11 April 2014


Thursday, 10 April 2014 | Claude Arpi |

Neville Maxwell, who recently ‘released’ the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat Report on the 1962 conflict, claims that Nehru forced the war on Mao. This is a dangerously inaccurate interpretation of history and must be debunked

It is necessary to come back to the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat Report and the role played by Neville Maxwell. The Australian journalist, who recently ‘released’ the famous report by posting it on his website, has been propagating a wrong interpretation of history, that India attacked China in 1962. Even presuming that Indian troops may have crossed what the Chinese perceived as the international border, many other factors have to be taken into consideration.

At age 87, why Maxwell remains a great advocate of China’s theory that India was the aggressor, is a mystery to me. It is not that I have any doubt that Nehru committed blunder after blunder, but Maxwell’s version is truly a biased over-simplification of the facts.

In an interview with The South China Morning Post, when asked by the Hong Kong newspaper: “What do you hope to achieve with this disclosure?” Maxwell answered: “What I have been trying to do for nearly 50 years! To rid Indian opinion of the induced delusion that, in 1962, India was the victim of an unprovoked surprise Chinese aggression, to make people in India see that the truth was that it was mistakes by the Indian Government, specifically Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that forced the war on China.”

Reading the HBBR does not show that India forced a war on China, it just proves that India was not prepared to successfully defend some new forward positions ordered by Krishna Menon (and Nehru) in North-East Frontier Agency and Ladakh. It is undoubtedly a Himalayan blunder in itself; it demonstrates the foolishness of the Prime Minister (and his arrogant Defence Minister), but it was certainly not the root-cause of the War. The ‘forward policy’ was, however, the ideal pretext for Mao Tse-tung to show that India could not go unpunished for insulting China by giving refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers.

An interesting conversation which took place in February 1972, in Beijing, during the historic visit of US President Richard Nixon demonstrates the high esteem the Chinese have for Maxwell. The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Nixon that Nehru never implemented the famous Panchsheel (five principles) treat. In an earlier encounter, Zhou had already mentioned that “a book by Neville Maxwell (India’s China War) about the Indian war against us, which proves this.”

Zhou repeatedly quoted Maxwell. He said: “Neville Maxwell mentioned in the book that in 1962 the Indian Government believed what the Russians told them that we, China, would not retaliate against them. Of course, we won’t send our troops outside our borders to fight against other people. We didn’t even try to expel Indian troops from the area south of the McMahon line, which China doesn’t recognise, by force. But if [Indian] troops come up north of the McMahon line, and come even further into Chinese territory, how is it possible for us to refrain from retaliating?” He concluded: “You know all the other events in the book, so I won’t describe them, but India was encouraged by the Soviet Union to attack.”

The question of how India could attack without arms, ammunitions, clothing, food or basic supplies is not explained. The HBBR even says that some Indian troops starved for days. One should grant China ideological consistency in its interpretation of the conflict. I remembered interviewing Indian prisoners of war who were taken, shivering, to Tibet in their light parkhas. They were repeatedly asked by their jailors: “Why did you attack us, we are a peaceful nation?” The Chinese has been propagating this theory ever since and Maxwell’s over-simplistic interpretation has been extremely useful to them.

However, many other factors came into play, but first and foremost the flight of the Dalai Lama in March/April 1959 and his subsequent asylum in India, changed the rapport between India and China. This is an aspect that Maxwell has totally ignored. China has been aggressive from the day it entered Tibet in October 1950. Let us not forget that China had no border with India till that time. When Nehru acquiesced to the annexation of Tibet, it was a far more serious blunder than the so-called Forward Policy.

Another blunder of Nehru was to have ‘discovered’ the Aksai Chin road, linking Tibet to Xinjiang, only in 1958 even though it was officially opened to traffic in 1957 and the construction had started several years earlier. Further, Maxwell conveniently forgets that at the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s, Tibet was on the boil, particularly eastern Tibet, north of the McMahon Line. The 70,000 character petition from the Panchen Lama to Zhou on the internal situation in Tibet demonstrates the atrocious suffering of the Tibetan people during the period.

A few weeks back, while working in the National Archives of India, I came across interesting reports from the Indian Trade Agent in Yatung (Tibet). The Chinese authorities were harassing local Tibetans. For example, they were told that, “[They] should offer scarves to the photograph of Mao Tse-tung which will be displayed in the bazaar. It is no use to worship images in the monasteries which are of no use. Some images from the local monastery were thrown in the latrine or trampled down under their feet in the presence of the gathering.” They were also ordered: “From now onwards, nobody should utter any Hindi word and they should not speak of [to] India Office [Trade Agency] in any matter. They should address Indian merchants here as ‘dogs’.’

The ITA says: “The effect of the above announcement in the meeting is having adverse effect on the general local population and they are making every effort to escape into India.” By attacking India, China could effectively and ruthlessly seal the Tibet border and stop the Tibetans taking refuge in India.

Another factor forgotten in Maxwell’s simplistic approach is the internal power struggle in China. The war was a plank for Chairman Mao to return to power. In Volume III of his Origins of the Cultural Revolution, US scholar Roderick MacFarquhar says, “It is not difficult to understand why Mao launched this sudden [internal] counter-attack [during the 10th Plenum in September 1962]. He was faced with what he saw as fundamental and unacceptable changes in key areas of policy: A rolling back of collectivisation in the countryside which would have undermined his whole vision for a socially transformed China; and a détente with the Soviet Union.” But here too, Maxwell only sees the Chinese side of the coin; it explains why he was so lavishly praised by Zhou.

Retrospectively, the babus who confiscated the HBBR did a huge disservice to India. They allowed Maxwell one-sided interpretation to flourish. Let us hope more hidden aspects of India’s modern history will soon be made public; it can only help India to become a mature nation.


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