The riddle kingdom


IN THE inner recesses of Indian strategic thought, two modern incursions have continued to linger decades after their occurrence. The lesser of these is the arrival of USS Enterprise, the American warship, in the Bay of Bengal at the height of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. The greater of these is the War of 1962.

Friend or foe? Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) with External Affairs Minister SM Krishna
Photo: AFP

Memories and invocations of the Enterprise episode are dying out. The strategic relationship with the United States has been transformed. The middle class has a comfort level with America that does not allow it to see that country as an enemy. China is different. To middle India, it is the natural competitor. To sections of the establishment, it is the once-and-forever foe. Admittedly, there is no one view on China in, for instance, the Ministry of External Affairs. There are some — astute diplomats and by no means apologists for China — who argue Beijing can be lived with. The Chinese leadership is mature (though not always trustworthy), they contend, and India should not provoke China till it is militarily capable of responding.

It is worth noting that both of these responses are intrinsically and deeply linked to divergent lessons that flow from 1962. The war of that year isn’t just a collective memory, in some respects, it is a collective wound. It has both scarred and scared India. Underlying the middle-class hostility to China is a degree of fear — after all, this was a country that inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Indian Army and the Indian psyche.

Examples are illustrative. In April 2010, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, the Indian embassy in Beijing published a book titled India-China Ties: 60 Years, 60 Thoughts. Sixty Indians, from politicians to business barons to sportsmen, wrote on how they saw China, from individual vantage points. Expectedly, the volume covered a range of opinions. Four of those who wrote were former military commanders; three of them made references to 1962.

Are these memories overdone? They probably are. Yet, some civilisations follow the slow rhythms of ancient clocks. Even China does. In his book, An Odyssey in War and Peace(2011), Lieutenant General JFR Jacob describes a 1958 visit by a Chinese military delegation to Ambala that got him wondering about the Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai slogan. “During the banquet organised for the visitors,” Jacob writes, “I was taken aback by the remarks of a Chinese general that ‘China would never forget that Indian troops took part in the sacking and looting of the Summer Palace during the Second Opium War’.”

That was in October 1860, and Indian soldiers had participated under British officers to commence what China calls its “Century of Humiliation” by western imperial powers. A century there, a half-century here: the ghost refuses to be exorcised; the messianic belief in restitution refuses to go away.

There is no one view on China. To sections of the establishment, it is the once and-forever foe. Some argue Beijing can be lived with

A NATION should not forget its defeats, though it should not perhaps be obsessed with them to the point of paranoia either. Of course, the risk of not forgetting a defeat is to focus on the enemy that inflicted that defeat rather than the reasons for the defeat. These may have little to do with the enemy. India’s 1962 drubbing was largely self-caused. Jawaharlal Nehru was slow to respond when the Chinese walked into Tibet and effaced a useful buffer between Asia’s two big civilisations. This constricted India’s strategic space, but warnings of wise generals, including army chief General KS Thimayya, were ignored.

Finally, bumbling amateurs — Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, Intelligence Bureau chief BN Mullick and a Falstaff-like military officer, Lieutenant General BM Kaul — got away with murder. They put together a hare-brained “Forward Policy”, pushing ill-prepared troops to establish posts in regions claimed by both countries but where the Indian Army was at a logistical disadvantage. Above all, they actually told the prime minister the Chinese would be lulled into inaction. Incredibly, Nehru believed them.

This was India’s Charge of the Light Brigade, but the consequence has been a mythology of denialism. For 50 years, India has allowed itself to believe the Chinese attacked India one fine morning in the absence of any context. The Henderson Brooks Report, named for the military officer tasked by the new army chief, General JN Chaudhuri to identify the operational reasons for the debacle, remains classified. Stray references have appeared now and then, notably in Neville Maxwell’s article “Henderson Brooks Report: An Introduction”, published in the Economic & Political Weekly in April 2001.

Maxwell is completely unsympathetic to the Indian cause but to be fair, he seems to have read the Henderson Brooks Report and appears to quote it with tantalising ambiguity. His revelations, supposedly based on the report, are devastating. A deeply divided top brass, with the Army HQ in New Delhi taken over by a politically ambitious clique; local commanders bewildered at being given orders that were impossible to execute; Menon and senior civilian leaders taking war decisions in meetings at which minutes were not recorded “in view of the top secret nature of conferences”: there was an abdication of good sense as well as of responsibility.

BEFORE AND after 1962, Chinese strategic thinking has remained a riddle for India. Delivering the K Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture in New Delhi in August 2012, Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary and an old China hand, spoke of deception being an “important instrument in the Chinese strategic tool-box”, without “a “moral or ethical dimension attached” to it. Saran also recounted a story from 1986, when the Chinese attempted a “Forward Policy” manoeuvre of their own, and made apparent their designs on Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh.

As a muscle-flexing manoeuvre, Chinese troops crossed the Thagla Ridge and built barracks. India’s then army chief, General K Sundarji, reacted by using newly-acquired air capacities to fly troops into eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation: “Two forward posts, Jaya and Negi, were set up across the river just below the ridge and only 10 metres from a Chinese forward post.”

Not fully aware of Sundarji’s moves, the Indian political leadership continued to talk peace. Beijing was confused. It saw this as Indian dualism, and being paid back in a Chinese coin. A little rattled, the Chinese stepped back. They sensed India had reserves of hard power and military capacities; in 1962, they had made the opposite assumption, and correctly.

I once asked an Indian diplomat who worked on China — a careful, cautious type, not a warmonger — if China was serious about its claims on Tawang. “Of course,” he said. What would change it? He looked me in the eye, speaking slowly: “What would change it would be a realisation that the price for Tawang would be the loss of Shanghai.” I got the message. Someday, so must China.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.


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