Lessons of the 1962 War With China
EVER since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) it has been universally accepted that a well-defined boundary is the first pre-requisite of a modern state. Post Independence, the boundary issue between India and China assumes crucial significance and yet remains unresolved to this day. China claims to have resolved its border disputes with several countries, except India. Within this country, the popular perception is that it was wronged and that China was the aggressor in 1962. India lost disastrously and the effort to fix responsibility continues even 50 years after.
In China, the issue is peripheral. In its reckoning, the 1962 war was the consequence of India not accepting the truth about the border problem. As observed by Wang Hong Mei, the Indian government ought to re-educate the public about the basic cause of the dispute and correct the ‘truth of a twisted truth’.
In the 1914 Shimla convention between Britain and Tibet, the McMahon line was established as the official border between British India and China, denying Chinese suzerainty over Outer Tibet. However, McMahon was summoned to London as he had presented a different map to the Chinese representative. Britain distanced itself from the question of legitimacy of a well-settled border between India and Tibet. The British administrators ensured that its cartographers showed the McMahon line as the settled and legitimate border between the two countries.
On 29 October 2008, David Miliband, the British foreign secretary in the Labour government, announced that the Shimla Accord of 1913, which led to the agreement between India and Tibet resulting in the promulgation of the McMahon line, was an anachronism and part of a colonial legacy. He apologised to China for the lapse. This announcement had the support of Lord Chris Patten, the last British Governor-General of Hong Kong, who described it as ‘quaint eccentricity’.
When India became independent, it inherited all the British territorial agreements, including the McMahon line, as the legitimate border since 1914. The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as the architect of India’s foreign policy, refused to entertain the Chinese proposals for a negotiation in 1954. He argued that since the McMahon line marked the border between India and China, there was no need for negotiations on a settled issue. However, as Karunakar Gupta has pointed out, India has accepted the legitimacy of the McMahon line; China has not signed the Shimla convention and rejects any agreement between Tibet and Britain as it violates Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and that the Chinese stand is legitimate.
Gupta’s perception is a classic example of two rights in the Hegelian sense. The Chinese position is consistent as both the two previous regimes, the imperial government and Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, had also rejected the agreement. If the McMahon line is accepted as the border, it covers only the eastern sector of the border but not the western and central sectors.
According to AG Noorani, on 1 July 1955, Nehru shut the door to negotiations on the India-China boundary question. He rejected Zhou En-lai’s proposal put forward on his visit to India in 1960 on the eastern border, accepting the McMahon line. India also refused to accept the actual line of control in the western sector ceding the Aksai Chin area to China. Nehru unilaterally drew the lines where the border was undefined and also ordered the destruction of the old maps.
In the crucial years between 1959 and 1962, there was considerable ad-hocism in Nehru’s policy towards China and related issues. In 1959, when Ayub Khan proposed a joint defence mechanism between India and Pakistan, Nehru’s reply was: Against whom? On 16 March 1959, China cautioned India not to have two fronts. Nehru concurred with Defence minister Menon’s assertion that both Communism and non-alignment pursued the same objective. Apart from rejecting any barter between the western and eastern frontiers, Nehru ignored the American assurance to China that it would not intervene (27 June 1962). The Soviet Union, in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, advised India to settle the border issue on China’s terms. In the larger geo-political perspective of the Soviet leadership, India was accorded a relatively minor rating.
The Chinese attack was simultaneous in all the areas; it was led by the hardened veterans of the Korean War. It was swift and decisive. But the Indian response was half-hearted and poorly coordinated. Menon attended the UN General Assembly session on 17 September 1962 and returned on 30 September. Nehru left Delhi on 8 September 1962 to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference and after visiting Paris, Lagos and Accra returned on 20 September. Nehru again left for Colombo on 12 October and returned on 16 October. Meanwhile, during the exchange of notes between Indian and Chinese officials, Nehru ordered the Indian army ‘to throw the Chinese out’ (12 October 1962). The two most senior army commanders and the Director of Military Operations were away from Delhi.
Nehru ignored Menon’s interference in crucial army postings and promotions and even in strategic matters. It was a measure of disgust within the military that General Thimayya threatened to resign. Though he persuaded the General to stay on, the Prime Minister did not rectify the serious shortcomings of the army. The news of Thimayya’s resignation was first published in The Statesman. Nehru’s speeches and White Papers also impeded the diplomatic process. When the war began there was a panic reaction from Nehru and he convinced himself that it would be a long-drawn conflict and that China would follow an expansionist policy.
NJ Nanporia, who later became the Editor of The Statesman, had asserted in 1962 that the Chinese favoured negotiations and a peaceful settlement and that India should continue with the talks. China’s intention was clear ~ it wanted India to learn a lesson and withdraw. Nehru with all his knowledge of history never imbibed what George Washington did, specifically that a recently independent nation ought to concentrate on a long process of nation-building exercise in which tactical adjustments even with one’s enemy and rival were imperative. He even seemed to forget Mahatma Gandhi’s dictum of the “beauty of compromise”.
Fifty years after the war, Indian opinion is broadly divided into two categories ~ (a) criticism of China for its treacherous act; and (b) blaming Menon and the then intelligence chief BM Mallik. Nehru has been considered to be naive. Maxwell’s India’s China War and Karunakar Gupta’s numerous publications are strictly avoided by the think-tanks and security analysts. China takes credit for maintaining peace for 50 years and its position has not changed from that of Zhou in 1960 except that along with the barter proposal it also wants to stake a greater claim in the eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh.
The tendency of not analysing the shame and humiliation of 1962 threadbare is reflected in the government’s decision not to publish the Henderson Brooks/Bhagat Report on the 1962 debacle and an astonishing statement that the HimmatSinghji Committee Report on the North-east borders is ‘untraceable’. This clearly indicates that we are still fearful of facing the truth of 1962. The Henderson-Brooks report, from which extensive references have been made by Maxwell, is believed to be a serious indictment of the role of Nehru, Menon, the Defence Ministry, the Army headquarters, several generals involved in the conflict as well as the Congress and opposition parties. The Congress leadership remembers 1965 and 1971 but not 1962. The book edited by President Pranab Mukherjee entitled 125 years of the Congress is an example of this political expedience. As a nation, we all have a collective responsibility to unearth the truth of the disaster which SarvepalliRadhakrishnan had once described as ‘credulity negligence’.
IN 1962, the entire Assam region was left practically defenceless. The District Magistrate of Tezpur had fled. The Indian press preferred safety to news coverage. The underground Nagas did not take any advantage of the situation and Pakistan, on the advice of the USA and Iran, refrained from opening another front.
In the 1955 Bandung conference, which was convened primarily on India’s insistence, Pakistan, already tied to the USA through SEATO, was essentially against China’s participation. However, at the conference, Zhou assured Pakistan that it had no dispute with it. India did not initiate any talks on the border and Zhou did not criticise the West in his speech and instead stressed on Asian-African unity. It was a master-stroke as it ended China’s diplomatic isolation and helped it to forge a feeble but a tactical de facto bloc against the West. China needed this front in order to consolidate its position in the context of the Sino-Soviet split. Patel’s warning in 1950 that for China, nationalism was more important than communism proved to be prophetic.
Nehru’s Tibet policy was based on certain principles ~ (a) not to push China to an extreme position; (b) China would not be able to maintain a credible number of troops in a distant and difficult terrain divided into three difficult borders; and (c) China would not involve itself in an attack on India. But Nehru was also convinced that after the cakewalk in Goa and the supply of sophisticated weapons both from America and the Soviet Union, ‘the military balance has changed in favour of India’. His “forward policy”, by virtue of which India wanted China to vacate all Indian territory, was implemented within this policy framework. In 1953, Nehru started this process of redrawing. It included Aksai Chin within India; this ran counter to the British policy of keeping it out of India as proclaimed in 1899. The Chinese road-building activity in this area came to light in 1957 and could not be ignored by India. This was the beginning of the India-China conflict which culminated in the war of 1962. By 1961, Nehru’s “forward policy” had taken shape creating 60 forward posts, 43 of which were situated north of the McMahon line. Intermittent clashes took place before the massive invasion by China on 20 October 1962. India was caught with its pants down and Nehru admitted the government’s failure in the RajyaSabha in 1963. He said: “What India has learnt from the Chinese invasion is that in the world of today there is no place for weak nations and that we have been living in an unreal world of our own creation’. China signed a boundary agreement with Pakistan on 2 March 1963 which facilitated an alliance between them.
According to Noorani, China had initially ignored Pakistan’s effort to forge an alliance with it. But when it seemed to be in accord with the country’s foreign policy, it went ahead. The close equation with Pakistan is still manifest. The alliance provides for agreements on broad principles but along with a boundary protocol running over hundreds of pages. What precipitated matters was Nehru’s hobnobbing with the Soviet Union and his efforts to exert pressure on the Chinese. This exacerbated the situation to a point of no return. As such it is difficult to agree with RamchandraGuha’s assertion that there would have been a war either way, even if there was no Nehru or his “forward policy” and close ties with the Soviet Union. Nehru had enough opportunity to settle the issue.
The Opposition blundered in the run-up to the war. Its attitude was based primarily on the perception of short-term gains. Maxwell blamed the Right-wing Opposition leaders of the day, notably Kripalani, Masani and Rajaji for the crisis.
DeenDayalUpadhaya compared Nehru to the effete 19th century ruler of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. The then Prime Minister was blamed for the lack of preparation and his “weak and timid nature”. RammanoharLohia, the socialist leader, gave a clarion call for getting all the territories under Chinese control to be vacated by force. He also echoed the Jana Sangh line of beefing up the country’s strength. Rajaji wanted the policy of non-alignment to be jettisoned. He called for a close association with the Western powers led by the USA. He identified China as the aggressor. However, he never supported a unilateral adventure of an isolationist nation and wanted an alliance with world powers which were against communism. Upadhyay called for mobilisation and Lohia for collective social action. Only Rajaji advocated a new strategic alliance with the Western powers. In his own way, MahavirTyagi responded to Nehru’s statement that Aksai Chin is a barren area, where nothing grows. He took off his Gandhi cap, pointed to his bald scalp and asked Nehru whether he would have conceded it too! None of them really led the government towards a formula to settle the issue with China. Both the Congress and the Opposition were engaged in myopic politics.
There was no conceptual framework for the formulation of foreign policy. No wonder that formulation has fluctuated since 1947 to the present day. There is no broad theoretical framework that can be valid even within a larger time-scale. It is this critical shortcoming that provoked Ram Jethmalani to remark that non-alignment was a “lofty pretension and a cruel joke as no non-aligned country came to our rescue in 1962”. But have we really learnt the lessons of 1962 which RamchandraGuha calls ‘a study in failure’? As GiriDeshingkar has pointed out, ‘during Nehru’s initial years in power he was more or less the sole maker of the China policy’ and ‘as the imperial legacy claimed more and more of Nehu’s imagination it got reflected in India’s official cartography’.
In 1950, the new Indian map showed the McMahon line as ‘undemarcated’ and the middle and the western sectors as ‘boundary undefined’. But in the map published in 1954 the McMahon line becomes the firm boundary as also the boundaries in the middle and western sectors. In the 1950 map, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan were shown outside India but in the 1954 map, both Sikkim and Bhutan were shown as part of India. Nehru’s three basic assumptions of unilateralism, pan-Asianism and as the key mediator between the two blocs and the non-aligned nations were rejected by China. S Gopal cites many instances of Nehru’s attempts to mediate not only between the USA and China but also between the USA and the Soviet Union. Even during the Indochina conflict, China never fully trusted India and rejected the notion that it needed mediation by anybody.
Unlike the Japanese who learned their lessons after Commodore Perry’s victory in 1853, we have yet to learn the lessons from history. From the past blunders we must realise that a nation is respected as an entity when it has the capacity to solve its major problems, ensuring firm and well-defined borders with all its neighbours in a spirit of accommodation and by admitting past mistakes and misgivings.
The desperation of Nehru after the debacle of 1962 was reflected in his belated efforts to solve the problem of Kashmir with Pakistan with the release of Sheikh Abdullah and making extraordinary efforts to reach an understanding with Pakistan. The efforts came to nought and the process was abruptly halted after Nehru’s death, proving yet again that no new perspective had evolved even after the war with China.
We still aspire for a big-power status and a permanent seat in the UN Security Council knowing very well that our prospects are uncertain. Assuming that it materialises, it will not enhance our status within the comity of nations until we can demonstrate to the world that India has arrived as a nation, is governed properly, is capable of addressing its basic contradictions and can create an atmosphere within its neighbourhood to usher in a pluralistic security community.