Both China and India had just liberated themselves in the 1940s from colonial rule and were neighbours holding 40 per cent of the human population between themselves. But they were still exploring on how to set the trend for their future relationships and the world was watching them take their baby steps both in the fields of friendship and cooperation as well. There were very high level visits by leaders of either countries at that time.
One of them was in December 1956 when Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, visited Delhi, Madras and Calcutta and proceeded towards Rangoon. Zhou was the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China and as head of the government, serving from October 1949 under Chairman Mao Zedong, was instrumental in the Communist Party’s rise to power and later in consolidating its control, forming foreign policy, and developing the Chinese economy. He was the face of China to the outside world.
When Zhou visited Madras in December 1956, India was economically far ahead of communist China. Even the foreign visits of the Chinese Prime Minister would be scheduled on hired Air India planes. One such plane, The Kashmir Princess, a chartered Lockheed L-749A Constellation aircraft, in which the top brass of Chinese government had to travel, including Zhou, was damaged mid-air by a bomb explosion. Zhou, who had been held back because of a ruptured appendix, thus providentially escaped the assassination attempt.
In the 1956 visit, the Chinese Premier was accompanied by Dalai Lama, the religious and political head of Tibet. China had not taken over Tibet fully and the Lama was visiting India as part of the 2,500 year celebration of Buddha’s birth. Though they had a few engagements together, they travelled in different entourages. The Dalai Lama’s troupe visited Madras a fortnight after Zhou left and visited many places the Chinese Premier had gone to, including the Gemini studio.
Around the first week of December 1956, Zhou stayed in the Madras Raj Bhavan and attended a host of events. There was an overwhelming affection for the Premier across the city and roadsides were filled with people cheering him on. Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai a song by communist Bengali poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay ( brother of Sarojini Naidu), which had become quite popular, was sung as chorus in almost all programmes. Zhou loved playing to the gallery and finished most of his speeches with Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai and the audiences roared their approval with standing ovations.
Coastal town’s previous tryst with visiting Chinese Premier
When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai came to Madras in 1956, Mahabalipuram was chosen for his heritage visit. He was accompanied by diplomat RK Nehru and his wife. Madras Minister for Agriculture Bakthavatchalam also went with the group. The entourage left Raj Bhavan at 6 am for the 35-mile drive and the route was specially decorated with festoons and welcome arches. Security concerns were low at that time and well-dressed schoolchildren waving Indian and Chinese flags cheered and applauded the premier.
He was garlanded at Tiruvanmiyur on behalf of the village upliftment board and at Tiruporur by the panchayat head and temple authorities. It took the cavalcade three hours to reach Mahabalipuram. Chengalpattu Collector and officials of the archaeological department showed him around the town. The Chinese premier and deputy premier went around the Monolithic monuments and cave temples. Enlai enquired the archaeological department about Indian mythology and showed great interest in Arjuna Penance and stayed there for an hour. Later, he settled on the rock between two stone lions and offered to take questions from the media. It was a time when England and France had invaded Egypt over the Suez Canal dispute and most of the questions in the press conference were directed towards it. Enlai had said that it was a sign of the return to colonialism. The Weavers Association of Kancheepuram gifted Enlai a gold-laced tablecloth they had specially woven for him and he was presented with a dozen guidebooks to Mahabalipuram and picture postcards before he drove back.
Enlai visited Kulpanthandalam, a village near Mahabalipuram in 1956, where he had opened a maternity and child welfare centre. Kulpanthandalam had won the Nehru Prize for model village in 1954. A plaque reading “Maternity and Child Welfare Centre opened by His Excellency Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister of People’s Republic of China” was placed there and later removed during the Indo-china war.
Students of the then Madras gave him a rousing reception in the Corporation stadium. Addressing the students rally, the Prime Minister said that a considerable number of developments has been made in the field of education and culture in China. He said both India and China faced similar problems as they had freed themselves from colonialism but the evil traces left by the colonial rule continued in both the countries.
Zhou Enlai in conversation with SS Vasan during his visit to Madras, Enlai with Padmini during shoot of a film (R)
On the way from Corporation Stadium to the Woodlands Hotel, Enlai dropped in at Vice President Radhakrishnan’s house as it was not much after his wife’s death. Earlier, Radhakrishnan had cut short his Chinese visit because his wife was terminally ill.
A cultural programme was held in the woodlands hotel and Ragini of the Travancore sisters had performed. Also, school students danced to a Sanskrit hymn about goddess Lakshmi. To everyone’s amusement Enlai took petals from his garland and showered them on the girl dressed as Lakshmi.
Enlai then took a two-hour tour of Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Perambur and was very impressed with how carriage coaches were made in Madras. He called ICF a pride of the east. He told the chief administrative office of ICF that he would send a delegation to be taught industrial management there. Later he addressed the cheering workers of the factory when they assembled in the lawn before the ICF headquarters. He ended his speech with Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai, which received a thunderous ovation.
Enlai, as a child and teenager, was fond of acting (even doing female roles) and producing dramas and plays at Nankai. Many of his later associates who were not otherwise acquainted with him knew of him through his acting. His stage performances contributed to his eloquence and skills of persuasion which helped him become the face of China.
Enlai was interested in movie making and wanted to see filming. The authorities had requested SS Vasan of Gemini studios to host the visit. In 1956, Gemini wasn’t in the great health and there used to be long gaps between his cinemas. Luckily a couple of other producers had hired floors to shoot films. One was a group dance headed by Padmini, who garlanded the premier. The other was a Telugu film where Savitri argues with Yamadarmaraja. Enlai was keen to know the story and Ramanand Sagar (later famous for Ramayana in Doordarshan), who was the scriptwriter, explained that the movie being shot was about a common man’s struggle against the dictator. Enlai thoughtfully asked what happens to the common man in the climax. When Sagar told him that he ends up marrying the princess, the Prime Minister clapped his hands in ecstasy.
Enlai was very impressed with SV Ranga Rao dressed in all finery as the god of death — Yamdarmaraja. He also enquired about the paper mache buffalo kept ready for the shots and also posed for a photograph between Ranga Rao and S Varalakshmi.
From Madras, Enlai travelled to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and onwards to Rangoon. He would make another two visits in the next five years to India (but not to Madras) and when the world thought the two most populated countries in the world were going to be good friends, Dalai Lama escaped to India and sought asylum. An Indo-Chinese war broke out soon after, souring the relationship for several decades.