Battle Over A War
As a Times correspondent in India, Neville Maxwell went through a transformation. From being an admirer of India, he became a strong critic, even joining the western chorus predicting its collapse.
The war between India and China over their 4,000-kilometre long, disputed boundary in the winter of 1962 lasted barely a month. But a war of words between two scholars on its origin and their attempt to identify the aggressor—leader of democratic India, Jawaharlal Nehru, pitted against Communist China’s Mao Zedong—is threatening to snowball into a major controversy that may last much longer than the 50-year-old conflict itself. Interestingly, the scholars are neither Indian nor Chinese, but European. And going by their prevailing stand, neither is willing to yield any ground to the other.
London-born Neville Maxwell continues to argue that Nehru’s faulty policies led to the war and India was the aggressor. Thailand-based Bertil Lintner, a Swede, dismisses Maxwell’s claim as “rubbish” and puts the blame squarely on Mao and his attempt to escape isolation in the Communist Party by playing up the boundary dispute to rally the party behind him for a war with India.
Predictably, Maxwell, author of the controversial India’s China War, is a much-disliked figure in India. Lintner, the author of several books on the region and who is working on his new project—the 1962 conflict—is seen as a ‘neutral’ figure in New Delhi. Both have had long journalistic careers. Maxwell worked for The Times, London, and was based in India as its correspondent in the late ’50s-early ’60s. Lintner made his mark while reporting on the region for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. While Indians aren’t prepared to welcome Maxwell to the country, Lintner is barred from travelling to Myanmar.
Interestingly, Maxwell went through a drastic transformation during his stint in India. From being an admirer of India and PM Nehru, he became one of its strongest critics—exemplified not only by his stand on the ’62 War, but also for being among western scholars who predicted a collapse of the Indian state. Maxwell’s opinions changed after a visit to China in the mid-1960s (he travelled there on an aircraft with the then Pakistani foreign minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto) and met Zhou Enlai and other senior Chinese leaders. Often described as the “last surviving Maoist in the West”, he never met Mao.
Maxwell, who was always suspected to have gained access to the report through sections in the Indian army for his book, courted fresh controversy after he recently made it available. Justifying his decision, Maxwell said in a recent interview with the Times of India “...the myth of ‘Chinese aggression’ has been exposed again, as the Henderson Brooks report does. I say ‘again’ because the historical and diplomatic background and what the report tells about the debacle was exposed long ago in my 1970 book....”
However, the counterpoints being raised by Lintner (see interview) had also been raised by some other leading scholars in the past. Harvard historian Roderick MacFarquhar had argued, by dubbing the 1962 war ‘Mao’s India war’, that it was the Chinese who were the aggressors. More scholars have joined in picking holes in Maxwell’s thesis.
Oxford historian Rana Mitter, who teaches history and politics of modern China, points out that in 1962 there was “considerable friction” within the Chinese Communist Party. The terrible famine after the ‘Great Leap Forward’ allowed leaders like Li Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping to reintroduce a limited market system to alleviate the situation. “Mao felt that his position as ideological hegemon of China was becoming vulnerable.” At the same time, he keenly shared with other leaders China’s isolation in the wake of its split with the USSR in 1960. “This meant that trying to make the limits of China’s border clearer was a policy that could unite members of an otherwise divided leadership,” adds Mitter.
Maxwell’s book dwells neither on the domestic scene in China nor the international environment in which the 1962 war was fought. Part of this could well be because of his lack of access to Chinese material, despite his avowed closeness to Premier Zhou. This is also acknowledged by Maxwell—in his book, he praises India’s ‘openness’, while contrasting it with China. “....no government is more secretive as to its inner processes than that of the People’s Republic of China, and in tracing Chinese policy formulation I have had nothing to go on beyond what is on the public record,” Maxwell wrote.
This may well be the case, but it is also a fact that unlike in India—where the war still plays a role in defining Sino-India ties chafing under an unresolved boundary dispute—the conflict hardly gets a mention in China. It’s rarely put in the same category as the Korean War or the Taiwan Strait crisis.
Can it be that Indians too would begin to put the 1962 crisis in the proper perspective and desist in future to see its relationship with China through the war’s emotionally tangled prism? Chances of that seem highly unlikely now. If the ongoing controversy between the two scholars is any indication, the issue is likely to remain bitterly divisive in India for years.
This is in response to the article on the differing views of the 1962 Sino-Indian war of scholar-historians Bertil Lintner and Neville Maxwell (A Debacle Disinterred, Apr 14).Even if we accept Lintner’s hypothesis that the war was meant to divert attention from Mao’s domestic failings, it does not negate Maxwell’s conclusion that India lost because of Nehru’s faulty policies and foolish directions to an inadequately equipped army.
Y. Bhadani, Hyderabad
One of our most disturbing poltergeists is the Henderson Brooks report on the ’62 Sino-Indian war. Its contents are now well-known with the publication of Maxwell’s book. It's a saga of political and military blunders that cost the lives of 3,000 soldiers and led to serious loss of face for India. It’s a matter of dismay that Indians should be furnished a report examining the debacle by an Australian national. The easiest route out now would be the civilised one—declassify the report by following the 30-year rule. South Block’s kneejerk reaction to block Maxwell’s website hardly reflects a progressive mindset.
J.S. Acharya, Hyderabad
Maxwell is a wrong-headed guy—he never even considers the issue of Tibet from a people’s standpoint; from a freedom and democracy perspective. Everything is put from the legally weak perspective of the Chinese politburo. And yes, the critics are absolutely right about Maxwell’s failure to examine China’s own motives and the geopolitical background of the war. For me, Lintner’s opinion makes a lot of sense. The 1962 war had a lot to do with China’s desire to punish India for daring to give the Dalai Lama refuge, and later his forming a Tibetan government in exile. Maxwell suffers from a disease called ‘forwardpolicitis’.
Varun Shekhar, Toronto
Maxwell is a jerk, he never even considers the issue of Tibet from a people's standpoint,from a freedom and democracy perspective. Everything is about China's politbureau claims to Tibet based on flimsy legality. Without even dealing with Tibet, the whole subject becomes superficial. And yes, the critics are absolutely right about Maxwell's failure to examine China's own motives and the geopolitical background of the war.
Even if we accept Lintner's hypothesis that the war was meant to divert attention from Mao's failings within China, it does not negate conclusion of Maxwell that India lost because of Nehru's faulty policies and foolish direction to an Army which has been deprived of the wherewithal by his government.
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