Biju Patnaik’s Tibet Air Link- 22042020

Very little are known about Biju babu and his role in the Tibet uprising. It was through Kalinga Airlines that Patnaik had his first touch with Tibet. In the 1950s, he acquired half a dozen Dakotas and wanted his Kalinga Airlines to expand its operations.  He was keen to start a freighter-cum-passenger service to Tibet in 1957. He spoke of his plans to Krishna Menon, who then spoke to Nehru on the subject. Nehru’s proposed visit to Lhasa was in the offing. So Biju met him and discussed the strategic advantage of having an air connection between India and Lhasa.

Krishna Menon appraised Nehru and got his formal approval. On August 31, 1957, Nehru dictated a Note to Defence Minister Menon about the Kalinga Airlines Service to Tibet:

“You can certainly see these papers about the proposed Kalinga Airlines to Tibet. When Patnaik came to see me about this matter some two or three months ago, I told him that I had no objection to his running a Service to Tibet from India, but of course, the Chinese Government’s permission would have to be taken. I asked him to see the Chinese Ambassador here which, I believe, he did. About the same time, I think, we also wrote to our Ambassador to sound the Chinese Government on this subject. The response of the Chinese Government, so far as I remember, was an evasive one and I got the impression that they did not wish to encourage any such service at this stage.

Patnaik talked about going to Peking to discuss this matter. I advised him to go there only if the Chinese Government expressed previously their willingness to see him. The last time I saw Patnaik, I told him to find out from the Chinese Ambassador about this matter.

Our position in this has been that we are agreeable to such a service, but we do not wish to sponsor it ourselves and this is a matter between Patnaik and the Chinese Government. We can, however, tell the Chinese Government that we have no objection to it and if they agree, we shall give the normal facilities at this end.My impression is that the Chinese Government does not want any such service from India to Tibet at present at least. They are having continuing trouble in Tibet and they are not anxious to see many Indians going there. Recently, the Indian traders there have been badly treated and we have even protested both to the Chinese Government and the Dalai Lama.In these circumstances I did not wish it to appear that we were over-anxious to push this service to Lhasa.”

Krishna Menon spoke to the Chinese Ambassador Pan Tzu-Li and asked him to forward Biju Patnaik’s proposal to Peking for Chou Enlai’s approval. The Chinese response was that the air link could be discussed only between the Governments, not on a private level. Biju Patnaik persisted in his efforts, meeting both Nehru and Krishna Menon. He emphasised the strategic advantage to India, but Nehru was aware of Biju’s buccaneering and daredevilry. Nehru was also annoyed because Biju had even directly written to the Chinese Premier. In fact Chou-EnIai had replied  to Biju that  the “road to Tibet is only through Peking.”

Once again on 24 Feb 1958, Nehru had written a note to Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt which said:

“When Shri Patnaik saw me regarding an air transport service to Lhasa and to Peking, I told him that we had no objection to it if the Chinese Government agreed. Naturally, this would be entirely a matter for him to settle with the Chinese Government. I have an idea that a message to this effect was also sent to our Embassy in Peking.

Later, I was informed that the Chinese Government was not agreeable to this service to Lhasa. As regards the other one, there was no clear reply either way. Later still, I heard that he was invited to go to Peking to discuss this question with the Chinese Government. I think I told him that he was free to go there for this purpose.

There is no question of our sponsoring his visit to Peking, but we should raise no objection to it. Indeed, I shall be glad if he manages to get permission from the Chinese Government, provided our Government is not brought into the picture at all. It is quite true that Shri Patnaik is apt to indulge in general talks and sometimes drag in the Government’s name into it. I told him not to do so and you might also tell him this. Apart from this, we have no objection whatever to his coming to any agreement with the Chinese Government about the air services.”

So confident was Biju about his diplomatic skills, that he had already placed orders for acquisition of two French medium-range transport aircraft, the Nord Noratlas. However, diplomatic ties between India and China soured after it was discovered that China had built a road in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh. Further, the China Pictorial, an official organ of the Chinese Peoples’ Republic, printed maps which showed large chunks of Northern Assam and NEFA as Chinese territory. With the quickly deteriorating situation inside Tibet, Biju’s plans were dashed. A few months later, an uprising in Lhasa forced the Dalai Lama to take refuge in India, and Tibet became“forbidden land” for the next few decades.  Biju Babu’s plans went were permanently shelved.

Anil Dhir, Historian

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