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Mainstream, VOL L, No 45, October 27, 2012

India-China: Reflections on 1962

Wednesday 31 October 2012, by Nikhil Chakravartty


This week, thirty years ago, the Chinese Army had mounted a full-scale military attack along the entire length of our northern border. For three years previous to that there were occasional clashes, accompanied by angry polemics and tension over border claims.

What happened on October 20 was entirely different in character. It was a massive aggression into territories beyond the lines claimed as the border by the Chinese themselves. In other words, what the Chinese achieved on the ground by the sudden military offensive was to grab fresh territories beyond what they were putting up as their claim-line during the protracted negotiations.

Looking back after a lapse of thirty long years—the span of a generation—many points of reappraisal come up while the old tensions subside. It is customary in any active foreign-policy establishment to undertake a thorough review of the past so that one could be better equipped to deal with the present and to chalk out the future. It is high time that our Foreign Office and other specialised bodies undertook such a review. In the absence of any comprehensive reappraisal, one has to fall back upon certain impressions and insights picked up as a reporter of those troubled times.

The Chinese attack not only pushed back our line of defence, but dealt a body blow on Jawaharlal Nehru’s authority at home and standing abroad. As one watched the mounting tension in the space between Dalai Lama’s arrival in India in April 1959 and the fullscale Chinese attack in October 1962, one could discern how Nehru found himself unable to get a grasp over the situation. His message over the radio at that time reflected his shock at the unprovoked military offensive by a neighbouring power whom he had trusted more than anybody else.

The political collapse of Nehru was evident when he wrote the letters to the US President asking pathetically for arms supply (November 19, 1962). Although subsequently he tried to rally by appealing for the five-nation non-aligned initiative, it was clear that he would be hardly able to recover, physically, mentally and politically. In a sense, the Chinese aggression came as a god-send for all those who had been denouncing the non-aligned stand of India. It was no accident that within a few weeks the Anglo-American initiative came for the virtual partitioning of Kashmir. It was Sardar Swaran Singh’s tireless stonewalling that warded off the Duncan Sandys mission.

Where did we go wrong, diplomatically and militarily? For one thing, while Nehru had a remarkable vision of independence from the clutches of the big power military alliances, one could not help feeling that in the euphoria over the success of the Bandung Conference where he had actually chaperoned Zhou Enlai around, he missed assessing in time the Chinese approach to world affairs which is throughout guided by the imperatives of power politics; in other words, by the principle of balance of power.

China’s concern has always been Tibet, and in the prevailing uncertainty, it wanted to show off its military prowess as a decisive element in foreign policy. That was how during the official level talks on the border claims in 1960, while the Indian side argued with legal acumen, the Chinese were working out the military strategy of piercing the frontier.

Consequently, the disarray of the Indian Army in the NEFA sector was due to the fact that our troops were totally ill-clad for the high altitude operation, while there was mismanagment in the conduct of the war.

This is now disclosed in great detail in Major General Palit’s latest volume—a work of seminal dimension—in which one gets a glimpse of the shocking mismanagement at the top, in which the serious business of conducting a war was totally missing; instead there comes total disre-gard of all norms of administrative functioning, in which personal ego played no insignificant part. The bravado of General Kaul, based on the gasbag’s megalomania, stands out as a fearsome reminder of upreparedness and the absence of any well-thought-out strategy of dealing with a full-scale military offensive. It was a dismal picture.

While Krishna Menon’s role as an outstanding diplomat will long be remembered, his stint as the Defence Minister was marred by his petty subjective interference in professional military matters. It was really a tragic case, because one has to take into account his signal contribution towards the setting up of an indigenous defence system which reinforced our independence in world affairs.

An aspect of the Chinese aggression of 1962 is generally missed, and that is its linkage with the domestic politics of China at that time. The Chinese themselves have brought out the extensive damage wrought by their own aggressive sectarianism of the sixties. Obviously, such an over-heated political line at home had had its inescapable repercussions on the foreign policy outlook. The Cultural Revolution had been preceded by successive waves of aggressive sectarianism, beginning with the back-to-the-village campaign, followed by the rectification campaign—all leading towards the disastrous Cultural Revolution. If one tries to integrate this domestic scene with China’s angry foreign policy posture, then the picture would be clearer why China took a hostile stand towards not only India but other friendly countries as well. If our understanding of the Chinese foreign policy of those years had been placed in the context of that country’s domestic policy, then perhaps the damage could have been minimised and the debacle averted in 1962.

In the three decades since those heady days, China has chastened and Indira Gandhi’s initiative in restoring ambassadorial level diplomatic relations has paid good dividends. There was a period of stalemate and the talks were reduced to rituals particularly on the thorny issue of the border dispute. There was a glimmer of a breakthrough when Rajiv Gandhi visited China and Deng Xiaoping received him in 1988. While the ghastly events at Tiananmen Square put the clock back, there has been an appreciable recovery in the last two years.

In this context, it is important to note the present Chinese approach to the border dispute. At present, the entire Chinese emphasis is on confidence-building measures (CBMs) along the present line of control. Border trade is to be reopened, the intelligence network between the opposite border security establishments would be upgraded and all this may help to reduce the forces posted now on both sides of the frontier. While the Chinese have not turned down the proposal for the resumption of talks for the examination of the boundary claims, their entire emphasis is now on the confidence-building measures along the present line of control. Obviously, the Chinese perspective is that after a few years, with the establishment of stability and tranquillity along the border, the clamour for redrawing the border line as per respective claims would be fairly weakened, if not given up altogether.

On a wider scale, at the global level the Chinese maintain a caste-system approach. As a member of the club of great powers—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—they count themselves as one of the Big Powers of today with its own nuclear arsenal. At the same time, China is serious about maintaining close and friendly relations with India on the basis of recognising India as the leading regional power in South Asia. In other words, India in the Chinese eye does not belong to the top drawer but as the predominant regional power.

No doubt there is need for improving our relations with China. But this need can hardly be realised without taking into account the Chinese perception of themselves as being in the top category, while India will have to contend with being acknowledged as a regional power.

(Mainstream, October 24, 1992)

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