In August 1950, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then in America, sent a secret letter to her brother Jawaharlal that the US wanted India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. She says in this document, now lodged at the Nehru Memorial Library: “One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department should be known to you. This is the unseating of [Communist] China as a Permanent Member in the Security Council and of India being put in her place.”
John Foster Dulles, then Secretary of State, anxious to move in this direction, was persuading influential columnists to build public opinion along these lines. Nehru quickly sabotaged this effort, and Pandit passed on word that the American effort to make India a permanent member would not be received with much warmth in India. Nehru wrote to her: “In your letter you mention that the State Department is trying to unseat China as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and to put India in her place. So far as we are concerned, we are not going to countenance it. That would be bad from every point of view. It would be a clear affront to China and it would mean some kind of a break between us and China. I suppose that the State Department would not like that [India rejecting the offer], but we have no intention of following that course. We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and Security Council.”
Nehru accepted that India was entitled to this seat, but “not at the cost of China.” He would not countenance taking India into the Security Council because of China’s claim. He had to keep his rejection secret, because there would have been a public outcry against such a suicidal decision. It is perfectly reasonable to surmise that Nehru’s Cabinet might not have agreed with him.
In 1955, Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin made a similar suggestion. Sarvepalli Gopal, official biographer of Nehru, writes that the Indian prime minister insisted that priority be given to China. He added that he had previously rejected such an American offer, obviously making a virtue of his actions.
This was an astonishing sacrifice of Indian national interest in the quest of some quixotic international dream, whether we see it in the context of 1950 or 2020. Nehru had taken the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations. Instead of acquiring a veto for India, he handed it to a country which has become Pakistan’s lifeline ally. Nor is it that China ever felt the need to reciprocate. Seven decades later, China remains the principal obstacle to India’s membership of the Security Council.
The high point of this China-submissive diplomacy was the Panchsheel (Five Virtues) Agreement of April 29, 1954, more accurately called the ‘Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India’, signed by Indian ambassador N. Raghavan and deputy foreign minister of China, Zhang Hanfu. In retrospect, they seem variations of a single virtue: non-aggression. This meant in hard reality that India could not interfere in Tibet, while China, at any time of its choosing, could challenge the boundaries by claiming that Indian territory was part of Tibet. It is pertinent to note that even before the ink had dried on the Panchsheel deal, Beijing published maps showing Aksai Chin as a part of China even though borders had not been delineated, let alone demarcated.
While on the streets of India, the ancient sister civilizations turned into a brotherhood (‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’), China used the next eight years to shift the narrative, strengthen its capabilities and prepare for a war that would solve its problems, destroy Nehru’s credibility, and dent India’s reputation. According to Jonathan Ward, author of China’s Vision of Victory (2019), Mao said he wanted war because India had to be “taught a lesson” and described the war itself as “rational, beneficial” and “courteous.” 1962 was certainly the oddest instance of courtesy since Cain settled his problems with his brother Abel in the Biblical era of Adam and Eve. (Ward was quoting from Chinese official records and diplomatic archives.)
Nehru, and his defence minister after 1957, V.K. Krishna Menon, never adequately explained why they believed China would never go to war, and why they left the Himalayas defenceless. Nehru was always eager to take the most positive interpretation of China’s intentions. Y.D. Gundevia, an admirer who became Nehru’s foreign secretary, recalls in his memoirs that in August 1948 he brought a message from Burmese prime minister Thakin Nu that a defence pact between India and Burma would help both in any future confrontation with China. Nehru got so angry, Gundevia recalls, that he began to shout. “He must be crazy,” said Nehru. “Does he want to provoke China? What is China going to do with Burma? It’s nonsense. It is real nonsense. I will explain to him [Thakin] when he comes.” There was no defence pact, of course.
A throwaway remark reveals that by the mid-1950s Nehru was certainly aware of the Chinese build-up. This comment was made in 1954 during the parliamentary debate on rice supplies through India to Chinese troops in Tibet, without the knowledge of the Dalai Lama, as yet another favor to China.
In one more remarkable instance of appeasement, India agreed to supply rice for Chinese troops in Tibet after a request from Beijing during a severe shortage. Ever determined to add to the political balance of goodwill, Nehru complied. According to one account, a foreign prince holidaying in Kalimpong first revealed that goods were going by mule track to the PLA from India, but mistakenly believed that they were military supplies. Nehru admitted that 1,000 tonnes of rice had been sent, although others have put the figure at 10,000 tonnes. Be that as it may, Nehru certainly misled Parliament when he claimed that the rice was supplied because of famine in Tibet.
There was no famine, and in any case, the staple diet of Tibetans was tsampa or roast barley. Nehru insisted that the “humanitarian” supplies would continue. What made him angry was the report that India was sending military material. As he said, the Chinese “had far more supplies than we possessed.”
If this was true of 1954 and 1955, why was no effort made to redress the imbalance? Instead, under defence minister Krishna Menon’s watch, defence production was downgraded, which amounts to virtual criminal negligence. At the time of freedom, India had the best defence production facilities in Asia, with Japan having been defeated and disarmed. But when in 1957 Nehru initiated a ‘forward policy’ on establishing border posts, this was not complemented by sufficient equipment or even adequate clothing needed for mountain warfare. By December 1959, influential Americans like Senator John F. Kennedy were predicting that India’s competition, not cooperation, with China for Asian pre-eminence would become a decisive struggle during the 1960s.
The Chinese were far better prepared for this struggle. On January 23, 1959, Zhou Enlai had stepped up the ante by pointing out that no agreement had ever been concluded between the “Chinese central government” (as distinct presumably from a Chinese ‘regional’ government in Lhasa) and Delhi. This was precisely what Bajpai had warned about in 1951. Zhou added, in a coup de grace, that he had not raised the border dispute before (including in 1954 when India formally surrendered on Tibet) because “the time was not ripe.”
By 1959, the acrid smell of bitterness filled the air and by April 1961, B.N. Mullick, the director of the Intelligence Bureau, was warning that the Chinese were planning to advance. But Menon remained compulsively complacent. Nehru initiated a debate on foreign policy in Rajya Sabha on August 22, 1961, saying that India was not thinking of a long war in the Himalayas, and that diplomats would persuade the Chinese that their claims were wrong.
The long road of strategic concessions and defence indifference had to end in the capitulation of 1962. Nehru complained after the defeat that he had been stabbed in the back by China.
This was incorrect. He had been stabbed from the front because his vision had become befogged by unreal objectives and transcendent rhetoric.
A commonsense question on Aksai Chin
In 1962, after the humiliation on the battlefield, a relatively unknown Congress Member of Parliament, Mahavir Tyagi, entered the world book of anecdotage when he stood up in Parliament in response to Prime Minister Nehru’s effort to minimize the loss of vast tracts in Aksai Chin by saying it was so barren that not a single blade of grass grew on its rocky expanse. Tyagi took off his Gandhi cap, bowed his pate and pointed out that not a single blade of grass grew on his bald head either, but was that any reason to hand it over to someone else?
India’s defeat in 1962 was comprehensive. The war began with a massive Chinese invasion across chosen fronts on October 20, and ended only when China announced a ceasefire on November 20. Within another 10 days, China withdrew to a self-defined ‘Line of Actual Control.’ India, unable to prevent the advance, had no say in the retreat. China retained 2,500 square miles in the west.
The commonsense question is this: How can China have any more claims south of the line it created of its own volition in 1962?
If it did not occupy the Galwan Valley then, to give only one example of many, what rationale, or indeed the famous Maoist ‘courtesy,’ enables it to claim anything more south of the LAC? India was in no position to impose anything in 1962. China was, and did.
Common sense indicates that, at least as far as China is concerned, the matter should be considered over. The only nation with any possible grievance after 1962 is India. The Line of Actual Control is in effect a line that China drew.
Is the truth about the China border policy elsewhere? Is its strategy to nibble away, to eat what it can from a neighbor’s plate each time it considers the ‘time to be right,’ to repeat Zhou Enlai’s phrase? History is witness to a different proposition. Times change.
China’s assessment about the ripe moment was right in 1962.
China’s assessment about the ripe moment in 2020 is wrong.
(M.J. Akbar is an MP and the author of, among other titles, Nehru: The Making of India).