India’s humiliating defeat was a game changer in three significant ways.
1. It revealed the serious flaws in Nehru’s approach to China and defence, and it revealed the institutional defects in decision-making.
2. It revealed that China had acted out its view of its place in Asia and in the Himalayan sphere, and irrespective of the wisdom of her decision to use war to punish India for her ‘provocations’, the 1962 war revealed China’s strategic calculus in relation to India as well as other South Asian states. It forced India to respond because the war created a clear identification in the Indian public mind that China was hostile to India and Nehru’s policy had failed. Although China claimed victory in 1962, India did not admit defeat other than a loss in a battle, and consequently the die for a prolonged strategic interaction between India and China was cast.
3. This war broke the unity between the two major communist powers and formed an alignment between Moscow, Washington and Delhi on the issue of Chinese expansionism. This became a defining issue which on the one hand required continuous diplomatic and military engagement of China by the major powers, including India, to ensure that it did not cross the line into territorial expansionism, and on the other required continuous military modernisation by China’s neighbours who had unresolved territorial disputes. Traditional statecraft requires a combination of force – an ability to create internal weight to deal with a situation, diplomatic craft – an ability to manoeuvre because as T.E. Lawrence point out ‘freedom is taken, not given’, and thirdly sincerity is needed to establish a durable relationship that is based on sentiment and mutual interest.1 The Sino-Indian saga demonstrated that sincerity was not a basis of the relationship, and Indian practitioners needed to rely on a combination of military strength and diplomatic craft to create the basis of a new relationship of stable conflict.
Despite Nehru’s monumental failure in his China and defence policy which led to the resignation of his confidante, Defence Minister Krishna Menon, and Nehru’s acknowledgment that he had been in a dream world, Nehruvians have maintained their loyalty to Nehru’s foreign policy. Srinath Raghavan’s War and Peace in Modern India is devoted entirely to the Nehru era which glosses over the fundamental flaws in Nehru’s approach and the ill effects of his legacy. To quote:
‘The failure against China should not make us oblivious of the sophistication of Nehru’s approach to strategy and crisis management. Military measures were initiated to demonstrate commitment without risking full-scale war, while diplomatic settlements were pursued to the extent that domestic opposition could be contained….This reflected his preference to multiply options rather than foreclose them.’2
In fairness to Raghavan his book ends with the 1962 war. His book examines the archival records that show the extensive interactions among many Indian and Western practitioners who dealt with the Kashmir and China questions and who had personal contact with Nehru. The material consulted is breathtaking but ironically it makes H.V. Hodson’s point, to paraphrase him, ‘Indian leaders were men of talk and little action’. If diplomacy and military strategy is meant to move the opposing side from point A to B rather than to offer opinions and assertions, Nehru failed to do so with Pakistan and China. To the contrary Pakistan and her Western (UK-USA) supporters moved Nehru’s India to a political and a diplomatic position to discuss proposals to partition Kashmir and to find the modalities for a plebiscite, or to develop an Indo-Pakistani condominium over Kashmir (1949-1964) and to do so in a condition of Indian weakness. And China moved Nehru’s India from a position of the joint statement by the two countries accepting peaceful co-existence (1954) to a position of armed co-existence and mistrust (1959-62) to war (1962) and a diplomatic stalemate on the border question and a pattern of military buildup and acceptance of armed co-existence by India in response to the results of the 1962 war (1962-present).
Raghavan claims that Nehru’s approach was sophisticated. This begs the question: what are the benchmarks of ‘sophistication’? Let us assess each claim by Raghavan. The points are questionable and contrary to the available records of the pattern and timing of Nehru’s actions as distinct from his speeches.
1. ‘Military measures were initiated to demonstrate commitment without risking full-scale war’.
(a) There was a partial decision to check the tribal invasion in J&K in 1947, followed by a ceasefire and refusal to clear the entire area of the invaders. The preliminary military measures did not reveal a commitment to pursue India’s interest to clear the area of Pakistani aggression which was the declared reason for Nehru’s reference of the issue to the UN.
(b) The military measures to build Indian defences by administrative, developmental and limited military actions in the Himalayan areas in the early 1950s and later during 1959-62 were stalled by bureaucratic delays and lack of ministerial oversight to build the defences and show a commitment to fight if necessary. And yet without adequate military preparations Nehru and Menon publicly called for a fight to throw out the Chinese, a stance which showed a willingness to risk a full-scale war with China – which is precisely the result in 1962. The pattern of Nehru-Menon decision-making and public statements revealed a lack of a convincing – to the Chinese and Indian military commanders – commitment to check Chinese pressures and at the same time the public posture showed a willing to fight a war. The strategy was one of bluff – to convince the Chinese that war with India would likely lead to the Third World War, and at the same time to convince the Indian military and political establishment that China would not start a war even if it could. The faulty assumption guided Nehru’s China policy till the outbreak of war in October-November 1962, and this assumption remained uncorrected even with evidence of a major Chinese military buildup across the McMahon Line north of India. The use of diplomatic bluff did not convey a commitment of serious intent to fight or to negotiate and yet the call to fight and ‘throw out the Chinese aggressors’ risked all out war; here Nehru and Menon risked war without making a commitment to negotiate a settlement or to fight. (In comparison note that Nehru’s successors – L.B. Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Vajpayee – risked war and crisis to demonstrate their respective commitment to Indian territorial sovereignty and larger Indian strategic interests.
2. ‘Diplomatic settlements were pursued to the extent that domestic opposition could be contained’.
Nehru did not have a domestic opposition in dealing with the Tibet and China questions between 1950 and 1954 because he conducted his diplomacy in secret with Zhou Enlai. Moreover, his government advisers recommended that he secure a general settlement about Tibet and the boundary before acknowledging that Tibet was a part of China. Nehru did not believe that the time was ripe to do so.
He also believed that his unilateral declaration that the boundary was well defined, that McMahon Line formed the boundary, and there was nothing to discuss. This was a unilateral assertion, and not an argument which Zhou Enlai joined with Nehru as the basis of agreement. For Nehru a unilateral declaration and Zhou Enlai’s silence implied consent but Beijing too had its version of ‘time was not ripe’ to discuss the boundary dispute until the Aksai Chin road has been constructed and announced by the Chinese media and talks could proceed on the basis of this fait accompli. But once the existence of the road became public knowledge in India Nehru’s negotiating position was weakened vis-à-vis China and Indian public opinion. Then followed a zigzag process to find a face saving formula.
First, Nehru asked China to accept Indian sovereignty in Aksai Chin in exchange for Indian acceptance of defacto Chinese control of the area. China refused. Then Nehru refused Zhou Enlai’s proposal to exchange Indian acceptance of China’s claim to Aksai Chin for Chinese acceptance of the McMahon Line in the northeast. From the mid-1950s onwards it is true that Nehru lacked the ability to manoeuvre between China and Indian public opinion because he had lost the leverage for a general settlement when China sought Indian cooperation over Tibetan affairs in 1950-54. Moreover, Nehru was not sure about his facts about the boundary. In 1953 he was told that the experts did not believe that India’s case in Aksai China was strong. By 1960, the research by MEA’s Historical Division indicated that India had a strong case. Without the backing of evidence about India’s legal case his declarations about the Himalayan boundary in the period from 1950 to 1960 lacked a clear knowledge of the facts and it showed a tendency to express opinions in an amateurish manner when the facts were debatable.
In this case his communications with Beijing were expressions of personal opinion and desired norms rather than factual arguments. These became a part of the China-India narrative in 1960 with the publication of the report of Chinese and Indian officials on the boundary question. But the report did not move the needle towards negotiations because at this stage both sides had lost trust in the other side, and the issue for China was no longer limited to the boundary question; it took into account that India had tilted towards Soviet Russia – by then an ideological and strategic rival, and towards the Americans as a result of the suspicion about CIA involvement in Tibetan affairs which seemingly had Nehru’s and Mullik’s support.
Nehru did not have the support of his peers and Indian public opinion on the Kashmir question because his proposals to consider variations of plebiscite – partition condominium to satisfy Pakistani demands were developed behind the scenes and aroused suspicion in the Indian mind about a sellout by Nehru of Indian interests to please Pakistan and the Western powers.
Raghavan claims that for the most part Nehru managed to secure India’s key interests.3 This is a surprising remark because securing India’s frontier areas – Kashmir, Ladakh, the China border , was India’s key interest, and the entire area became an albatross around India’s neck because of Nehru’s weak-kneed approach and lack of leadership. Developing India’s international reputation and presence was also a key interest. Nehru was successful in this endeavour for a brief period (1950-55) in international conference diplomacy but thereafter his usefulness to the US, Soviet Russia and China diminished and by the late 1950s Indian mediation skills were not in demand, her pleadings fell on deaf ears, and she lacked the strategy to blend pleading with a demonstrated ability to fight. Indian diplomacy became NATO – no action, talk only during most of the 1950s and early 1960s!
In the early 1950s the Nehru government was successful in gaining Soviet support for its Kashmir policy. Soviet vetoes at the UN checked the rise of Western pressures but this was a ‘made by Nehru’ because he had declined to settle the problem of tribal aggression with Jinnah’s complicity by Indian military action as was the advice to him by his generals, and he was the one to refer the issue to the UN which effectively internationalised a bilateral issue.
My judgement is that Nehru closed India’s option to settle the issue on its terms, and his subsequent proposals to settle the dispute were hemmed in by UK-US-UN pressures, by Pakistani vetoes, and by Indian public opinion which did not trust Nehru’s secretive approach and willingness to make concessions. He faced domestic opinion precisely because he had earlier acted alone, secretly and on an intuitive basis, and without sufficient domestic inputs from his peers, advisers and public opinion.
There was however, one high security area where Nehru did not foreclose India’s option. He consistently maintained a policy to develop the scientific and the political-diplomatic basis to keep it open but had he tested a bomb in 1964 as Bhabha and others recommended he could have taken India into the nuclear club and thereby saved it from the continuous pressure of refusal to accept the NPT that came from the Western powers, Pakistan and later from China. Here the decisions – to develop and maintain the nuclear option and not to go for the Bomb – exposed India to continuous external diplomatic pressures along with pressures on the Kashmir and China disputes.
A core Nehruvian interest was to seek a period of peace to enable India to develop internally and to seek regional peace. Nehru’s policies secured neither a strong economic performance to build her international profile, nor did it reduce or end poverty in India, nor did it gain regional peace. Raghavan does not address these issues.
Finally, Raghavan maintains that Nehru’s practical and intellectual understanding ‘might be of considerable importance to contemporary India’; and that he had a subtle understanding of power.’4 Sadly these points are not backed by evidence or clarification because the public record shows, as explain in the following chapters, that Nehru’s successors have tried to unwind the Nehru legacy by their diplomatic and military actions even though academic practitioners such as Dr. Raghavan continue to fly the Nehru flag, and the justifications and rationalisations of Nehru’s ‘understanding of power’ and Indian interests have kept the Nehru legacy alive.
1. T.E. Lawrence, n. 25, pp. 281, 330 and 417.
2. Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India (London: Macmillan/Palgrave, 2010), p. 314.
3. Ibid., p. 315.
4. Ibid., p. 318 and 320.