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‘Please smoke to keep me company’ – What a tired Mao told Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit in China

In ‘The Fractured Himalaya’, former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao writes how in the India-China relationship, the past shadows the present.

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In April 1952, at the invitation of the Chinese People’s Government, the Government of India sent a cultural delegation on a six-week visit to China. It comprised fourteen members, of whom twelve were non-officials, and was led by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

The delegation had been carefully chosen, with great pains being taken to ensure that those selected were ‘willing to exercise critical faculties and capable of doing so’. One of the members, the celebrated journalist Frank Moraes, wrote in his diary how on the eve of departure the entire group went to meet the Prime Minister who, in Moraes’ words, gave them a two-hour ‘wandering talk’. Nehru told them that Pakistan and China were the most important countries for India, and while there was peace along the long border between India and China, ‘we must not let China have the upper hand’. The Prime Minister ‘deprecated’ references to Tibet on which he said, ‘the Chinese were sensitive’, according to Moraes.

Moraes saw himself as a keen observer of the Chinese. Years later (after the conflict between India and China of 1962), he spoke of what he saw as the monolithic Chinese mind and its difference from the ‘Hindu habit of mind’. In his view, the Chinese subscribed to the belief, like Kipling, that ‘iron, cold iron is the master of them all’. This passage from Moraes is noteworthy:

Although the Indian mind is often convoluted and sometimes enigmatic, it lacks the curious combination of realism and elusiveness that distinguishes the Chinese mind. The Chinese mind is more nimble than the Indian’s, gayer, less sensitive but more practical. Without being fanciful, it likes to express itself in imagery and illustration, and the habit of building up an argument through suggestion rather than statement gives conversation with a cultivated Chinese a curiously evanescent, will-o’-the-wisp quality. It is like Huang Chuan who painted in the ‘boneless way’, disdaining to imprison his landscapes, flowers and birds within a drawn outline.

Also read: Not just Nehru, even sister Vijaya Lakshmi had strong reasons to decline UNSC permanent seat

‘Culture flies in’, a headline in the Daily Express stated on 28 April 1952. The members of the Indian delegation arrived in Canton (Guangzhou) on that day having flown a four-engine Bharat Airways plane—the first foreign aircraft (with the exception of Soviet ones) to be allowed into Communist China, according to the report in the same newspaper. On 30th April, Premier Zhou Enlai hosted a banquet for the delegation. The British Embassy in Beijing could not but help introduce a sarcastic note into all this by saying that ‘even the most critical faculties become blunted by profuse hospitality’ which was not borne out by facts. Most of the delegation was not deluded by Chinese propaganda and had an objective view, noting the intense hatred of the United States expressed by their hosts and ordinary people, and the restrictions placed on foreign residents by the Chinese authorities.

Mrs Pandit, the leader of the delegation was, however, impressed by what she saw and who she met. ‘Nowhere else in the world can one be so proud of being Asian as in China,’ she declared. She felt ‘a sense of kinship’ with the Chinese people, although she also admitted that the delegation had not been able to see all they desired to. The picture of the New China shown to them was, therefore, a limited one. But Mrs Pandit, the seasoned diplomat, was able to charm her Chinese hosts. ‘Immediately after my arrival in Peking,’ she noted, ‘Vice-Foreign Minister Chang Han Fu sent Chairman Mao’s tailor to measure me for a uniform similar to the ones worn by women cadres. This was presented to me by the Foreign Office and I wore it while travelling throughout our stay in China.’ Ambassador Panikkar would address her as ‘Dear Madam and Leader’ and she appeared perfectly at ease during her meetings with an assortment of leading Chinese personalities ranging from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to Chen Yi, the then Mayor of Shanghai.

She found Mao a ‘man of few words’ when she met him on 16 May. The Chairman was brief but to the point, ‘quiet, precise and rather tired – looking’ but with a great sense of humour. He offered her a cigarette which she declined, prompting him to ask whether the women of India did not smoke. Ambassador Panikkar answered that some women did, and so did Mrs Pandit, but that it was customary to refrain from doing so in front of elders and those ‘who one respects’. Mao’s reply was immediate: ‘Ah, feudalism dies hard—please smoke to keep me company, Madame, we are in China.’ Mao, Mrs Pandit noted, reminded her of Stalin and also of Gandhi (he was ‘kind and tolerant’)’ especially since the Chinese public worshipped him.

By contrast, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit felt (from her two interviews with Zhou Enlai) that he not only possessed ‘great intellectual ability and integrity’, but he also valued India’s goodwill and friendship. She found him a man of ‘great personal charm’ who conveyed an ‘impression of utter frankness’. Zhou wanted to invite Nehru to visit China saying that the ‘Chinese government were anxious that the one statesman who had unwaveringly and constantly spoken up for them should be honoured as befitting his prestige and position.’ Speaking to Chen Yi in Shanghai, Mrs Pandit answered questions from the Marshal about the partition of India and Kashmir, to be told by him that it was a ‘grave mistake’ for India to have referred the Kashmir issue to the United Nations. Chen Yi had praise for the Government of India’s action in Hyderabad saying ‘one cannot allow a feudal area to exist’. Referring to the constant repetition by the Chinese of references to ‘American aggressors’ and ‘hated American imperialists’, Mrs Pandit felt that these were ‘just a way of keeping up the public morale’ with not much heart put into the exercise. ‘In fact, there is less hate for anybody here than in any country I have been in,’ she noted. One thing the Chinese were not willing to give in on was what they considered a basic principle—the question of the return of Chinese POWs captured in Korea, being in this category. The Chinese kept insisting that Britain and India should together bring pressure on the United States on this question.

Also read: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s younger sister who slammed Indira for Emergency

The delegation travelled a by special train, ‘in great comfort’ from ‘Canton to Peking, Mukden, Tientsin, Chu-foo, Nanking, Shanghai and the Huai River Project.’ They partook of forty-course banquets and simple village meals. Members of the group like Dr P.C. Bagchi gave speeches in which he analysed the role of Buddhism in bringing India and China together. They met the widow of Sun Yat-sen, Soong Ching-ling (Song Qingling)—a fluent speaker of English—who spoke to the delegation in Chinese and was strong in her boiler-plate condemnation of America, despite having been educated throughout in the United States.

Despite her admiration for much of what she saw in China (like many visitors to the country in that period; besides, the Chinese were lavish in their hospitality as far as their Indian guests were concerned), and the personalities she met, Mrs Pandit also had occasion to be horrified on seeing a film of the San Fan Movement or the Five-anti campaign launched in January 1952 to target the capitalist class. The five-antis were bribery, theft of state property, tax evasion, cheating on government contracts, and stealing state economic information. The film depicted the public trials held in Beijing in February 1952 in which hundreds of persons were sentenced to death after the people voted the ‘accused’ guilty, by hand and voice votes.

Writing to the Prime Minister on 3 May 1952, Ambassador Panikkar attributed the success of the delegation’s visit to the personality of Mrs Pandit, ‘and the obvious desire of the Chinese to go all out to please.’

This excerpt from Nirupama Rao’s ‘The Fractured Himalaya: India China Tibet 1949-1962’ has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India. 

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