Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru with Mao Zedong | Getty Images
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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. 


Also read: India’s misplaced priorities, shoddy planning & complacency led to 1962 war


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. 


Also read: China’s real aim in 1962 was to cut Nehru down to size and neutralise India as a rival


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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3 Comments Share Your Views

3 COMMENTS

  1. If Thimmayya really “insisted that China was the greater threat than Pakistan” he would be wrong, but he never said such a thing. AVM Arjun Subramayam himself “proves” Timmayya wrong by later claims of ‘India’s nibbling policy’ and of aggression. Officers of Indian Armed Forces neither have any knowledge of warfare nor any imagination. They live in a bubble of sycophancy, self-pity and indulgence at the expense of tax payers. Indians who don’t know any better put them on pedestals as saviors. Indian Air Force was so incompetent that they could not even correctly airdrop food and supplies, and starved our soldiers. Officers enjoy pay/benefits even after retirement while spending time partying, exercising their unquestioned powers on their subordinates, wives and daughters, and extra marital relationships. Rest of the time is spent plotting against the political leadership. Officers fail to treat enlisted men even with basic human dignity. VK Krishna Menon was a great visionary and a great Patriot. He is the best Defense Minister India ever had. His only mistake was to be born a South Indian. Forward Policy was adopted by Indian Parliament and not Nehru’s or anybody’s personal agenda. ‘India’s nibbling policy’ was not new but started with annexation of Princely States in 1947 and continued to Pondichery, Sikkim and Goa. The 1962 Conflict with China was too small in scale in terms of geography, duration or numbers. Nehru steered India through largest mass migration in the history of mankind. Nehru had to deal with Civil Wars in 1946 and 1947 with 1 million deaths each. Nehru suffered through great personal losses and 10-years in prison. Attempts of AVM Arjun to smear Nehru is akin to “Spitting at the Sun”. It falls on Subrahmanyam’s own face.

  2. Indian Army does not understand warfare even with 56-year hindsight. They are glorified Police force incapable of fighting real wars. Nehru knew that very well and hence “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai”. Retirees pose to be history experts and perpetuate incoherent stories. Jawaharlal Nehru did not allow Indian Army turn India into another Pakistan. Hence their goal is to paint bad picture of Nehru while praising Mao and congratulate China while China never even claimed victory! Their goal is to portray our great leaders as losers and undermine our faith in the democratic systems. In reality, despite Indian Army abandoning posts and running away at Se La and Bomdi La, Jawaharlal Nehru stood like a man he was. Despite China’s threat to invade Assam if their possession of NEFA is not recognized, Nehru declined the Ceasefire and vowed to fight. By November 1962, Nehru forced China retreat to pre-war positions and recovered every inch of NEFA lost by the Army. After 56-years, Indians fail to even get their story straight. One (popular) theory goes that Nehru was too naive and trusted Chinese who “betrayed” him unscrupulously. The other theory (perpetuated by the author) is that Nehru was abrasive in challenging the borders and hence China came down and taught him a lesson. AVM ji should explain how killing 3,000 Indian Soldiers would constitute “teaching Nehru a lesson”.
    Was Nehru Naive? or was Nehru Abrasive? Ironically, the objective of both theories is to insult Nehru and laugh at his supposed misfortune! Claims of Timmayya “insistence that China was the greater threat than Pakistan” are FALSE and the truth is exact opposite!!

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