Amid the catastrophically intensifying Ukraine-Russia conflict and just before Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s unscheduled and surprise stopover in Delhi, the new Indian Ambassador to China, Pradeep Kumar Rawat, has finally arrived in Beijing after being named for the plum yet precipitous posting almost three months ago. An old China hand, Rawat has become the new occupant of the Ritan Road residence at a crucial juncture.
Dawn of India-China diplomacy
However, if one looks at the annals of the history of formal but frosty diplomacy between the two neighbours, the early days of breaking the ice between a newly independent India and a civil war-plagued China weren’t a cakewalk at all.
At the time of India’s independence, on 15 August 1947, Nanjing (then Nanking) was the capital of the Republic of China (ROC), under the nationalist government led by the Kuomintang. Interestingly, even before its independence, India, under its Constituent Assembly-empowered interim government with Jawaharlal Nehru as the Prime Minister, had dispatched Kumara Padmanabha Sivasankara Menon as the ambassador, then known as agent-general, to Nanjing in 1946. Menon had presented his letters to then-ROC supremo Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on 10 October – the anniversary of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 – in 1946.
Diplomatic delay over credentials handover
Significantly, there was almost a six-month gap between the Indian envoy presenting his letters on arrival in Nanjing and the official ceremony to hand over his credentials to the ROC government as the erstwhile lieutenant of Sun Yat-sen accepted Menon’s diplomatic credentials on another “auspicious occasion” – 29 March 1947. The day was Martyrs’ Day (or Youth Day), which commemorated the deaths of 72 patriots captured and executed by the Manchu authorities during the 2nd Guangzhou (Canton) Uprising, also known as the Yellow Flower Mound Uprising of 1911.
A day after officially becoming the Ambassador of India in Nanjing, Menon wrote the first of his series of fortnightly letters to then-foreign minister, an additional portfolio PM Nehru held, and stated, “The reason why the presentation was delayed so long was because the Generalissimo was fully occupied with the plenary session of the Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang.”
As Nehru’s interim government was shaping up its foreign ministry since taking over the reign from the British rulers, Menon, seemingly impressed by the diplomatic ceremonies to mark his ambassadorial appointment, advised Nehru, “I have sent you officially a detailed account of the ceremony so that it may serve as a guide, though not necessarily as a model, to our Protocol Department in arranging similar ceremonies in New Delhi.”
Profiling an ‘un-Chinese’ counterpart
He was, however, quite tongue-in-cheek in writing his report on his Chinese counterpart. “Lo Chia-lun strikes you at first as rather crude and uncouth – almost as uncouth as his opposite number in Nanking. In his manner and deportment, Lo Chia-lun has a somewhat un-Chinese unconventionality which is altogether refreshing.”
The confidential dispatch, sent through a diplomatic bag or pouch, a standard communications carrier of those days, also cracked a joke involving an animal that became the talk of the town in India half a century later. “At the recent C.E.C meeting, quoting a Chinese proverb, he (Lo) said that in sending him, an educator, to India, the Chinese government was sending a cow instead of a horse. “That doesn’t matter,” said one of his colleagues, “In India, the cow is worshipped. And so you will be worshipped too.””
A diplomatic ‘faux pas’
However, the maiden dispatch of the newly accredited Indian Ambassador also mentioned a diplomatic faux pas he committed, setting the grapevine abuzz. “Here is a story which is going round the diplomatic circles in Nanking. It is said that I committed a breach of diplomatic decorum in seeing Madame Chiang and, so they say, the President, before I presented my credentials. When the doyen of the diplomatic corps pulled me up over it, I am supposed to have replied, “Oh, no, I didn’t see the President. I saw only her husband.” I need hardly say I am not guilty of this indiscretion or capable of this bon mot. I only hope this story will not reach the Gissimo’s ears.”
A turbulent tenure amidst Civil War
Menon’s turbulent tenure began amidst one of the most torrid times in China’s history with the Communists, spearheaded by Chairman Mao, intensifying their battle against the incumbent KMT government in different parts of the country. The Chiang Kai-Shek-led regime, too, was leaving no stone unturned to crush the Communists with a nationwide witch-hunt.
However, one of the earliest problems Menon encountered was the irregularities in receiving the diplomatic bags that contained classified correspondences with the foreign ministry. “Many thanks for your letter of the 19th May – the first I have received from you in China. I know how terribly, terribly, busy you have been and had almost despaired of hearing from you. Perhaps some of your previous letters are still on their way. Our bags have been most irregular,” Menon updated Nehru in one of his first secret and personal letters from Nanjing on 15 June 1947.
The subsequent months saw independent India’s first official “ambassador” to China not only reporting about the intense civil war between the ruling KMT and Mao’s Red Army but also the Chinese media’s reaction to India’s partition and independence. Menon also mentioned Madame Sun Yat-Sen’s suggestion to send Uday Shankar and his troupe to China, the prickly proclamation by the British Ambassador in Nanjing about him representing the newly created state of Pakistan, and the rigged November (1947) National Assembly elections in China under the ruling dispensation, which was dubbed by the Indian ambassador as an “eyewash.”
Witnessing tryst with destiny in Nanjing
Incidentally, his letter to Nehru on 10 August 1947 stated in the beginning, “This letter addressed to you as Member for External Affairs, will be received by you as Premier of the Union of India. This is indeed a proud moment for all of us.” Menon helmed the China mission during India’s freedom at midnight and the subsequent months into the following year in Nanjing before being called back to Delhi in April 1948 to take the exalted position of independent India’s first foreign secretary.
His successor and another stalwart of India’s early diplomacy, Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, became not only the second Indian ambassador to China, but with Mao-led Communists founding the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949, he went on to become the first Indian ambassador to modern China.
A few decades later, following in Menon’s footsteps, his son Kumara Padmanabha Sivasankara Menon Jr. too, landed on Chinese soil in 1987 as an ambassador, but his diplomatic base was the PRC capital of Beijing, while his grandson Shivshankar Menon, who went on to become the Foreign Secretary like his uncle and grandfather, too embarked on an ambassadorial posting in China at the turn of the millennium (2000-2003).
Suvam Pal is an independent media professional, author & documentary filmmaker. He tweets @suvvz. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)