Indo-China Conflict: A Renegade’s Reading

Third part: Nehru’s idealism and realpolitik did not match Mao as both harped on imperial legacies

More romantic than Mao Zedong but much less strong-willed, Jawaharlal Nehru was a democratic socialist. He was inspired by egalitarian ideas of Marx- Lenin since his youth and Soviet brand of socialism, particularly its role in the anti-Fascist war. Nonetheless, he also hoped that America would retain its ‘war-time anti-imperialist and democratic values’ even after 1947. Although unhappy over the post-War big power-game that will soon spiral into the Cold War between the US and USSR-led blocs with increasing threat of nuclear winter for mankind, he dreamt of not only a USSR-type India but supra-national states in Asia towards a voluntary world community.

In Nehru’s grand dream-scheme as he had articulated in the final chapter of his pre-Partition book, Discovery of India, ‘The Pacific is likely to take the place of Atlantic in the future as nerve-centre of the world’ and ‘India will inevitably exercise an important influence there’. Not only that, he hoped India would emerge as the ‘centre of a regional grouping of the countries on the Indian Ocean on either side of India–from Iran to Java’, because of its ‘economic and strategic importance’. He wished to build up air and rail connections to industrially upcoming Soviet central Asia and China and even formation of one or two federations of Asian countries including India and China, a la USSR and USA later.

But China was not part of his immediate scheme though he had referred to Indo-China civilizational as well as modern-day aspirational connectivity umpteen times. But he felt more drawn to distant Russia than neighboring China headed by a contemporary but enigmatic communist guerrilla leader, not exactly known for his regular exchanges with anti-colonial leaders outside China even after the red revolution. In fact, Mao’s rival, Chiang Kai-Shek had courted Indian National Congress more during the freedom struggles. Nevertheless, Nehru’s India was among the first countries which recognized Mao’s People’s Republic of China. He also lobbied for inclusion of red China in the United Nations.

The declassified records of Mao-Nehru candid discussion during the latter’s visit to China in 1954 revealed their difference of perceptions over global politics, particularly on the role of the USSR and USA. Still Nehru’s mood was temperate as he assured’not to quarrel over’ Indo-China border issues. Also, the euphoria over ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ and ‘Panchasheel policy’ was in the air amid the repeated visits of Chinese Prime Minister Chou-en-Lai, Mao’s pragmatic and suave emissary. A ‘neutralist’ Nehru largely stood by China-north Korea during the Korean War by being part of the UN peace mission.

india china jawaharlal nehru mao zedong 1962 war border
World leaders Shri Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia at the Bandung Conference in 1955 I Courtesy: medium.com

The heyday of Afro-Asian-Latin American unity was visible at the Bandung conference in 1955. Nehru was one of the moving spirits behind the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) along with Tito (Yugoslavia), Nasser (Egypt), Nkrumah (Ghana) and Sukarno (Indonesia) that came into being in 1961 after initial warm ups since 1956. He also did not join US-led South-East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) that included Pakistan to contain communist Soviet Union and China. On the other hand, he joined the NAM leaders in saving the government and life of Patrice Lumumba, the young and idealist prime minister of postcolonial Republic of Congo who was brutally killed by the Belgian colonial masters and American CIA with the help of his native political rivals and rebel army leader for being ‘communist, anti-West and pro-Soviet’ in 1961.

Tension over Tibet and Ladakh

Nevertheless, Indo-China tension was brewing in the Himalayas over Tibetan plateau including Ladakh. Nehru saw Tibet as a historical buffer state between China and India and part of a mixed cultural landscape, amenable to the influences of both civilizations. His post-Partition Tibet policy was not aimed at incorporating Tibet in India but maintaining the British imperial legacy in determining the Indo-China border. After his willy-nilly acquiescence to China’s sovereignty in Tibet, Nehru was apparently expecting Mao to reciprocate by providing a political space for India in dealing with the ‘autonomous’ Tibet. He was asking Beijing to ‘meet the aspirations of Tibetan people on autonomy’ repeatedly.

But Mao saw Tibet as an essential part of mainland China since its military conquest under the last imperial Qing dynasty in 1720 after driving out a rebel Mongol tribe. The British colonial power which had been active on the roof of the world since the second half of 19th century, contested Beijing to override the theocratic Lhasa government. Prior to WW I, Brits invaded Tibet in 1903-4 to checkmate Tsarist Russian moves in central Asia. Almost the entire mainland China itself was under Western and Japanese jackboots for nearly a century while its feuding warlords refused to accept a central power. So, in essence, Chinese central authority had no sovereign control over today’s Tibet Autonomous Region till 1950-51 in effect. But Mao refused to accept this ethno-political-administrative discontinuity by foregrounding the Qing imperial annexations, not only in Tibet including parts of Ladakh in the south, but also in parts of Mongolia and Soviet Siberia in the north.

Despite the Tibetization of Ladakh in the last centuries, it has maintained a distinct character because of its proximity to central Asia and India. Since the age of multi-ethnic, multi-religious Kushan Empire of central Asian origin that had connected ancient India, Afghanistan, Iran and China to Greco-Roman civilizations in the West, Ladakh became an ethno-religious melting pot of Dardic, Mongols and other central Asians, as well as Tibetans, Drukpas and Sherpas of Bhutan-Nepal in eastern Himalayas in addition to highlanders of Indian sub-continent of Gilgit-Baltistan and north Kashmir-Himachal Pradesh. Buddhism, Islam and Saivaite Hinduism mixed almost seamlessly with central Asian Greco-Iranian-Afghan traces in local culture and customs for generations. Ladakh was also an important part of a great trade route farther north.

Like the other parts of Tibetan plateau, Ladakh too was changed to many hands and witnessed fights among internal fiefdoms and external aggression. Like Tibet, Ladakh was never part of mainland Indian empires in the ancient and medieval period, both geographically and politically. Close to modern times, Namgiyals and other Ladakhi rulers of mainly Tibetan origins fought with Mughal army of Aurangzeb which came through Kashmir and later with Sikh and Dogra kingdoms based in Lahore and Jammu. The Brits continued to play the role of paramount power and its ‘Divide and Rule’ in proper Tibet as well as in Ladakh and rest of the Himalayan region. After a brief Mughal suzerainty in late 17th century, it was as late as in 1834, Ladakh came under Jammu’s Dogra rule. It was added to undivided Jammu and Kashmir State after the Brits dismembered Lahore-based Sikh Kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and awarded Kashmir to his Dogra vassal Gulab Singh in 1846.

india china jawaharlal nehru mao zedong 1962 war border
North-East Frontier Agency I Courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

When Tibet was finally annexed to red China in 1949-50, Ladakh became its contested frontier with India, in China’s south-west. The land became one of most militarized, resource-rich but poor and overawed parts of the world. Neither Mao nor Nehru, the two major leaders of anti-colonial, anti-imperial struggles in post-WWII years, (for that matter, Pakistani leadership too) asked Greater Tibetans including Ladakhi and Baltis what they do want.

Nevertheless, Nehru was apparently more concerned about Chinese acceptance of India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh vis-à-vis Pakistan. The twin states of divided India had already fought war in 1947-48 on Kashmir and the tussle was internationalized. But Mao did not bother for the quid pro quo with Nehru. Pakistani support was his priority for strategic high altitude road connectivity projects needed for access to natural resources outside the Chinese mainland and defenses against Soviet Central Asia in the north-west and India at south.

Mao ordered the construction of Tibet-Xinjiang highway, G219 (now China’s national highway 219) through Aksai Chin of eastern Ladakh which was completed in 1957.  He had also begun Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan to Xinxiang through Gilgit-Baltistan in 1959, which was later extended across Pakistan as part of a massive economic corridor). Nehru protested both moves on contested lands but failed to stop. Ladakh became the hotbed of Indo-Chinese territorial clashes.

1962 Indo-China war

Indo-China border relations became bitter over these two highways through disputed territories. Nehru retaliated by sheltering the Dalai Lama in 1959 after he fled Lhasa following Chinese crushing of Khampa rebellion. Indian role in the uprising is still debated. The Indian prime minister must have thought that Dalai Lama’s presence in India will provide him political leverage to deal with China even if he had also asked his guest not to engage in explicit political activity against China.

Mao became extremely angry with Nehru over the Dalai Lama episode. He had already developed an ‘acute dislike for Nehru’s condescending attitude and altruistic views on reshaping the world’ as retired Indian Air vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (theprint.in, 20 October 2018) said quoting a western ‘balanced’ analyst. According to him, Zhou En Lai apparently offered a quid pro quo; China’s recognition of NEFA or Arunachal Pradesh as part of India in exchange for Indian acceptance of Aksai Chin as Chinese land. However, neither government officially gave credence to this swap deal. Instead, Mao-Nehru mutual bickering provoked brinkmanship on both sides. Increased border clashes and killings snowballed into horrific war between two former allies three years later.

Military historians and other experts, both Indo-Chinese and Western have referred to domestic compulsions of both leaders. Some of them said that the war was crucial for the reassertion of Mao’s absolute leadership in the Chinese communist party after the debacles of his ‘Great Leap Forward’ movement in the early fifties and increasing tussle with the ‘capitalist roaders’ headed by Liu Shao Chi, the president of the PRC.

Nehru’s control was less threatened in Indian politics. But he was facing increasing attacks from Hindu right wing, both within his party Congress as well as Jana Sangh, the progenitor of today’s ruling BJP, over the special status to Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir, claimed by Pakistan. On the other hand, Indian Communist party was asking for a negotiated settlement with China but had no clout with Mao’s party. The Congress- communist bitterness grew as Nehru sacked the first elected communist government in the south Indian state of Kerala in 1959. However, his international standing was still good despite the growing mess over Kashmir.

He refused to accept the swapping of Aksai Chin for NEFA with Beijing. Instead, he chose a road to misadventure more guided by knee-jerk reactions and less by strategic policy and tactical plans as some of Indian former generals and Western analysts pointed in the current context of border clashes. Considering Indian army’s less advantageous position vis-à-vis Chinese PLA in terms of border infrastructure and military strike and hold capabilities on the most difficult theatre of war, Nehru’s leap from ‘pragmatic frontier-flagging’ (foisting Indian flags at disputed areas as claim points) policy to ‘a more aggressive forward movement of troops’ was ill-conceived.

Not only Western observers like Neville Maxwell and Henderson Brooks blamed Nehru squarely but also Indian ex-generals like HS Panag (theprint.in, 12 October 2018) has argued so. As Nehru initially outsmarted Mao in NEFA, the latter came up with a new claim line in Aksai Chin. The experts agreed that Nehru whose primary job was to feed hungry millions could not afford to build the costly border infrastructure and military fortification within a decade after independence. Also, Nehru had an ‘ideological belief’ that China would not actually attack India considering its political cost. But Mao decided to teach him a lesson and asked the PLA to call India’s bluff.

india china jawaharlal nehru mao zedong 1962 war border
President John F. Kennedy and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Washington, D.C. I Courtesy: icp.org

An anguished and panicked Nehru pleaded with John F Kennedy, the young US president to send American fighter and bomber planes, even with US pilots as well as defense experts. Although, JFK was preoccupied with a huge face-off with Soviet Russia on Cuban missile crisis around the same time, it was a godsend opportunity for the US in Post-Korean war years to get a further foothold in Asia as China was still a Soviet ally despite growing estrangements between the two communist giants. Despite his ideological dislike of power and war games during the Cold War, Nehru was bitter over Mao’s move to show who would be the ‘top dog in Asia’. But the formal Indo-US defense treaty could not be inked following the assassination of JFK and Soviets under Khrushchev sent military supplies to India. Many Soviet and Indian experts believe that Mao deliberately chose the time for his showdown with Nehru when the two superpowers were in an ‘eyeball to eyeball engagement’ half a world away.

After resoundingly thrashing del ‘smashing Indian army del attack’ in both Western and Eastern sectors, Mao ordered withdrawal of the PLA from Indian terrain, not only to augment his image as a no-nonsense nationalist but a non-aggressor. But he was also keen to avoid the risk of military involvements of both Soviets and US. Nevertheless, he held to Aksai Chin which was central to his Tibet-Xinxiang connectivity project.

Nehru did not survive long after the war, both physically and politically. His authority in India was greatly undermined following the humiliating defeat on the Himalayas. He failed to recover Aksai Chin. To this day, Nehru’s domestic opposition, particularly the ruling BJP and larger Hindutva Parivar are accusing him of betraying Indian interests and loss of its face.

The NAM movement survived but suffered a huge fracture over Indo-China war as most of its member states choose to maintain an equi-distance while some supported one or other side. Some leading lights like Nasser and later Nkrumah offered meditation but neither side agreed on terms of discussion. India’s south Asian and South-east Asian neighbors too took cautious position. Tragically, the postcolonial pluralist platform of colonial peoples lost its moral sheen and ideo-political unity greatly after the two Asian giants, supposed to be natural allies against neo-colonial powers, became bitter foes.

Mao’s China, only an observer in the NAM, was never a pivot of the movement (like Castro’s Cuba later) that had officially proclaimed equi-distance from socialist and capitalist blocs while most of its members advocated mixed economy with varied state control over national resources and market forces. Beijing tried to become a parallel rallying point for more radical and left-leaning countries and leaders, particularly, after the Sino-Soviet rifts, both ideological and geo-strategic widened since Indo-China war. Cold War equations were drastically altered in favor of the US bloc that increasingly put China as a big counterweight to Soviet Union. Anti-colonial nationalist and socialists of the world were greatly divided while communists of all hues suffered greatly in the coming decades.

Biswajit Roy

is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

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