A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit a remote border outpost in Arunachal Pradesh where a sentry sat in the thick morning mist, pierced only by the gentle flares of flowering rhododendron bushes. His binoculars were trained on a Chinese outpost perhaps a hundred yards away. This place had been a minor flashpoint in the 1980s when the Chinese established their camp and started building a helipad. The Indian army set up its own posts on higher ground. Things calmed down, so I was told, when the People’s Liberation Army clarified that the helipad was really a basketball court. The jawan’s job was to watch basketball and he took it very seriously.
Fifty years ago this month, a very different mortal game was played out on those very hills and across the 3,500 km long frontier of the world’s two most populous republics. It ended in a rout, as you know. The bigger guys—or at least the larger team—won. And then left the field, for their dugouts.
The war itself has been well remembered and quietly forgotten in India. A short litany of political ham-headedness, rotten intelligence, poor strategy and entropy under fire—relieved only by a handful of tales of tragic valour, squandered lives. The published accounts and even the poorly concealed secret record (the notorious Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report) vary mostly in internecine details of personal responsibility and finger pointing. The course of the battles is an open book. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the war is poorly memorialized in a few shabby monuments, and the patriotic fantasy Haqeeqat. Even the signature dirge, Aye mere watan ke logon, has been mawkishly appropriated for other wars and political campaigns. When I visited a sprightly veteran of the fall of Bomdila a few weeks ago, he had nothing to say about the war: “Bad memory,” he said. And then he corrected himself… “Bad memories.”
But if the story of the war itself has been buried with its dead, a livelier (or deadlier) debate persists today about the merits of the two sides’ claims in the dispute and degree of responsibility in precipitating the armed conflict. These are two different things, but given the passage of time they are now intertwined in what was always a dispute about history. Jawaharlal Nehru’s stature has inevitably been diminished by what in hindsight can only be seen as poor situational awareness. His Chinese opponents plainly played a more skilful hand. If nothing else they were clearly capable of both diplomacy and war, whereas Nehru’s final gambit, the ‘forward policy’, proved to be neither.
It was also an argument conducted in tones of exasperating hypocrisy and self- righteousness by two nascent states who were busy fashioning nations on the territories of empires. And 50 years later, it is on their shared frontier that each republic still reveals its imperial carapace.
Trawling through a pile of post-1962 reading recently, I was rewarded by two startlingly similar and diametrically opposed footnotes addressing the same issue: the cultural affinity of the tribes of what is now Arunachal Pradesh with this or that side of the border. The first claim was made by Neville Maxwell, deftly invoking a colonial authority to assert: “The tribes ‘are not Indian in any sense of the word, neither in origin, nor in language, nor in appearance…it is only historical accident that they have been tacked on to an Indian province’. After independence the tribes began trying to undo that accident, and a strong separatist movement developed in the 1960s.”
The second came from K. Krishna Rao, a former Legal Adviser and Director of the Legal and Treaties Division of the MEA.
“The tribes inhabiting this frontier are of separate stock from the Tibetans; the latter in fact referred to them as Lopas, a term of contempt. Ethnically they are akin to the tribes which inhabit Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.”
It’s hard to say which of these two attempts at misdirection is more opaque. Indeed, the most obvious similarity in this sad contest is in the domineering paternalism with which the bureaucratic imaginations of India and China treat their frontier minorities. There is little to distinguish the crude pageantry of India’s republic day parade from the popular Chinese new year’s eve TV gala in which Han men appear in business suits while “the minorities are made to appear in their most colourful traditional costumes…The Han thus manifest themselves as the Future, and the minorities as the Past, in a tableau which is utterly political, even if not consciously so.” (We have this from Benedict Anderson, Perry’s brother but no relation in acuity).
Fifty years after the tumult of war, the India-China border remains a perplexing place. Despite occasional minor intrusions and incidents of paper rustling on either side, it has become arguably the most placid of India’s frontiers. Our border with China is longer than that with Pakistan but it seems much more remote. I suspect that the real lesson of 1962 is that the two nations developed an aversion to their proximity. And perhaps to their growing awareness of similarity—in size, national complexity and economic ambition. Like the Aleutian frontier of the USA and Russia, the India-China border has become a common backwater. Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai, with faces averted in mutual recognition.
Back at the sitzkrieg I observed that morning on the LAC, I watched the sentry call in his report on a field telephone. He opened his log and solemnly began to list the day’s incidents: “Gyara baje, do bande carom khel rahe the…”
Kai Friese is the editor of Geo. A version of this article appears in print
It was enlightening to read the package on the 1962 war (The War We Lost, the Lessons We Didn’t Learn, Oct 22). Our debacle had much to do with Nehru’s short-sightedness and Krishna Menon’s arrogance. The latter ignored Gen Thimayya’s warning. Currently, China is militarising the front on their side of the border and laying down infrastructure for quick mobilisation. But India has done little to fortify the Northeast. We should be prepared. For, as former defence minister George Fernandes said, China is a great threat—it didn’t even spare Vietnam, a country sharing its Communist ideology.
G. Anuplal, Bangalore
Your issue on the ’62 war made me think about Tibet. India is separated from Tibet by the Himalayas, but Tibet is culturally and linguistically closer to India than to China. Most Tibetans follow Buddhism, a religion born in India. It was via Tibet that Buddhism spread to China and hence to Japan. Most Buddhist texts—even of Tibet—are in Sanskrit and Pali. Tibetan itself carries the lexical heritage of Sanskrit and Pali. Even ethnically, the Tibetans are separate from the Han. Tibetans have been under Chinese subjugation because of the failure of Britain, our former ruler, and our own government to work towards settling Tibet’s border issues with China.
Ramakrishna Srinivasan, Coimbatore
Welcome back, Kai Friese (Frontiers of the Imagination). But I must say your scepticism of Perry Anderson is too mild. He’s an apologist for the Raj. Masked colonialism from the Left is too easily let off, even by acute observers like you.
Tearful Onion, on e-mail
With characteristic flamboyance, Nehru had thundered, “I’ve ordered our army to throw out the Chinese from our territory.” And in wanton disregard to the basics of warfare, an unprepared, ill-equipped and poorly clothed army ended up being swamped by wave upon wave of Chinese soldiers in the heights of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. The single lesson of 1962: wars are serious games best left to the generals to play.
Col C.V. Venugopalan (retd), Palakkad
The India-China special (Oct 22) is certainly a collector’s issue for me. My battalion reached NEFA two days before the Chinese unilateral ceasefire. I shall treasure this wonderful issue—though I find the photo of the nation’s son-in-law on the cover inappropriate!
Major (Retd) Soli Canteenwala, Mumbai
The whole of India, including Vinoba (minus the CPI-M), considered China the aggressor since Nehru had been an advocate for its inclusion in the UN. The war caused India’s non-alignment stance to change a bit and probably led to Nehru’s death soon after).
Vishwanath Tandon, Kanpur
It has been a pleasure to read such detailed analyses of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Kudos!
Prem Ballabh, Delhi
The 1962 war was forced on us when India was still recovering from the slavery the British had imposed on us. Given his prioritisation of state- and nation-rebuilding, Nehru did the best he could under the circumstances.
M.Y. Shariff, Chennai
The only issue I see is, that Jawaharlal Nehru did think that the Chinese were friends, and felt the Chinese would understand, when Indian troops were put on forward positions near the border. We all know, that India did not want a war, with China. It seems, the people on the other side of the border, including the P. L. A. were having issues. The Chinese Premier was looked upon as a person, not as a threat, but he was not what the Chinese Premier is now, because Mao was very much there. It seems, the founder of Communist China, wanted to see, how the premier would act in the situation, and he was not taking an interest. I have not perceived any communication of Mao at the time. The Cultural Revolution was perhaps going on.
Surely the provocation was that of Nehru,who so arrogantly asked while in a foreign land,Colombo,to throw out the intruding Chinese.Zhou Enlai never tolerated Nehru throwing his weight as the foremost Asian leader.It was sheer stupidity on the part of Nehru to precipitate the situation without any ground preparation.
[“Gyara baje, do bande carom khel rahe the…”]
Now, what about the domineering paternalism of the author and editor of Outlook in not provoding a translation to the about last sentence of this article?
What are they thinking? Only Hindiwallas living in this country? (Arrogant northies)
After a long time, Kai Friese, welcome back, I missed you.
Your scepticism re: Perry Anderson(PA) is too mild. The man is an apologist for the erstwhile empire. His whole set of 3 articles in London Book Review is fashionable iconoclasm..chip away at Gandhi, then Nehru, Patel etc. Present partition as due to Hindu intrasigence, especially in Bengal. Spin the facts to present the British as trying to leave a united India, and Jinnah as a reasonable man who was forced to direct action day hysterics. Classic stalinist revisionism, strange bed-fellow to the likes of Niall Ferguson. Masked colonialism from the left is too easily let off even by acute observers like you. You should do a seperate piece on PA.
Elegant prose but short on facts. Or else the real Villain of the peace(VK Krishna Menon) would have figured in this piece.
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