When China invaded, Tibet decided to appeal to the UN, but it needed a member state to sponsor its case. After failing to sway Britain, it sought India’s sponsorship. India firmly declined, citing two primary reasons: “New China”, a term euphemising the Communist regime, lacked representation in the UN, and Tibet lacked international recognition. Additionally, India deemed Tibet’s proposal for a plebiscite “unfeasible”.

[Girija Shankar] Bajpai conveyed to the British High Commissioner in New Delhi, HC Roberts, that Tibet had consulted India regarding raising the issue of China’s invasion at the UN. While declining sponsorship, India pledged to support the appeal on the broader principle that China’s use of force was unjust, subsequently instructing the Indian mission in New York accordingly. Ultimately, Tibet transmitted its appeal via telegram. The joint plea by the kashag and the Tibetan national assembly contested China’s assertion of popular support in Tibet for the invasion, culminating in a passionate appeal:

The problem is simple, the Chinese claim Tibet as a part of China; the Tibetans feel that racially, culturally and geographically, they are far apart from the Chinese. If the Chinese find the reactions of the Government of Tibet to their unnatural claim NOT acceptable, there are other civilised methods by which they could ascertain the views of the people of Tibet, or should the issue be purely judicial they are open to seeking redress in an International Court of Law. The conquest of Tibet by China will only enlarge the area of conflict and increase the threat to the Independence and stability of other Asian countries.

We, Ministers, with the approval of His Holiness Dalai Lama entrust the problems of Tibet in this emergency to the ultimate decision of the United Nations, hoping that the conscience of the world would NOT allow the disruption of our State by methods reminiscent of the jungle. [emphasis in the original].

The appeal was relayed to the Indian Mission in Lhasa, then forwarded to the political officer in Sikkim before it finally reached New Delhi – the only means available to Tibet to communicate with the outside world.

El Salvador stepped forward to sponsor Tibet’s plea in the General Assembly. However, the Security Council, tasked with maintaining international peace and security, did not address the issue.

The UK’s Ambassador to the UN, Gladwyn Jebb, leaned towards supporting Tibet’s appeal and advocating for its independence. He corresponded with his government, suggesting that the UK could present a robust resolution to the Security Council. If vetoed (as was expected), the matter could then be raised in the General Assembly under a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, akin to the approach taken with Korea previously.

Jebb acknowledged India’s stance against absolute independence for Tibet but expressed personal support for it. The British government instructed Jebb, however, not to make any comment on China’s suzerainty, maintaining that Tibet had a right to appeal as a non-member state under Article 35(2). This ambivalence put the onus on India and opened a small window of opportunity for it to build international opinion in favour of Tibet’s independence. But the question remained: would India rise to the challenge?

India’s main priority in the UN during this period was to secure China’s seat for the new Communist regime, displacing the Nationalists who had taken refuge in Taiwan. Nehru informed India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Benegal Narsing Rau, that the invasion of Tibet did not affect India’s position on China’s claim to the UN seat. Rau in fact claimed that India’s support for Communist China’s case was aimed at deterring any potential invasion of Tibet. In an interview with the Columbia Broadcasting System, he contended that had Communist China has been made a UN member, it would not have invaded Tibet: “The very fact that it might have been called upon to account for its actions before a world tribunal might have deterred any invasion.”

India’s reaction to Tibet’s appeal underwent change as it further crystallised. On 16 November, the external affairs ministry communicated to its New York mission a preference for the matter to be considered by the Security Council rather than the General Assembly. It asked the mission to approach Britain and the US – and if they agreed, to impress upon El Salvador the need for postponing the matter. The ministry then directed the mission to endorse the proposal for consideration but avoid using recrimination or strong rhetoric that could impede a peaceful settlement.

India ultimately decided not to support Tibet’s appeal and limited itself to urging China to respect Tibet’s autonomy – not independence – and peacefully resolve the issue without resorting to arms. Foreign Secretary Menon rationalised this about-turn in an internal note, stating that “in the first flush of our indignation against the Chinese invasion of Tibet, we said that we would support this appeal, though we would not sponsor it”. But the idea for such a debate was dropped because it was deemed to be not helpful.7 This rationale was further elaborated in a telegram to the political officer in Sikkim explaining India’s policy: “[I]t must be realised that neither we nor UN can give active help to Tibet and a heroic policy of condemnation can do Tibet little good.”

El Salvador’s resolution, invoking Article 1 of the UN Charter, stated that “the peaceful nation of Tibet has been invaded without any provocation on its part by foreign forces proceeding from the territory controlled by the Government established at Peiping”. Condemning the “unprovoked aggression”, it called for the formation of a General Assembly committee to recommend measures. Tibet had also demanded that the Chinese forces withdraw to the east of the Yangtse River, which marked the traditional boundary between China and Tibet.

On 24 November, El Salvador proposed that the General Committee include the Tibetan question on the agenda of the General Assembly. Britain requested a postponement, which was supported by India’s representative, Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, advocating for peaceful talks. The Soviet Union wanted the item to be deleted, viewing it as China’s internal affair. The American delegation agreed to the adjournment, following the Indian lead. Nationalist China, occupying the China seat, did not oppose the postponement as the use of force was against Chinese interests and had been prompted by the Soviet Union. The motion for postponement was adopted unanimously, and no date was fixed for further consideration. The issue never came up for discussion again.

According to the UN Charter, the Security Council bears the responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, encompassing a broad mandate to counter any threat, regardless of its origin. In fact, the UN’s primary focus was the threat from World War II enemy states Germany and Japan, who were not members. Despite no international recognition, Tibet’s right to self-determination, promised to all “peoples” under the UN Charter, remained valid – a principle recently acknowledged by India in Jammu and Kashmir. And in 1950, the UN had authorised its first military action against North Korea for invading South Korea, carried out by a coalition of nations led by the United States. North Korea was supported by the Soviet Union and China, and neither faction in Korea was a member of the UN.

India’s stand on Tibet was out of sync with its own emerging foreign policy, as were its arguments against raising the matter in the UN. It regarded adopting a resolution in the UN as a heroic but futile policy of condemnation. This stance was at variance with India’s regular sponsorship of resolutions against apartheid, disdainfully ignored by South Africa. The argument that Tibet could not receive military assistance because of its remoteness did not fly, as Lhasa was more accessible from India than any part of China.

There was internal disagreement over India’s policy. Bajpai was unhappy with Nehru’s decision believing it was not in accordance with India’s earlier decision to support Tibet. He thought the matter should have been discussed in the General Assembly since it was the world’s forum, and even contemplated resigning. When he spoke to Menon, the latter reported it to Nehru, who wondered if such a situation could be averted by getting Tibet to withdraw its appeal.

Excerpted with permission from Imperial Games in Tibet, Dilip Sinha, Pan MacMillan India.