It is 50 years since the border conflict with China, and the nation must be told the truth in its own interests so that it is prepared for a settlement. The truth about how a boundary problem was, in the first place, allowed to assume the proportions of a dispute and, in the next, how an unnecessary dispute was allowed to trigger an unnecessary war.
August 1963, Tezpur Hospital in North-East Frontier Agency, or NEFA: A word of comfort from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for a jawan wounded in the 1962 war.
“The Ottoman revival is good for the national ego and has captured the psyche of the country at this moment, when Turkey wants to be a great power. But, it terrifies me because too much national ego is not a good thing. Films like Conquest 1453 are engaging in cultural revisionism and glorifying the past without looking at history in a critical way,” Melis Behlil, a film studies professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said. In 1453, the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II conquered the historic city of Constantinople, now Istanbul ( International Herald Tribune; November 1, 2012).
India has had a surfeit of such films, especially in the last quarter century; Ramayana, serialised on Doordarshan, for example. But it has no tradition of any introspection worth the name. The outpourings on the 50th anniversary of the China-India war, which erupted on October 20, 1962, should have prodded some reflection in the same spirit as Melis Behlil’s remarks. But hardly anyone took that trouble. Instead, we were treated to familiar themes such as the omission to use air power, tactical and strategic mistakes and the roles of villains of note.
Professor Wang Gungwa of the National University of Singapore said in New Delhi on December 24, 2010, apropos that war: “Most in China don’t even think about it. Still others don’t know about 1962 and what happened. Most people in China think it was misunderstanding between the leaders.”
This is a bit facile. The Chinese recall to this day the war with Japan which took place much earlier. India’s recall of the war is understandable. It suffered a humiliating defeat and lost territory and prestige; witnessed in its aftermath the Sino-Pak entente of great consequence; felt frustrated at the decline in the relations with China and the deadlock on the boundary dispute; and is baffled as to how all this has happened.
Farthest from the minds of most is any thought of mistakes on India’s part. What was most pronounced was a feeling of self-righteousness. The outpourings produced hardly an ideas of worth. They revealed the mindset of the Indian elite. Patrick Tyler of The New York Times has just produced a fascinating study of the military elite that runs Israel and why it cannot make peace. It is aptly entitled Fortress America. The Indian elite shares this militaristic outlook with two other countries it dearly loves, the United States and Israel.
Not surprisingly, the military aspect dominated the discourse on the war of October 1962. The diplomatic background was ignored. A mass of material has appeared on decision-making in China before October 1962. It is ignored. There is not the faintest suggestion of Indian lapses. Such an outlook bodes ill for the future. But it has been prevalent since Independence as part of nationalistic fervour. In 1968, shortly after the Rann of Kutch Award, this writer was driving down from Delhi to Faridabad for a Quaker seminar, in the stimulating company of Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau. A remark he made sums up the national mood: “Yours is the only country in the world which wins 90 per cent of its case before an international tribunal and calls it defeat.” India broke two international agreements on the cession of Beru Bari; the Nehru-Noon Agreement of September 10, 1958, and the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Mujibur Rehman Agreement of May 16, 1974. The matter was finalised in a messy deal after prolonged litigation. Beru Bari is about the size of a football field.
At Amar Jawan Jyoti on October 20, when the defence forces for the first time officially honoured its 1962 heroes.
The border dispute and some questions
At the root of the rift between India and China was the boundary question. It is high time we asked ourselves some soul-searching questions now. Had China any legitimate interests as well besides our own, and were they not reconcilable with India’s interests? What were China’s motivation and objectives in launching the military offensive on October 20, 1962? What were India’s objectives in launching “the Forward Policy” in 1961 and to what extent, if any, was it responsible for China’s moves in 1962? Was the war avoidable? Can we settle the boundary dispute without making any concessions to China? If so, what could these be? Lastly, can any Indian government settle the dispute and push it through Parliament? On present form the Indian state is simply dysfunctional in dealing with matters of this kind, whether the boundary dispute or the far more emotive one, Kashmir; not even the modest 4-Point formula. Well before it had Parliament paralysed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had assumed a wrecker’s stance. It would oppose any settlement by any other party in power. While in power, the BJP did not have a single constructive idea to offer. But the Congress is none too prepared, either.
The record of Jawaharlal Nehru, as Prime Minister and the main, if not, indeed, the sole architect of India’s foreign policy, must be held to account. It is, however, only fair to emphasise that on China the entire opposition adopted a rancorous and chauvinistic role—the Socialists, the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh. So did the press. The Communist Party of India (CPI), then united, was the solitary exception; but it was suspect because China was a Communist state. For the rest, these men vied with one another in advocating mindlessly a hard line on the boundary question—R.M. Lohia, Ashok Mehta, Nath Pai, J.B. Kripalani, M.R. Masani, N.G. Ranga and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Their culpability is lessened a little by the fact that Nehru controlled the flow of information. Until 1963, no scholar went to the National Archives of India to seek the historical truth.
It is a besetting flaw in Indian thinking not to recognise the legitimacy of any interest other than its own. Reconciliation of conflicting interests, the prime object of diplomacy, becomes difficult if not impossible. Of a piece with this is the fostering of myth and the spread of what can only be called disinformation, at times downright lies. The more sensitive the issue, the more assiduous the effort. The myths of Nehru’s “idealism” and “romanticism” and China’s “betrayal” of this devoted friend fall in this category.
The stark truth is that India became independent in 1947 with the legacy of a boundary problem, and Nehru and his principal advisers were fully aware of that. The boundary dispute did not arise all of a sudden in 1958-59 to hit them in their faces, as was made out later. The boundary awareness was confined to the eastern sector, the McMahon Line, where India has a strong case. It did not extend to the western sector, the Aksai Chin in the Ladakh province of Jammu and Kashmir, through which China built the Xinjiang-Tibet highway. India’s stand on this sector as also on the part west of the Karakoram Pass has not a leg to stand on.
Perfectly reconcilable interests
It is a bitter irony that the boundary dispute is one of the rare disputes in which the rival, non-negotiable, vital interests of each side are perfectly reconcilable. India has the McMahon Line; China has the road. A heavy responsibility rests on those who allowed a boundary problem to assume the proportions of a dispute in the first place and, in the next, allowed an unnecessary dispute to trigger an unnecessary war.
Unless there is a thorough retrospect, we shall continue to drift mindlessly as before. No retrospect can be more instructive than one which is painful. We owe a debt to Ananth Krishnan for his excellent reportage in The Hindu (October 22, 25 and 26, 2012) on the recently published records in China. One hopes we get a fuller record before long. His reportage goes beyond the past. It is of current relevance— Jiefang Daily or Liberation Daily, which has close ties to the Communist Party in Shanghai, published on October 25 an important article by Wu Yongnian, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Affairs, which said that China would not accept the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) as settlement of the boundary dispute. Nor would India. The talks have reached an impasse. One hates to say that, but as far back as 2000, in the heyday of the BJP regime, this writer told a high official concerned with the talks that China would not even demarcate the LOAC, let alone accept it as an agreed boundary. He was taken aback because the BJP government had invested a lot in this project. The writer’s assessment was based on documents plus a few soundings. It is not that government alone which had a tin ear on Chinese hints and a Nelson’s eye on ominous signals. What all have shared is suppression of doubt.
Tawang, October 20, 2012: Bunkers used during the 1962 war, at the Jaswantgarh War Memorial.
The Government of India led by Jawaharlal Nehru confidently walked into this tragic conflict with its eyes wide open. To this day few are willing to accept that it sinned against the light, sinned repeatedly and resorted to a cover-up. Fewer still are willing to accept that China had a legitimate grievance on counts more than one. George F. Kennan wisely said, “When the ambivalence of one’s virtue is recognised, the total iniquity of one’s opponent is also irreparably impaired” ( Russia and the West; Mentor Books, 1960; page 332).
Someday at some time India will have to settle the dispute with China. Independent India had unfinished business on its entire northern frontier. Three trijunctions are yet to be defined. A settlement of the border question is best pursued for its own sake, for the gains of an agreed, defined border which marks the completion of the unfinished business of demarcating India’s land frontiers. Gaps can be dangerous. The boundary agreement between India and Burma (Myanmar), signed in Rangoon (Yangon) on March 10, 1967, defines the entire boundary in detail in Article 1, only to qualify that “the exact location of which Northern extremity will remain provisional pending its final determination”. The trijunction of the frontiers of India, Burma and China cannot be fixed except by the agreement of all three. Likewise, the China-Nepal border protocol, signed on November 20, 1979, leaves the two trijunctions in Sikkim and the Pithoragarh district in undivided Uttar Pradesh vague. They were also excluded from the physical survey undertaken by Nepal and China ( The Times of India, January 12, 1980). On March 5, 1981, P.V. Narasimha Rao, then Minister for External Affairs, asserted in the Lok Sabha that “there is no dispute between the two countries [India and Nepal] about the boundary”.
China has evolved a certain procedure in its border settlements. There is, first, an agreement defining the frontier and resolving the basic differences (Burma, January 28, 1960; Nepal, March 21, 1960; and Pakistan, March 2, 1963). Joint committees are then set up to draw up a boundary treaty, correct maps and conduct surveys. Treaties have been concluded accordingly with Burma (October 1, 1960) and Nepal (October 5, 1961) but without any such preliminaries with Mongolia (March 26, 1963) and Afghanistan (November 22, 1963). The last step is a boundary protocol that records the details of the actual demarcation on the ground. The protocol then forms part of the treaty.
What will the government of the day which settles the boundary dispute tell the people? Those who recycle the garbage of the 1960s prove a sincere commitment to the cause of protection of the environment, but, in this instance, by harming the national interest. The nation must be told the truth, the historical truth since 1842 and the truth about Indian diplomacy since 1947. New Delhi knew that an incipient boundary dispute lurked but chose not to negotiate with China and instead to impose on it its own unilateral version of the border in both sectors, the western and the eastern.
Nehru’s unilateral change
The McMahon Line, settled with the Tibetans in 1914, is a treaty line. The Notes exchanged between the parties do not define it. They drew a line on a map with a thick nib dipped in red ink, leaving room for dispute. Neither side has a right to alter it unilaterally. Nehru did so admittedly. He confidently informed the Lok Sabha on September 23, 1959, that in one area “it was not considered a good line and it was varied afterwards by us, by the Government of India”. By this test, a party can also unilaterally alter a provision in the treaty because it considers the language to be imprecise or inelegant.
This approach was extended to the west with yet graver consequence and greater illegality. India’s official maps of 1948 and 1950 showed the entire northern boundary from the China-India-Afghanistan trijunction in the west to the China-India-Nepal trijunction to the east as “undefined”. That, be it noted, very much includes the area which is the subject of the China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement of March 2, 1963. Those maps were published in Frontline (July 13, 2012; pages 46-47).
Homage to the 1962 martyrs at the Tawang war memorial on October 20.
By a memorandum of July 1, 1954, Nehru directed the Ministry of External Affairs to withdraw earlier maps and print new ones showing “a firm and definite one [line] which is not open to discussion with anybody”. The new line involved the inclusion of Aksai Chin within India by the “idealistic” and “romanticist” Nehru. This was after the Panchsheel Agreement of April 29, 1954.
Robert Trumbull of The New York Times was one of the ablest foreign correspondents New Delhi has seen. In a report published by The Times of India on December 7, 1950, he noted, “A classic pattern for a border dispute is present.”
Nehru was well aware of that, as he admitted in the Rajya Sabha on December 9, 1959: “Right from 1950 or, at any rate from 1951, when the Chinese forces came into Tibet, we have had this problem before us. It has not suddenly come up before us this year or last year. We have had this problem before us and this developing picture which I have put before you, of two power states merging, two power states coming face to face with each other on a tremendous border. Ever since 1950s, this was the picture before us. We may have differed as to the timing in our minds, as to when this will happen, whether in five years, ten years, fifteen years, thirty years, it was difficult to say. But we had that picture. And looking through my old papers when this occurred, I was surprised myself to see how we had referred to these contingencies eight or nine years ago in our papers and how we had written to our Ambassador in Peking and others, especially at Peking, and asked for his reactions. In those early years of this present-day Republic, the Chinese Republic, Mr. K.M. Panikkar was Minister there and I read through his notes on the subject and our notes to him and our decisions. From the very first day and all the time this problem came before us, about our freedom. It is not a new problem. The question was whether we should raise it in an acute form at that stage.”
He proceeded to explain why India did not raise this question of frontiers at the very beginning: “Mr. Panikkar himself advised us at that time, ‘Yes, you need not raise it; but declare it openly’. We declared it in Parliament. We declared it before the Chinese Government and all that.” He was referring to his statement in the Lok Sabha on November 20, 1950. “The McMahon Line is our boundary, map or no map. We will not allow anybody to come across that boundary.”
Nehru, however, said that he wished “to admit that a lingering doubt remained in my mind and in my Minister’s mind as to what might happen in the future. But we did not see how we were going to decide this question by hurling it in that form at the Chinese at the moment. We felt that we should hold by our position and that the lapse of time and events will confirm it and by the time perhaps, when the challenge to it came, we would be in a much stronger position to face it. I may be perfectly frank to the House. It is not as if it was ignored or that it was not thought about.” (Emphasis added, throughout.)
Nehru’s own doubts on Aksai Chin
January 1958: Nehru with Marshal Yeh Chien-ying, Chairman of the National Defence Council of China, and Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon at the Cadet Corps Rally in New Delhi.
Nehru could not have chosen a worse adviser than Panikkar. Speaking at a reception organised in his honour by the Press Association in New Delhi on October 28, 1951, Panikkar said the Chinese government “has never claimed to be a Communist government; in fact it objects to being called a Communist government”. Nehru despised him, as he confided to Chester Bowles, the United States Ambassador. He respected Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), who differed with Panikkar and advised Nehru to raise the issue with China. Nehru preferred Panikkar’s advice.
Vallabhbhai Patel’s famous letter to Nehru on November 7, 1950, was drafted by Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai. It referred cryptically at the end to “The Policy in regard to the McMahon Line”. The Aksai Chin was farthest from anyone’s consciousness. But the thorough professional Bajpai referred to a notorious fact, which Nehru was at pains to ignore. He wrote the letter for Patel because he knew that his chief would have ignored his own adviser’s letter. Nehru had scant interest in professional advice. He knew it all. The letter referred, in paragraph 3, to “the undefined state of the frontier”, presumably referring to the north-east. Nehru’s note in reply, dated November 18, 1950, said “our major possible enemy [ sic] is Pakistan. This has compelled us to think of our defence mainly in terms of Pakistan’s aggression. If we begin to think of, and prepare for, China’s aggression in the same way, we would weaken considerably on the Pakistan side. We might well get into a pincer movement.”
This is precisely what happened in 1963, and not only because he rudely rebuffed China’s Ambassador Pan Tsue-li’s warning of a two-front estrangement in May 1959. He had earlier rebuffed Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s request for negotiations, in keeping with his decision of 1954. Yet he had doubts on the Aksai Chin and aired them freely.
Let me tabulate them:
August 28, 1959: “The Aksai Chin area, that is an area about some parts of which, if I may say so, it is not quite clear what the position is. It is not at all that particular area. About other area [NEFA] the position is quite clear.”
August 31, 1959: “It is Indian territory and we claim it so because we think that the weight of evidence is in our favour, maps, etc., but the Chinese produce their own maps, equally old, which are in their favour. And the territory is sterile. It has been described as a barren, uninhabited region without a vestige of grass, and seventeen thousand feet high.”
September 4, 1959: “So far as the corner of the Aksai Chin area is concerned, that has been claimed by the Chinese as their territory and I believe in their maps too, not the new maps, but the old maps, that is shown as their territory. That is disputed and there are two viewpoints about that.… it is at an average of sixteen thousand to seventeen thousand feet altitude and treeless, grassless, almost or hardly of any kind without any living thing there.”
September 4, 1959, in the Lok Sabha: “But the broad McMahon Line has to be accepted and so far as we are concerned it is there and we accept it. The position about Ladakh is somewhat different. The McMahon Line does not go there… the actual boundary of Ladakh with Tibet was not very carefully defined. It was defined to some extent by British officers who went there, but I rather doubt if they did any careful survey.”
Indian Army soldiers near the Line of Actual Control in Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh, at an altitude of 4,700 metres above sea level, on October 21.
September 10, 1959: “We have always looked upon the Ladakh area as a different area, if I may say so, some vaguer area so far as the frontier is concerned because the exact line of the frontier is not at all clear as in the case of McMahon Line… it is a territory where not even a blade of grass grows, about seventeen thousand feet high. Nothing can be more amazing folly than for two great countries like India and China to go into a major conflict and war for the possession of a few mountain peaks, however beautiful the mountain peaks might be, or some area which is more or less uninhabited.”
September 17, 1959: “This place Aksai Chin area is in our maps undoubtedly. But, I distinguish it completely from other areas. It is a matter for argument as to what part of it belongs to somebody else. It is not at all a dead clear matter. It is not clear. I cannot go about doing these things in a manner which has been challenged to [ sic] the ownership of this strip of territory. This has nothing to do with the McMahon Line. It has nothing to do with anything else. That particular area stands by itself. It has been in challenge all the time.” In short, the Aksai Chin was disputed territory.
What was happening in 1958
B.N. Mullik, who was the Director of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), recounted, in his memoirs, in authoritative detail the stand taken by the Ministry of External Affairs even in 1958, four years after the 1954 directive, when the report of a patrol party showed the presence of Chinese personnel in the Aksai Chin plateau in north-east Ladakh:
A map showing the political reorganisation of India up to March 31, 1948, sourced from “Notes, Memorandum and Letters Exchanged between the Governments of India and China, White Paper”, New Delhi, Government of India, July 1948.
“This report was discussed in the External Affairs Ministry with the CGS [Chief of the General Staff] present. The line taken by the Ministry was that the exact boundary of this area had not yet been demarcated and so in any protest we lodged we could not be on firm grounds…. In the meantime, a report had been received from our Embassy in Peking about the completion of the Aksai Chin road. We had also earlier reported it. So in June 1958, another meeting was held in the Ministry of External Affairs. This was attended by the CGS also. The Foreign Secretary maintained that neither the Embassy report nor the Intelligence report conclusively proved that the Sinkiang-Western Tibet highway actually passed through our territory and no Indian party had actually traversed this route and so before any protest was lodged we should be sure of our ground. Hence it was decided that two patrol parties would be sent to traverse the Aksai Chin road and see it on the ground if it passed through Indian territory.”
The I.B. held that it did:
“Our recommendations was discussed in January 1959, at a meeting in the External Affairs Ministry with General Thimayya, Chief of the Army Staff, present. Thimayya quite categorically stated that he did not consider that the Aksai Chin road was of any strategic importance nor was he willing to open any posts at Peking Karpo and Sarigh Jilganang Kol because he felt that small army posts would be of little use and in any case he had no means of maintaining them from his base at Leh. …The Foreign Secretary also agreed with Army Chief and felt that posts at Shamul Lungpa, Shinglung, etc. would be of no use to stop Chinese infiltration. They might even provoke the Chinese into making further intrusions. I was informed by the Foreign Secretary after some days that the Prime Minister had approved of his views and no posts need be opened in the area. …
“The attitude of the External Affairs Ministry was that this part of the territory was useless to India. Even if the Chinese did not encroach into it, India could not make any use of it. The boundary had not been demarcated and had been shifted more than once by the British. There was an old silk route which was a sort of an international route. The Chinese had only improved it. It would be pointless to pick up quarrels over issues in which India had no means of enforcing her claims.”
A wounded soldier being carried to an Air Force helicopter in NEFA for evacuation to a hospital during the war.
India’s demarche to China on August 21 concerned the maps. In his letter to Zhou Enlai on December 14, 1958, Nehru quoted from the records of their discussions in 1954 and 1956 in which Zhou had proposed to recognise the McMahon Line.
It was Zhou’s reply of January 23, 1959, which raised the question of the western sector: “First of all, I wish to point out that the Sino-Indian boundary has never been formally delimited. Historically no treaty or agreement on the Sino-Indian boundary has ever been concluded between the Chinese Central Government and the Indian Government. So far as the actual situation is concerned, there are certain differences between the two sides over the border question…. The latest case concerns an area in the southern part of China’s Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous region, which has always been under Chinese jurisdiction. Patrol duties have continually been carried out in the area by the border guards of the Chinese government. And the Sinkiang-Tibet Highway built by our country in 1956 runs through that area. Yet recently the Indian government claimed that the area was in Indian territory. All this shows that border disputes do exist between China and India.”
In his reply on March 22, 1959, Nehru flatly asserted: “A treaty of 1842 between Kashmir on the one hand and the Emperor of China and the Lama Guru of Lhasa on the other mentions the India-China boundary in the Ladakh region. In 1847, the Chinese government admitted that this boundary was sufficiently and distinctly fixed. The area now claimed by China has always been depicted as part of India on official maps, has been surveyed by Indian officials and even a Chinese map of 1893 shows it as Indian territory.” Every one of the statements was historically untrue. As late as 1950, Indian maps showed the entire northern boundary as “undefined”.
In 1842, there was no linear boundary, only border zones ( ilaqas). The Treaty of 1842 was a non-aggression pact concluded after a war. If it defined the boundary, why did the British (a) set up two boundary commissions to negotiate with China after making Kashmir part of the Empire in 1846; (b) keep deliberating from 1847 to 1905 on possible boundaries to offer to a China reluctant to respond; and (c) make a formal offer in writing on March 14, 1899? Nehru could not possibly have been unaware of them when he wrote as he did two months after Zhou’s letter. He wanted to shut the door on any discussion on the border. S. Gopal’s predecessor as Director of the MEA’s Historical Division was K. Zachariah. Under his supervision the Historical Division had prepared in 1951 a comprehensive and objective paper entitled “Studies on the Northern Frontier” based on the archives. It discussed the history and circumstances in which different lines of frontier were suggested. The paper is still kept secret, though the public has a right to its disclosure under the Right to Information Act. On March 24, 1953, a decision was taken to formulate a new line for the boundary. Nehru’s directive of July 1, 1954, followed.
Ironically, Nehru himself repeatedly pointed out that the Aksai Chin was of no value to India. He said on August 31, 1959, in the Rajya Sabha: “The territory is sterile. It has been described as a barren, uninhabited region without a vestige of grass and 17,000 feet high.” On September 10, in the same House, he revealed why he was so worked up about such a piece of land. “We may get excited about the sacredness of the Indian soil and the Chinese people may get excited about something they hold sacred, if they hold anything sacred. That is a different matter, but the fact of the matter is that nothing can be a more amazing folly than for two great countries like India and China to go into a major conflict and war for possession of a few mountain peaks, however beautiful the mountain peaks might be, or some area which is more or less uninhabited. It is not that, as every Member of this House knows. When such conflicts occur, something happens which stirs our innermost convictions, something which hurts our pride, our national pride, our self-respect and all that. So it is something more precious than a hundred or a thousand miles, and it is that which brings up people’s passions to a high level and it is that which, to some extent, is happening in India today. It is not because of a patch of territory but because they feel that they have not got a fair treatment in this matter, they have been treated rather casually by the Chinese government, and an attempt is made, if I may use the word, to bully them.”
There was nothing minatory at all in Zhou’s letters. Nehru it was who had rebuffed his overture in March 1959, well before the clashes at Longju on August 25, 1959. The massive publicity given to that incident, coupled with Nehru’s rhetoric, invested the issue with “pride… self-respect… and… people’s passions”. What about China’s feelings? As Nehru himself recognised in the Lok Sabha, “the Chinese attach importance to this area because of the fact that this route connects part of Chinese Turkstan with Gartok-Yehcheng [in Tibet]. This is an important connection.” More, it was a non-negotiable vital interest.
On February 12, 1951, Major R. Khating, a Tangkbul Naga, evicted the Tibetan administration from Tawang, south of the McMahon Line, and established a sub-divisional headquarters there. China responded with a studied and significant silence. It made no protest. A fateful movement was taking place in the western sector, as B.N. Mullik’s records show, from October 1951. Eventually the Chinese preferred the shorter route. On October 6, 1957, that road was ceremoniously declared open. No Indian “police party had actually traversed the portion of the road within the Aksai Chin itself”. In 1958 the MEA opined that it was pointless to make an issue of it. So did the Army. (Mullik, The Chinese Betrayal; page 205).
To this day not one country has supported India’s claim to the Aksai Chin. The U.S. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith’s statement of U.S. support to India issued on October 27, 1962, during the war, was confined strictly to the McMahon Line “as the accepted international border… sanctioned by modern usage”—not sanctioned by the notes exchanged between India’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Henry McMahon, and Tibet’s representative, Lonchen Shatra, on March 24, 1914. There was no reference to the Aksai Chin. A mea culpa is in order. This writer consistently criticised the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation for not showing the Aksai Chin as Indian territory in their maps. Recent research in the National Archives revealed their problem. All of the late 19th century, Russia had opposed any concessions by China to India on the western border. The Foreign Office in Moscow was helpless.
A Red cross team on its way to receive Indian prisoners of war released by the Chinese.
From the archival material, the status of the area can be summed up in six propositions. 1. The Ladakh-Tibet Treaty of 1842 did not define the boundary between them. 2. The boundary in this sector was undefined. 3. There existed a no-man’s land in this region. 4. The boundary preferred by the British was the Karakoram watershed, claimed by China, not the Kuen Lun watershed India belatedly claimed. 5. China was none too certain about its boundary then either. 6. No boundary had any legal or moral sanction unless it was defined by both sides, the British insisted. Unilaterally drawn maps are worse than useless. They are destructive of mutual confidence (A.G. Noorani; India-China Boundary Problem 1846-1947; Oxford University Press, 2011; pages 213-218).
Refusal to negotiate
Nehru did worse than ignore the facts of history and make assertions that were palpably false. He refused to negotiate at all. He wrote to Zhou Enlai on September 26, 1959, imposing arrogantly two unrealistic and humiliating conditions which no self-respecting country would accept. “No government could possibly discuss the future of such large areas which are an integral part of their territory. …. No discussion can be fruitful unless the posts on the Indian side of the traditional frontier now held by the Chinese forces are first evacuated by them and further threats and intimidations immediately cease.” Thus, even if China had agreed to put on sackcloth and ashes and withdrew in full glare of humiliating publicity, India would still not negotiate. When Zhou kept pressing for talks urgently, if need be at Rangoon, Nehru’s reply was cold. “How can we, Mr. Prime Minister, reach an agreement on principles when there is such complete disagreement about the facts?” What Nehru, of course, failed to realise, was that, unlike him, the Chinese Prime Minister did not regard the matter as a juridical issue in which one examines facts and discusses principles. What Zhou had in mind as “principles” were the basics of a deal.
Nehru followed it up with a letter on February 5, 1960, in which he said that the positions of the two countries “were so wide apart and opposed to each other that there was little ground left for useful talks”. With regard to the Chinese contention “about the entire boundary never having been delimited”, Nehru said, “On that basis there can be no negotiations.”
Not surprisingly, Zhou’s talks with Nehru in New Delhi in April 1960 failed, although he was prepared to accept the McMahon Line and said as much in a meeting with Nehru on April 22. It was the last of the four points he propounded then. The six points he mentioned at his press conference on April 25 were an elaboration of the first three. The fourth, rejected by Nehru, was omitted—never to be recalled. It read thus “(iv) Since we are going to have friendly negotiations, neither side should put forward claims to an area which is no longer under its administrative control. For example, we made no claim in the eastern sector to areas south of the McMahon Line, but India made such claims in the western sector. It is difficult to accept such claims and the best thing is that both sides do not make such territorial claims. Of course, there are individual places which need to be re-adjusted individually; but that is not a territorial claim.”
He repeated them in crisp formulations in a meeting with Nehru the next day as forming “a common ground”. They were: “(i) Our boundaries are not delimited and, therefore, there is a dispute about these; (ii) however this [ sic; there?] is a line of actual control both in the eastern sector as well as the western sector and also in the middle sector; (iii) geographical features should be taken into account in settling the border. One of the principles would be watershed and there would be also other features, like valleys and mountain passes, etc. These principles should be applicable to all sectors, eastern, western and middle; (iv) each side should keep to this line and make no territorial claims. This does not discount individual adjustments along the border later; (v) national sentiments should be respected. For both countries a lot of sentiment is tied around the Himalayas and the Karakoram.”
Nehru’s approach was radically different. “We should take each sector of the border and convince the other side of what it believes to be right.” It is truly amazing that Nehru should have considered this at all as a realistic option in international politics. It is unreal even in domestic politics. On the fourth point, renunciation of territorial claims by both, Nehru responded on April 24: “Our accepting things as they are would mean that basically there is no dispute and the question ends there; that we are unable to do.”
July 29, 1950: K.M. Panikkar presenting his credentials as the Indian Ambassador to Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, in Peking (Beijing).
A fine opportunity was lost. Nehru knew very well that: (1) India’s maps showed an undefined boundary in the west, so much so that in one of them the yellow colour wash did not extend to a huge part of Kashmir in the east (these were maps made by India’s Surveyor-General); (2) he had himself altered them unilaterally in 1954; (3) he had conceded in August-September 1959 that the Aksai Chin was disputed territory; (4) the Army Chief, General Thimayya, said in January 1959 that the Aksai Chin was of no strategic importance; (5) in 1958, the MEA had, in Thimayya’s presence, opined that “the exact boundary of this area had not yet been demarcated” (in the context, it meant defined); and (6) Dr. K. Zachariah, Director of the External Affairs Ministry’s Historical Division before Dr. S. Gopal took over, had endorsed that view.
As the exchanges proceeded Nehru developed a fine distinction which still holds our diplomats in its thrall—the distinction between talks and negotiation. To negotiate is to compromise, and compromise is anathema to us. Hence the rejection of the word “dispute” to characterise our long-festering disputes. Here is one sample. At a press conference on January 8, 1960, he was asked, “On a prior occasion, both in Parliament and here, you said that the country’s frontiers are not negotiable. Is that still our stand?” Nehru replied: “That is our stand. At the same time there is nothing that is not negotiable which seems to be contradictory. What I said was there is no question of negotiation or bargaining about these matters, but it is a somewhat different matter dealing with them as we are in our letters or in our talks. One can’t refuse to talk, refuse to—as between two countries.”
Here is a tabulation of the egregious blunders. 1. Unilateral revision of the McMahon Line and the maps in 1954. 2. Refusal to negotiate during the period 1954-58. 3. Assertion of a false claim in 1959. 4. Refusal to accept China’s claims in the Aksai Chin. 5. Rebuff to Pour Tsu-Li in May 1959. Similarly, the rejection of Zhou’s proposal in April 1960 though it accepted the McMahon Line and the Forward Policy. It was approved on November 2, 1961, in a meeting presided over by Nehru. Its implications were tersely summed up by a source by no means hostile to India but very hostile to China during the period. In May 2007, the U.S. government published a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Staff Study commissioned by the Department of Defence on “The Sino-India Border Dispute” from 1950 to 1962.
It was in three sections. Section three on page 22 notes that the Chinese concluded that in effect Nehru had switched from refusal to settle the border dispute by talks to using force. The study notes: “Formulated in December 1961, the army plan envisaged operations in Ladakh by spring when weather conditions improved. The plan called for the establishment of five new Indian posts of 80-100 men each behind nine existing forward Chinese posts in Ladakh west of the 1956 Chinese claim line; the posts were to be manned all year round. [V.K.] Krishna Menon, [the Defence Minister], instructed the Indian Air Force to prepare a report on its capability to sustain a major air supply effort. (Two of the posts were to be set up close to the western part of the Aksai Plain road, but the Indians were unable to move anywhere near it in subsequent encounters.) Briefing Cabinet Subcommittee officials on the Nehru-approved plan in late December, Krishna Menon stated that the new posts would be positioned to cut off the supply lines of targeted Chinese posts; they were to cause the ‘starving out’ of the Chinese, who would hereafter be replaced by Indian troops in the posts. These points would serve as advanced bases for Indian patrols assigned to probe close to the road.” And, of course, China would acquiesce in all this.
November 12, 1962: UNI staff corresponent Michael T. Malloy (centre) with Indian troops in the Se La region of what was then NEFA, when newsmen were allowed to visit the area for the first time since the hostilities started. On his return, Malloy filed one of the first “up front” dispatches on the dispute. A few days later, the invading Chinese forces captured the Se La Ridge before declaring a ceasefire.
Nehru was convinced of victory. On November 28, 1961, he informed Parliament: “I do not think the last two years… have changed the situation to the advantage of the Chinese in these (Ladakh) areas…. I think the situation has… changed progressively in our favour, though not as much as we want it to… they are still in areas which they occupied… but progressively the situation has been changing from the military point of view and from other points of view in our favour and we shall continue to take steps to build up these things so that ultimately we may be in a position to take action to recover such territory as is in their possession.” By force.
The CIA study cites confidential reports to the Indian Cabinet. Nehru said: “We will continue to build these things up so that ultimately we may be in a position to take effective action to recover such territory as is in their position.” Indian posts were set up behind Chinese posts in Ladakh.
In June 1962, India set up a post in Dhola to the north of the McMahon Line but to the south of its Indian variant. On September 8, Chinese forces invested that post. Nehru fell for the bait and sought rashly to seek their eviction (Klaus H. Pingsheim; “China, India and the Himalayas Border (1961-1963)”; Asian Survey; October 1963).
April 20, 1960: Nehru with Zhou Enlai in New Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister walked into the crisis with is eyes wide open.
On June 23, 1962, at the Warsaw talks, the U.S. assured China that it would not support the KMT in Taiwan in any military venture. This released Chinese troops for deployment on the boundary. Nothing can justify China’s massive retaliatory attacks on October 20, 1962. But to understand is not to exonerate.
Two scholars of impeccable credentials traced the decision-making process in China in 1962 from June to October—Roderick MacFarquhar in his work The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, (Oxford University Press, 1997; page 298-323) and Professor John W. Garver in the essay “China’s Decision for War with India in 1962” published in Alastair Irvin Johnston and Robert S. Ross (edited) New Dimensions in the Study of China’s Foreign Policy (Stanford University Press, 2006; pages 86-130). Both works are based on Chinese sources and repay study. Mao led from the front. Also worth study is the Soviet Union’s policy during that war.
November 1962: University students of Delhi at a procession protesting against the Chinese aggression.
When the border dispute erupted, Peking Review of September 15, 1959, published a map endorsing the one drawn by Lt.-Col. John T. Walker in 1851. It would have spelt significant Chinese withdrawal in Ladakh. For that matter, while accepting Zhou’s proposal Nehru could well have asked for China’s withdrawal from the Chang Chenmo Valley, which it had occupied only in the summer of 1959. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping offered a package deal to Vajpayee. It was rejected. Walker was Superintendent of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. His map of 1851 belies Nehru’s stand on the Treaty of 1842.
Now all that belongs to the past. China has hardened its line in the last two decades. India is still stuck in the attitudes of the past. What conclusions could China have drawn from India nominating a former Director of the I.B., M.K. Narayanan, as its negotiator? China knows that India is not prepared to negotiate and is itself fed up with the charade. The best course is to end it and build up a national consensus for a settlement while quietly sounding China on possible relaxation in its position. It will be a long haul.
Retrospect can help
But a thorough intensive retrospect can help. Because old habits of thinking persist, as smug and self-righteous as ever.
Any honest retrospect must confront some historical facts. Nehru knew that a latent boundary dispute did exist. He opined in a note to the MEA on June 18, 1954: “Of course, both the Soviet Union and China are expansive.” Why then did he actively foster the Bhai-Bhai climate, as distinct from a correct cordial relationship? Did he imagine that in that clime the dispute would be extinguished?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Dai Bingguo, Chinese Special Representative for the India-China border talks, in New Delhi in April 2007. National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan is also present.
But it might well not have arisen. India forcibly, but rightly, took over Tawang on February 22, 1951. China did not protest despite its stand on the McMahon Line. It built a road through the no-man’s land in Aksai Chin and assumed India would acquiesce likewise. Nehru knew it was disputed area and of no use to India. Was it wise or in the national interest to make an issue of this? His was an utterly unprofessional approach. He rebuffed China’s overtures and its offer to accept the McMahon Line as well (1959-60). This, apart from the Pakistan factor which obsessed him. Did he expect any state meekly to accept the boundary line as laid down by another state? Nehru based his policy, the Forward Policy in particular, on the assumption that any war between the two countries would trigger off a world war. He told the Rajya Sabha on December 6, 1961, after launching the Forward Policy: “Is it imaginable that a war between India and China will remain confined to these two countries? It will be world war and nothing but a world war.”
Denis Healy’s seminal article on limited wars, facilitated by the U.S.-USSR, “Balance of Tenor”, had appeared in Encounter in 1955, and Henry Kissinger’s magnum opus Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy on the same theme was published in 1958. But Nehru was utterly unaware of the very concept of a limited war.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, in New Delhi on September 4. This was the first visit in eight years by a Chinese Defence Minister to India. The two Ministers discussed a wide range of issues relating to defence and military exchanges and cooperation.
Why did Jawaharlal Nehru stake his prestige and the honour and prestige of the nation on a matter like this? And to the extreme limits that he did? He laid down preconditions to talks instead of negotiating. That persists still in a modified form.
The truth is a liberating force. The nation must be told the truth in its own interests so that it is prepared for a settlement. This requires two steps. First, ignore the Central Information Commission’s (then headed by Wajahat Habibullah) disgraceful order and publish the Henderson Brookes report on the war and the Zachariah report on the true history of India’s northern frontier. It is dishonest to suppress them from the nation.
* * *
1. Unilateral revision of the McMahon Line and the maps in 1954.
2. Refusal to negotiate during the period 1954-58.
3. Assertion of a false claim in 1959.
4. Refusal to accept China’s claims in the Aksai Chin.
5. Rebuff to Pour Tsu-Li in May 1959.
Similarly, the rejection of Zhou Enlai’s proposal in April 1960 though it accepted the McMahon Line and The Forward Policy.
SOURCED FROM Frontline