Forty years after Indo-china war

Brahma Chellaney New Delhi, Sunday,

October 20, 2002 (Hindustan Times) -

At sunrise on October 20, 1962, China's People's Liberation Army invaded India with overwhelming force on two separate flanks - in the west in Ladakh, and in the east across the McMahon Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency. The Chinese aggression, and the defeat and humiliation it wreaked on an unprepared India, remain deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. On the 40th anniversary of the attack, some gnawing issues stand out.

One relates to the timing of the invasion masterminded by Mao Zedong. The aggression was executed cunningly to coincide with the Cuban missile crisis that brought the United States and Soviet Union within a whisper of nuclear war.

The timing, which precluded the possibility of India getting any immediate outside help, was made doubly favourable by two other developments - an American promise earlier in July to hold Taiwan from initiating hostilities across the straits that enabled China to single-mindedly mobilise against India, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's subtle yet discernible tilt towards Beijing on the Sino-Indian border issue in an apparent effort to buy Chinese support in the looming Soviet confrontation with the United States.

Political motives Two key interrelated questions need to be addressed. Why did Mao order the invasion? And having captured most of the forward Indian military posts in both sectors in the first wave of assaults, why did Beijing carry out a second, more vicious round of attacks after a gap of three weeks? Mao had several objectives on his mind in turning border skirmishes into a full-fledged war. None was military.

Mao's aims were mainly political. The military objectives had largely been achieved in the earlier years through furtive PLA encroachments that had, for example, brought Aksai Chin under Chinese control. The PLA - not an independent power centre then - was merely an instrument to help Mao accomplish his political objectives in 1962. Roderick MacFarquhar, in the third and final volume of his masterwork, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, published in 1997, aptly calls the aggression "Mao's India War".

The first political objective was to humiliate India, China's Asian rival. Mao was determined to cut India to size and to undermine what India represented - a pluralistic, democratic model for the developing world that seemingly threatened China's totalitarian political system.

The PLA's military adventure against India was clearly punitive in nature, a judgement reinforced by Premier Zhou Enlai's ready admission that it was intended "to teach India a lesson" - a lesson India has not forgotten to this day. The second wave of assaults was designed to heap ignominy by soundly thrashing India. Such have been the long-lasting effects of the humiliation it imposed that China to this day is able to keep India in check, despite transferring weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan and opening a new strategic front through Myanmar.

Another aim of Mao was to wreck the image of Nehru, who until then had been a towering figure on the international stage and an icon in many parts of the developing world. Nehru stood diminished and demolished by November 1962. Defeat, especially decisive defeat, usually turns a statesman into a beaten, worn-out politician and shatters a nation's international standing.

The crushing rout, in fact, hastened Nehru's death. Nehru's blunders But more than Mao, it was Nehru who contributed to his own disgrace by blundering twice on China. His first blunder was to shut his eyes to the impending fall of Tibet even when Sardar Patel had repeatedly cautioned him in 1949 that the Chinese communists would annex that historical buffer as soon as they installed themselves in Beijing.

An overconfident Nehru, who ran foreign policy as if it were personal policy, went to the extent of telling Patel by letter that it would be a "foolish adventure" for the Chinese Communists to try and gobble up Tibet, a possibility that "may not arise at all" as it was, he claimed, geographically impracticable!

In 1962, Nehru, however, had to admit he had been living in a fool's paradise. "We were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world and we were living in an artificial atmosphere of our creation," he said in a national address after the Chinese aggression.

Nehru had ignored India's military needs despite the Chinese surreptitiously occupying Indian areas on the basis of Tibet's putative historical ties with them, and setting up a land corridor to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir through Aksai Chin.

Although Indian military commanders after the 1959 border clashes and casualties began saying that they lacked adequate manpower and weapons to fend off the PLA, Nehru ordered the creation of forward posts to prevent the loss of further Indian territory without taking the required concomitant steps to beef up Indian military strength. Nehru had convinced himself that the Chinese designs were to carry out further furtive encroachments on Indian territory, not to launch major aggression.

A third objective of Mao was to undermine India's non-aligned status. No sooner the PLA began the first wave of assaults than an unnerved Nehru appealed to the United States for military help. He implored that Washington grant military aid without insisting on a formal alliance. But no U.S. military aid came. Kennedy waited till Khrushchev's capitulation before sending Nehru a letter promising "support as well as sympathy".

When the PLA launched the second series of attacks, the U.S. carrier force, USS Enterprise, steamed not towards the East or South China Sea but towards the Bay of Bengal to serve as a psychological prop to the besieged Indians. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his memoirs, Ambassador's Journal, that he had, as U.S. Ambassador to India, recommended the despatch of the aircraft carrier to ease Indian nerves.

US demand Once Beijing declared a unilateral cease-fire, the issue of U.S. arms sales to India got caught in the perennial and still-prevalent U.S. demand - that New Delhi open talks with Pakistan on Kashmir - forcing the Nehru government to hold five rounds of futile discussions with Islamabad as a quid pro quo for receiving low-line American arms. The Chinese aggression was seen in Washington as creating an opportunity for what America has always desired and still seeks to pursue -- closer and better ties with India while maintaining old bonds with Pakistan - to help promote 'regional stability'.

A fourth objective of Mao, who had been seething over Nehru's grant of sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and his followers, was to effectively cut off India's age-old historical ties with Tibet. In one stroke, all outside links with Tibet-- religious, temporal, cultural, medicinal and trade - collapsed.

This meant that Tibetans could no longer maintain their ancient ties with Gaya, Sarnath, Sanchi and other seats of monasteries, and that Indians no longer had access to Mansorovar Lake and Mount Kailash.

Domestic gains Fifthly, the war came handy to Mao for domestic politics. At a time when China's economic calamities, including famines, and Mao's insistence on a domestic class struggle were spurring grass roots problems, the swiftness and brute power with which he managed to teach India a lesson boosted China' s image internationally, and helped him to politically consolidate at home.

For Mao, it was a victory for the asking, because the Indian leadership had made no effort to plug the glaring vulnerabilities in the defence of India. In true Sun Tsu style, however, Mao waited for the right time to strike, invading India when it least expected to be attacked. Border negotiations with India were employed not only to feign reasonableness but, more importantly, to buy time for military consolidation and to bide time for the right opportunity to strike.

In the same vein, the current series of largely fruitless border talks since 1981 - the longest continuing inter-state negotiations in post-World War II history - serve as a cover for China to pursue containment of India with engagement.

Also, in a fashion reminiscent of the current Beijing approach to depict all Chinese actions as defensive and peaceful, Mao sought to paint India as the provoker with its 'forward policy' - a line of reasoning lapped up by some biased Western analysts.

Mao needed no Indian provocation to launch a military attack. He was provoked by his own logic to defeat the alternative model that India represented and the ideas and principles that Nehru symbolised.

Nehru betrayed In fact, Nehru, the architect of the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai festivity, had gone out of his way to propitiate communist China, accepting even the Chinese annexation of Tibet in a 1954 agreement without settling the Indo-Tibetan border. So betrayed was Nehru by Mao's war that he had this to say on the day the Chinese invaded: "Perhaps there are not many instances in history where one country has gone out of her way to be friendly and cooperative with the government and people of another country and to plead their cause in the councils of the world, and then that country returns evil for good".

Four decades later, India has not forgotten the central lesson it was taught by Mao. India's rise as a military power with independent nuclear and missile capabilities is the consequence of a lesson learned. However, with foreign policy still being shaped by personal predilections and idiosyncrasies rather than by institutional processes, India continues to repose faith in adversaries and then cries foul when they deceive it, as Kargil showed.