Jawaharlal Nehru’s ambitions for India came crashing down because he did not match his aspirations with hard power.
Corresponding with journalist-political commentator Romesh Thapar soon after the 1962 war with China, General K.S. Thimayya, a veteran of much combat in World War-2 and the 1947-48 conflict with Pakistan and the Army chief from 1957-61, sagely attempted to put Mao’s ambitions in the correct perspective. He wrote, “There is little point in attempting a profound facetiousness and writing off China as a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Failure of intelligence, no less than failure of nerve, can manifest itself in seeing Han expansionism.”
One of the reasons Thimayya incurred the wrath of his boss, the acerbic V.K. Krishna Menon, was because of his insistence that China was the greater threat than Pakistan, and that India must counter Chinese moves in Aksai Chin by building infrastructure and military capability in eastern Ladakh and NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency), an idea that hardly appealed to the left-leaning Menon.
Accompanying this dissonant discourse were Nehru’s futile attempts, over almost a decade in the 1950s, of pushing Panchsheel and trying to share the leadership of Asia and the developing world with China. According to John Garver, one of the most prescient and balanced western analysts of contemporary India-China relations and a Professor Emeritus at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology, Mao developed an acute dislike for Nehru’s condescending attitude whenever the two met on the world stage in the 1950s. He also had little time for the latter’s liberal and altruistic views on how a post-World War-2 world order must be shaped. For Mao, the world remained a dangerous place in which ‘power flowed from the barrel of a gun’. Having emerged from an occupation of his country by imperial Japan from 1939-1945 and a long and bloody war with the nationalists till 1949, Mao realised that going to war with India over poorly defined colonial frontiers was the last option.
It is this realisation that prompted the realist in Mao to hand over the mantle of engaging Nehru diplomatically to his suave and sophisticated premier, Zhou Enlai. Zhou tried his best over five years and numerous visits to Delhi to convince India to jettison its acceptance of colonial frontiers with Tibet and resolve the boundary questions based on existing realities and mutual security concerns. Albeit from a position of disadvantage for Delhi, considering the non-negotiability of Aksai Chin, Zhou is said to have agreed to a swap of India’s recognition of Aksai Chin for China’s acceptance of the McMahon line in the east. This would have firmly ensconced Tawang and NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) as an integral part of the Indian Union. These offers are only hearsay and not supported by any Government of India documents, but fits with the negotiating profile of Zhou.
History is full of ifs’, and this was one such moment. Had an acceptance of a swap signalled the abdication of India’s aspirations for regional power status and emboldened Chinese ambitions in South Asia? Or, would it have allowed India the breathing space to build comprehensive national power and not live for decades under the cloud of a heavy military defeat? Would an agreement have lengthened Nehru’s reign and resulted in a seamless transfer of power to his daughter Indira Gandhi, and deprived the Indian people of political alternatives?
Coming back to the lesser-known precipitating factors of the 1962 war. Although Nehru had acknowledged the incorporation of Tibet as an integral part of China in 1954 and recognised it as ‘an autonomous region of China’, he harboured unrealistic expectations of what that autonomy meant for India and the Tibetan people. Over a period, this translated into numerous statements from Delhi hoping that the ‘aspirations of the Tibetan people would be met by Beijing’, which infuriated the authoritarian Mao who wanted to ‘teach Nehru a lesson’ sooner than later.
However, the Great Famine in China, which claimed almost 35 million lives between 1959 and 1961, weakened his position and held Mao back. The covert but inconsequential support for the Khampa Rebellion of 1959 from the US via a few locations in northeast India, and the concurrent granting of asylum to the 14th Dalai Lama by Nehru only served as a catalyst for Mao to believe that India was taking advantage of his tenuous domestic situation and precipitating secession. Garver calls this a complete misreading of India’s intentions in Tibet by Mao with the border imbroglio now occupying secondary importance.
The ill-fated Forward Policy only served to fuel Mao’s insecurities and he is said to have remarked to his generals while convening a Central Military Commission meeting in late 1961: ‘their (India’s) continually pushing forward is like crossing the Chu Han boundary. What should we do? We can also set out a few pawns on our side of the river. If they don’t then cross over, that’s great. If they do cross, we’ll eat them up’.
Also read: Not China, 1962 war called India’s bluff
He first ordered his troops to counter ‘India’s nibbling policy’ with an interlocking pattern that surrounded the Indian forces, and then proceeded to overwhelm them with withering artillery fire and infantry assaults with adequate numerical superiority. Nehru’s ambitions for India came crashing down simply because he did not match his aspirations with adequate hard power. Mao’s China, on the other hand, acted through the 1950s with definite and time-bound strategic goals. It reached a position of physical strength, then negotiated and played diplomatic hard ball leaving enough bait for its weaker adversary to bite, and finally acted, this time decisively. Any lessons for understanding contemporary Chinese statecraft.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF and a Visiting Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
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