Jawaharlal Nehru: China, Spain, And The War

Nehru with Dr Chu Chi Hwa, Secretary-General of the Central Kuomintang, General Chen Cheng and others/ Image:7MB
A collection of writings and essays by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1939 shows how Nehru first viewed China with an open heart.

Fifty three years ago, on this day, Jawaharlal Nehru passed away following a stroke. In the two years since India’s failed conflict with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Nehru’s health had taken a poor turn. Somewhere along the bomb-strewn landscape of his political life, he had lost his magical optimism. The failed negotiations on Partition, assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the desperate poverty of independent India and perhaps above all the national humiliation suffered by India in the war with China – all contributed to a man who might have questioned many of his stances in his final days.

22 years before, in 1940, Nehru published a collection of essays titled ‘China, Spain and the War‘, which he had written based on his travels over a period of six months. At the time, the world was a very different place and Nehru penned down much of his opinion on it.

It’s an interesting period to read Nehru’s thoughts from. The world was on the cusp of World War, and the Indian independence movement faced an uncertain position. A political deadlock was underway, and Nehru found the time for a thirteen-day tour of Burma, Siam and China (then Myanmar, Thailand the Republic of China). Indeed, his friends didn’t want him to go.

Lamenting the coverage of China by the British press, Nehru writes:

It is one of our many unfortunate disabilities that we depend almost entirely for our foreign news service on a British agency which looks at news not from our point of view, but definitely from the British imperialist view-point. It’s offices on London decide what is good for us to have, and a restricted measure of this is poured out from day to day… Meanwhile real world news for which we hanker is denied to us.

He wanted to know more about China than just reports of the bomb attacks it suffered. For, he believed that China held enormous significance to India and the rest of the world. China was undergoing a bloody invasion from Japan, suffering hundreds of thousands in casualties. Nehru saw a kinship in the Eastern neighbour, a post-colonial state with an ancient legacy – an easy mirror for what he wanted India to become. He writes:

She is news because what is happening in China is of enormous significance to the world, to Asia, and to India. China is one of the Key countries of the world and in the world perspective, she counts more than the small warring countries of Europe. In any event, to Asia and to us in India, she and her future are of prime importance. China is news also because of the vast scale of horrible destruction that the Japanese armies have perpetrated there. Do we realise what the small news items that we read mean? Daily bombing of great cities, the killing of tens of thousands, the cruelty and inhumanity of modern warfare

He received an invite to visit China, on a route that passed through Calcutta, Kumming, Chunking, Bangkok, Saigon and many parts of China. In China, he had a particular mission – to inspect an Indian Medical Unit which he had dispatched along with aid money “as a token of our sympathy”.

He saw an intertwining of destinies with China, with every step of his visit leaving him wide-eyed to the possibility of Indo-China friendship.

The long perspective of history rose up before me, the agonies and triumphs of India and China, and the troubles of today folded their tents like the Arabs and as silently stole away. The present will pass and merge into the future, and India will remain and China will remain, and the two will work together for their own good and the good of the world.

Everywhere, he met with hospitality. Though he griped about Chinese food being too heavy (and his skills with the chopstick being insufficient), he found a great degree of warmth and friendliness from his hosts – and by the sometimes unexpected presence of Indians. As he described his arrival in Chungking:

As I descended, the pleasant and familiar sound of Bande Mataram greeted my ears, and looking up in some surprise, I saw an Indian in uniform. He was Mukherji of our Congress Medical Unit.

Chiang Kai-Shek, then known as the Generalissimo, was China’s de facto ruler. But at the time, the Chinese Civil War was only in a state of pause owing to the Japanese invasion. Chiang Kai-Shek would not rule over China for long. Nevertheless, Nehru seems to have built a budding friendship with him and his wife.

Nehru with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang / Image: 7MB

During his visit, he was often in areas undergoing Japanese air raids. These gave him some pause to reflect on the use of technology in war and in shattering the midnight peace.

It is said that several Japanese planes were hit by ‘machine-gun fire’ from the chasers. The extent of the damage done to the planes is not known but it is thought, or rather hoped, that some of them must have had forced landings on the way back. Probably there will be more air-raids during the next few days while the moonlight continues. In future moonlight must be associated, among other things, with air-raids.

Chiang Kai-Shek invited Nehru to his dug-out for safety during the air raids, but the message never reached him, and Nehru sheltered in the Foreign Minister’s dug-out instead.

I have been cordially invited by several persons ministers and generals to use their dug-outs whenever occasion arises. I suppose this is the height of courtesy and friendliness in this age of aerial bombing.

He later noted how calm the Chinese were in the face of air raids.

In Sinkiang, he met a diplomat who spoke to him in fluent Persian. Impressed with the conversation, he wrote:

I understood a word or two of what he had said to welcome me, and regretted my inability to carry on a conversation in that stately language

It would be this very province in China (later renamed Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) that would be the stage for the 1962 war with India – incorporating Aksai Chin into China.

Stupefied by Chinese names, Nehru was pleased to discover that the Chinese had a habit of keeping many visiting cards, and he soon had a collection of them himself. While touring Chungtu, a message reached him through a British news broadcast that the Indian Congress president had summoned him back to India. War in Europe was afoot – and the Congress needed to determine India’s position. Nehru’s visit was cut short and he made the return back home.

He regretted not being able to visit Japan at the time. Clearly, geopolitics would have gotten in the way.


Despite a glowing report, Nehru’s later policies towards China left much to be wanted. His approach was a mix of naiveté and aggression as he allowed China to annex Tibet largely unopposed in 1950; supported their entry into the United Nations, but made the hard-nosed stance of refusing fresh negotiations on the border. Nehru stuck to British-drawn lines, which a post-colonial revolutionary China was scant to respect.

The 1962 war was a severe defeat, and analysts in hindsight say with ease that Nehru could have seen it coming. Ignoring the advice of his more pragmatic Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Nehru pursued a policy of refusing a diplomatic solution and enraging China by setting up Forward Posts in disputed areas. When war struck, India didn’t utilize its Air Force even though Chinese forces would have been defenceless against it.

There is no shortage of criticisms for Nehru’s choices during the war. We are aware of many of them today because of much-delayed reports by first-hand observers. But Nehru would have been aware of it till his dying breath. He had played his cards for India-China Friendship – and lost.

Victor Anant reported the aftermath of his death in 1964 in the Guardian as follows:

One’s first instinct was not to look at Mr. Nehru but at the people around him. After five minutes one dared to see him. No, the face was not waxen. No, the face was not sad. No, the face was not in pain. No, the face was not that of an old man. The face was frozen into a mould of bewildered determination. In death as in life this was a face not of repose but of eager, impatient discovery.

Only a year after writing “China, Spain and the War”, Nehru started work on his magnum opus, the “Discovery of India.” Through his essays, he visits India much like he did China – wide-eyed and filled with hope and awe for the ancient civilization that is a part of everyday life in the two countries. His thesis there formed the idea of India – unified, whole, secular and unapologetically different.

Nehru’s older writings age well for a reason. He approached all his topics with the idea of a better world, appreciating it for what it once was and what it could one day become. As he states in the preface of his collection of essays about China, Spain & The War:

These writings therefore are obviously of Yesterday; yet, even yesterday’s impressions and ideas have some value, for out of them emerges Today with its own problems.


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