Some time in late 1949, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru summoned Indian Army Chief, General KC Cariappa, and asked him whether India could intervene and block a Chinese takeover of Tibet.
The chief’s forthright answer was ‘no’ — given India’s commitments in the west (re: Pakistan) and the disorganised state of the Indian armed forces. He could, at best, spare one battalion (about 900 men) and that too, for deployment at Yadong or Gyantse, across Nathu La, near Sikkim. Subsequently, Nehru sought and got Cariappa’s advice put down on paper in writing.
In 1962, Nothing Could Have Prepared Us for Communist Party of China’s Ruthlessness
To many today, Nehru’s record is marred by the military defeat that India suffered at the hands of China in 1962. Even though many key papers and documents remain classified, Nehru’s China policy is seen as a monumental failure. To an extent, this view is magnified by people whose goal is more ambitious — dismantle the entire legacy of Nehru — his role in fighting for freedom, giving shape to the new republic, building the ‘temples of modern India’ — science and technology institutes, steel and power plants, dams — and giving the country a modern outlook, one that rejects obscurantism and communalism.
As Ranjit Kalha noted in his monumental India-China Boundary Issues, the military option in Tibet was extremely hazardous and could not have been accomplished without British or American help. Both were ‘strongly disinclined’ to assist and, in fact, discouraged India from exercising that option. Neither India nor UK, or any member of the Permanent Five in the UN, acted on Tibet’s request to take up the issue in the UN.
Once the PLA had occupied Tibet, it was a foregone consequence that there would be friction on the border given China’s built-in irredentism.
Given the lie of the land and the lack of capacity on the Indian side, we would be on the receiving end. Nothing could have prepared us for the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the psychotic ruthlessness of its leader Mao Zedong.
1962 Indo-China War: Very Little That India Could Have Done Differently
Nehru’s handling of China was torn between his idealistic vision of a resurgent Asia in which India and China would be friends, and the practical consequences of a major power establishing its authority in the northern borders of India. But once the military option was ruled out, he had few other choices. He sought to promote the notion of an autonomous Tibet, but the Chinese outflanked him by their 17 Point Agreement of May 1951 under which the Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, accepted the sovereignty of China.
In retrospect, there is actually little that could have been done differently except that India could have parlayed its recognition of the new People’s Republic of China and the surrender of Indian privileges in Tibet, for Beijing’s recognition of the boundary.
As for the boundary itself, Nehru was clearly outplayed by Zhou Enlai. He strung the Indians along for nearly a decade and only told us in 1959 that in their view, that there was no agreed Sino-Indian border.
Yet, there was also a realistic side to Nehru which quickly acted to consolidate Indian influence across the Himalaya. First, he helped in overthrowing the rule of the Ranas and re-establishing the authority of the Nepali monarchy. The Indo-Nepal Agreement of July 1950 remains a monument to that effort, and successive Nepali leaders have spoken of abrogating it, but have not had the courage to do so.
What Nehru Did to Secure Border
India signed defence agreements with Bhutan in August 1949, Sikkim in December 1950. In 1951, Bob Kathing and the Assam Rifles took charge of Tawang, and the long process of consolidating Indian administrative authority, in what was then known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), begun. As Bérénice Guyot-Réchard has shown, this was a huge task given the backwardness of the region.
Nehru took two other steps to secure the border. First, he authorised the Intelligence Bureau to gather intelligence on the China border, and second, he established a committee headed by Lt Gen Himmatsinhji to recommend ways and means to consolidate Indian authority along the entire Sino-Indian border.
Just how staggering the task was is evident from the fact that despite huge effort and expenditure, India even now, 70 years later, does not have a comfortable network of roads across the Himalayas.
Roads remain narrow, are often washed away, and in many parts require tunnelling. Other areas await railway lines that have been planned, but are yet to come up. In the Nehru era, the country could, at best, scratch the surface of the problem, considering it also had to address huge challenges of national consolidation and development as well.
Indian Defeat of 1962 Was As Much In the Mind as Reality
Perhaps the biggest mistake the country made was not to update its assessment of the Chinese in Tibet. In 1950 they clearly did not pose a military threat to India. But by 1960 they did. Yet in this decade, India reduced its military by half and constrained its defence expenditure. It only woke up in 1959 when Zhou Enlai told Nehru that the entire Sino-Indian boundary was yet to be delimited.
A major reason for this was where Nehru’s first ministry had been peopled by the likes of Sardar Patel, BR Ambedkar, and Maulana Azad. Sardar Patel’s passing in December 1950 made Nehru a larger-than-life figure in the government.
Sadly, at two ends of his term as prime minister, he also came under the influence of two men who played a questionable role when it comes to China — Sardar KM Panikkar who was ambassador to China in the 1950-52 period, and VK Krishna Menon who was Minister of Defence from 1957-1962.
Where Panikkar’s advice critically muddled India’s response to China on the border issue, Menon’s flawed handling of the Army in the run up to the war undermined India’s defence posture.
Of course, in all this, we should not forget that the Army itself was a divided house, and neither should our view of the war be shaped by its performance in the Eastern sector alone. In Ladakh, despite overwhelming odds, it stood up and fought well. The Indian defeat of 1962, was as much in the mind as reality. But often that is what defeat is all about.
Challenges Nehru Faced Back Then – And Why We Shouldn’t Judge Him So Harshly
It is easy today – when Indian capacities have increased manifold and we are even a nuclear weapons state – to criticise Nehru’s policies. Certainly he made many mistakes, but as it is famously said – hindsight is 20/20. But what he did must be seen in perspective. First, of the challenges he confronted as the prime minister of an entirely new entity called the Republic of India, whose key provinces had been torn apart in a traumatic division.
There were parts of the country, especially in relation to the border with Tibet, where the administrative writ of the country did not even run.
Second, independence came to India after 150 years of colonial rule that had impoverished the people and kept them in illiteracy and backwardness. Nehru was but one man, a giant among us, no doubt, but still one who was dependent on his colleagues, bureaucrats, institutions like the IB and the Army and so on. Each of them, too, played their own role in the tragedy that India’s China policy led to in October-November 1962.
In assessing the Nehru era, Srinath Raghavan has said that Nehru well understood the “nature and the limits of power,” and that “moral and political legitimacy was as important as economic and military resources.” This is a lesson that the Chinese have probably learnt in relation to India since 1962. Their recourse to military force has left a deep trauma on the country. It has propelled India’s effort to accumulate ‘hard power’ and, as decades have unfolded, it is evident that that power remains focused on China.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
. Read more on Opinion by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsWhy Only Blame Nehru For India’s Defeat in 1962 War With China? . Read more on Opinion by The Quint.