Francis Bacon once memorably said, “It is the true office of history to represent the events themselves, together with the counsels, and to leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the liberty and faculty of every man's judgment.” What is true of history is equally true of a historian. Avtar Singh Bhasin pays wholesome tribute to the philosophy espoused by this formidable English statesman, with his monumental book on a conundrum that has plagued India from decades. “Nehru, Tibet and China” is arguably the most definitive book dealing with the reasons leading up to the India-China 1962 border war. The indefatigable research that has gone into its production would undoubtedly make it the gold standard for policy wonks, historians, and students of political science alike, whose keen interest and professional responsibility hinge on Sino-India affairs and relations. Neither polemical nor patronizing, “Nehru, Tibet and China” is surreal for its ‘matter-of-fact’ narration. Bhasin meticulously and methodically places historical events in their relevant context and leaves the reader to make his or her own logical conclusions. This exemplary method brooks neither rigidity nor suffers from a deficiency of laxity. Facts are laid out in a precise manner bordering on the surgical.
While reams and reams of material exist on the actual border war in which India and China locked horns, a medley of uninformed surmises and apocryphal conjectures abound on the trigger factors that eventually led to such a calamitous occasion. Bhasin, relying on the Nehru papers, hitherto in the custody of the Nehru National Museum and Library, New Delhi and made available to the author courtesy the Department of Culture, rends asunder the cobwebs of confoundment and blows the lid open on acts couched in aberrant ambiguity, to reveal facts of astounding import and incredulity.
Delusions of grandeur
At the epicentre of Bhasin’s book, resides Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India and a behemoth of his party, the Indian National Congress. An unapologetic acolyte of the ‘non-alignment’ tenet, Nehru or “Panditji” as he was popularly known, nursed delusions of grandiose proportions when it came to China. Effete notions about the ‘greatness’ of China (his disturbingly frequent use of the word ‘great’ in referring to China being a classic example), and its potential co-operation with India in forging an ‘Asian solidarity’ consumed Nehru throughout his tenure as the leader of India. To a great extent these hallucinatory beliefs were embellished by personal bonds forged by Nehru with Chiang Kai-shek of Kuomintang China, and his wife. Even after Chiang Kai-shek was deposed and the Communist China of Mao and Zhou En Lai took centre stage, Nehru continued to lead a miscalculated belief regarding the imperative to forge a long-lasting relationship with India’s fickle neighbour.
The fact that Nehru spent an inordinately long period of time promoting China’s candidature for a seat on the UN Security Council than strengthening the defense at the contested borders (more about that in the succeeding paragraphs) speaks volumes about the statesman’s misplaced priorities and misguided policies. “He tenaciously pleaded at the UN for China’s admission and its recognition by the international community, even when China neither acknowledged nor appreciated his efforts. Ironically, it is the same China that today opposes a seat for India in an enlarged and reformed Security Council.”
As Bhasin illustrates, Nehru also suffered from a peculiar geographical fallacy that informed him with mistaken theories about India’s invincibility from external aggression. Infatuated by the splendour of The Himalayas, he was entrenched in his belief that the mountains were a shield against any possible danger to India’s physical security from the north. “He repeatedly made this point and said its terrain, its climate and its ruggedness provided the greatest protection to India from any invasion from the north.
On the flip side, this sense of security had a deleterious impact on him, since he did not feel it necessary to take any defensive measures against any possible danger to Indian security from that direction and, therefore, looked upon China’s occupation of Tibet benignly in the beginning.” Pooh pooing the apprehensions of Kavalam Madhavan Panikkar, then Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, that China could revive ‘immediate claims against Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim and also the denunciation of the McMahon Line’, Nehru remained unfathomably convinced that the mountain terrain would be an ideal foil and an ally to India and that no external force could traverse such an insurmountable terrain.
If only he had paused to refresh his history, he would have realised that Tibet had been crossed and invaded not just once but four times—by the Dogras, the Gurkhas, the British and the Chinese. Consigning the apprehensions of the Indian representative in Lhasa, Richardson, the Prime Minister proffered a need for Tibet to introduce social and economic reforms, Nehru also outrightly rejected ‘any chance of any danger to India arising from any possible change in Tibet’ and ruled out any danger to India’s security from the north or any need ‘for our Defence Ministry or part of it to consider any possible military repercussions on the India-Tibet frontier’.
When finally China attacked on an industrial scale in 1962 along the Eastern as well as the Western sectors, Nehru was forced to shed his incorrigible fascination for his “non-alignment” values. Stopping just short of begging then United States President John F. Kennedy for military assistance, Nehru more or less invited the United States to participate in the 1962 conflict before a Chinese ceasefire thankfully put paid to the notions of US armed forces stepping into Indian terrain and using it as one of their global armed force bases.
Nehru not only beseeched Kennedy for “war material but also requested for full air cover, including fighter and transport aircraft, radar cover, and so on, all manned by the U.S. Air Force personnel, since India had neither facilities nor trained manpower to handle them. He also asked for two squadrons of B-47 bombers. It was a tall order. He virtually asked the United States to join the war against China. This was surprising for a country which until the other day had been deriding the United States. The ceasefire saved much of the humiliation by obviating the need for ‘American military boots’ on the Indian soil.”
The tenuous boundaries
An irredentist China was kept at bay by the British who chose to use Tibet as an unwilling and unwitting buffer against not just China but Russia as well. The Simla Conference resulted in Tibet being accorded the status of an autonomous region, yet placed under the suzerainty of China. Unsurprisingly, China did not sign the Convention and merely initialed the same as a token concession of its presence. Hence India inherited borders that were fragile and fraught with ambiguity. The northern part of India’s bequeathed border with Tibet was haphazardly fixed by Henry McMahon on a map without surveys. Not only was such a border neither delineated nor demarcated, the utterances of its very architect that the same was to be surveyed, delineated and demarcated fell on deaf ears.
The border in the western part of India, between Sinkiang and Ladakh, remained undefined at the time of India’s Independence in 1947. “The need for scientific delineation and demarcation of the borders both in the eastern and western sectors had become necessary, particularly when the prime minister himself had doubts about the McMahon Line in the eastern sector.” In a splendid book titled “Strong Borders Secure Nations”, American scholar, M. Taylor Fravel, proclaimed that a nation keeps itself secure through agreed borders with their neighbours, strong or otherwise, arrived at after surveys and delineation and their demarcation with markers on the ground.
Unfortunately, the Western frontline received the most meagre of Nehru’s attention and activity. Steadfast in his refusal to either increase the presence of the armed forces or enhance the defence budget, Nehru was more enmeshed in India’s economic development. Even the disquieting fact that India would come a cropper if it was to meet with an unfortunate prospect of a combined China Pakistan challenge was completely lost on Nehru.
The Treaty of 1954
China invaded Tibet in November 1950. Pursuant to this, China also formulated a 17-Point Agreement, whose preamble left no one in doubt as to the ‘lost’ sovereignty of Tibet. The phrase ‘Tibetan nationality was one of the nationalities of China’ made the status of post-invasion crystal clear. With a view to ‘securing’ the interests of India as a result of this ‘unfortunate’ event. India engaged China in a multiple rounds of discussions before finally arriving at an Indo-China agreement on Tibet. Consummated on the 29th of April 1954 by Vice Foreign Minister Chang Han Fu and Ambassador Nedyam Raghavan on the Indian side, the agreement encompassed five staid and downright prosaic principles:
i. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty;
ii. Mutual non-aggression;
iii. Mutual non-interference in each other’s affairs;
iv. Equality and mutual benefit; and
v. Peaceful co-existence
As would be explicit from a reading of the five principles, there was no mention whatsoever of the border issues. However, as Bhasin educates his readers, Nehru and India continued to blissfully and erroneously believe that even though there was no discussion on the border dispute, they stood settled. The entire agreement of 1954 represented a “climb down” for India. In fact Bhasin states that the agreement was “nothing short of surrender by India.” The agreement conveyed India’s astonishing ‘acceptance’ of the Chinese challenge to the territorial integrity of India. China repeatedly went on insisting that Ladakh, as a part of Kashmir, was a disputed area. China thus exhibited “greater sensitivity to Pakistan vis-à-vis India, and that was reason enough to break the negotiations. The interests of Ladakh, nay of India’s territorial integrity, were sacrificed at the altar of an elusive Chinese friendship.”
T.N. Kaul, a member of the Indian delegation which negotiated the 1954 agreement, upon returning to Delhi gloated over the fact that the agreement represented ‘quickest international agreement signed by any Chinese Government past or present’. But the astounding fact was that even as the negotiations between the two warring factions was being carried out, Kaul was carrying on his own affair with a Chinese woman. This was a brazen and unacceptable breach of all norms of propriety, sensitivity and protocol. In fact, Kaul even had the temerity to ask permission to marry the woman – this when he was already married – and hold your breath, a request for a months’ ex-India leave for his honeymoon, at the end of the negotiations. “An upset prime minister in a top-secret telegram asked him ‘to return to India as soon as possible without waiting for the end of Tibetan talks’. It is a different matter in the face of opposition from the PM and the ministry with the prospects of resigning from the service, he decided not to go ahead with his plan of marrying the Chinese woman. Later he rose to be the foreign secretary of India and was rated as one of the most celebrated officers of the foreign service.”
A coterie of intransigent and hesitant advisors
As Bhasin illustrates in a chilling verve, the domineering persona of Nehru put paid to any kind of ‘contrary’ advice that might be offered by the senior officers in the ministry of external affairs, despite such a contrary advice being perfectly rational and totally reasonable. These officers literally cowering in the presence of their Prime Minister sorely suffered from what Bhasin terms the “Pandit-jee-knows-best’ syndrome. In the words of Jagat Mehta, the former Foreign Secretary, “the greatest democratic dictator in history, but twelve years (sic) of his prime minister-ship were largely wasted…We shall never again have the likes of Nehru and we the professionals, lacked the courtesy to offer him timely corrective counsel. Panditjee could call one a ‘damn fool’ but if one stood one’s ground, he was willing to change his own opinion in pursuit of the national interest. His bark was frightening.”
Nehru’s own sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who also was the Ambassador to the United States in 1950 dutifully toed Nehru’s line of maintaining friendship with China at any cost. “She advised the State Department to ‘go slow’ in the matter [of India replacing China in the admission to the Security Council] as it would not be received with any warmth in India.”
Nehru also repeatedly ignored the dire warnings issued by India’s representative in Tibet as well as the political officer in Sikkim about the potential impetuosity of China in not just invading Tibet but also posing concerns across various borders of India running along Assam, Ladakh and Sikkim. In fact the United States Ambassador Henderson, conveyed to Washington his impression of a ‘certain smugness that had beset the Indian administration. “In general I find a certain smugness in Indian government circles regarding China. There is apparently feeling that China is destined to disappear for some time as a world force leaving India as the foremost Asiatic power, courted on one side by capitalistic powers of the West and on the other by Communist powers of Eastern Europe and Asia.”
An element of brashness seemed to permeate the Nehru administration, and none was more revoltingly emblematic of such insolence than the Defense Minister Krishna Menon. When a concerned general commanding officer of the Eastern Command, Lt Gen. S.P.P. Thorat proposed entrusting the defense of the North Eastern Frontier Agency (“NEFA”) to the Armed Forces under his command, a peeved Krishna Menon audaciously and curtly rejected the proposal. Adopting his usual sardonic style and acerbic tongue, he incredulously exclaimed that “there would be no war between India and China and in the most unlikely event of there being one, he was quite capable of fighting himself on the diplomatic level.”
The Tibetan Faux Pas
Tibet also kept up an unrelenting albeit unfortunate series of “shooting-oneself-in-the-foot” overtures, both leading up to its occupation by China and subsequently. The Dalai Lama in a jaw dropping move wrote to Mao requesting an assurance that ‘no Chinese troops would cross the Tibetan frontier’, and added for good measure that Tibet would very much like to engage China in discussions for the return of its territories annexed in the past. The political office of India in Gangtok, at that time, Hareshwar Dayal judiciously advised the Tibetans against proceeding with such a political misadventure. The Tibetans, too, had asked India to recognize its independence, which, they thought, would enable them to get similar declaration of its independence from the UK and the USA.
Even when China made clear its intention to ‘liberate’ Tibet and make it an integral part of its sovereign territory, Beijing invited the ‘Shakabpa’ – the Tibetan Minister with the responsibility of negotiating an agreement with China – for a comprehensive discussion. The Shakabpa however fearing the worst in terms of an imbalanced negotiation, camped in Delhi and engaged in a preposterous degree of pussyfooting. A visibly irked Chinese laid the blame solely at the doors of India for the Shakabpa’s failure to leave Delhi for Beijing. Their patience was running thin. To further complicate matters, while residing in India, the Shakabpa started covert ‘backdoor’ talks with the United States seeking their intervention, a near blasphemous move from a Chinese perspective, regarding which India was stunningly and stupidly left in the dark.
The granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama also caused extreme consternation to China as the latter insisted that the Dalai Lama was using the territory of Kalimpong within the territory of India to spout hatred and spew propaganda against the Chinese. Nehru did such an allegation no disservice by blurting out that the area of Kalimpong was a ‘nest of spies.’
Bhasin invites the attention of his readers to a recently published book “When Nehru Looked East”, by Professor Emerita Francine R. Frankel. This book sets out the litany of woes that assailed India as a result of Nehru’s hesitancy in dealing with the Chinese dilemma head-on. An American spy based in Tibet, Sydney Wignall in Tibet, had reported to India about a road that was being constructed by the Chinese in the disputed territory of Aksai Chin and that the same would be completed in 1957. Wignall’s report was in the year 1957. Nehru, much to the stupefaction of all concerned however, directed the military intelligence ‘not to gather information on the Chinese presence across the Tibetan border’.
Ø Similarly, as Frankel lays it out, Nehru himself nursed doubts about the boundary between India and China. Amazingly the Ministry of External Affairs’ own assessment came to an unbelievable conclusion that legally, the McMahon Line was untenable;
Ø Girija Shankar Bajpai, Secretary General, Ministry of External Affairs between 1947-52, and Governor of Bombay Presidency from 1952-54 made a nuanced recommendation for a detailed note to be sent to China setting out all the facts on Indian frontiers. However, this valuable recommendation was ignored by Nehru and his administration;
Ø In the year 1954, even as India was in the process of entering into an agreement with China on Tibet, it proceeded to unilaterally alter the international frontier in the western sector and declared it, like the eastern frontier, not open for discussion. However, no visible demarcation or delimiting measures such as erecting/constructing check posts was instituted. There was not even planted a national flag of India designating the altered land to be Indian sovereign territory;
Ø Nehru himself remained immune to the advice he gave liberally to U Nu, the Burmese Prime Minister that is, to negotiate a border agreement with China by give and take and not follow a rigid line
Bhasin exhorts opening up the archives and declassifying all the correspondence between India and China over the years as the first step in normalizing Indo-China relationships going forward. There is a dire need for ‘decluttering’ so that the public is invested with the actual facts and are not led down tunnels in make believe worlds. The sheer white noise emanating from media creates an insidious echo chamber where honesty is sacrificed at the altar of post-truths. A classic example would be the currently prevailing uniform notions and perceptions regarding China in the minds of the Indian public. While there is no absolving China of its perfidy and insidiousness, it is rarely disclosed to the public that leading up to the 1962 clash, it was China that was all along interested in arriving at a cordial and mutually reciprocal solution for the impasse at the Western border as Bhasin elucidates… “the complete availability of archives is a must if a meaningful exercise is to be conducted and the people convinced beyond an iota of doubt that it was India that should have been a little more flexible; China indeed was interested in resolving the border problem.”
If hindsight is 20:20 vision, then Jawaharlal Nehru comes across as a complex Shakespearean character. A man of imposing stature and indomitable presence, he was also an agglomeration of vulnerabilities. No one recognised this paradoxical feature more than the man himself. However, in an attempt to obfuscate such vulnerabilities by resorting to a combination of opacity, obduracy and obstreperousness, Nehru brought on grave damage not just to the territorial prospects of his nation but also to his reputation. The barometer of history is also a timely guide for learning and assimilation. India would do well to absorb the harsh lessons that led to the disaster of 1962 and ensure that the foibles and failures that caused such a great embarrassment to the nation remain aberrations and not frustratingly recurring themes.
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