Origins of Indian skepticism about China: Patel, Aurobindo and Golwalkar
At the time of the founding of the Indian republic, three men were prescient about the Chinese threat. Their words and worldview were ignored but they continue to have potent relevance especially in light of current strife between the Asian powers.
Vallabhbhai Patel, Aurobindo Ghosh and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar
On the 30th of November 1950, Vallabhbhai Patel, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs in the first government of independent India wrote a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
In this letter Patel spoke about the decision of the Indian government to terminate the residence of V. G. Sayadiants in India, a Soviet spy who used to live in Mumbai (then Bombay). Sayadiants is known to have been close to Nehru and in 1946, just before India’s independence from British rule, Nehru is said to have used Sayadiants to send a confidential letter to Stalin.
In his letter Patel complained that after the decision to throw Sayadiants out of the country “was taken with the concurrence of the External Affairs Ministry, and we were told that you had agreed to the course which we had proposed”, after the Soviet agent appealed to the prime minister, Nehru intervened to stop the decision. A “change in the entire course of the case at such a late stage is apt to demoralise the administrative machinery”, wrote the deputy prime minister.
In his response, Nehru argued that the context of such decisions had to be better studied, and then he moved from the Soviet case to his reflections on a similar incident regarding a Chinese schoolmaster in India. He wrote to Patel complaining that this schoolmaster was deported from India “in spite of strong and repeated protests” of the Chinese government. “Dr. Lo (Chia-Luen, China’s then ambassador to India) came to the Foreign Office repeatedly begging us not to take any step. He actually shed tears on one occasion. We stuck, however, to our decisions, I think wrongly…,” Nehru wrote.
This opinion is in stark contrast to the views expressed by Vallabhbhai Patel on China. On November 7, 1950, in a letter to Nehru, Patel wrote, “The Chinese Government have tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intentions. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instill into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means.”
Many of the themes of Patel’s worries are acutely alive even today. He foresaw, for instance, that Chinese suspicion of India being part of ‘Anglo-America strategy’ would be difficult to placate. “This feeling,” wrote Patel to Nehru, “if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friend.”
Patel also notes India’s efforts to help China in the United Nations but laments that this had not resolved issues. “During the last several months… we have practically been alone in championing the cause of Chinese entry into the UNO (United Nations Organisation, as the body was then called) and in securing from the Americans assurances on the question of Formosa. We have done everything we could to assuage Chinese feelings, to allay its apprehensions and to defend its legitimate claims in our discussions and correspondence with America, Britain and in the UNO. In spite of this, China is not convinced… I doubt we can go any further than we have done already to convince China of our good intensions, friendliness and goodwill,” Patel wrote.
The problem, argued the deputy prime minister, was India’s failure to adequately recognize that, “communism is no shield against imperialism and that Communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other”. In fact, Patel said, Communist imperialism was worse in many ways because it “has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous”.
But Patel was not the only one expressing deep reservations about China in the early years of the republic. This essay is concerned with the views of three of the most prominent thinkers of modern India who expressed deep concern about China and its intentions, especially after the Communist take-over. Apart from Patel, this essay shall refer to Aurobindo Ghosh (henceforth Aurobindo), the revolutionary-turned-mystic who remains a revered spiritual figure in India especially among nationalist Hindus, and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak or highest-ranked leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the volunteer organization of primarily nationalist Hindus. Founded in 1925, the RSS is the ideological parent of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP also idolizes Aurobindo, and Patel, whose 182 metre statue was built by the incumbent BJP government even though Patel was a member of the opposition Indian National Congress.
More than a decade before the India-China war of 1962, in a revised edition of his book The Ideal of Human Unity Aurobindo wrote, “In Asia a more perilous situation has arisen standing sharply across the way of any possibility of a continental unity of the peoples of this part of the world, in the emergence of Communist China. This creates a gigantic bloc which could easily englobe the whole of northern Asia in a combination between two enormous Communist powers, Russia and China, and would overshadow with a threat of absorption of South Western Asia and Tibet and might be pushed to overrun all up to the whole frontier of India, menacing her security and that of western Asia with the possibility of an invasion and an overrunning and subjection by penetration or even by overwhelming military force to an unwanted ideology, political and social institutions and dominance of this militant mass of Communism whose push might easily prove irresistible.”
In June 1950, in an answer to a letter on the Korean issue, Aurobindo responded by writing, “The affair is as plain as a pikestaff. It is the first move in the Communist plan of campaign to dominate and take possession, first of these northern parts and then of South-East Asia as a preliminary to their manoeuvres with regard to the rest of the continent - in passing Tibet, as a gate into India. If they succeed, there is no reason why domination of the whole world should not follow by steps..."
Golwalkar was even more explicit. Writing in 1951, he said, “China is expansionist by nature and is very likely to attack Bharat [India] soon... It has been a terribly blunderous [sic] act to gift away Tibet to China. This is one governmental blunder which even the British did not commit.”
Golwalkar, like Patel, saw Communist ideology as a source of particular violence, "In fact, Mao Tsetung once openly expressed his desire to see a world war with all the modern nuclear weapons brought into full play. His logic is that majority of people will then be annihilated in America, Russia and all the other countries of Europe. In that holocaust even if, say, 40 crores [one crore is 10 million] of Chinese are wiped out still they will have 25 crores left to rule the whole world. To them, that is very simple logic. They do not worry about the loss of the human life. It is just like grass to be cut and replanted! That was the experience in Korea. When they invade they come in waves after waves. When one column is wiped out it is simply replaced by another," wrote Golwalkar.
India fought, and lost, a war against China on border issues in 1962. In recent times, strife in border areas have once again brought the two Asian giants in deep conflict.