February 28, 2020
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Beyond Victimology

Nehru and Menon’s assessment of China was not quite the ‘Himalayan blunder’ it was made out to be

Beyond Victimology
Corbis (From Outlook 22 October 2012)
Beyond Victimology

On the night of October 19, 1962, Chinese troops began infiltrating Indian positions along the border. At the crack of dawn, the attack commenced and within days, the Indian defences collapsed. A month later, the Chinese announced a unilateral ceasefire and pulled back. The ignominious defeat caused in Indian politics a bitterness without parallel vis-a-vis matters of foreign policy. Jawaharlal Nehru’s standing never recovered from this setback. Nor has his posthumous reputation. Fifty years on, the passions of 1962 are not yet spent. President Radhakrishnan anticipated the verdict of posterity when he chided the government for “credulity and negligence”. Nehru himself seemed to concede to the charge of naivete. “We have been living in an unreal world of our own creation,” he said, in an oft-quoted speech in Parliament.

Nehru’s mea culpa was aimed at soothing political tempers. Historians certainly need to approach it with scepticism. As A.J.P. Taylor observed, all politicians have selective memories—most of all those who originally practised as historians. With the benefit of hindsight and access to records, it is clear that Nehru was hardly as naive as his critics alleged. As far back as 1954, soon after signing the Panchsheel agreement with China, Nehru wrote to a colleague, “In the final analysis, no country has any deep faith in the policies of another country, more especially in regard to a country that tends to expand.” In October 1958, following a stand-off with Chinese troops along the border, Nehru told the chief ministers that India had to face “a powerful country bent on spreading out to what they consider their old frontiers, and possibly beyond”.

Why, then, was India caught out by the Chinese attack four years later? Why did Nehru embark on a “forward policy” that sought to plant puny military posts on the border without  backing them with an adequate defensive posture? The short answer is that Nehru and his colleagues believed that China would not engage in anything more than the kind of skirmishes that had already taken place. This, of course, begs the question of why a full-fledged war was ruled out by them.

Nehru’s views on the unlikelihood of a major war with China were based on political calculations. For almost a decade before the war, Nehru had thought that a Chinese attack on India would carry the risk of Great Power intervention. In the wake of the Korean War and of continuing Sino-American confrontation over Taiwan, Nehru thought that China would not risk another war involving potential confrontation with the US. As he told a meeting of the Congress in late 1959, “the Chinese are unlikely to invade India because they know that this would start a world war, which the Chinese cannot want”. The term “world war”, which Nehru used on several occasions, was not meant literally, but referred to the possibility of Great Power intervention.

The second calculation underlying Nehru’s assessment pertained to the role of the Soviet Union. From the early 1950s, Nehru had anticipated and predicted the split between China and the Soviet Union. The ideological glue of socialism, he believed, was insufficient to contain their conflicting national interests. This astute judgement was borne out by the rupture between Moscow and Beijing that came to the fore in 1959. The Sino-Soviet rift coincided with the irruption of the boundary dispute between India and China as well as the Dalai Lama’s departure from Tibet and entry into India. On both these questions, the Soviet Union adopted a neutral stance. By mid-1959, Nehru felt that the USSR had begun to consider India as “a balancing force in relation to China in Asia”. Further, he reasoned, Moscow would not like to see Beijing’s hostility drive New Delhi closer to the Western powers.

Main actors Krishna Menon and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

Nehru’s assumptions were not wholly off-beam. We now know that until the summer of 1962, the Chinese were indeed mindful of the risks involved in attacking India. Mao Tse-tung knew that the military balance strongly favoured China and yet thought that they could not “blindly” take on the Indians. “We must pay attention to the situation,” he told his colleagues. The Chinese were concerned about the US military presence in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and about the possibility of an American-abetted attack by Chiang Kai-shek. These concerns abated only by June-end, 1962, following an American assurance to the Chinese that they would not back any attack on China.

Similarly, Nehru’s assessment of the Soviet role was not entirely mistaken. Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly urged the Chinese to look for a peaceful settlement. As late as October 13, 1962, Khrushchev told the Chinese ambassador in Moscow that he had tried to be even-handed on the Sino-Indian dispute because he wished “to keep India out of the arms of the imperialists”. The Chinese, in fact, informed Khrushchev of their decision to resort to force. They knew that attacking India without at least a nod-and-a-wink from Moscow would be problematic. Unfortunately for India, Khrushchev decided to use this opportunity to repair the fraying relationship with China and temporarily sided with Beijing.

Nehru’s calculations were reasonable but eventually wrong. Interestingly, intelligence assessments prepared by the US, by Britain and by Yugoslavia (which had the best secret service in Europe) also concluded that China was unlikely to launch a major attack on India. If there is any lesson to be learnt from the run-up to 1962, it is that we don’t need a gullible leadership to land us in such situations. Nehru was cannier than his critics assumed then and assert now.

Also overdue is a reassessment of the role of Krishna Menon. None ranked higher than him in the political demonology of the period. The defence minister’s scathing tongue, his conspiratorial attitude and his divisive style drew the ire of his own party as well as the opposition. In the general elections of 1962, the prime minister himself had to campaign on behalf of Menon. Such was the animosity against Menon that Nehru publicly told his opponents: “Go to hell.” Menon won the elections, stayed on as defence minister, and was forced out of government during the war.

Menon’s exit from office was not undeserved. As defence minister, he bore the major responsibility for the military’s state of preparedness—or lack thereof. That he was frequently dismissive of the advice offered by the military brass is well known. But the quality of the advice tendered by the military has received much less scrutiny. From late 1959, until the adoption of the “forward policy”, General Thimayya and his senior colleagues espoused a strategy of “defence in depth”: they advocated holding defensive positions far behind the boundary claimed by India. This strategy was obviously incapable of countering Chinese incursions near the boundary—incursions that were the main cause for concern to the political leadership. It was the military’s inability to come up with proposals to meet these intrusions that gave the civilians, including Menon, the upper hand in the formulation of strategy.

Nor was the military leadership much more alert to the preparation for a major war than their civilian masters. The chiefs of staff paper of 1961, which spelt out the overall requirement of the military, stated that, “Should the nature of the war go beyond that of a limited war...then it would be beyond the capacity of our forces to prosecute war”. Yet, instead of projecting demands to prepare for a major war against China, the chiefs simply assumed that they only needed to prepare for a limited conflict and made modest projections. And they went on to claim that limited resources were a constraint in waging a higher intensity conflict. The paper showed a remarkable lack of strategic judgement on the part of the military.

It is not clear whether, if India had had a defence minister more deferential to professional advice than was Menon, the Indian army would have fared much better in the war. There was another, under-appreciated aspect of Menon’s involvement in the China crisis. Menon was alone among Nehru’s colleagues in appreciating the need for a negotiated settlement and the grave implications of the escalating boundary dispute. Where he erred was in assuming that what should not happen would not happen—he paid for it with his office.

Unlike G.B. Pant or Morarji Desai, Menon did not proceed on the assumption that the only acceptable solution was for the Chinese to drop all their claims and give up all “occupied” areas. More importantly, he understood the domestic pressures operating on Nehru—not least from his own party. In early 1960, when Premier Zhou Enlai was due to visit India for negotiations with Nehru, Menon favoured a via media in the form of a long-term lease of Aksai to China. By not getting bogged down on the issue of sovereignty, the two sides could arrive at a practical solution that preserved their respective interests. Menon appears to have floated this suggestion to the Chinese and warned them that their hardening stance was only strengthening the opposition in India.

As late as end July 1962, Menon sought to arrest the slide in relations with China. On the sidelines of the Geneva conference on Laos, he negotiated a standstill agreement with the Chinese foreign minister, Chen Yi. Menon and Chen also agreed to a joint statement announcing further talks. Unfortunately, there was a delay in getting Nehru’s approval; Chen left Geneva assuming that India was not interested in serious negotiations. Had Nehru’s approval come in time, the history of India-China relations could have been very different.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with Zhou Enlai (left), Bandung conference, 1955. He didn’t think China would attack us. (Photograph by Getty Images, From Outlook 22 October 2012)

Such tantalising counterfactuals apart, future historians will also wonder why India-China relations took so long after the war to revert to a semblance of diplomatic normalcy. Part of the answer was the continuing hostility of China, especially at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The other part lay in the deep psychological blow dealt by the war—not so much in the fact of defeat as in its manner—that prevented India from using opportunities that came up later in the decade. Following the Sino-Soviet clashes along the Ussuri river in 1969, Beijing sought to improve ties with India. In particular, the Chinese were keen to ensure that India did not end up in an anti-China front led by the Moscow.

During the May Day celebrations in Beijing in 1970, Mao shook the hands of the Indian charge d’affaires, Brajesh Mishra, and said: “We cannot keep on quarrelling like this. We should try and be friends again. India is a great country. Indian people are good people. We will be friends again some day.”  Mishra promptly replied, “We are ready to do it today.” To which Mao said, “Please convey my message of best wishes and greetings to your president and your prime minister.” Mishra immediately cabled the prime minister, urging her to give Mao’s words “the most weighty consideration”. By contrast, Indira Gandhi’s top advisors urged caution. P.N. Haksar wrote to her that “whereas the words used by Chairman Mao are certainly of some significance, we must not rush to any conclusions”.

Mishra was asked to convey to the Chinese foreign ministry that India was open to any “concrete” proposals. Mishra’s Chinese interlocutor was Yang Kungsu, a senior official closely involved in the boundary negotiations in 1960. Yang said that Mao’s personal message was “the greatest concrete action on our side”, and that it was up to India to suggest the next step. The Indians did have a next step in mind—an exchange of ambassadors—wouldn’t deign to broach this directly. Mishra and Yang continued desultory talks until the end of 1970. Early next year, the Bangladesh crisis broke out and put paid to the prospects of early normalisation. The exchange of ambassadors had to wait until 1975 and negotiations on the boundary until 1980. Then, too, Indira Gandhi was heavily burdened by her father’s legacy to be able to take any decisive steps. Ironically, it was not until a staunch critic of Nehru’s “appeasement” of China, Atal Behari Vajpayee, became prime minister that India began serious negotiations with China. The fact that his national security advisor was none other than Mishra certainly helped.

With Vajpayee’s trip to Beijing and the resumption of political negotiations in 2003, India’s China policy came a full circle. As India charts the road ahead, it would do well to dispense with the repositories of received wisdom and take a fresh look at 1962 and all that.

(The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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