The recent availability of a part of the Henderson-Brooks Report on the 1962 debacle, instead of resulting in a better understanding of what went wrong then, seems to be causing a reversion to old ways — where ignorance and political expediency drive attitudes. The Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 was followed by two ominous incidents. On August 25, Indian and Chinese forces clashed over possession of Longju, a small village in the eastern sector. We said it was on the McMahon Line and, therefore, ours, and the Chinese said it was two miles north of it and, therefore, theirs. On October 20, the Chinese ambushed an Indian patrol sent to probe the Aksai Chin at Kongka La, in which nine Indian frontier policemen were killed and seven taken prisoner. With this, Indian public opinion was inflamed. A democracy is often nothing but a government sensitive to public opinion. But public opinion, even when not inflamed, is quite often ill-informed. Even many among the leadership never understood the historical background of the dispute then, or even now. The government knew better, but allowed itself to be swept by the tide of public opinion, and the Opposition did nothing to bail it out.
The influence of the domestic imperative in the international politics of democratic countries must never be underestimated. It is also an inherent characteristic of democratic societies that very little flexibility is given to the decision-makers in choosing a policy. If, for instance, Jawaharlal Nehru had accepted Chou-en-Lai’s offers of a settlement on a give and take basis, he would have been accused of giving up our ‘sacred’ territory. In the highly partisan atmosphere that characterised our politics any stick is good enough for the Opposition to beat the government with and vice-versa.
The press in those troubled days was not very helpful, either. The major English language papers almost in unison shrilly demanded that the Chinese be expelled and often accused the government of not doing its duty. Given this atmosphere, partisan political interests took precedence over national interests. This is not unfamiliar even today. The need to develop a non-partisan national consensus based on a rational survey of facts and events never was greater, yet was as far as it often seems even now.
Against this surcharged backdrop, Nehru had to come up with the Forward Policy. This policy called for establishing posts in the disputed areas often behind the Chinese line of forward posts. A number of small forward posts were set up with meagre resources, poor communications and extremely vulnerable supply lines. Most of these posts had to be supplied by air drops and quite a bit of the supply would end up in Chinese hands and often the PLA would hand these over to our men to derive a psychological advantage.
Lt General Daulat Singh’s, GOC, Northern Command in a memo to the government on August 17, 1962, criticised this policy. He wrote: “It is imperative that political direction is based on military means”. Singh’s warning, like those of many other senior officers, was ignored. Defence minister Krishna Menon, Intelligence Bureau director BN Mullick and Lt General BM Kaul, who had conjured up this policy, had Nehru’s ear and that was what mattered.
Incidentally, the order to ‘throw the Chinese out’ was given on September 22, 1962, by K Raghuramiah, then minister of state in the defence ministry. Raghuramiah was in the chair, Krishna Menon being in New York, when Army Chief General PN Thapar gave his appreciation of the situation in the Dhola area. The foreign secretary then gave his appreciation that the Chinese were unlikely to react strongly and for good measure repeated the PM’s ‘instructions’ on the subject. And so we went to war.
In the years that have followed the 1962 debacle, little has changed. We have not yet been able to get together a non-partisan consensus on crucial issues such as this. We do not seem to have as yet grasped the real and futile nature of the border dispute. It seems that to us country no longer means people but land. Or else why would we care so little about our people and their interests and honour, and care so much for an uninhabitable desert?
While it is possible for us to settle our eastern border disputes with China on the basis of a clearly demarcated McMahon Line, there seems little or no chance that the Chinese could be persuaded to hand over Aksai Chin to us. There also seems an equally remote chance that we might be able to retrieve it from the Chinese by military means.
There are still many indications that the Chinese would settle along these lines. We in India still seem prisoners of our past and continue to take an excessively legalistic view of past events and present inheritances. We have even tied ourselves up in knots with a jingoistic and unrealistic parliamentary resolution that binds us to an undefined boundary bequeathed to us and to the ‘liberation’ of occupied territory, so desolate and inhospitable that let alone animal life, even plant life is hard pressed to exist upon it. By freeing ourselves from this mindset we could meaningfully negotiate a settlement with the Chinese, whose only aim in this sector seems to secure the Sinkiang-Tibet highway through the Aksai Chin. While this will not entirely dissipate the rivalry between the two countries it will remove a cause of frequent tension that only serves to underline our unfavourable strategic position.
The challenge now for our national leadership is to harmonise reality with sentiment, pragmatism with unhistorical belief and national aspirations with imperialistic legacies. To be able to do this we first need to extricate such sensitive and critical issues from the ambit of partisan politics. By doing this, we can once again bring into alignment our political objectives, with military means and reality. We can then negotiate from a position of strength and give ourselves secure, defensible and natural boundaries in the north at least. And who knows, this may even lead to lasting good relations between the two great countries.
(Mohan Guruswamy is a political commentator and the author of India-China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond. The views expressed by the author are personal.)