I have met dozens of great and famous men, but very few were as impressive and refined as Chou.
I arrived in Peking (not yet Beijing) in early July 1956 to take up my post as third secretary. I was 25 years of age. China of the time was an underdeveloped country, but with a strong government and formidable leadership, with Mao Tse Tung as the undisputed head.
My main task was to learn the language, which had no alphabets and four tones. A tutor was employed to teach me, what is the most difficult language in the world. It is also one of the oldest.
I used to get up at 7 am and drive to Peking University in my Volkswagen, a 40-minute journey. All my teachers spoke only Chinese. To begin with I was completely at sea. A week later I joined a class which was exclusively for foreign students. The teachers spoke English and French, but spoke these languages sparingly. At the end of six months I could read, write and speak Chinese fairly well.
I left China in the summer of 1958, a queasy leftist and an admirer of Mao Tse Tung. I also read two famous novels The Dream of the Red Chamber and All Men are Brothers, a favourite of Mao.
I was never again posted to China. On 20 April 1960, Prime Minister Chou En Lai and Marshal Chen Yi, the Foreign Minister arrived in New Delhi for talks on the border issue with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. I was appointed liaison officer attached to Prime Minister Chou-En Lai. I spent several hours with him each day. In my long life, I have met dozens of great and famous men, but very few were as impressive and refined as Chou.
It is neither the time nor the place to go into the details of discussions Chou had with Nehru and other leaders. In short, we blew it.
I next visited China in 1984, for Secretary level talks. Next with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. Finally, in 2001 as leader of a Congress delegation.
All the heavyweights in the Ministry of External Affairs were vehemently opposed to the visit. I succeeded in persuading Rajiv Gandhi to ignore these ageing worthies. The visit was a roaring success. After 34 years, Sino Indian relations improved. Rajiv Gandhi held his own in his crucial meeting with Deng Xiao Ping, which was an achievement in itself.
Ever since 1956, I have followed the ups and downs of Sino Indian relations with interest, hope and anxiety. The ongoing events in Ladakh and the Galwan Valley are worrying indeed.
On Friday evening, the Prime Minister, after his meeting with the leaders of opposition parties addressed the nation on TV. He said, among other things, “Neither has anyone entered our territory, nor is any of our posts under anyone’s capture. In Ladakh, our 20 jawans got martyred. But they taught a lesson to those who were eyeing India territory… Today, we have the capability that none can dare to look towards us will ill intention.”
All leaders supported the Prime Minister, with the exception of Sonia Gandhi, who charged the government with, “losing valuable time between 5 May when the Chinese intrusions were first reported, and 6 June, when talks between corps commanders took place”. She continued, “Even after 6 June meeting, efforts should have been made to talk directly, at the political and diplomatic levels, to the Chinese leadership. We failed to use all avenues and the result is the loss of 20 lives.”
This was hardly the occasion to adopt such a tone and use the words she used. Usually, her verbal restraint is praiseworthy.
One word of caution. We must never underestimate the Chinese and their expertise in deception.