Mao’s ‘Smile’, Nixon’s ‘Frown’: What Modi Can Learn From Indira’s Mistakes in Befriending China

Did Indira Gandhi’s close aides prevent her from reciprocating Mao's friendship-seeking gesture and creating a new opening with China?

This is the first article in a two-part series on the events preceding the 1971 India-Pakistan war and US President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China. You can read part two here.

Narendra Modi is facing the severest test so far to his leadership after he became prime minister in 2014.

The horrific confrontation between the armies of India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh on June 15, resulting in mass casualties on both sides, has become the gravest crisis between our two countries since the 1962 war over the unresolved boundary dispute. At a time like this, it pays to look back at the past — and lost — opportunities to fully normalise our bilateral relations and, indeed, to permanently settle the boundary dispute itself. History is a teacher. But history can also be a punisher.


“Should we not indicate to Mishra [Brajesh Mishra, then India’s charge d’ affairs in China] that the Indo-Soviet Treaty does not preclude a similar Treaty with China?”

What? A treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation with China? In the widespread anti-China climate in the country today, one can expect a chorus of condemnation from the jingoistic sections of the media and the social media: “Which Indian in his or her right senses could have thought of this anti-national idea?”

Well, it was our former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who is hailed by many people, not only in the Congress but even in the Sangh Parivar, as the strongest Prime Minister India has had. When did she say this? On August 12, 1971. Mark the date. It was just three days after the Indo-Soviet treaty had been signed by her own external affairs minister Sardar Swaran Singh along with his legendary Soviet counterpart A.A. Gromyko in New Delhi.

Indira Gandhi had sent the above enigmatic query in a slip to P.N. Haksar, her powerful principal secretary. Coincidentally, Mishra would occupy this office nearly three decades later as the trusted aide of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

We should commend Jairam Ramesh, a Congress leader of admirable scholarship, for his superbly researched book Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi (2018), for it contains this and other revealing information about how Indira’s mind was working in a year that witnessed the most transformative development in South Asia in the post-1947 era — the India-Pakistan war and liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Also read: Don’t Blame Modi for ‘No Intrusion’ Claim, Blame Him for Dramatic Shift in China Policy

Left-leaning Haksar, a one-time activist of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and an architect of the Indo-Soviet Treaty, “was stunningly forthright” in his reply to the prime minister. “I would respectfully submit that a Treaty of the kind we have just concluded with the Soviet Union reflects, in time and space, a particular coincidence of interest. In all the Chanceries of the world the Treaty has been interpreted in this light and I believe rightly so. For us now to go round saying to all and sundry that we are prepared to sign a similar Treaty would appear either unrealistic, or if I may so, something lacking in seriousness … As for signing a Treaty with the Chinese, even a talk about it would not bring about a Treaty with China and it would certainly attenuate the effect of the Treaty which we have signed with the Soviet Union.”

Mao’s message to Indira: ‘We cannot keep on quarrelling like this’

Why did Indira Gandhi think of a move as radical as an India-China treaty? That too on a track parallel to the Indo-Soviet treaty? Furthermore, when a war with Pakistan later that year was almost a certainty?

To know why, we have to go back to an important development that took place in Beijing on April 30, 1970. On the eve of May Day celebrations, China’s communist government had invited all heads of missions to watch the fireworks from the rostrum of the Tiananmen Square. Since there was no Indian ambassador to China, Mishra was representing India at the ceremony. (Ambassadors had been withdrawn from both capitals after the 1962 war. Full diplomatic relations were restored only in 1976, after a gap of 14 years, when K.R. Narayanan was sent as India’s ambassador to Beijing.)

Chairman Mao Zedong, accompanied by Premier Zhou Enlai, shook hands with the guests. But when he came to Mishra, Mao conveyed an unexpected message: “We cannot keep on quarrelling like this. We should try and be friends again.  India is a great country. Indian people, are good people. We will be friends again someday”.

Mishra replied: “We are ready to do it today”. Then Mao said: “Please convey my message of best wishes and greetings to your President and your Prime Minister.”

Indira Gandhi and P.N. Haksar. Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Library

Mishra promptly, and with enthusiastic endorsement, conveyed this message to both PMO and MEA. “In anything connected with Chinese leaders it is difficult to say whether it was premeditated or not. My judgment is that Mao was fully briefed before arriving on the rostrum. In any case, expression as above of friendship by Mao himself should be given the most weighty consideration…”

Jairam writes: “The event described in Mishra’s dispatch of 1 May 1970 has become part of diplomatic history and has come to be known as ‘Mao’s Smile’.  In an oral history interview published in 2000, Mishra suggested that India did not take full advantage of Mao’s gesture and should have followed it up immediately. Mishra always believed that while Indira Gandhi was willing, Haksar was amongst the few who prevented her from reciprocating Mao’s gesture and creating a new opening with China.”

Also read: ‘I Doubt We Are All Fine’: Chinese-Indians and the 1962 Fear

Nixon’s message, conveyed by “Kishan Chander ji” aka Kissinger

The moot question is: Why was Indira willing to respond positively to “Mao’s Smile”? Was it because of Nixon’s “Frown”?

It is well known that the US President Richard Nixon had strong antipathy towards Indians and intense dislike, particularly, for India Gandhi. Adding to this discord were two momentous and simultaneous developments in world history in the middle of 1971. Pakistan was hurtling towards a bloody partition, and the prospect of East Pakistan liberating itself, with Indian assistance, to become Bangladesh was getting clearer by the day.

Around the same time, the US under Nixon was about to achieve a historic breakthrough to China, with Pakistan acting as the intermediary between Washington and Beijing, and facilitating Kissinger’s secret journey to China to have talks with Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou. This resulted in the US establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), led by the Chinese Communist Party. (When PRC was established in 1949, the US had backed the rival Kuomintang government in Taiwan led by Chiang Kai-shek.)

US President Nixon meets China’s Communist Party Leader, Mao Zedong in 1972. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

There is an illuminating, also highly amusing, account in Pupul Jayakar’s excellent biography of Indira Gandhi (1992) of what happened.

“The day [15 July 1971] President Nixon was to announce to the world that Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had visited China and established his first contact, [L.K.] Jha [India’s ambassador to the United States] got a message from Kissinger.  He was out at the time and a security guard who hardly knew any English informed Jha, ‘Ambassador Sahib Bahadur ke liye Kishan Chanderji ka phone aya tha.’ (A phone message came from Kishan Chanderji for the Honourable Ambassador). Jha was puzzled, asked his Secretary to call the number left with the security guard.

“Kissinger (Kishan Chanderji) came on the line and asked, ‘Where will you be at 8.30 tonight?’ Jha said he would be out to dinner. Kissinger took the number and said that he would ring up at 8.30 that night. He would not say what it was about. Everything was very hush-hush. Jha himself answered the phone at 8.30. Kissinger was on the line: ‘In half-an-hour the President is going to broadcast that I have been to China on the trip when I went to India and Pakistan. You will hear the details on the broadcast.  The President wants you to convey the following message to your Prime Minister. Don’t take it down —   I will repeat it for you.’

“The message was that President Nixon was going to establish relations with China and if India opposed the move, he would deem it an unfriendly act. President Nixon had taken it for granted that India would oppose the move.”

Jayakar, who had a close relationship with Indira Gandhi, writes about the Iron Lady’s response to this message, which can best be described as “Nixon’s Frown”. “Jha’s report of the imminent China-US alignment and Pakistan’s role as a conduit between the two nations had escalated the dangers for India. A belligerent US-Pakistan-China triangle could threaten India’s integrity.

Also read: Territory, Borders, Identities: India’s Conflict With China and Itself

Swiftly, Indira Gandhi acted. Messengers were sent to the Soviets and the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, long on the anvil but held in abeyance, was signed by mid-August. It came as a bombshell to the US and confirmed President Nixon’s obsessive belief that the Soviets were advising India to declare war, invade East Pakistan, liberate Bangladesh and destroy the Pakistan Army in the west. The President saw in the treaty a decision on Soviet Russia’s part to humiliate China.”

Indira’s out-of-the-box thinking: ‘We are in a box in our relations with China. I want to get out of that box.’

If we look back at the bellicose message from President Nixon that Kissinger delivered, and contextualise it with the reconciliatory message from Mao that Mishra had delivered the previous year, we get a clue to why Indira came up with the unusual idea of a friendship treaty with China. Her thinking was: “If USA and China could end their hostility, why not India and China? Why not at least create a distance between China and Pakistan, and turn this to India’s strategic advantage at a time of the worsening crisis in East Pakistan?”

There was also another reason: Indira Gandhi did not want India to be excessively dependent on the Soviet Union. This was the reason why she had delayed signing the Indo-Soviet treaty. It was first proposed by the Soviets in 1968, but was ultimately signed in 1971 when a war with Pakistan became a certainty.

Yet another fact might have weighed on her mind. The faction of the Congress party under her leadership — the Congress had split in 1969 — won a massive victory in the fifth parliamentary elections in March 1971. Soon thereafter, Mishra again conveyed an important message to her from China. “I was at a reception given by Zhou Enlai for a Nepalese dignitary. When he came to me, he said, ‘My congratulations to Mrs Gandhi for her victory and her re-election as Prime Minister.’ The interpreter fumbled slightly. So Zhou repeated it in English. So even then, which was almost a year after [Mao’s message], they kept at it.”

As a matter of fact, Indira Gandhi had started thinking of normalising India’s relations with China even before the “Mao’s Smile” event in 1970 — indeed, well before she had consolidated her position within the Congress party and her power as prime minister. She knew that India’s defeat in the 1962 war had had a devastating effect on her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s health and also on his standing as India’s prime minister. She believed that the dispute over India’s 3,400-km-long boundary with China needed to be resolved permanently for peace and good-neighbourliness. (In 1967, the armies of India and China had had a deadly confrontation, with a large number of fatalities on both sides.)

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao, with Zhou Enlai behind them in Beijing in the early 70s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Indira Gandhi was also well aware of the compromise-based “package deal” that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had offered, during his visit to New Delhi in April 1960, for a final resolution of the dispute, and which Nehru had unwisely rejected. The deal envisaged China accepting India’s control over today’s Arunachal Pradesh, which meant its de facto recognition of India’s jurisdiction upto the McMahon Line, if India accepted China’s control over Aksai Chin (where the latest armed conflict between the Indian and Chinese troops took place at Galwan Valley on June 15).

Nehru could not muster the courage to accept Zhou’s offer, which obviously had Mao’s approval, partly because of his own ambivalence on the matter but mainly because of the opposition parties’ clamorous stand that India should not concede “even an inch” of territory to China.

With her knowledge of this background, Indira Gandhi must have surmised: The prospects for resolving the boundary dispute would brighten by extending a hand of friendship to China.

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She made the first move in 1968, when she signalled her readiness to open boundary talks with China without pre-conditions (Emphasis added). She also decided to send Brajesh Mishra, who was then serving as a young diplomat in New York, as charge d’ affairs to China. Here is Mishra’s own account:

“When I called on her before leaving for Beijing, she instructed me in one sentence. She said, “We are in a box in our relations with China. I want to get out of that box.”

Therefore, ‘Nixon’s Frown’ had an effect on Indira Gandhi altogether different from what the US president expected. He had believed she would oppose friendship between the US and China, a belief resting on two facts — India was moving closer to the Soviet Union, and the relations between the USSR and China had deteriorated sharply, even leading to border skirmishes in 1969. But being a staunch patriot, Indira Gandhi did not want to be a camp follower of any external power and, furthermore, wanted to befriend China to secure India’s own vital national interests.

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Photo: United States Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

This is clear from the positive feelers she started sending to Beijing. On 25 August 1971, India officially confirmed that she had written to Zhou Enlai in the previous month, a few days after Kissinger’s visit to China. “This letter,” Jairam tells us, “was mostly about developments in Bangladesh and along the lines of similar communications that had been sent to other world leaders in different continents. But it also contained an expression of India’s readiness to have a dialogue at any level with China on bilateral issues.” In other words, she was ready for summit-level talks with the Chinese leadership.

Jairam adds:

“On 1 September 1971, Brajesh Mishra was called for consultations and he once again pleaded for exchange of ambassadors. But Haksar advocated caution saying that he was not sure whether the Chinese leadership was really serious…Four months later, on 11 December 1971, Indira Gandhi wrote again to Zhou Enlai in the midst of the Indo-Pak War explaining the background to the conflict and suggesting that the Chinese use their leverage with Pakistan to bring about an end to hostilities. She ended that letter by saying: ‘We seek friendly relations with all our neighbours and we seek China’s friendship too. In my last letter I had indicated our readiness to discuss the problems of mutual interest.’”

For reasons not yet fully known, there was no reply from China to the two letters. “Given this Chinese silence,” Jairam opines, “Haksar was justified to temper Mishra’s enthusiasm in 1970 and 1971.”

Yes, Chinese non-response to two letters from an Indian prime minister was certainly blameworthy. However, wasn’t India too equally blameworthy? For a full year and more after Mao’s personal friendship-seeking message, there was no firm and meaningful response from New Delhi.

Mishra revealed many years later that some of Indira Gandhi’s close aides, who were pro-Soviet, were advising her against making decisive efforts to normalise relations with China. “Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul asked: ‘Brajesh why are you engaging in all this?’ P.N. Haksar, the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary, ‘was not very enthusiastic’, either.”

Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age and tweets @SudheenKulkarni.