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In 1955, India tried ‘mango diplomacy’ with China. The outcome wasn’t really sweet

In 1955, India dispatched eight mango saplings to China—and it was more than just a gesture of appreciation.

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It is summertime and the mango season is back! The world’s largest mango producer, India grows a whopping 20 million mangoes annually. The country that is a distant second on this list is China.

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But believe it or not, even until the 1960s, mango was almost unknown to the Chinese, barring a few regions in South China. The story of Chairman Mao using mango as a nationwide propaganda tool after receiving it as a gift from then Pakistan foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain in 1968, is quite legendary. But what is relatively unknown is more than a decade before the “precious gift” from Pakistan paved the way for the fabulous long march of mang guo across China, the Indian government did try to initiate early mango diplomacy in the 1950s.

Declassified documents from India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) show how the country, with more than a1000 mango varieties, pulled quite a few stops to dispatch eight mango saplings to the Middle Kingdom way back in 1955.  MEA files reveal that the mangoes were a return gift for then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, who, in November 1954, had showered former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with a slew of exotic and precious gifts. These gifts included a pair of spotted deer, a pair of red crested cranes, and 100 goldfish. So, following the suggestion of then Ambassador to China Nedyam Raghavan, India decided to reciprocate the grand gesture with the mango sapling—a fruit historically regarded as India’s pride and  not so familiar to the neighbouring country across the Himalayas.

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Initiation of mango diplomacy

The initial plan was to send these saplings for planting in the People’s Park of Guangzhou (then Canton), in the winter of 1954. However, it was discarded after the Indian Embassy in Beijing (then Peking) advised the MEA that it was “not the most suitable time for planting mangoes in China.” The plan was revived the following summer, in May 1955, when the Indian Embassy in Beijing nudged the MEA to arrange for mango saplings at the earliest.

Mauritius-born diplomat Ramchundur Goburdhun, then Counsellor at the Indian Embassy in Beijing, wrote to senior MEA official Triloki Nath Kaul on 29 April 1955, saying “I wonder if any steps could now be taken to fulfil our promise of the gift of mango saplings for Canton. We have of late been asking for and receiving various gifts and scientific specimens from the Government of China, and it is time that we return the favours. I shall be happy if you could do anything to expedite this matter.”

It was also decided that these saplings would be sent to China with a cultural delegation from India, which was due to leave Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 5 June 1955. Then MEA Under Secretary Harbans Lal initiated the inter-departmental budget approval and procurement process for this purpose.

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Search and sowing of saplings

Subsequently, a few saplings of different varieties were collected. Lal wrote to the Ministry of Finance on 27 May 1955, seeking budget approvals for the special consignment.

“11 mango saplings which are said to be in quite fit condition may please be packed up and kept ready by 31st May 1955 for dispatch to China as a gift from the Prime Minister of India.” It is proposed to send these saplings, which would weigh about 1 ½ mds, after packing, by air up to Hong Kong. From Hong Kong, they will be carried by the Indian cultural delegation to China, which will be reaching China in the first week of June”, wrote Lal.

On the very next day (28 May 1955), Lal requested MG Mathur, then Under Secretary at the Ministry of Finance, to ensure “necessary clearance of the consignment” at Delhi’s Palam Airport on an urgent basis.

However, a few days later, the number of saplings, for some undocumented reasons, were cut down to 8 from 11. On 30 May 1955, MEA instructed the Indian Embassy in Beijing through a telegram, “Two crates containing eight mango samplings being sent by air to Hong Kong on June 4th. They will be presented by the leader of Indian cultural delegation to Mayor of Canton. Please inform the Chinese government.” Meanwhile, the same telegram was also copied to the Indian mission in Hong Kong.

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Mango saplings sail to China

But on the very next day, the Indian Embassy in Beijing replied to the MEA saying, “Chinese being informed; but please try to increase number of saplings as eight will be considered too small.” The MEA’s response came on the next day – June 1, 1955 – “saplings sent for experimental purposes. If proved successful more will be sent later.” The MEA notified the Commission for India in Hong Kong on the same day, “Saplings arriving Hong Kong AII flight No. AI 312 June 5th. Please take delivery airport.”

After the MEA ensured disinfection, customs clearance and phytosanitary certifications, the saplings, comprising of 2 Chousa, 3 Dasheri, 1 Langra and 2 Alphonso plants, boarded the Air India flight to Hong Kong. The IARI also sent detailed instructions on mango cultivation, which comprised of the required category and standard of loam soil, planting distances, and aftercare details.

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Inconspicuous mango diplomacy initiative

No wonder the MEA left no stone unturned in flying those mango saplings to China, but what happened after that remains rather inconspicuous in the annals of India-China diplomacy. This information is no longer in any public domain, and has never been mentioned to the media. A few years after those mango saplings were sent to China, the 1962 Sino-Indian War turned the sweetness of this bilateral relationship into a sour one for decades to come. In fact, India had to wait for almost half a century to export mangoes to the Middle Kingdom as those mango saplings went into oblivion since their arrival in China. The first official consignments from India with the ambrosian fruit landed in China in 2004 after the two countries signed an agreement under the WTO bilateral deal during former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 visit to China.

Suvam Pal is an independent media professional, author & documentary filmmaker. He tweets @suvvz. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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