Wednesday, 23 November, 2022
HomeOpinionRammanohar Lohia was right about China. And was neither jingoist nor idealist

Rammanohar Lohia was right about China. And was neither jingoist nor idealist

Lohia proposed a comprehensive Himalayan policy and went beyond hawks-vs-doves in his national security approach.

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There was a streak of morbid vanity in Rammanohar Lohia’s oft-repeated statement: “Log meri baat sunenge zaroor, lekin mere marne ke baad (People will surely listen to me, but after I am dead).” Today, nearly 53 years after his death,

there are three reasons to listen to what Lohia said about China.

First of all, because his was one of the earliest, consistent and forceful voices alerting India to the national security threat from China. Second, because he proposed a comprehensive ‘Himalayan policy’ to deal with the challenge from the northern frontiers. That is still relevant. Third, because he shows us a way to think about national security beyond jingoist realism of the “hawks” and the naïve idealism of the “doves”. There is a lot that is living in Lohia today. But this is one pressing reason to turn to him now.

Also read: India’s Socialist leaders warned China was bigger enemy, but both BJP and Congress ignored

Chinese threat

As far back as in January 1949, Lohia was alerting India to the “Communist threat from across our northern borders”, especially China’s role in Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim. He was quick to condemn the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. Thereafter, he kept a consistent vigil on the Chinese frontier, warned Jawaharlal Nehru against taking the Chinese regime at face value or entering into a border deal with them and was a fierce critic of the Nehru government for the debacle of 1962. A collection of his essays and statements on this issue, India, China and Northern Frontiers, is a testimony to Lohia’s relentless engagement with it.

There is an unmistakable streak here of ideological enmity vis-à-vis the Communists and an intense personal dislike of Nehru that colours his understanding of China policy. But that must not elide the significance of what he said. Lohia was the first one to challenge the shibboleth of Himalaya being our sentry. On the contrary, he identified our northern borders, rather than the challenge from then West and East Pakistan, as the key national security concern. This was an unusual thought in the 1950s, especially among the ‘progressive’ circles to which he belonged.

Reading Lohia today alerts us against ideologically tinted readings of the external policy of the Chinese state that was commonplace then and is still prevalent. The Communists, especially those who broke off from the parent party to form the CPI(M), actively supported China in general for ideological reasons. But many foreign policy analysts and China scholars too allowed their ideological sympathies to get the better of their scholarly judgement about the realities of the Chinese state. (My colleague and a great China scholar, the late Giri Deshingkar, used to call them “Mao widows”.) It is one thing to carry these illusions during Mao’s time, but quite another to persist with a refusal to recognise the actions of President Xi Jinping’s China.

Also read: India’s civilisational approach to ties creating ultra-nationalist Asian neighbours. Like Nepal

Himalayan policy

The second reason to read Lohia today is to remember that the northern frontier is not just China and the solution does not lie in foreign policy alone. Lohia’s interest in China went back to the 1930s when he authored a booklet on China for the All India Congress Committee.

As early as 1950, Rammanohar Lohia proposed a Himalayan policy. The basic idea was to think of the entire Himalayan region from Pakhtoonistan in the west to Burma (now Myanmar) in the east as one integral geo-political entity. For those areas that fell outside India, Lohia was all for pro-active support to democratic forces in Nepal, Sikkim (which was not part of India then), Bhutan and Burma. Vibrant democracies in our neighbourhood were greater assurance of secure borders than monarchies or dictatorships, he thought. Under his leadership, the Socialist party in India played a critical role in supporting the Nepal Congress in its struggle against the Ranas.

For the areas falling inside India, Lohia supported a mix of free democratic politics, economic well-being of the local population and fostering cultural unity. He proposed a horticultural economy for ensuring growth in the entire region, so that material conditions of the local population improved. For him, the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA, today’s Arunachal Pradesh) should have been characterised as Urvashiyam. Many of his proposals about identifying and cementing cultural elements that unite India with these border areas could look assimilationist today and need not be taken literally. But the idea that a nation is made and unmade through imagination is worth persisting with.

Also read: India learnt the wrong lesson from 1962 China war. Modi govt must be more open

Idealist realism  

Finally, Lohia needs to be remembered for his unusual approach to issues of national security. Much of the discussion on external security gets bogged down in hawk-vs-dove binary. You either have the hard-nosed realists who wish to defend national interests by strengthening defence capabilities at any cost. Or you have naïve idealists who would like us to focus only on human security and thus disregard the external security challenge altogether.

The description so far would make Lohia sound like a narrow-minded nationalist. Nothing can be farther from the truth. If anything, Lohia was a romantic-universalist with unflinching faith in non-violence, someone who dreamt of a world of inter-racial mixing, where there were no borders or passports, and was ruled by a world parliament. Closer home, Lohia was a passionate advocate for annulling India’s Partition and creating a confederacy of India and Pakistan. Yet he was a nationalist, mindful of borders as long as they existed and careful about maintaining a balance of power to achieve peace.

This is exactly what we need today. The Chinese occupation in Ladakh and its brutal assault on our soldiers in Galwan Valley is likely to trigger jingoist nationalism or pathetic attempts at economic autarchy that we cannot sustain. This cannot be countered by wooly pacifism that covers up the Chinese aggression and preaches abstract civilisational dialogue. That is not going to work here. We need a deeper nationalism, that combines idealism and realism. We need to listen to Lohia, after his death.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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  1. Nehru “taking Chinese regime at face value” was rhetoric and far from truth. If likes of Lohia did not stop Nehru from entering into a border deal with China, we would not be in this problem today…. at least there could NOT be two versions of which side PLA posts are at Galwan! Burma entered border deal with China and lived happily ever after. The “Mao widows” were at least honest, unlike Lohia or Kriplani. The inability of India to learn right lessons brings us round the circle after 58 years. It would be even more unwise to insist on going down the same wrong path of Lohia or Sardar Patel or Kriplani.

  2. Lohia was neither Idealist nor Realist nor Jingoist. He was frustrated to be out of power, just like his fellow Socialists JP and Kriplani. We DO NOT want Lohia’s wisdom now. This was the wisdom that threw India into disaster in October 1962.

    • Lohia was one of the (Sardar Patel was another) hawks who stirred panic about “China threat”. Lohia claimed that Indian Army was ready and eager to teach China a lesson”. He accused Nehru government of “holding the army back”. When the government did “allow the army teach China a lesson”, the army was beaten back, followed by full scale invasion. Lohia quickly turned coat and accused the government of not equipping the army. If the army was not equipped, why did Lohia set it up for massacre?

  3. Rather surprising that rather than have us read a bit of Lohia through pertinent quotes and passages from his speeches or articles, the author goes on an on about his own impressions of Lohia and his thought process as interpreted by the author….And that. too seems rather judgemental in a few places . I only wish he could have given us a glimpse of ‘Lohia speak ‘ and allowed us to draw our own conclusions.

  4. 1. The national security threat from China. 2. The need for ‘Himalayan policy’ to deal with the challenge from the northern frontiers. 3. The rational thinking beyond jingoist realism of the “hawks” and the naïve idealism of the “doves”
    Seems to have suddenly donned on the great thinkers. What they will not say is that all this was known but did not suit the corrupt and self serving rulers. Now that the current administration leaves no scope for creaming of from any of these policies, suddenly the need for them becomes important under the guise of an intellectual narrative.
    Projecting that none of these were addressed in the last 6 years which remain neglected for 70 years.

  5. There is a trend in INDIA that CASTIEST and communal forces paint themselves as socialist. It is this fake socialist whose anti HINDU STANCE and conducting and or supporting illegal protest is well known. For these fake socialist history starts with mughals and ends with congrass family. Now majority of INDIANS have decided to totally ignore this fake socialist.

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