1963: Indian PoWs in Beijing

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I recently came across an interesting book, My Peking Memoirs of the Chinese Invasion of India by Dr Purnendu Kumar Banerjee, the Indian Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing during the Sino-Indian War.

In the chapter reproduced below, he mentioned the reception given to the senior Indian officers who had spent more than six months as prisoner of war in Tibet, in extremely dramatic conditions.

Against their will, the officers were taken on a propaganda tour of ‘New China’.

The Communuist leadership had planned to ‘parade’ these officers on the Tiananment Sqaure on May 1 on the occasion of the Labour Day.

Brig John Dalvi strongly opposed this final humiliation for his men.
The Chinese had not choice, but to drop their plans.

It is in these circumstances that they were ‘allowed’ to visit the Indian Embassy in Beijing (it was certainly part of Beijing’s propaganda efforts, to show how ‘liberal’ was China).

Before going into PK Banerjee’s memoirs, here is the account of Maj Gen (then Lt Col) KK Tewari, one of the Commanding Officers who spent seven months in captivity.


If you are interested, you can read this old post, POW in Tibet (Gen Krishna Tewari’s book, A SOLDIER’S VOYAGE OF SELF DISCOVERY is also downloaded from here).

Extracts:

One day a couple of us even had a walk from the hotel to the Tiananmen Square, which was in the news recently due to the student unrest in China. On 30th April, we were taken to the Great Wall of China which is supposedly the only man-made structure in the world visible from space. Built in 300 B.C. by the Chou Dynasty, it is 3,000 miles long (1,700 miles of it in the plains and the rest in the mountainous area), it took 300,000 men ten years to complete it, used enough material to build a wall 8 feet high and 3 feet thick around the world, has an average height of 28 feet 8 inches with a base width of 24 feet and a top width of 18 feet. We were also shown the famous Ming tombs.

On 1st May, we saw the fire-works from the roof of the hotel to celebrate May Day.

On 2nd May evening we were entertained to tea at the Indian Embassy and a warm reception by Dr. PK Banerjee, who embraced each one of us at the entrance. The Chinese guards, of course, were left outside and it was a lovely feeling to step into the ‘little India’ in Peking. However, all the time our thoughts were on our return to our homeland.

It was on 3 May that we left Peking for our journey home.

On our last night in Peking, we were taken to a musical show put on by an oriental troupe who performed Indian, Pakistani and Ceylonese dances and songs. It was an enjoyable treat. We had to be up early for the 45 mile drive to the airport and after a lot of photographs, we took off at 5:20 a.m. from Peking in two IL 14 aircraft. We landed at Sian for refuelling at 8:45 a.m., were given, surprisingly enough, a very poor breakfast after all the excellent service we had been given till then and took off again at 10:20 a.m. We had another brief landing at Chengdu at 12:45 to pick up Rattan who had been left behind earlier due to his illness, took off at 13:25 and landed at Kunming at 15:45.

Extracts:

My Peking Memoirs of the Chinese Invasion of India (Clairon Books, New Delhi) by Purnendu Kumar Banerjee (Indian Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing)

Chapter 30

INDIAN PRISONERS OF WAR

I mentioned earlier our attempts to have the International Red Cross in Switzerland assist in the disposal of dead bodies and. the release of Indian troops and officers. As the Chinese refused to deal with the International Red Cross, the matter remained confused and a solution to the problem was delayed. At the same-time the Chinese exploited the situation to their benefit in various ways. Since the invasion and even long after the ceasefire, they played up their propaganda. For example, they maintained that Nehru, as an agent of the imperialists, had forced the Indian troops to attack a friendly neighbour, China; that the Indian troops had never been properly looked after and cared for; that the Indian Government showed no interest in the disposal of the dead bodies and the release of prisoners; that ‘due to the goodwill and- friendship of the Chinese troops’, the Indian troops were being taken good care of and were being sent home to be reunited with their families despite the Indian government’s reluctance to help or assist in the matter; and that the departing troops had been expressing their thanks and gratitude to .China for her “magnanimous” attitude and treatment. Such propaganda was evident in the daily broadcasts on Peking radio, not only in Chinese – but also in Indian languages.

Another matter was concerned with the repatriation of about two thousand Chinese from India which was agreed to by India. Consequently, efforts were made for their transport mainly by boat, but the Chinese turned on their propaganda and compared the situation to Nazi concentration camps. Meanwhile, other attacks on India’s news media continued and so did the protest notes. 

By early spring in 1963, it was clear the three thousand nine hundred persons belonging to the Indian armed forces were prisoners in Chinese hands. Though a large number of our troops were eventually released after considerable effort by the Chinese to brainwash them with propaganda, an equally large number remained unaccounted for. In the last category were twenty-seven officers and I requested the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for information about them. This request was turned down and I was told that the Indian Red Cross should approach the Chinese Red Cross in the matter. While this was still pending, I was having dinner one evening at an East European embassy, when a newspaper reporter from another East European country, whom I knew well, asked me in private if I had heard about the captive Indian officers? I told him that I had no news and that my legitimate request for such information had been rejected by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. He then told me, in confidence, that according to the latest information, one of his colleagues had seen the Indian officers in Nanking and that they were being taken by bus and train to many large cities and, possibly, would soon be brought to Peking. 

I thanked him sincerely. 

The same evening I requested to see the Foreign Minister, Chen Yi.

The next day, I was given an appointment to see the Vice-Foreign Minister as Chen Yi was out of town, which in other words meant that the latter was not prepared to see me. When I met the Vice-Foreign Minister, I opened fire. I told him that the Chinese were continuing to violate international law and conventions such as the Geneva Convention, and this was unacceptable and regrettable. First the Chinese had refused to deal with the International Red Cross in matters of the dead and the release of Indian troops resulting in delay, harassment, humiliation and more suffering. At the•same time, the Chinese were engaged in constant and cheap propaganda about Indian troops being happy to be in Chinese prisons where they were loved. The Vice-Foreign Minister tried to interrupt me because the language and the tone I was using were not often applied in “diplomatic dialogue”. He could•not stop me. I continued. I said I had information that the Indian officers in captivity had been separated from their troops. and were being paraded in public, in blatant violation of international law, international practice and international conventions, in particular the Geneva Convention, even though China was a signatory to these conventions. I demanded that this cruel circus must stop, that this kind of thing was unknown in the civilized world; and that the prisoners must be released.

The Vice-Foreign Minister was perspiring profusely and was visibly shaken. His•aide and interpreter fumbled while translating. Though my words were somewhat harsh, I kept my expression calm. I knew with conviction that the Chinese had made a serious blunder. He wanted to know my source of information. I told him that I was not prepared to disclose this but I was prepared to accept his assurance that the Indian officers were not being taken from city to city, in public places and in public view. He tried to avoid the tight corner I had placed him in by saying that they were not prisoners and were not being treated as such. They were visitors to a friendly country and had expressed their wish to see China before going home, which would hopefully be soon. Then I opened my second round of fire. I told him that I would enjoy Chinese fairy tales in other circumstances but not in such a serious matter. 

Were they captives of the Chinese or not? If they had been captured, were they not prisoners? Then shouldn’t they be governed by the Geneva Convention? If they were not prisoners, why had they been kept under guard for more than six months away from their homes, families and friends? I repeated my two demands, but I added that in case the Chinese failed to respond positively in the matter, India would be compelled to inform the world, in particular the Asian and African countries and the other one hundred signatories of the Geneva Convention, about China’s flagrant violations. I thanked him for receiving me and got up to go. He was still shaken when I left.

I informed my Ministry about the latest developments and what action I had taken. When I told my colleagues in the embassy about my talk, they were rather pessimistic about the Chinese response. A few days later, our number two in the embassy, Damodaran, informed me that he had received a message from the Chinese Foreign Ministry that the Indian army officers were in Peking and that facilities would be given to me if I wanted to visit them. I called a meeting immediately of all our officers and placed the facts before them for their views. After some discussion, it was evident that they wanted me to visit them. I disagreed, I told them the officers were prisoners of the Chinese and were obviously kept under strict security. 

Therefore they were in a Chinese prison, in law and-in fact. How could the Indian envoy visit a Chinese prison to see the Indian officers? My visit, at the Chinese behest, would legitimise the whole illegal and uncivilised Chinese policy in this regard. My colleagues pointed out that, in principle, I was right. But if the information leaked out that I had refused to visit the Chinese prisons or detention camps to see the Indian officers, there would be severe criticism in the Indian press and in Parliament. They were right. I decided on a compromise solution. Damodaran [No 2 in the embassy] would call back the Chinese official dealing with this matter and say that it would be inappropriate for the Indian envoy to visit the Indian officers. But if they were free and willing, they were invited to visit their own embassy and call on the envoy. If this proposal was not acceptable, we would fly out a representative of the Indian Red Cross to visit the Indian officers. This was communicated in due course. After a three days’ wait, we received a message that the Indian officers – would visit the embassy. 

The date and time were worked out on the clear understanding that no armed or unarmed guards would be permitted inside the embassy compound during the visit of the Indian officers. We were more than delighted that our gamble had won. 

Captured Indian army officers visit the embassy 

All the members of the embassy joined together and with great enthusiasm produced enormous quantities of excellent and varied food, delicacies from almost all parts of India. Rosha, one of our first secretaries, a dear friend and a fine officer, looked after the arrangements. The drinks included lassi (buttermilk), different fruit juices, tea, coffee and of course champagne, wines, scotch and cognac. The reception rooms were decorated with flowers and Indian flags. I called a meeting with all members of our embassy, both diplomatic and non-diplomatic. I explained to them that our officers had a very hard time as prisoners for almost six months, completely cut off from their families, friends and home, and even news from India. The Chinese had attempted to brainwash them. They inevitably had feelings of loss, defeat and humiliation, all for no fault of theirs. We then agreed on the following programme and arrangements: 

On their arrival, we would garland each officer;

The national anthem would be played;

I would say a few words of welcome, telling them how India was proud of them, of their courage and dedication, and that a great and warm welcome would await them in India;

We would then take them inside and show them their places in six separate groups;

Each group would have at least two members of the embassy as hosts, looking after them with warmth and affection, and helping them with food and drinks;

It was expected that these groups would break up and regroup according to the inclinations of our guests;

The military attaché Lt.-Colonel Khera and I would move freely from one group to another;
While the embassy staff were playing host, they were not to show any curiosity and ask questions, but would reply if the officers asked them a question;

Whatever was heard or whatever impressions were formed by the hosts would carefully be remembered, and reported to me later, after the officers’ departure.

The army officers duly arrived in buses, at the time fixed earlier. There were no Chinese guards either with them or outside in the street where the buses were parked. The officers cried and so did we, as we embraced them; the atmosphere was charged with emotion and affection. Some of the officers were in their military uniforms; they explained that this was because they were officially visiting their embassy. We took them inside to their seats, but very soon they started to regroup. 

Food and drinks were offered. They were delighted to have such a variety of Indian delicacies after such a long time. They showed their appreciation by consuming large quantities of the food. It was wonderful to have them with us. The conversation in the different groups continued. We soon learned that because of the unrelenting Chinese propaganda which was based on distortion of statements, mainly made by the opposition parties in India, the officers were deeply worried about the future after their return to India. I kept assuring that they would be given the warmest welcome, a hero’s welcome. Brigadier Dalvi however, was most worried; he was depressed, dejected and disappointed. He had a distinguished career behind him and he impressed me as an intelligent person. He had legitimate and serious complaints against the planning and implementation of India’s defence policy. In his book Himalayan Blunder, he did not refer to his time in China or the visit to the Indian embassy in Peking. It is understandable, considering the unavoidable tensions and dissensions endured by these officers during the previous six months.

One of the most joyous moments of that reception was when Lt Colonel Khera called me to a corner and quietly pointed out an officer who had been declared dead in combat and whose wife had received from the President• of India a high decoration awarded posthumously, We had another round of champagne to celebrate. 

The time came for them to leave. We did not know then where and when they would be released, nor did they.

After the army officers left, we sat down together to draft reports on our conversations and impressions. In the meantime, I also sent a top secret and most urgent telegram in code addressed to the Secretary-General of our Ministry, in which I described briefly the visit of the officers, their main worries and my assurances, and indicated that a detailed report on the information obtained and our impressions during three ‘hours of conversation was being sent by special courier to New Deihi. 

I also suggested. that pending a serious study of my report, the government and if possible the opposition should desist from discussing matters relating to these twenty-seven officers;• that all of them should be given a hero’s welcome but if later on, after careful and discreet observation, “bad eggs” were discovered, they should be removed without publicity because otherwise we would be strengthening China’s pernicious propaganda about the Indian armed forces; and that we had as yet no information about when •or where the officers would be released. I also gave information about the officer who was presumed dead but was alive. By the time all the reports were coordinated, written or dictated and finally typed, it was well past midnight. Everyone was happy and we were teasing each other. My colleagues teased me too, saying that I was at my best after midnight because of my association with Chou En-lai. I will always remember with gratitude the warmth and affection of these colleagues during my time in China. 

Return of Indian prisoners 

In diplomatic circles in Peking, everyone soon came to know about the visit of our officers to our embassy. After a few days, Terence Garvey (later Sir Terence Garvey), my opposite number from the British Embassy came to see and tell me in confidence that, according to information he received from Hong Kong, the Chinese were planning to release our officers from the-border of China and Hong Kong. I told him that this could be to draw the attention of the international press; TV and radio representatives who would witness the release and handing over of the officers as a gesture of peace and magnanimity by the Chinese. I thanked him for this information and for being such a good friend. I reported to New Delhi immediately and requested them not to inform the press. I sought an interview with Marshal Chen Yi urgently. This time Chen Yi received me himself.’ He asked me whether I was satisfied and happy to have seen and spent some time with our officers in our embassy. I had a feeling that both Chen Yi and Chou had received a report from their Vice-Minister about our “warm” discussions previously in this regard, Chen Yi said that the officers had, as they desired, seen a good part of China and her achievements, and that soon they would be going home. I referred• to my earlier discussions with his Vice-Minister and strongly affirmed our-view-that China had violated and continued to violate the Geneva Convention by parading them publicly. 

Our officers were no more and no less than prisoners in Chinese hands. If China had any respect for international law and respect for humanitarian considerations, the officers should have been released months ago and reunited with their families. 

Chen Yi got angry. He said he forthwith rejected my false and fabricated allegations against China. I should have been grateful and pleased that I had been I given the opportunity to see the officers. I said I was sorry to upset him but I had to tell him: the truth as warranted by the facts. I added that I had come to see him about another very serious aspect of the matter. I told him that according to my information, China was planning to release the officers on the border of China and Hong Kong. Chen Yi cut me short and asked me my source of information. I said I was- not prepared to disclose my source since it was not relevant. What was relevant was that if my information was wrong, I would withdraw it and offer my profound regrets, but if it were true, I would lodge a most serious protest in the strongest terms. Chen Yi was boiling in anger and I was enjoying it in calm satisfaction. He said that China was not answerable to anyone as to where and when the officers would be returned. I told him they were our officers, prisoners of war’ who had to be returned to us, and therefore we would need advance information about the date, time and place of their release. If the Chinese authorities had decided to release them on the border of China and Hong Kong, a colonial territory, we would not need advance intimation of time and date as there would be no representative from India to take them over from the Chinese representative. Of course the Chinese representative could hand them over to the colonial representative of Hong Kong and might get an extra mileage of propaganda. Chen Yi was so upset he had to make an effort to calm himself before he could speak; but before he could do that I got up and thanked him for receiving me and said that I would leave him with my earnest request because the decision- was his in the matter. I returned to our embassy, informed New Delhi and briefed my colleagues. We were not very optimistic about the outcome from this last gambit. 

At a National Day reception the next day, I saw Chou En-lai when he came to our table to clink glasses in a toast. I asked his permission to mention a matter of utmost urgency, He signalled me to continue. I told him very briefly that I had information that China was considering releasing our officers on the border of China and British colonial Hong-Kong. When China and India had two thousand miles of common frontier and a history of hundreds of years of friendship and cultural ties, why not release them anywhere on our common border or inside China? Why on colonial soil? 

Despite the recent unfortunate relations between our two countries, both India and China had fought against colonial rule. So why now involve Hong Kong? Before I could continue, Chou looked at me and said in English, “I don’t know anything about it and have nothing to do with it.” He turned round and left for the next table. I felt at that moment that it was not much of a diplomatic success for me. 

I reported my talk with Chou En-lai to New Delhi. Three days later, in the morning, Lt-Colonel Khera rushed into my room bubbling with excitement and radiant like a child, holding a piece of paper in his hand. He said, “We got it, we made it, it worked.” I asked him if it was my transfer orders! He became serious. He said he had an urgent message from the Chinese Defence Ministry giving the date, time and place where the Indian officers would be handed over, and requesting the time, date and identification of the Indian aircraft which would fly the officers back to India. We were so relieved and happy. I informed New Delhi accordingly. 

A few days later, I received a letter from General Chaudhuri, Chief of Staff of the armed forces of India. It said, “I join the armed forces in saluting you.” His generous comment, obviously, was related to my recent telegrams and special report on our officers’ visit to our embassy. I knew General Chaudhuri because for three generations our families had had connections: our grandfathers were friends, our fathers were colleagues and, much later, I had more occasions to see him. 

The tensions continued on the border: The Colombo proposals had buried by the Chinese. The atmosphere was one of stalemate and uneasy calm. The protest notes continued to be fired by each side with regularity and rapidity. Having completed two years of my two-year assignment, I wrote MJ a personal letter, requesting a change to a calm, pleasant and easy capital. He wrote back that a change was not possible because the normal rules did not apply to me, and that he had obtained the approval of the Prime Minister in the matter. In fact, it was the Prime Minister’s wish that I should continue for longer. 

Lord Bertrand Russell’s representatives in Peking 

A few days later, in early July, a peculiar if not ominous event happened. -I was told by a friend in a foreign news agency that two men from Britain, representing Lord Bertrand Russell, were in Peking. They had brought a new offer from Mr. Nehru for Chou En-lai, Their names were Schoenman and Pottle. I was surprised that I had not even been informed by New Delhi about this. I consulted my British colleague, Terence Garvey, and he, knew nothing except that the two men were in Peking. 

I sent a telegram to New Delhi asking for information and guidance. In the meantime, I was told in Peking that Mr. Nehru had made an offer to Chou En-lai that if China accepted twenty kilometers along the Western Sector of withdrawal as “no man’s land”, he would start negotiations with Chou En-lai without any other preconditions. I reported this to New Delhi and received a reply stating that

Mr. Nehru had never made any such offer or proposals, and  The two men had come initially to discuss, on behalf of the Russell Peace Foundation, some matters with the Gandhi Peace Foundation. 

They were given an opportunity to meet Mr. Nehru when they discussed the possibility of starting a dialogue between China and India. 

After a couple of days, the Chinese came out with a statement in the press concerning the discussions with the two representatives of Lord Russell, which made it clear that Mr. Nehru never made the proposals; the two Britishers had mentioned to Mr. Nehru that when in Peking they would make the proposals to the Chinese leaders, and Mr. Nehru raised no objection. What a fiasco, what a farce! 

Later, when I inquired privately as to why Mr. Nehru had decided to see the two men and discuss matters of such vital national importance,-which ended in futile, unproductive and immature manoeuvring, I was told that Krishna Menon who was sometimes a visitor with Mr. Nehru, had recommended that Mr. Nehru should see them. No wonder, the whole episode reminded me of my earlier experiences during Krishna Menon’s reign. He had been vanquished but had not yet vanished!
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