“Fifty years ago, the Indian government was blinded by selfish interests, and wanted to force the Chinese to accept an illegal border line created by colonial powers,” wrote Hong Yuan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in The Global Times on June 28 this year. “Today, both countries need to learn from their ancient friendly ties and the lesson from the war.” But what exactly is that lesson?
The Sino-Indian war of 1962 was not the longest or bloodiest conflict in either nation’s modern history. Yet, even now, it provides insights into their complex relationship. For much of the past century, the two countries have tried to define themselves within the region. It’s unsurprising that both China and India should seek a role in Asia: both are giants in terms of size and population. Yet, factors, including imperialism (Japanese as well as western) and Cold War dynamics, have prevented either from exercising influence to the extent that location and resources might suggest. True, 1962 has been the only moment when the two clashed directly, but it illustrates a much wider dynamic of engagement interspersed with mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. In 1924, when Tagore visited China, he faced hostile young Chinese intellectuals, who thought his solutions were insufficient for their country’s problems. Nine decades later, the relationship between India and China still combines respect, anxiety and mutual misunderstanding.
Not long before 1962, there was a more positive encounter between the two countries. During WW-II, after Pearl Harbor, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China was brought into the Allied fold. In February 1942, Chiang visited India and talked at length with Nehru and Gandhi, hoping the Congress would encourage participation in the fight against Japan. Chiang’s meeting with Gandhi was not very positive, but his meetings with Nehru were encouraging, for Chiang saw himself, like the Congress leader, as a secular anti-imperialist. While the Congress did not agree explicitly to support Indian participation in the war, India played a crucial role in the defence of China, not least because Chinese, Indian, British and US troops served together in the liberation of Burma in 1944. There are few reminders of that shared wartime experience today in common memory. (One of the few that comes to mind is the ‘Chungking’ laundry in central Calcutta, named after China’s wartime capital, connected to India via the Burma Hump.)
So, the confrontation in 1962 came at a time of identity crisis for both countries. For Nehru, who believed India and China might come together as heralds of a new anti-imperialist world, the clash was a rude shock, and India’s defeat a ruder one. Yet the clash also came at a bad time for the Chinese. The split with the USSR in 1960 had put relations with Moscow in the deep freeze, and relations with the US were still icy. The war coincided with a moment when the Cuban Missile Crisis was threatening to turn regional confrontation into global conflict. Having driven the Indians back, the Chinese army made little attempt to push their position further.
Nor did Mao make the war the basis of one of the major campaigns that marked his reign. The soul-searching felt among India’s elites after the defeat was not matched by parallel discussions in China. Yet there were geopolitical consequences, not least the strengthening of China’s relationship with Pakistan. And this in turn would also lead toward the opening of relations with America a decade later.
The war is not widely remembered in China today. True, in September this year the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences brought together scholars to discuss the legacy of the clash. But the dispute does not animate the Chinese public. This should be a source of relief rather than resentment. The memories of the devastating war between China and Japan from 1937 to 1945 continue to colour relations between those two countries even today, as the student protests against Japan in Chinese cities this summer have shown. In contrast, the likelihood of demonstrations against India is vanishingly small. New Delhi does not provoke existential fears in Beijing the way that Washington or even Tokyo does.
In India, in contrast, there is still major interest in the legacy of a war that remains the only time the independent nation has been defeated in battle. The 50th anniversary comes at a time when there are increasing fears of encirclement by powers aligned toward China (‘the string of pearls’). The implication is of a linear trajectory of Chinese aggression across time from 1962 to the present. The fact that the legacy of the war matters so much in India, and relatively little in China, may at first seem to suggest a more mature attitude on China’s part. But actually it is something of a tribute to India. The war also came during the momentous days of the Great Leap Forward, which killed over 20 million people, and just before the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. It is unsurprising that a relatively small conflict in an under-inhabited corner failed to find a wider public resonance. Indian politics were hardly calm in the 1960s, but at the same time there was nothing that rivalled the devastation of the same period in China.
Now, in the early twenty-first century, India and China both seek to raise their status in Asia. Both countries do so with caution. China is feared by many in the region, who see its military build-up and opaque politics and fear that its self-description as a “responsible power” is a cover for more aggressive ambitions. India, in contrast, suffers more of an existential crisis, seeking to define its role in Asia while aware that its influence runs less wide in the region than that of Beijing. The ‘lesson’ of 1962 may be that there are still two different visions of Asia, and that while a repetition of the conflict of half a century ago seems unthinkable, the two sides are still a long way from a meeting of minds about the way the region will look in future.
(Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford)
What about the massacre of a CRPF patrol in 1959 (At Two Removes, Oct 22)? How is that defensible? The patrol didn’t open fire first.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
"The fact is that the Indian government was the only side which talked of military offensives, and all records bear that out. "
What was China doing with its massive military presence near the Indian border? Bringing and upholding democracy, secularism, pluralism and liberalism in the borderlands? Their actions spoke louder than any Indian announcements.
What about the massacre of a CRPF patrol in 1959? How is that defensible by the Chinese. The CRPF did not open fire first.
Again, the Chinese should not have been in Tibet. Tibet should have remained independent, and with or without India's assistance, evolved into a pluralist democracy. India and Tibet would have resolved any boundary problem, far more easily than India and the Chinese politbureau/Red Army. An important point too easily missed by commentators obsessed with the legality and historicity of the McMahon line.
A brilliant article from historical and psychological perspective.
Though one must remember that as far as India is concerned there is no border dispute.
The so called border dispute is in the mind of communist central committee and its army or it may the other way round. Chinese communist leaders or the central committee is in the tight fist of its army known as PLA.
Chinese public do not want Aksai Chin or they want any Arunachal Pradesh or any border dispute with India. And yet one thing is true as the author himself says and that is both countries are very ancient and both have a lot of respect to each other. For China’s part it never tried to deny India’s cultural influence or history on China and never tried to re-write is history as a stupid Pakistan do almost in every conceivable way.
In recent times when Indian pilots exhibited extraordinary skills with fighter jets , Chinese TV channels glorified it and had given special time slots to show it. Though Indian public in general admire China and Chinese family system and its ancient origin, in recent times whenever a long range missile is developed in India, our journalists and TV shows including its “intellectuals” describe it as China specific and give “juicy” comments as to how it can hit Shanghai or Beijing which is off course is a bad trend.
In the recent times China has become very assertive vis-a-vis Indian border. They could express their deep "displeasure" about Indian prime minister’s visit to Tawang in Arunachal. PLA's confidence went to that level.
Looking in to history by our generation for example who have not had any direct experience of those times, we can read about how China was assertive about Indian press in those days. China went as far as asking Nehru govt. to take action against those press barons and journalists who were criticizing China!! . Nehru's govt. however replied that in democracy these critics instead have to be given police protection and it was the duty of the State to protect them if at all mobs were against them.
History is repeating when we see the same assertiveness of China in recent times. In 1962 Chinese were very passive about Mao's decision of aggression against India and now also they have nothing against India.
1962 debacle is one of the countless debacles that India suffered due to the 17 year regime of Shri Jawaharlal Nehru. But the greatest debacle is that post Nehru's death in 1964, Indian Intellectuals and Media have failed to do any meaningful and critical analysis of Nehru's policies and in the intellectual arena, it has always been a onesided and hopelessly biased eternal worshipping of Nehru and its policies. This is, the greatest tragedy than the war with China and the death of our men in uniform. And guess who are guilty of the same? Media .
Realy? Everyone, whatever their disagreements about other things, is agreed on one point - that the government ordered the army to "throw out the Chinese". Nehru said as much in Parliament. The planned operation even had a name - Leghorn.
The fact is that the Indian government was the only side which talked of military offensives, and all records bear that out.
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