8 April 2014

Chairman Mao's India War

By V Sudarshan
Published: 06th April 2014

Nehru with Krishna Menon 

When was the last time you saw a good story on India-China relations, one that quoted a foreign ministry official and had a couple of anecdotes worth recounting? One that explained what has been going on in our border talks for decades? If you can’t recall it is because our foreign policy mandarins dealing with China run a mile if they spot a journalist heading their way. They don’t want anything in the papers the Chinese might take note of. Initially, I thought it was some kind of speech impairment our ‘China bureaucrats’ suffered from. Yet, it is not that exactly. Nor is it the training. It is somewhat more complicated and can’t be explained in 580 words. It is the continuing backlash of Pundit Nehru having talked too much before 1962. 

In 1959, Nehru was openly implying China was a pushover and he had begun recklessly invoking phrases like “national pride and dignity” as he thrust his China policy ever-forward. Naturally, public opinion fed into it. On September 27, 1962, according to Henderson Brooks, a national newspaper carried a top secret government decision “to use force if necessary, to throw the Chinese intruders out. The army was accordingly instructed to take the steps necessary to clear the Chinese from Indian territory across Thagla ridge”. Our newspapers had begun comparing Nehru and his defence minister Krishna Menon’s tactics to Napoleon. It had reached Chairman Mao. In early October, days before teaching Nehru a Chinese lesson, he told assembled leaders in Beijing: “We fought a war with old Chiang (Kai Shek). We fought a war with Japan and with America. And with none of these did we fear. And in each case we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we have no fear. We cannot give ground; once we give ground, it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land, equivalent to Fujian province… Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy emphasises reciprocity.” (Henry Kissinger On China, p 268). Neville Maxwell points out: “Speaking five years after the border war, Krishna Menon conceded that it would have made better strategic sense ‘to let (the Chinese) come into Indian territory in depth before giving them a fight’”. But, he said, “this is a kind of thing we were unable to persuade our public opinion to accept then”. Menon thus admitted, without apparent qualms, that he and his PM had consciously gone against the dictates of strategic advantage to mollify an uninformed and shallow ‘public opinion’.

S N Prasad, chief editor of History of the Conflict with China, 1962, the official version of what happened (released for restricted circulation 28 years after the border war), notes, “The government was under tremendous pressure from the Parliament, the press and the public. Sadly, unfamiliar with military matters, these vociferous and strident opinions accused the government of a lack of will, and insisted the Indian territory, already occupied by the Chinese, must be liberated at the earliest. The debates in Parliament and editorials in national dailies make shocking reading today.” More shocking was what was happening on the ground.

Sudarshan is most recently author of Adrift

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