Quiet flows the Sutlej...

Quiet flows the Sutlej...

With India-China border hotting up, MV recalls his visit to Nangal, Punjab, where Nehru and Chou had met in 1956 to forge lasting friendship which,...

With India-China border hotting up, MV recalls his visit to Nangal, Punjab, where Nehru and Chou had met in 1956 to forge lasting friendship which, however, did not last even till 1962 when China invaded India. The writer reconstructed much of what happened in the Glass House specially constructed for the high-level meeting, and how even though the Glass House is still intact and the Sutlej river on whose bank it had been erected continues to flow quietly, together they bear testimony to Chinese perfidy � Editor

Now that China is again up to mischief on borders with India, I am reminded of my visit to Nangal in 1993, on the eve of then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao's visit to China. I had undertaken that visit to reconstruct, as best as I could, what transpired during the historic meeting that Jawaharlal Nehru had with his Chinese counterpart Chou (later Zhou) En-lai on the banks of the Sutlej in 1956 before our northern neighbour attacked India in 1962.

Nangal is known nationally only for the Bhakra Nangal Dam. In the heart of this Punjab town stands the Glass House immured in which are memories of the meeting. I visited this mute witness to the strange mutability of Sino-Indian relations, looking for a perspective with which to view PV's visit to China.

But when I reached Sutlej Sadan where the two Prime Ministers stayed and talked, (my notebook says) I felt as if I had sunk into some profound slumber in which, as in a dream, the imagination was set free to conjure up visions and images unaffected by passage of time. It was Chou's second visit to India in less than a month. He had arrived in New Delhi on December 30, 1956. After a round of talks, Chou and Nehru left the same day by a special train for Nangal.

The ostensible purpose of the visit was to let Chou see the 750-ft-high Bhakra dam, the world's highest gravity dam that was then under construction. But the two Premiers availed themselves of the privacy provided by the special train journey to run the rule over world affairs. Enthusiastic crowds made the train stop at countless places where it was not scheduled to halt.Shouts of 'Hindi-Chini bhai bhai' rent the air; Chinese and Indian flags fluttered everywhere.

"The special train steamed into the Nangal Station at 8-30 in the morning of December 31. The sky was overcast," a nonagenarian native and eye-witness Kapila told me. The two Premiers graciously acknowledged the spontaneous greetings of the crowds gathered at the station, and then drove straight to Sutlej Sadan. "There Chou stayed in suite 1 on the ground floor and Nehru occupied suite 3 on the first floor," the native recalled.

jwahar lal nehruThe first item on the informal agenda was, of course, a visit to the dam. Chou was thrilled to see it, and admitted as much both at Nangal and later in Delhi. Back from a pilgrimage to what Nehru had called a "Temple of modern India", the two Premiers retired to their respective suites. That evening they held a one-hour-long discussion without aides.

It was here that I came up against a blank wall or, rather, a glass wall, for the talks were held in the Glass House (a one-room outhouse) which had been constructed specifically for the meeting. Though the blinds prevented people outside from witnessing what transpired inside, Nehru's sincerity was transparent.

At that time there were no bilateral problems for them to discuss. Yes, Panch Sheel had just been conceived, but China had not yet given evidence of its belief that it was a conceptual error. Again, there was the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt following nationalisation of the Suez Canal by the latter. Nehru felt strongly about it, and so probably alluded to it too.

But how did the Nehru-Chou talks proceed? What could be more hallowed than the silent interaction between Nehru silhouetted in the foreground and, as he possibly moved a pencil across a sheet of paper on the table, Chou watching, if at all, in the middle distance? If we refuse to accept the inevitability of this relationship, the picture, or rather the reconstruction, becomes a disturbing testament to a whole set of highly questionable attitudes.

May be Chou felt bored by the task he was performing, knowing full well that the pose of peace was not going to endure, and slumped, the head propped long-sufferingly on hand in the Glass House chair.A Maybe the dissimulation helped Chou disengage mentally. The distance separating Nehru from Chou would then be more than a matter of walking across the room. Nehru was active and alert; Chou passive and, perhaps, drowsy too.

In other words, Chou adopted a clinically impersonal pose determined by the circumstances, and remained still in the neutral surroundings of the Glass House which had eight chairs for two occupants. Chou was a mysterious creature who was as sharp as a thistle with thoughts. Short in stature, but swift and powerful in intellect, he was quietly dynamic and boundlessly self-confident.

"Chou was, in fact, so quiet, so apparently drab, that he seemed to merge effortlessly with the wallpaper," the eye-witness cut in on my thoughts in Hindi. It is, therefore, probable that at the Glass House meeting he showed a rather stoical relativistic attitude towards world affairs.

Nehru must have been pleased at finding his audience in such a reasonable frame of mind. After all, India was neither a "major power of the second order", to borrow the words of the Duncan Report about Britain, nor "a medium power of the first rank", as former Prime Minister of England Edward Heath had once described his country. But India still had delusions of moral power in a venal world.

It all seems a long time ago, and yet just 57 years have elapsed since then. Could it be, I wondered, that the story of India's diplomatic Dunkirk was encapsulated in the Glass House? As the two Premiers emerged from the meeting, the smile on Nehru's face was expansive, while Chou's was enigmatic. Perhaps the talks had not progressed as desired by Chou, and returned upon themselves in widening circles. That we shall never know.

Nehru was certainly slow in understanding the Chinese psyche, both at the Glass House and afterwards, but slowness has its rewards as well as its penalties; and in this case one of the latter was that the long process of gestation gave birth to certain events of almost hallucinatory vividness and power. From the happiness that from all accounts suffused Nehru's face after the Glass House meeting, it was hard to believe that there was in him a nagging sense of threat, a placeless feeling of being taken for a ride, or a suspicion of subterranean hostility that he had to explore.

He, therefore, just stood on the fringe of the events which culminated in the Chinese aggression in 1962.A That day at Nangal Nehru released a set of white pigeons to symbolize his commitment to peace. He was scarcely aware of the eagle in the chicken coop.

The then Governor of Punjab, CPN Singh, hosted a New Year-eve banquet in honour of Chou. Referring in his banquet speech to the Governor's earlier remark that there had never been any conflict between India and China, Chou said that, on his part, he "would like to assure India" that there would never be one even in the future, and that the "two countries would continue to make joint efforts for the promotion of world peace and goodwill".

Dr Henry Kissinger thought Chou was a fastidious aristocrat, a mandarin of the old school. The Chou who emerged at Nangal was a non-person whose guiding beliefs (the fears and prejudices which determined the true shape of his thinking) remained obscure, as he perhaps intended.

This "philosopher-king" appeared at Nangal as a man whose beliefs stemmed not from the validity of well-tried principles, whose sense of what should be done was derived from an involvement with the world as it then was, but from a mystic communion with history; someone who knew that what had worked before must work now, and for whom the main task of diplomacy was to make sure that the magic formulae were applied in the right way.

The compliments exchanged at the banquet soon wore thin and abuse came fast. What followed is history. The Sutlej still flows by the Glass House, babbling out its own version of what transpired at the meeting. Only, we cannot understand the fluid language. A For India it was a paradise lost, a paradise of peace, but the true hero of 'Paradise Lost' is not Adam, but Satan.

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