K.M. Panikkar, a Historian for Our Times

The first Indian ambassador to China produced an enormous amount of literature, much of which is out of print but has immense contemporary relevance because of its long historical view.

The first generation of Indian diplomats after independence had many prominent personalities who represented India at the world stage and distinguished themselves. The names of S. Radhakrishnan and Asaf Ali stand out, as does that of Vijay Laxmi Pandit who was known to be a fantastic orator. Krishna Menon would become the particular target of western ire and would give what continues to be the longest speech at the UN on the issue of Kashmir in 1957.

Of these many luminaries, the name of India’s first ambassador to China, K.M. Panikkar, is often forgotten or remembered only in narrow contexts. However, his book on Asia and Western Domination was once recommended by Jawaharlal Nehru as essential reading and Krishna Menon was to say of him, “He can write a history book in half an hour which I could not write in six years.” Panikkar was born in a small village Kavalam in Kerela on June 3. His school education was done first in his own village and then later in Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam and finally Madras. He then got admitted to Christ Church College in Oxford and sailed to England, just months before the start of World War I.

Panikkar took an interest in Malayalam poetry from a very early age. He wrote poetry himself and argued in favour of using the Dravidian meter for Malayalam poetry. Interest in language and poetry would continue throughout his life as he would compose various literary works in Malayalam, becoming close friends with the famous poet Vallathol, and always speak to the importance of Dravidian languages to Indian culture. His time at Oxford expanded his interests through the meetings of the Oxford Majlis, a debating society started by Indian students which hosted many nationalist leaders as well as a meeting with D.B. Jayatilake, the “Gokhale of Sri Lanka” which particularly broadened his interest in history.

Panikkar would sail back to India just before the end of the War and only narrowly escaped becoming a casualty of war. He had a brief stint at Aligarh Muslim University, where he produced books both in Malayalam and English, on varied topics including the regeneration of education in India, a biography of Harshvardhan and a small tract on imperialism published in 1922. This early work both understood the root economic cause of imperialism and examined the various strategies that imperialism applied around the world. In this work, he was already formulating an idea that would remain with him, that the oppressed countries of Asia had a point of view and a certain commonality to their history. He traced their common emerging struggle to their struggle against imperialism, saying “It is something that has called forth the mighty spirit of Asia from its decaying cell”.

This book signalled his entry into politics, which began by leaving academics and becoming the editor of the English-daily Swarajya. He was acquainted with T.K. Madhavan of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) and together they conceptualised the famous Vaikom Satyagraha, led by Sree Narayan Guru, and presented it to the All India Congress Committee in Kakinada. He was sent by Gandhiji as a Congress representative to negotiate a settlement between the government and the Akali movement. He later went back into journalism and became founder-editor of Hindustan Times.

Subsequently, Panikkar visited Portugal and France where he made associations with the Vietnamese and Cambodians who were then under French Rule. His interest and knowledge of South East Asia would be reflected in his later work The Future of South East Asia. He came back to India to serve as an adviser to maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, foreign minister to the maharaja of Patiala and eventually prime minister to the maharaja of Bikaner. He wrote a Survey of Indian History just as India got independence. This experience would help him in his later work as a member of the States Reorganisation Commission.

The last Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tenure in China

After Independence, Panikkar was a member of the first Indian delegation to the UN under the leadership of Vijay Laxmi Pandit. Subsequently, he was appointed as India’s first ambassador to China and it is this time that he is most remembered for. He had the extraordinary privilege of seeing the Chinese revolution first hand and met both Chiang Kai-Shek as well as Mao Zedong. Indeed, Panikkar was to bring his deep historical knowledge to his tenure. As he says in his autobiography:

“While the embassies at London, Moscow, Washington and Paris were in many ways more important because of the might of the powers to whom they were attached, the embassy at Nanking was not inferior if one took into account the ancient ties between China and India and their much older civilizations. On the contrary, when one considered the momentous potentialities of the future, our relations with China assumed greater significance.”

K.M. Panikkar with Mao Zedong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain,

Panikkar became the centre of some controversy on having misled Nehru about the Chinese military campaign into Tibet and Sardar Patel and others disagreed on his assessment of China’s aims in Tibet. His own point of view was that British policy on Tibet, which India was supposed to have inherited, was unsustainable. In any case, he clearly saw the importance of the relationship of these two neighbours which were the world’s two most populous countries and oldest civilisations for the future.

It was Panikkar who Zhou Enlai approached and communicated China’s intention to enter the Korean war if the Americans entered North Korea. India played an important role in bringing about a truce in the Korean war and it was Panikkar who communicated with the Chinese in the attempts to negotiate a truce. His book In Two Chinas remains a valuable work for his description of the Chinese Revolution, the Korean War as well as the impressions he drew of China “its undoubted aspect as the culminating event of Asian resurgence…The communist leaders, not because of their communism but because they had a greater appreciation of the change that had come over the Asian mind, showed from the beginning a profound realization of the problem of Asia in relation to the West and to America and were therefore more in sympathy with their neighbours”. He further comments on the civilisational continuity of China as well as the historical precedent for a strong Central government in the region.

It was his time in China that allowed Panikkar to write what is undoubtedly his magnum opus, Asia and Western Dominance. This remarkable work talked about the De Gama epoch stretching from 1498 to 1945. The long historical view displays a very erudite treatment of the history of the interaction between Asia and Europe written for the first time by an Asian. In this, he explained that Europe was forced to take the naval route to Asia because the land route was blocked by the military defeat in the Crusades. He not only describes in riveting detail the European entry into and eventual suppression of Asia but also describes the historical basis for the concept of a pan-Asian identity. As he says, “It should also be remembered that the European nations in emphasizing their solidarity, their European-ness in dealing with Asian countries, inevitably gave rise to a common feeling of Asian-ness.”

K.M. Panikkar with Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Zhou Enlai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In this book, Panikkar emphasised, as he did in his other work, the importance of the Indian Ocean region. He saw this region as the natural centre of trade and culture up till the late 18th century linking India, South East Asia, China as well as East Africa. Further work by scholars has only elucidated the centrality of this region to the world economy before the advent of colonial imperialism.

Study of Africa

Panikkar is perhaps unique in the strong interest that he took in Africa. Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa says Panikkar is “an unusual example of an Asian scholar with a professional interest in the African continent”. His interest in Africa had probably begun earlier for he had reportedly subscribed to the pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois’ Crisis magazine in 1917. Further, he mentions Africa in his early book on imperialism though his descriptions then betrayed the fact that he had never visited Africa. He got this opportunity after becoming ambassador to Egypt and later to France.

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Just as in China he saw Mao take power, in Egypt he came right as Gamal Abdel Nasser had led the overthrow of the monarchy and was consolidating power. He developed a close relationship with General Mohamed Naguib and was able to lay the seeds of India’s friendship with Egypt, arranging a short visit by Nehru to Cairo, which was to later flower in the Bandung conference. Indeed, Panikkar observed the similarity of the problems in Asia and Africa and in 1959 wrote a book The Afro Asian States and Their Problems.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, Dr Sukarno, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Kwame Nkrumah and Saeb Salaam at the UN in July 1960. Photo: UN Photo/Marvin Bolotsky

He also wrote a long book The Serpent and The Crescent: A History of The Negro Empires of Western Africa in which he studied the Gao, Songhay and Oyo empires and west Africa’s culture and civilisation independently of the prejudiced view of European authors.

Two other books, Angola in Flames and Revolution in Africa examined the political situation in Africa at the time of their writing. The latter stands out for there he discussed in detail and considerable subtlety the ideology of pan-Africanism, as well as the importance of the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester. Further, he does a case study of Ahmed Sekou Toure and Guinea to understand the means and objectives of the ongoing anti-colonial struggle in Africa. He compares the All African People’s Conference held in Accra in 1958 to the Asian Relations Conference held earlier in 1947 in Delhi.

In summary, Panikkar was a strong advocate of Afro-Asian solidarity and was committed to a study of Africa and the potentialities of its relationship with India.

Panikkar’s contemporary importance

Panikkar produced an enormous amount of literature, much of which is out of print and not studied. However, his work has immense contemporary relevance precisely because of its long historical view. His historical work has a purpose to it which distinguishes it from dry academic treatments of the same subject. As Panikkar would argue, “It is not pure researchers who have produced historical literature of high value, but men of affairs who themselves played some part in the life of their country”. He would have appreciated fully the rise of China in our times and the end of the epoch in which western powers have so completely defined the world. He would have pressed for friendship with China and an appreciation of the long civilisational connections of the two countries above narrow political interests in the region.

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The centre of the world is again shifting to Asia. Panikkar’s conception of the importance of the Indian Ocean to regional security takes on a renewed importance. A UN General Assembly resolution in 1971 declared the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace and it is to this vision that we must return. Even though military relations between the US and India have been deepening in the past few years, we are only attaching ourselves to Western powers at a time when they are in an unprecedented crisis and condemned to decline.

Aerial view of the US military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Credit: Reuters

Aerial view of the US military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Credit: Reuters

Instead, uncomfortable questions must be raised on the continued US occupation of Diego Garcia and the US’s interests in the region. Furthermore, our current crisis requires a re-evaluation of international economic and political institutions like the UN and the WTO whose main purpose in the past couple of decades has become to exert western dominance over the world and whose structure no longer reflects geopolitical reality.

Finally, Panikkar would have called for renewed friendship not only between Asian countries but also between Asia and Africa. As the European epoch comes to a close, the people of Asia and Africa must seek to study and understand each other unmediated by western academics and develop independent relationships based on friendship and peaceful cooperation and co-existence.

Archishman Raju is a research fellow in physics and biology at Rockefeller University.