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Bull in our China shop

india Updated: May 20, 2010 22:13 IST
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What was Jairam Ramesh thinking? Going by the rest of that jinxed press conference in Beijing earlier this month, all the right things. Our security establishment’s overly defensive and alarmist approach towards China and imagining demons where there are none. About time somebody said those out loud. And who better than the coiner of the Chindia portmanteau?

But what a waste. Had Ramesh said the same things in Delhi rather than in Beijing and not gone after another ministry on foreign soil, he would actually be on to something important here: facing our deep-seated fear of China.

Our paranoia towards China is a product of the the ‘Great Betrayal of 1962’. No matter how much we trade and how many confidence-building measures we undertake, our relationship with China will always be informed by this sense of injury. To exorcise this ghost and take the relationship to the next level, we need a bit of regression therapy: revisit the root of the problem, the war, and make an honest appraisal.

‘Honest’ is the operative word here. It means breaking with conventional wisdom and opening ourselves to the possibility that we might have got it all wrong all these years. Could it be possible that we were not the victim that we like to think we were? Could it be possible that the war was a product of a set of very complex circumstances and not engineered by China per se? The answers are important because only when we tick those boxes will we be able to shake off our siege mentality
and face the Chinese as equals, our judgement and strategy not clouded by sentimental victimhood.

The story of the war — our story of the war — goes somewhat like this: we were great friends with China, brothers in fact; our prime minister trusted the Chinese so much that he left the border unguarded; China and India had a clear, agreed
border, the McMahon Line; the Chinese took advantage of his naïveté, violated the border and attacked us.

The truth is that Jawaharlal Nehru — unlike what we have been handed down via official, diplomatic history — was always suspicious of China. Sample his December 1952 cable to the then ambassador to China, N. Raghavan: “Our attitude towards the Chinese government should always be a combination of friendliness and firmness. If we show weakness, advantage will be taken of this immediately.”

Nehru didn’t even believe in his own Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai slogan. A March 1958 diary entry of G. Parthasarathi, another ambassador to China, quotes Nehru as telling him: “Don’t you believe it [bhai-bhai]. I don’t trust the Chinese one bit.

They are arrogant, devious, hypocritical and thoroughly unreliable.” We now know from other accounts that the feeling was
mutual. Contrary to the general perception, Nehru played hard with the Chinese. Too hard, in fact. In the 1952 cable to Raghavan, he further advises: “In regard to this entire frontier, we have to maintain an attitude of firmness. Indeed, there is nothing to discuss there and we have made that clear to the Chinese government.”

Nothing to discuss. That is not how the Chinese saw it. The stated position of the Chinese was that the borders we inherited were undefined and in any case often extracted by means of unequal treaties forced upon us by our colonial masters.

The McMahon Line, which we treat as a kind of lakshman rekha, is a prime example of the cartographic muddle bequeathed to us. China was not a signatory to the Simla Accord, in which maps with the McMahon Line were introduced, and always treated the accord — signed between British and Tibetan authorities — as illegal. If we accept China’s sovereignty over Tibet, which we do, there goes one signatory. The other, Britain, officially dumped the accord in 2008, calling it “an
anachronism”.

So let’s see, we had a disputed border and we wouldn’t talk. To make matters worse, we set in motion a ‘forward policy’ in which we went about planting outposts along the eastern border, sometimes north of the McMahon Line, setting us on a collision course with the Chinese. Let alone the Chinese, our own soldiers and sections of the government often questioned the wisdom of this policy. It’s all on record.

The Chinese, on their part, built a road in Aksai Chin on the western border that got our goat. There is a whole set of chicken-or-the-egg postulations on who aggravated the crisis — the Chinese or we. But one thing that comes through any serious, unbiased study of the war is that the truth is hardly as simple as we have come to see it. More so because there were a host of other externalities at play, such as domestic political compulsions of the time, the power tussle in our defence establishment, the presence of some incompetent people in key positions, wider geopolitical alignments involving Russia and America and their interests, and Chinese sensitivities over Tibet and the Dalai Lama, to name a few. Blaming China alone for starting the war is as historically inaccurate as blaming Nehru alone for losing it.

A few weeks ago, a small news report on the defence minister declaring the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report could not be declassified appeared in papers. Submitted in 1963 to the government, this report on the failure of the Indian Army in the 1962 war still has enough “operational value”, according to A.K. Antony, to keep it under wraps.

Our refusal to deal with Henderson Brooks is symptomatic of our refusal to deal with history honestly. The report in all likelihood demolishes some of the central tenets of the myths surrounding the war. Journalist Neville Maxwell, who wrote the seminal India’s China War, had access to the report and draws heavily on it for his book. And, as the title suggests, the book argues that it was India’s war all along, not China’s. This is why we would rather not touch that report. We would rather be afraid and angry all our lives.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the Money Editor, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

The views expressed by the author are personal