Nehru and the ‘pending’ case of Tibet in the UN – Claude Arpi

Nehru addressing the UN in 1961.

Claude ApriA Canadian scholar, Claudia Johnston, went through the old UN files and found out that following India’s assurance that it would “sort out the Tibet issue peacefully with China”, the case was still pending in the UN. – Claude Arpi

On 30 September, Russia held four referenda with the objective of annexing Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine recently occupied by Moscow; it immediately drew strong condemnation from Kyiv as well as other Western capitals that called the votes a sham.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “These are not just crimes against international law and Ukrainian law, these are crimes against specific people, against a nation.”

The G7 foreign ministers released a strong statement saying that Putin’s actions “constitute a new low point in Russia’s blatant flouting of international law. … [The G7 countries] will never recognise these purported annexations, nor the sham “referenda” conducted at gunpoint.”

While the UK and the US announced fresh sanctions against Russia, the European Union strongly condemned the annexation.

At the UN, a resolution tabled declaring the annexations illegal and demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Russia’s military forces from Ukraine, was vetoed by Russia (while China, India, Brazil and Gabon abstained).

Without going into the merits and demerits of the present imbroglio, it is interesting to look at what happened to Tibet in 1950 in the same UN forum, soon after the invasion of the Land of Snows by Communist China.

The case of Tibet

Early October 1950, Eastern Tibet was occupied by Mao’s troops. The world kept quiet, nobody wanted to know about it, while the Tibetan government was not even keen to inform the world about what had happened to their country … not to make it worse.

By the end of October 1950, things finally began to move in Lhasa, the Cabinet of Ministers (Kashag) decided to appeal to the General Assembly of the UN against this blatant act of aggression.

The Tibetan government was quite confident of getting support from the Nehru government, which had constantly taken the side of the oppressed people against the imperialist and colonialist powers. To its surprise, Delhi’s reply was that it certainly would support an appeal from Tibet, but it was not ready to sponsor the case.

On 1 November, Jawaharlal Nehru sent a cable to B.N. Rau, the Indian representative in the UN: “Chinese military operations against Tibet have undoubtedly affected our friendly relations with China. But these developments do not affect our general policy or even our policy regarding admission of new China in the United Nations.” At that time, Delhi supported the Communists’ admission in the UN (with a seat in the Security Council for Mao!).

Finally, a well-drafted appeal was cabled by the Government of Tibet to the UN on 7 November 1950; it stated that “the Tibetans were racially, culturally and geographically far apart from the Chinese. … The problem is not of Tibet’s own making but is largely the outcome of unthwarted Chinese ambitions to bring weaker nations on her periphery within her active domination”.

The appeal continued: “This unwarranted act of aggression has not only disturbed the peace of Tibet, but is in complete disregard of the solemn assurance given by the Chinese to the Government of India. … The problem is simple. The Chinese claim Tibet as part of China.”

It concluded that Lhasa hoped that “the conscience of the world would not allow the disruption of our State by methods reminiscent of the jungle”.

The appeal eventually was dispatched from Kalimpong, where the Tibetan representative in India lived. This would be objected to by the UN bureaucracy, as an appeal is supposed to emanate from the territory of the aggrieved country.

On 14 November, The Hindu commented: “India’s support, it is understood, will mainly be based on the ground that the issue could be solved peacefully and without resort to arms and the extent to which there were military operations, world peace was endangered.”

Finally, on 15 November, it was the tiny State of El Salvador which requested the Secretary-General to list the Tibetan appeal on the Agenda of the General Assembly. During the following days, the procedural battle went on at Lake Success, N.Y.

India abandons Tibet

On 20 November, in a cable to B.N. Rau, Nehru affirmed: “Draft resolution of El Salvador completely ignores realities of situation and overlooks fact that only result of passing such a resolution will be to precipitate conquest of Tibet and destruction of Tibetan independence and perhaps even autonomy.”

In the meantime, the United Kingdom was in a dilemma; the British had always managed to keep the status of Tibet nebulous, as the vagueness had worked well for years and decades. However, the times were changing; a state could claim to be under the suzerainty of another state and at the same time fully autonomous.

For the British government, it was a real issue.

The place and status of the Land of Snow on the Asian chessboard and its appeal to the General Assembly depended on this issue as according to the UN rules, only a “state” could make an appeal to the General Assembly.

Was Tibet a state for the British Government?

Surprisingly, after consulting legal experts, His Majesty’s Government accepted the fact that Tibet was a separate state. One of the points of White Hall was that the British government had concluded a convention between China, Tibet and herself in 1914 in Simla (and agreed to the McMahon Line with India). The other point was that the Chinese had been expelled from Tibet in 1911 and Tibet had declared her independence two years later. The fact that Tibet had from 1911 to 1950, kept the control of her internal as well as external affairs was certainly qualifying Tibet under Article 35 (2) of the UN Charter as a separate state.

But then India’s position began vacillating, though the prime minister admitted to his representative in New York: “The Chinese government has repeatedly expressed themselves in favour of Tibetan autonomy, but of course we do not know what their idea of autonomy is.”

A few days later, Vijayalaksmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister was quoted as saying: “India’s view is that communist China should be given a seat in the UN, … [she thought that], if this had been done earlier, some of the present troubles in Korea might have been avoided” And what about Tibet?

Incredibly political logic!

Another argument

Suddenly an unbelievable argument cropped up, if the opinion of the legal cell of the Foreign Office (stating that Tibet was a separate state) was not changed, the logical conclusion would be that a firm stand (and action) would have to be taken. As a consequence, the UN would have to accept that an aggression had been committed and as a result pressures would be exerted by the community of nations to take an action in favour of Tibet. But nobody wanted to take action!

The British representative to the UN concluded: “I greatly hope therefore that I shall be instructed when and if the Indians raise this matter in the Security Council, to argue to the general effect that the legal situation is extremely obscure and that in any case Tibet cannot be considered as a fully independent country.”

The British government then asked for another legal opinion from its attorney general.

India changes its mind

At that time, Britain and the US had made their position known: They would support the stand of the Government of India, but at the last moment, Nehru backed out of the understanding India had given to Tibet.

He requested Washington to refrain from publicity condemning China for its action in Tibet for fear that such condemnation might give credence to China’s claims that Western powers had an interest in Tibet and that the Americans were exerting an influence over Indian policy.

Nehru wrote these appalling words: “We cannot save Tibet, as we should have liked to do so, and our very attempts to save it might bring greater trouble to it.” India then informed the UN that it would sort out the issue peacefully with China.

A couple of decades ago, a Canadian scholar, Claudia Johnston, went through the old UN files and found out that following India’s assurance, the Tibet issue was still pending in the UN.

At a time when the UN is witnessing a flurry of activities on Ukraine, one wonders when this global body will move on Tibet. Will Tibet be forever “pending”? – Firstpost, 11 October 2022

Claude Arpi is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert.

Tibetan demonstration against China.