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Interesting correspondence between the Dalai Lama and Nehru (1960)
Phayul[Tuesday, September 01, 2015 12:43]
By Claude Arpi

The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru recently published an interesting exchange of letters between the Dalai Lama, who a year earlier had taken refuge in India, and the Indian Prime Minister.

The main subject of this exchange is the Tibetan appeal in the UN and the role of Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother.

A first UN Resolution was passed in 1959 (see text) and the presence of Gyalo Thondup in New York at that time was deemed necessary by the Dalai Lama to coordinate a second resolution.

The Government of India however refused to grant an Exit (and No-Objection-to-Return) Visa to Thondup to prepare the second appeal. The reputation of Thondup and the fact that his wife was a Taiwanese probably compounded the issue.

The correspondence is particularly interesting because Gyalo Thondup has recently been in the news after the publication of his memoirs, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong.

It is a fact that the Dalai Lama’s brother has always been a controversial figure, often very close to the CIA. While many saw him as a great patriot, fighting for Tibet’s independence, others believe that he was a bad influence on his brother (it is the view of the Indian Prime Minister).

At the same time, it is true that no Tibetan leader has had so close relations with the Communist leadership in China than Thondup. He is said to have travelled more than 50 times to Beijing to ‘negotiate’ his brother’s return to Tibet.

This exchange of letters also shows the difficult position of the Dalai Lama. Nehru was very much against an appeal in the UN, as he wanted to preserve for India what was left of the ‘brotherhood’ with Beijing, while the Dalai Lama believed that the international community should know what was happening in the Land of Snows and support the Tibetan people in their just struggle against Communist China.

Nehru believed (mostly after the awful Kashmir experience) that nothing can ever be ‘decided’ in the UN. He was probably right.

Since the early 1950s, Nehru had often to deal with Gyalo Thondup, more particularly in connection with the ‘melting’ of the Dalai Lama’s treasure, mentioned in Thondup’s book.

Questions had even been raised in the Indian Parliament on the 'treasure'; it was embarrassing for the Indian Prime Minister.

It should also be remembered that the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai had come to India in April 1960; he had 17 hours of talk with Nehru. India and China were keen to solve the border issue and at the time of this exchange of letters, the discussions between the ‘Officials’ of the 2 countries were going on in Delhi and Beijing.

Nehru did not want the ‘last chance’ to find a solution for the border to be jeopardized by a Tibetan appeal in the UN; this explains his attitude towards Thondup and the Dalai Lama.

Ultimately, a new resolution was passed in 1961, this did not help much the Tibetan cause. The border issue too was not solved and two years later, India and China clashed over what used to be the Indo-Tibet border.

There is no doubt that the Tibetan issue was at the centre of the 1962 conflict.

Correspondence between the Dalai Lama and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960

Letter from the Dalai Lama to Prime Minister Nehru

July 25, 1960

Time and again you have been kind enough to express, both publicly and in private, your deep sympathy for the people of Tibet in their sad and sorry situation, and this has given strength and courage to all of us, whether living in Tibet or outside. You have generously accorded us asylum in this holy land. You have given, and are still giving, all possible help for the rehabilitation of the unfortunate Tibetans in India. I have already addressed several letters to Your Excellency in this behalf and am most grateful to you for the kind interest you are taking in the matter.

Your Excellency has also evinced abiding interest in "the cultural kinship between the people of India and the people of Tibet." We have always believed that Tibet is a child of Indian civilisation and the people of India must be vitally concerned in the preservation of Tibet's distinct personality. I have, therefore, ventured to address this letter to you. Your Excellency must be fully aware of the grim tragedy that is now being enacted in Tibet. I have been receiving with profound sorrow harrowing accounts of oppression and murder. Hundreds of Tibetans, who have recently been pouring into India and Nepal, bear witness to this sad and distressing state of affairs. There are thousands of others who cannot escape and are threatened with death and destruction. I, therefore, feel, and feel very strongly that something must be done, and done now, to save the lives of these people. As Your Excellency is aware, I have unflinching faith in non-violence and have throughout the last ten years made earnest endeavour to pursue the path of peace. Unfortunately, all my efforts have ended in failure, and I am at present not in a position to help my people in any way. I believe, however, that a wise and far-sighted statesman like Your Excellency may be able to do something to bring about a speedy end to this unnecessary and indiscriminate shedding of innocent blood and a just and peaceful settlement of the Tibetan problem.

I fully appreciate the difficult position of the Government of India in this matter and have, therefore, no other alternative than to take such steps as may be necessary to appeal once again for mediation by the United Nations. I confidently hope that even if the Government of India cannot themselves raise the issue, they will kindly agree to help us in securing the support of other countries and in prosecuting our appeal. Your Excellency, my heart is heavy with sorrow, and I have written to you frankly and freely. I have every confidence that this letter will be taken in the same spirit in which it has been written.

Gyalo Thondup (right) with colleagues in New York for the UN Appeal
Gyalo Thondup (right) with colleagues in New York for the UN Appeal
Letter from Jawaharlal Nehru to the Dalai Lama

August 7, 1960

Your Holiness,

Thank you for your letter of July 25 which reached me about a week ago. In this letter you have been good enough to express your appreciation and gratitude for the deep sympathy in India for the Tibetan refugees and for all that has been done for their rehabilitation in India. At the same time, you have expressed your profound sorrow at the state of affairs in Tibet and the plight of the people there, and your strong feeling that "something must be done, and done now, to save the lives of these people".

I can well appreciate your distress as well as your desire that something effective should be done. Unfortunately it is not always possible to give effect to our wishes and desires, and circumstances beyond our control prove limiting factors. We have, therefore, to consider all these circumstances and then come to decisions. Otherwise, any action that we may take may not only be totally ineffective but might also, to some extent, injure the very cause that we have at heart.

I am glad that you have written to me frankly about your feelings and your wishes. I think it is right that I should write to you also frankly what I think about these matters. Some of the activities undertaken on your behalf in the past have been a matter of concern to us, and we have felt that they are not rightly conceived or carried out. I have had a feeling that some of your advisers have not given you right advice. I have in mind particularly the activities of your brother Gyalo Thondup and one or two others of your entourage.

Two questions face us. One is the proper rehabilitation of the Tibetan refugees who have come to India; the other is the larger and more difficult issue of what is happening in Tibet itself. So far as the former question is concerned, it is not simple or easy of solution, but we have undertaken responsibility for it, and we shall do our utmost to rehabilitate them in India. We hope that with your help we shall succeed. The question of these refugees is an internal matter for India which has to be dealt with by the Government of India in consultation with and according to the advice of your goodself [sic]. Other countries are not concerned.

We have given asylum to more than 20,000 Tibetans in our country and the stream of such refugees has not stopped. Your Holiness knows well that this act of ours in giving refuge and asylum to all these Tibetans has created considerable friction between India and the People's Republic of China. Nevertheless, we have considered it our duty to receive these Tibetan people who have come to India and to help them to rehabilitate themselves. The only condition we have attached is that Indian territory must not be made a base for hostile propaganda or activities against the People's Republic of China. It is true that our relations with the Government of China are strained because of various reasons. That is a matter between India and China. But it would be against international convention and usage for refugees, who have taken asylum in India, to use the soil of India for any kind of hostile activities against another country.

Thus we have assumed full responsibility for these Tibetan refugees. We have not asked other countries for financial or any other kind of help for this purpose. It is true that three countries, namely, New Zealand, Australia and the United States of America, have offered financial help for rehabilitation and we have accepted these for specific schemes. But whether that help came or not, our responsibility for rehabilitation would remain.

The other question that arises is a much wider one, that is, the condition of Tibet and the fate of the people there. Any action contemplated in regard to Tibet must necessarily raise difficult and complicated international issues and has to be considered with the greatest care. We live in a world which often hovers over the brink of war, and in which what is called the cold war vitiates the atmosphere of international relations. No subject of international importance can be considered calmly or objectively in this atmosphere, and the decisions of Governments or even of the United Nations itself are governed by these international controversies and conflicts.

I fear that some of your advisers have not got all these aspects in view and have, therefore, often given you wrong and even harmful advice. I have ventured in the past to give you such advice as I thought proper. But you have not always been in a position to accept it. It has not been our desire to interfere with your judgment even though I have regretted some of the decisions our Holiness has taken.

Last year, in rather special circumstances, we gave travel facilities to your brother Gyalo Thondup and one or two others, and some amounts of foreign exchange were also made available to them to enable them to visit a number of countries and thereafter to proceed to New York. Our information is that Gyalo Thondup collected some money last year for Tibetan refugees. We do not know whether he has given full accounts for the money he had collected to Your Holiness. Our information further is that while he was abroad he spent rather lavishly and lived in expensive hotels. I do not think that in the circumstances this was fitting or desirable.

I feel that collecting money abroad in this way is not in keeping with the dignity of Your Holiness or that of the Government of India. The Government of India have not only taken the liability for this purpose, but Your Holiness has also some funds at your disposal. We have no objection to receiving help from other countries, as we have already accepted some such offers. But for individuals to go about in foreign countries begging for aid for the Tibetan refugees appears to us to be totally inappropriate. Further what guarantee is there that the money so collected would, in fact, be properly utilised?

Your Holiness may remember that there were questions in our Parliament about the treasure that was handed to you last year. We had relaxed some of our rules in this matter in our desire to be of help to Your Holiness. We had hoped that the money, as Your Holiness said, would be utilised for the rehabilitation of your people in India.

I have now received requests from Gyalo Thondup and his wife for travel documents to enable them to go abroad. Among the reasons for going abroad, they have mentioned that they would promote an appeal in foreign countries for help towards the rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees in India. For the reasons I have indicated above, we are entirely opposed to any such appeal being issued, more especially by individuals. In the circumstances, therefore, we have regretfully reached the conclusion that we should not give travel documents to Gyalo Thondup and his wife.

Similarly, we have got a request from Mr Rinchen for facilities for going abroad. I am told that he would arrange for the publication of a book which you have written. I have no idea of what this book is about, but Your Holiness, no doubt, knows that it is not necessary for one of your staff to go abroad just to arrange for the publication of a book.

Speaking generally, we have no objection to travel documents being allowed to Tibetans who wish to leave India permanently. We have, however, to consider carefully requests for endorsements which would facilitate return to India at a later date. We have to take particular care to see that facilities of easy travel between India and foreign countries by foreigners are not abused.

Your Holiness has mentioned in your letter that you are proposing to take steps to appeal once again for "mediation by the United Nations". As I have said above I do not wish to interfere in your judgment, but I do feel that I should tell you as a friend that this attempt is not likely to produce any practical results. I can very well appreciate your feelings and your desire to see something done, but my own judgment is that in view of a number of important events that have taken place during the last twelve months, any such appeal to the United Nations would have to face even greater difficulties this year than the last year. If I feel so, as I do, I can hardly be expected to encourage you to follow a course of action which I consider unhelpful and possibly harmful.

With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
Jawaharlal Nehru


Letter from the Dalai Lama to Prime Minister Nehru

August 25, 1960

Will you kindly accept my sincere thanks for your letter of the 7th instant which I received on the 11th.

2. I am very glad indeed that Your Excellency has written to me frankly and openly and for this I am grateful to you. May I, however, respectfully say that there are certain statements in Your Excellency's letter which have caused me a great deal of pain and surprise. I refer to your statement that some of the activities carried on my behalf have caused you concern, particularly the activities of my brother Gyalo Thondup and one or two members of my entourage. Your Excellency is aware that I would not permit anything to be done, which might cause you concern and if you had been good enough to draw my attention, I would have promptly attended to the matter. As it is, I am at a disadvantage, for I am not aware of any such activity by Gyalo Thondup or anyone in my entourage. I shall be grateful if you will kindly let me know the nature of the activities and the persons who are carrying on such activities.

3. May I also refer to the statements regarding my brother Gyalo Thondup and the other members of the Tibetan Delegation which had been deputed by me to the last session of the United Nations? At the outset, I should like to assure Your Excellency that there is not the slightest foundation for the information which has been reported to you. You will, I trust, allow me to state the barest facts.

4. The Delegation stayed for about a fortnight at the Atheneum Court in London en route to the United Nations. The three members of the Delegation shared one room, and one of them had to sleep on a sofa. In New York, arrangements were made for their stay at the Waldorf Astoria by some prominent Americans, who have always been keenly interested in the affairs of Tibet. They paid about thirteen dollars a day for a single room and this could not be called an exorbitantly high rate keeping in view the charges which are made at some of the leading hotels in India. However, within a short while after their arrival in New York, they left the Waldorf Astoria for a cheaper hotel, as the American friends were insisting on the payment of their expenses, and they did not wish to be under obligation to any person, however well meaning he might be. I am sure, Your Excellency will agree with me that, in the circumstances, the expenses incurred by my representatives could not be described as lavish. Nor did they spend any large sums of money on entertainment, whether official or otherwise. Indeed, within the small allotment of dollar exchange granted to them it was impossible for them to live lavishly and in expensive hotels. What was, however, expensive were the fees paid to American lawyers and others by the Delegation for the purpose of obtaining the best possible advice.

5. As regards the serious allegation made against my brother that he has been collecting money for the relief and rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees and that he may not have given full account to me, with due deference, I would like to state clearly that this is completely untrue. The members of the Tibetan Delegation did indeed pay visits to various charitable organisations, but they did so at the request of such organisations and only to thank them for the contributions they had already made to the Central Relief Committee in India and to suggest to them that they should continue to remit direct to the Committee whatever funds were available. The only contribution that was directly received by my brother was the sum of forty-one dollars handed over to him personally by a few Buddhist disciples from Inner Mongolia. All these facts can easily be verified. I may be permitted to add that we have heard of a person who has been giving currency to such reports, and have documentary evidence to prove conclusively that these reports are not in accord with facts. If necessary, I trust that, in all fairness and justice, Your Excellency's Government will be pleased to grant to my brother and his associates the opportunity to substantiate the statements which I have made. In this connection, I would also like to emphasise the fact that, in all their dealings, the members of the Tibetan Delegation have never failed to praise, as they should, the help and assistance which I and my people have always received from the Government of India. Nor have they hesitated to contradict observations prejudicial to the interests of India made by other people. I trust I have succeeded in making the position clear to Your Excellency.

6. May I, with Your Excellency's permission, also point out that there appears to be a certain amount of misunderstanding regarding the proposed visit overseas of my brother, Gyalo Thondup and his wife. It was not intended that Gyalo Thondup should go abroad for the purpose of appealing to the people of foreign countries for raising funds for the Tibetan refugees. We have received several requests from various organisations in different parts of the world that one of my officials should be deputed to help them in raising funds for the Tibetan refugees. All that was, therefore, intended was that he should visit these foreign countries and render whatever assistance he can to the various charitable organisations, which may remit whatever they might collect to the Central Relief Committee. I am sure Your Excellency will agree with me that there is nothing objectionable in this procedure. It may also be added that he had not been instructed to collect funds for this purpose. I must offer apologies to Your Excellency that the position was not made clear to your Government. As regards Mrs. Thondup, her main purpose was to visit her mother, whom she has not seen for a number of years. I am, therefore, greatly disappointed that Your Excellency's Government has thought it fit to refuse travel documents to both Gyalo Thondup and his wife.

While agreeing with Your Excellency that the settlement of the Tibetan refugees in India is primarily the concern of the Government of India, I also consider it my duty to help the Government of India as far as it lies in my power. As for myself, I have already spent about five lakhs of rupees on the education of Tibetan children and the maintenance of Tibetan officials. I have also decided to create a trust for the Tibetan refugees in India and have been in touch with distinguished Indian nationals in order to persuade them to be trustees of the fund. My intention was that Gyalo Thondup should, as one of the Tibetan trustees, visit foreign countries and contact the various organizations, which have on several occasions offered to help us financially or otherwise.

As regards the book to which Your Excellency has referred, I would like to inform you that I had undertaken the writing of the book several months ago and, in fact, one of the chapters was very kindly revised by the officer of the External Affairs Ministry who has been deputed by Your Excellency's Government to be on duty with me. The book purports to be an autobiographical essay. As it contains a great deal of new information on Tibetan religion and religious practices, it was considered necessary that one of my officials should proceed to the United Kingdom to supervise the publication. I may add, for Your Excellency's information, that the book also contains a narrative of the recent events in Tibet. It was, and still is, my intention to seek Your Excellency's advice and suggestions in respect of the chapters, which deal with questions of a political character.

Your Excellency is fully aware that on several occasions I have clearly stated that I realise and appreciate the difficult position of the Government of India. We are all most grateful to Your Excellency for granting asylum to me and my people when we were confronted with an extremely difficult situation, and I can assure Your Excellency that I and my people will always remember with feelings of gratitude the kindness which we have received from the people and the Government of India in such a generous measure. At the same time, I cannot but frankly state that we had always assumed that the right to asylum recognised by all civilised nations presupposes the legitimate exercise of all fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, I and my officials have tried our best to follow the advice given to us by the Government of India and have for several months past sedulously refrained from making any public statements of a political character or indulging in any political activity which might embarrass the Government of India. I hope and trust that the exercise of this freedom will not be denied to me. I shall, as you know, always endeavour to see that no action of mine is in any way detrimental to the interests of your great and hospitable country. I feel, and feel very strongly, that if I cannot speak, and speak for my people, my existence has no meaning or value.

I want Your Excellency to understand that it is difficult for me to express in words the gratitude that I feel for all that Your Excellency's Government has done for my people and myself. I feel, however, that I should no longer avail myself of the generous grant of Your Excellency's Government to me. The amount, if I might suggest, may be used for the relief and rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees.

I am extremely sorry to find that Your Excellency still adheres to the view that no useful purpose would be served by taking the Tibetan question to the United Nations. I have the greatest respect and admiration for Your Excellency and attach the highest value and importance to your opinion. It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that I beg to differ from Your Excellency on this issue. I am fully conscious of the fact, as Your Excellency has been kind enough to point out, that an appeal to the United Nations may produce no practical results, but this has not deterred leading nations from agitating the same issue year after year before the world forum. May I cite some instances? Your Excellency is familiar with the case of Ethiopia after its subjugation by Italians. The issues of the persons of Indian Origin residing in South Africa and of apartheid have been agitated for the last 14 years, and very rightly so, by Your Excellency's Government in the United Nations. This has been done because it is a moral issue, an issue which can rouse the conscience of the civilized world. After all these years, it appears to bear some fruit. I feel that the subjugation of my country and the travails my people are going through ought to be placed before the conscience of the world and I shall be failing in my duty if I do not do so. I am sure Your Excellency will agree with me that there is no other course open to me; there is nothing else that I can do to help my poor and unfortunate people. I, therefore feel and feel very strongly that I would be failing in my duty to God and to my people if I do not make use of the only remedy that is available to me. A subjugated people have at least the right to cry out and protest against their subjugation. With the great traditions of your country laid down by that immortal soul, Mahatma Gandhi, who stood up for all oppressed people, the traditions which you are so nobly upholding, Your Excellency will, I am sure, appreciate the stand I am taking in this matter.

Your Excellency has been kind enough to appreciate my feelings in this regard. I have no doubt that in my position Your Excellency would have taken the same action as I have decided to take. I might mention that now that, according to reports in the newspapers, Malaya and Thailand have moved to raise the question of Tibet in the United Nations Assembly and I am confident that several other countries will be supporting the move, I consider that somebody on my behalf should be in New York during the sessions of the United Nations. I therefore, request your Excellency to grant Gyalo Thondup the necessary facilities for travel. I shall shortly communicate to Your Excellency the names of other representatives, whom I propose to depute to go to New York. In the circumstances, I would earnestly beg of you and your Government to be generous with us once again and give us all possible help, particularly in the matter of travel documents and foreign exchange for the Tibetan Delegation to the United Nations. It is needless for me to add that whatever help Your Excellency decides to give us will be most welcome. I shall be grateful for an early reply.

With assurances of my highest consideration.



Claude Arpi is French-born author, journalist, historian and Tibetologist.



The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.

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