Even the timing was propitious for India, yet we fumbled.
The end results would have been dramatic: Tibet would have been liberated; Indians would not have been starry-eyed about China; the loss of face would have made China retreat into its shell instead of becoming an aggressive imperialist.
Tibet was an avoidable catastrophe. First is the decimation of a vibrant Indic culture, that of the Tibetan Buddhists. They have been doubly unfortunate. For, Tibetan Buddhism owes its traditions to the few monks who escaped being beheaded by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1197 when he sacked Nalanda. And now, in a repeat, they are being exterminated once again, this time by fascist Han Chinese.
In 1962, China was quite weak militarily. If India had created a coalition with Western powers, who worried about the Soviet-China axis, the Han Chinese could have been ejected, and Tibet saved from genocide. The Americans would have cooperated; in those Domino Theory days, they even trained a group of Tibetans for a guerrilla resistance movement back home. India, instead, chose to be gullible "useful idiots", in Chou En-Lai's dismissive phrase.
However, in addition to altruistic concern for a sister culture, India would have gained concrete things from Tibetan freedom. The plateau is the source of many of the rivers in Asia, and benign Tibetan control over them would have given much of Asia water security: the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong and the Irrawaddy all originate there.
Instead, China plans to divert the Brahmaputra northwards from Tibet. If so, the Ganga-Brahmaputra doab would dry up, and civilisation as we know it would end in North India. This is a national security issue of the highest order, and Indians ignore it at their peril.
Chinese dams across the Mekong are already causing drought in downstream riparian states like Laos and Cambodia. The Chinese deliberately created floods on the Brahmaputra in Arunachal not too long ago. There is every reason to believe China will proceed with diverting water, ignoring India's objections.
This water war India could absolutely have avoided by routing China in 1962. Similarly, Chinese nuclear missiles in Tibet's high plains, as well as the dumping of nuclear waste therein, both have serious security and environmental implications for India.
On a more subtle level, the 'loss of face' to China would have had incalculable value in geopolitics. At that time, China was viewed with disdain. They got into the UN Security Council only because Nehru, in his infinite wisdom, gave them the seat offered to India! Bizarre experiments with fundamentalist Leninism/Stalinism, including the Great Leap Forward, caused most observers to view China as a freak show.
The bonhomie with the Soviet Union was showing signs of wear; the experiments in collectivisation had not brought the expected benefits; the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), an attempt at using vast amounts of manpower to rapidly industrialise the country, was a colossal failure, and instead created a famine in which as many as forty million perished.
China was vulnerable, its self-image mauled by colonialism, as despised gwailo (foreign devils) had ruthlessly penetrated their hitherto smug, supercilious land, the allegedly impregnable Middle Kingdom. The British, through judicious use of opium, and the Japanese, through military might, had shown Chinese their imperial pretensions counted for nothing in the real world.
A stinging defeat by India would have so seriously hurt Chinese self-esteem that they would not have dared to dream of dominating Asia. They would not be bullying all their neighbours, as in irredentist adventures in Xinjiang, Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh, Spratlies, Mischief Reef, and the Senkaku Islands. Their Sino-Islamic axis, aimed at containing India, would have been stillborn. And they would not have been proliferating nuclear technology so openly to North Korea, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.
To consider the psychological effect of such a defeat, just look at India. Even though Indians are not quite so worried about 'face', the loss damaged the Indian psyche. The shock of betrayal, and the Macaulayite history of defeat that we imbibe through textbooks, have caused Indians to see themselves as losers. The Chinese would have been far more humiliated after a defeat by India.
There would have been more fringe benefits. Everyone respects power and the will to use it. India's case for the Security Council would have been much stronger. The containment of China through alliances with Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan and Russia would have proceeded apace. Pax Indica in the Indian Ocean would have given India a choke-hold on critical shipping routes transporting Persian Gulf oil to China. India would have acceded to the non-proliferation treaty as a nuclear weapons state, instead of being bulled by the offensive Chinese-drafted Security Council Resolution 1172 condemning the Pokhran II blasts.
Another side-effect—and in a way, this might have been the greatest benefit to India—would have been the defanging of India's Marxists. These evangelists for the Church of Marx would have been laughed out of court if they plugged the sayings of Chairman Mao immediately after China had been defeated by India. This would have prevented Marxist infiltration into academia, institutions and the media, which urgently need to be de-toxified from their baleful influence. Furthermore, both West Bengal and Kerala would have been spared decades of under-development and degeneration.
Thus, winning the 1962 war would have made an enormous difference to India. But there is no mistaking the civilisational conflict between India and China. In this millennia-old Grand Narrative, 1962 is a mere skirmish. India colonised Asia softly: with a few exceptions, without military conquest or migration. China colonised by demographic warfare.
Indic ideas went everywhere—West Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet; even China and through it, Korea and Japan. The ideas were enormously influential, and they included religion and philosophy, martial arts, mathematics, language, architecture and mythology.
China, on the other hand, depended on demographic thrusts: periodic emigration of Han Chinese took their culture and their industrial arts with them. They were looking for survival, for lebensraum: for China has poor land, and either too little or too much water. This process has continued to the present, with the large Chinese diaspora.
The last word in this monumental competition has not been written. China may be leading
right now, but India is surely no pushover any more.
Rajeev Srinivasan is a columnist for rediff.com.
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