clash occurs between Indian and Chinese troops in Kongka La Pass, in October 1960: Zhou lands in a Delhi in a bid to repair ties with India 1961: India’s so-called Forward Policy gets started in November 1962: War breaks out on 20th October
– ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Aditya Ramanathan is an associate fellow at the Takshashila Institution, where his research focuses on nuclear weapons, maritime strategy and space. He also manages Takshashila’s flagship podcast All Things Policy and is a host of Yuddha, an Indian military history podcast. Anirudh Kanisetti is a researcher and writer. His work straddles technology, geopolitics and history. He is the host of two podcasts about Indian history, Echoes of India and Yuddha, and All Things Policy. For his podcasts and work on history communication on social media, he received the New Indian Express' 2020 edition of the 40 Under 40 Award.
Cover image courtesy: mea.gov.in