There has been lately any number of articles reappraising India’s policy towards China with special reference to the 1962 debacle. Mr. Subrata Mukherjee’s excellent two-part article, ‘Twisted Truth’ published in The Statesman on 6-7 December is most recent. However there is a common fallacy gaining ground that needs correction.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s grievous errors of policy that led to the debacle against China are these days widely acknowledged. From that the facile assumption is drawn sometimes that an adversarial policy towards China at that period of time was mistaken. However India erred not by confronting China but doing so stupidly on the false assumption that Beijing would never respond militarily. Nehru was naïve enough to believe that after he had personally facilitated China ’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council Beijing would never take to arms against India. Subsequently his pathetic ignorance about military realities led to the debacle.
The problem with current commentators of the 1962 debacle is that they speak only with hindsight. Their common fallacy is that it was Nehru’s follies and not Chinese perfidy that rendered Sino-Indian confrontation inevitable. Whatever Nehru’s mistakes it cannot be ignored that China committed serious breach of trust betraying treacherous intent by secretly constructing a road in disputed territory. Mr. Mukherjee writes that the construction of the road came to light in 1957 and “could not be ignored by India ”. He fails to mention that Nehru did not appraise in time Parliament about the road construction and thereby arguably committed breach of privilege. Nor can one gloss over China’s hegemonic role in Tibet.
Nehru’s errors arose through grievous miscalculation of Chinese intent compounded by his pathetic ignorance of military affairs. But what needs to be pointed out is that Nehru’s errors were only part of the failure. An error of judgment was displayed by the entire Indian political establishment before 1962. Not only Nehru but the entire Indian political class deserves blame for what occurred in 1962. The media and the political opposition were seriously remiss in not extracting accountability from the government when disaster was staring nation in the face.
Mr. Mukherjee in his article has recalled the comments of Mr. Neville Maxwell. The latter has dwelt at length on the British legacy on the Sino-Indian boundary to blame India for the military engagement. He glossed over China ’s annexation of Tibet based upon dubious legality and Beijing ’s treachery displayed towards the Dalai Lama. Mr. Mukherjee in his article has also recalled the reactions to the 1962 engagement by various Indian opposition leaders including Lohia, Ragapolachari, Deen Dayal Uppadhaya and others. He seems to suggest that a gung-ho attitude of these leaders caused Nehru to blunder into ill-prepared military engagement.
The error of opposition leaders lay in the fact that they did not extract democratic accountability as they ought to have done so. They were entirely correct in assessing lack of India ’s military preparedness, China’s adversarial intent and Nehru’s tragic euphoria. Where they erred was in not ruthlessly demanding the accountability that lies at the very heart of democratic functioning. Nehru’ stature and the awe that surrounded his persona precluded the demand for his resignation. But it should have been clear to them that his continuation in office was an invitation to national disaster. This was so not because it led to a military engagement with China but that it led to a military engagement by a criminally ill-prepared army.
I take the liberty of reproducing from what I wrote on May 21, 1960 after Zhou En-lai visited India for talks with Nehru:
“Zhou En-lai has come and gone and we are no nearer an honourable settlement than we were. In Mr. Nehru’s words, we must learn to put up with a live border problem on our north-eastern frontier for the next thirty to forty years To put it differently, the situation on our northern frontier has ceased to be fluid – at least in our favour – and may well crystallize into a status quo… This is therefore as good a time as any for Mr. Nehru to resign from the Prime Ministership… It may be argued that Mr. Nehru showed the ideally firm stance in his latest meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister, that he may well prove himself to be the ablest exponent of the country’s new firm line on China , and therefore his resignation would be meaningless sacrifice at the altar of vindictiveness. This is not so. In mature democracies, the need for new methods calls for new men.”
If any politician or media commentator made this obvious democratically justified demand I would like to be enlightened. I know of none. Then why blame Nehru alone?
What have we learnt from the past?
If two years before the 1962 defeat such change had occurred, history would have been different. Need one repeat that in democracy one needs to speak with foresight and not with hindsight?
All this needs to be recalled because currently we seem to repeat past mistakes. We are expanding an adversarial trade with China to create vested corporate interests that could compel our government to accept unequal terms from Beijing that jeopardize national interest. The boundary dispute is not the cause of the Sino-Indian problem but its consequence. The border dispute can be easily resolved. What seems to defy solution is China’s willingness to accept India’s legitimate sphere of influence by ceasing to arm our neighbours, by ceasing to subvert our nation and by ceasing to afford aid and sanctuary to insurgents and separatists operating against our nation.
These warnings have been repeatedly made in these columns.
Such warnings were ignored before 1962.
They are being ignored today.