Exactly nine days before a giant mushroom cloud rose above the great plains of Lop Nur, signalling China’s arrival as a nuclear power, officials in the Pentagon issued a terse warning: “They are now ready to test.” In the spring of 1964, United States U2 spy-planes had begun operating secret missions—never acknowledged by India—from the Intelligence Bureau’s station at Charbatia, in Odisha. Flying at over 21,000 metres, well out of reach of air-defence systems, the U2s provided the US with a god’s-eye view of China’s most treasured secrets.
As Indians debate the merits of the country’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those secret flights point to the deep ambiguities that underpin the country’s foreign policy posture. The truth is, India’s nonalignment wasn’t always particularly non-aligned. Fence-sitting, moreover, didn’t protect India from being impaled on the stakes of Great Power competition.
From 1956, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had set about training and arming insurgents who had risen against Chinese rule in Tibet. Although the CIA secret flights supplying the insurgency operated out of bases near Chittagong, in East Pakistan, they transited over Indian territory. CIA officer Richard Helms, scholar and former intelligence officer Bruce Reidel has recorded, briefed Intelligence Bureau director B.N. Mullik on the operation at a secret meeting in Hawaii in 1960.
“Mullik did not object to the project,” Reidel adds, “though he did warn the Americans that if one of the CIA’s covert aircraft crashed in Indian territory it would be a very damaging blow to US-India relations.”
The reasons why New Delhi chose to help the CIA aren’t opaque. India’s official war history shows New Delhi had considered the possibility of using its military forces to support Tibetan resistance to China in 1950. The government knew a strategic threat was emerging, but concluded it just didn’t have the resources to fight. From the mid-1950s, though, the CIA was doing New Delhi’s work.
Zhou Enlai, China’s foreign minister, wasn’t persuaded by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s protestations that he knew nothing of the CIA’s intelligence operations. The sinologist John Garver concluded that “whatever the actual extent of Indian complicity with US covert operations, Beijing believed that Nehru knew of and cooperated with CIA efforts.” Reidel, similarly, asserts that the CIA’s “covert operation played a role in Mao’s decision to invade India”.
Former civil servant Sunil Khatri has argued, controversially, that the real aim of the US wasn’t to win Tibet independence, but sow mutual suspicion between India and China and thus destroy the Nonaligned Movement. There’s no evidence in the limited declassified material available that this was the case—but its end result was indeed exactly that.
From 1955 on, there were a succession of People’s Liberation Army intrusions, at Barahoti, the Hipki La in Himachal Pradesh, Kaurik and Hipsang Khud. Khurnak Fort, in Ladakh, was occupied, and outposts established at Spanggur and Digra. Long before the war of 1962, Communist Party of China chairman Mao Zedong had begun drawing lines across the Himalayas, in blood.
India paid the price for being seen as too close to the United States—without the gains that would have come from a deeper partnership.
Torn between two powers
Following the 1962 war, Nehru began to lead India into a closer embrace with the West. In 1963, instructors from the US, Great Britain, Australia and Canada were training Indian Air Force pilots. Six mountain divisions were reequipped with US and American hardware. The CIA supplied India’s covert Special Frontier Force with eight C-46 transports, and four smaller planes. There were limits, though: The West had a treaty relationship with Pakistan, and wasn’t willing to give up on its anti-Communist ally.
The scholar PR Chari has recorded that, from 1954 on, Pakistan had grown its military through its anti-Communist alliance with the West. In return, it acquired assets which could be also be used against India. The aid enabled it to achieve something resembling parity with its eastern neighbour, India, which it could not have secured without Great Power allies.
After the 1962 war, United States General Maxwell Taylor, visited New Delhi to study its military needs. Indians, he observed, were “prepared to view themselves, implicitly at least, as part of a regional security community with the common objective of containing China.” India wasn’t, however, willing to join a wider anti-communist alliance—and the opportunity passed by.
Frustrated with Washington’s decision not to offer India F104 combat jets, which it had sold to Pakistan—and fed up with crude efforts to leverage arms aid to secure concessions on Kashmir for Pakistan—Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri secured deal with the Soviet Union instead. The Soviet alliance reached its climax in 1971, when Moscow helped secure India the Bangladesh campaign against US pressure.
Like other choices, however, this one had costs. From 1972 on, Islamabad leveraged its close relationship with China to act as a go-between for the US and China. Later, it emerged as launchpad for the US-funded anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan earned itself a free pass on its nuclear programme, as well as generous supplies of cutting-edge Western military equipment. These constrained Indian military responses, notably to the Khalistan and Kashmir insurgency.
Lessons for the present
For many Indians, New Delhi is just sticking up for itself. Europeans and Americans didn’t line up behind India on the Line of Actual Control, the argument goes; New Delhi shouldn’t side with the West on Ukraine. That might not be the whole truth, though. “The restraint in mentioning China,” former US ambassador Kenneth Juster bluntly asserted, “comes from India, which is very concerned about not poking China in the eye.”
His claim isn’t implausible: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after all, proclaimed no Indian territory had been seized on the LAC. For all the muscular language it now uses, New Delhi resisted being drawn into military contestation with China, realising it could find itself at the losing end of a profoundly asymmetrical contest.
Like so often in the past, then, what New Delhi calls strategic autonomy might just be prettified language for ducking hard choices.
Three lessons are key.
First, the autonomy conferred by nonalignment was, in part, a myth. In a world shaped by Great Powers, India was necessarily forced into not-so-tacit alliances with one against the other. Second, nonalignment comes with costs, just as do alliances. Third, there is a difference between strategic autonomy and strategic autarky. New Delhi cannot stand alone, ignoring the currents of global geopolitics.
Western powers, it is true, ought not to ignore legitimate Indian concerns about its defence dependence on Russia, especially on critical nuclear and missile technologies. The sword cuts two ways, though. India cannot seek Western support against China while ignoring its partners’ concerns on Russia and the wider world.
As a new Cold War rises from the battlefields in Ukraine, India needs to revisit the foundational elements of its strategic paradigm, freeing itself from the self-delusion and sanctimony that has shackled the country for decades.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)