Why Mao attacked India in 1962
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Issue Vol. 26.3 July - Sept2011 | Date : 06 Dec , 2015

There is an angle of the 1962 Sino-Indian that conflict has been insufficiently studied. What were Beijing’s motivations to go to war? Who decided to inflict the worst possible humiliation on India?

Historical sources are still sparse, but going through some available documents, one can get a fairly good idea of the Chinese motivations or more exactly the ‘political’ compulsions which pushed the Great Helmsman into this venture.

Mao Temporarily Leaves the Stage

It is fashionable to speak of crimes against humanity. One of the greatest, known as the ‘Great Leap Forward’, began in China in February 1958 and resulted in the largest man-made starvation period in human history. By initiating his Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s objective was to surpass Great Britain in industrial production within 15 years. For the purpose, every Chinese had to start producing steel at home, with a backyard furnace. In agriculture, Mao thought that very large communes would achieve manifold increase in the cereal production, turning China into a heaven of abundance. Introduced and managed with frantic fanaticism, it was not long before the program collapsed.

At the beginning of 1962, as tension was increasing on the Indian border, did Nehru realize that China was a starving nation? Very few knew that, by the end of 1961 Mao was practically out of power.

One man tried to raise his voice against the general madness and sycophancy. This was Peng Denhai, the Defence Minister and old companion of Mao during the Long March. Marshal Peng, who was a simple, honest and straightforward soldier, wrote a long personal letter to Mao on what he had seen in the countryside and the misery of the people. Mao immediately ‘purged’ old Peng; the Great Leap Forward however continued till 1961/1962. Today it is estimated that between 40 and 50 million people died of hunger in China during these three years.

At the beginning of 1962, as tension was increasing on the Indian border, did Nehru realize that China was a starving nation? Very few knew that, by the end of 1961 Mao was practically out of power.

Dr Zhisui Li, Mao’s personal physician recounts how in 1961 Mao was: “…depressed over the agricultural crisis and angry with the party elite, upon whom he was less able now to work his will, Mao was in temporary eclipse, spending most of his time in bed.”

At the beginning of the fateful year 1962, Mao’s situation had not improved. Dr Li noted: “1962 was a political turning point for Mao. In January, when he convened another expanded Central Committee work conference to discuss the continuing disaster, his support within the party was at its lowest.”

During the Conference, known as the 7,000 Cadres’ Conference, Lui Shaoqi declared: “…man-made disasters strike the whole country.” He was targeting Mao. After a month, as the meeting could not conclude, Mao decided that it was enough: he would temporarily ‘retire’.

The conflict with India is closely linked to his comeback.

The Three Reconciliations and One Reduction

In the early 1960’s, Wang Jiaxiang was still one of the senior-most leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Two decades earlier, he had attended Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow, a Soviet institution which trained young revolutionary leaders. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, Wang was appointed first as the People’s Republic of China’s Ambassador to Soviet Union, and then returned to Beijing to work in the Foreign Ministry.

Wang’s grand idea was to reconstruct China. For this, it was necessary for the People’s Republic to have a ‘softer’ foreign policy line towards the United States, the Soviet Union, and India. Wang also thought that China should spend less on ‘foreign aid’, at a time China itself was going through such difficult times. Wang believed that peaceful coexistence needed to be stressed.

His theory became known as the ‘Three Reconciliations and the One Reduction’. The three reconciliations were with the US, the Soviet Union and India and the reduction referred to unnecessary foreign expenditures.

The Chairman continued: “We fought a war with old Chiang [Kai-shek]. We fought a war with Japan, and one with America. During none of these, did we fear. And in each case, we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us…”

Wang Jiaxiang spoke with President Liu Shaoqi who apparently agreed with him. On 27 February 1962, Wang put his thoughts in a letter to Zhou Enlai and other senior leaders. The letter was not sent to Mao who had ‘withdrawn’ after the Seven Thousand Cadres’ Conference.

Wang’s policies however became visible at the World Peace Congress held in Moscow from 9 to 14 July; according to the US scholar MacFarquhar in his Origin of the Cultural Revolution1: “[China and Soviet Union] acted with restraint. Though both sides maintained their positions some agreements were reached.”

Regarding India, the same scholar explained: “Wang Jiaxiang seemed to be seeking at least a partial revival of the ‘Bandung line’ of the mid-1950s, according to which non-communist independent nations of the Third World were regarded as allies in the overarching struggle against imperialism.

…In his argument with Khrushchev, Mao had rejected the possibility of ‘peaceful transition’ from bourgeois regimes like Nehru’s India to proletarian dictatorship and insisted that they would have to be overthrown by revolution.”

On June 3, The People’s Daily published a rather moderate editorial on Sino-Indian relations; it was one more sign of the softer line in Beijing’s foreign policy.

This policy unfortunately did not last long, mainly due to the internal power struggle and the return of the Great Helmsman, as we shall see. However, it seems obvious that the Sino-Indian conflict would have not degenerated the way it did, if Wang Jiaxiang’s policies had been followed.

Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern

The policy of the Chinese government in the initial months of 1962 followed the motto Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern. Practically, it meant that while both Armies were building their positions in the Western and Eastern sectors, the governments of China and India continued to ‘coexist’, exchanging voluminous correspondence, sometimes bitter, sometimes more conciliatory.

This jigsaw policy (opening new posts and offering negotiations) could have continued longer, at least till the winter, but this is without taking into account the ‘return of Mao’.

But Mao had decided to return to the center-stage. The occasion was the Beidaihe Conference2. Mao’s physician remembered: “In the summer of 1962, [Mao] emerged from his retreat. …I knew that his counter offensive was about to begin.” The worsening of the Sino-Indian conflict coincides with Mao’s return to the political stage in China.

Though more and more letters were exchanged between India and China, Nehru probably saw the increasingly frequent missives from Beijing as a bluff; the ‘Chinese won’t attack’ remained the leitmotiv, the ‘jigsaw’ could continue for months, he thought; in three months time, winter would settle over the Roof of the world and nothing serious could then happen.

Delhi nevertheless continued to talk of negotiations. As the Chinese ambassador Pan Zili was leaving his post in India, the Indian Prime Minister invited him for lunch. During the informal talks, Nehru confirmed that India was ready to discuss the border issue without precondition.

Around that time, on the sidelines of the Laos Conference in Geneva, the Indian Defence Minister Krishna Menon met the Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi, and both decided to restart the negotiation process.

Unfortunately during a debate in the Parliament, Nehru had to backtrack on the preconditions; this probably helped Mao to insist that the Indians were unreliable.

Fire will eventually be consumed by fire

In September 1962, at the 10th Plenum of the Party’s 8th Central Committee, Mao regained the destiny of China into his hands; he denounced ‘the members of the bourgeoisie right in the party ranks’. He even attacked his mild Premier Zhou Enlai and Foreign Minister Chen Yi. They were accused of trying to rehabilitate the intellectuals and the scientists.

In a Note dated September 13, 1962, Beijing hardened its tone vis-à-vis India. It quoted six recent incidents where India had trespassed into Chinese territory in the Ladakh sector. It cited a speech of Nehru in the Rajya Sabha on August 22 1962: “Prime Minister Nehru stated outright that on the Sino-Indian boundary question the Indian Government is following a ‘dual policy’ and intends to gain from China what it seeks to gain by political pressure, military pressure or other pressures.”

Though both parties continued to speak of negotiations, it was no longer under the same terms.

Around that time, Mao said that the Indians had been pressing the Chinese along the border for three years: “if they try it a fourth year then China will strike back,” he warned.

Internal Situation

By early October, Mao was again in total control of events and people in Beijing. He was assisted by his submissive servitor, Zhou Enlai and his new protégé and the heir apparent, Defence Minister Lin Biao. Several other leaders participated in the decision to ‘slap’ India. Some of the decisive meetings were attended not only Liu Shaoqi, still Chairman of the PRC, Deng Xiaoping but perhaps more importantly Marshals Liu Bocheng, He Long, and Xu Xiangqian as well as General Luo Ruiqing, the Army Chief.

Liu Bocheng was the main strategic advisor. Liu was against the idea of simply ‘throwing out’ the Indian troops from NEFA by pushing them back after ‘breaking up their attack, and surrounding them’. He wanted a more decisive victory.

Even as preparations for war were going on in Beijing, the Indian leaders were not too worried. They continued issuing orders to throw the Chinese out of the Indian territory. Unfortunately, the Indian Army was not physically equipped to implement the politicians’ order.

…the Chinese forces strictly followed the principle of not firing first, the situation in both sectors was fast deteriorating: the Indian Army had begun to concentrate troops and deploy artillery in both sectors…

Prime Minister Nehru had just left for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London, while Defence Minister Krishna Menon went to perorate at the UN in New York. By the beginning of October the Indian Army Chief was nervous; he began to insist on getting orders in writing from his political boss who lived in another world. No problem, said the Defence Minister, he would cable them from New York.

October 6: China Decides to go to War

According to the Chinese historians who wrote the history of the 1962 conflict, a first key meeting was held in early October, perhaps on October 6 in the morning.

Defence Minister and Deputy CMC chairman, Lin Biao reported about the situation in the Tibet and the Xinjiang Military Districts. Lin said that the Indians continued to advance and often opened fire on Chinese outposts; ten Chinese personnel had been killed or wounded during the last few days.

Though the Chinese forces strictly followed the principle of not firing first, the situation in both sectors was fast deteriorating: the Indian Army had begun to concentrate troops and deploy artillery in both sectors, said the Defence Minister.

Even more serious, the Chinese military intelligence had gathered that Indian forces were planning an attack on Thagla Ridge on 10 October. This information was absolutely correct, the Corps IV Commander, Lt Gen BM Kaul had planned to attack in Dhola post area on that day.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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15 thoughts on “Why Mao attacked India in 1962

  1. Ex.Prime Minister Nehru and Defense minister had neglected the Army. after Independence, Nehru purchased an Aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. Air craft Carriers are the costliest defense equipment, which are required only if we fight a war far away from our country, where fighter planes cannot travel such a long distance,The guided missile boats performed better than Aircraft carrier and other warships in 1971 war. Missile boats crossed all barrier and attacked Karachi. Port.. Smt Indira Gandhi did not give much importance to our Navy during her meeting with the three Service chiefs during the 1971 war. During the period of Indira Gandhi, they could not change her policy.Perhaps she did not give importance to Navy knowing that China cannot attack India without a permanent base in Indian ocean. This is a proof of her farsightedness! She had taken special interest in developing missiles because strategic points in Chinese mainland cannot be destroyed without long- range missiles, as it is far away from LOC. Only by increasing other assets we cannot fight against China. But after her death India purchased another Air Craft carrier in 1987 during Raiv Gandhi’s period. It is unfortunate that majority of the Defense officers have no clear idea about our actual defence requirements and do not know what is happening in the world. The defense policies followed by all the previous Governments were to make this country one of the biggest military powers in the world and not a developed country like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Canada.

  2. The Author is very articulate while researching on the events that led to Indo China war in 1962. How war of words creates tension on both side & how decisively Mao has pulled the string to a full fledged war against India by taking advantage of Indian Premier’s relatively less involvements in protecting its boundaries from any foreign aggression. In 1962, India’s defense prepared at its infant level & not in a position to fight a full fledged war. However, Mao was adamant as there is prolong hunger in China & leaders are relatively less powerful to protest against this decision of Mao. And, as the story progress, I have noticed that Mao had no options open as he had enemies inside his administration. On the other hand, Indian counterpart was very weak & unorganized & in that case provoking Chinese Army by proxy firing was a blunder on Indian part.
    The RESULT was visible & thousands of Indian Army lost their lives fighting Chinese in NEFA ( Present Arunachal Pradesh) & they progressed upto Tezpur.

  3. Chinese were super powers even during 14th Century. The British author and retired submarine lieutenant-commander Gavin Menzies has written a book (1421: The Year China Discovered the World) in which he claims that the Chinese sailed to America before Columbus. There is another book from the same author titled “1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance”. Zheng He (Cheng Ho) voyages commanded a fleet of 317 ships, almost 28,000 men, their arms and supplies. The Malabar port of Calicut was a stop over in medieval times and was the key link in the Indian Ocean. He oversaw seven voyages that touched upon Calicut between 1405 -1433. The Chinese had discontinued voyages around the early 16th century? China was prosperous, self-complacent, self-sufficient and isolated until the European arrived. Initially the Chinese emperor banned the European products. Hence Opium provided the perfect product in building a customer base through use, abuse, and addiction. It was cheaply produced in India. China lost two opium wars against Britain because the drug addicted chinese army was no match for the British. The Japanese had a free walkover during WWII. The west was clever in playing the double agents game with China. The communist revolution in China was planned by CIA and the Western elites at Yale. CIA trained Mao Zedong’s Red Army in China and the Viet Minh in French Indochina. The west found it easy to control china further using the same opium strategy combined with eugenics under Mao. The present China is a family-run business. The best way to gain a foothold in China is through princelings or revolutionary families that constitute the political elite and dominates the Chinese economy and wealth. Greed is the driving force behind the protectionist walls of the state-owned economy and money is the language. India should handle China more diplomatically than military strength. Understand and learn from the tactics used by Brits

    • Most of the info in the beginning of the comment is only a theory which is yet to be established. First thing is that India and China had a common border because of ILLEGAL occupation of Tibet by the Chinese to which stupid Nehru kept quiet and laid the foundations of 1962 war. Forget about placating the Chinese thugs because they are inherently liars and untrustworthy. India needs to develop defence capability and infrastructure to counter this yellow peril. This is also a misconception that Brits only used diplomacy to rule the nations. Unlike India they were very aggressive in their military campaigns. It was British military aggressiveness and will to win at all costs that helped them to stay in India in 1857, WIN Afghan war, Boar war, Khartoum and Gorkha war. Nehru was an established fool and a coward in every sphere of administration whether diplomacy or preparing for war.

  4. Its a good read if one wants a peep into the goings on ‘on the other side of the hill’ before the India-China war broke out on 20th Oct 1962. The author, Claude Arpi, solely concentrates on the single issue of the re-emergence of Mao on the communist China scene after the debacle of the Great leap Forward & Cultural Revolution heralded by the Great helmsman Mao as the reason for the China-India war. In my view, having worsted the Japanese during WWII and having given the US a bloody nose in Korea, the Chinese were now loathe to accept the rise of newly independent India on the world stage as an alternative to it in the immediate neighborhood of Asia & in the world beyond. As Mao himself let on, they needed the 30-40 years of untrammeled hegemony to build themselves up economically, militarily & politically before the logical next step for global dominance.

    Today as Chinese nuclear submarines prowl around the Indian Ocean & possibly the Pacific, as they create ‘island’ air bases in their back yard, the South China sea & as they declaim about the ‘one belt- one road’ projects , set up their own version of the IMF & World Bank etc- we can surmise that though a bit delayed on schedule the Great Helmsman & his successors are right on track!! In all of this another little nugget- Mao was 69 at the time he launched the war whereas Nehru was already 73 years old – 4 years younger. Nehru dies in two years, in 1964 at age 75 whereas Mao lived on to reach 83 years of age when he died in 1976. The state of health & the problems faced by both in running their governments must have also taken a toll on their thought processes. Both were also reputedly great valentines when it came to women!!

  5. Nehru provoked the Chinese. He forced an ill prepared Indian Army, to occupy forward positions which were disputed, He was under the false impression that China will not retaliate.

    • Nehru had unfortunately put his faith in an incompetent vengeful buffoon, Krishna Mennon. This moron if he had, had his way would have ended the military career of then Brig. Sam HFJ Manekshaw, who turned out to be India’s Greatest Soldier in history. Just goes to shows how important it is for leaders to have that ability to choose the right people for the job. Nehru’s trust in Krishna Mennon was the sole factor that lead to the Chinese debacle beside of course his naivety in trusting the treacherous Chinese. Stupid ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’ slogan turned out to be the biggest joke on India in history.

    • This lie gained currency due to Chinese poodle known as Maxwell Neville and is far from truth. Can you explain why Chinese were even in Tibet when it was not their territory. Sardar Patel cautioned Nehru on this but Nehru’s suffered from limitless stupidity and Mao confirmed it by commenting that Nehru is an useful idiot.

  6. The article is good .Especially the fact finding etc in it ……….. But it does not reflect the Actual reasons of the Sino-indian War , which was ” Weaponization pressures from Nato countries to sell more weapons to newly independent countries like India & Pakistan so that both newly independent countries Forget that they have just gotten rid from 200 years of British-Anglo Rule ” & ” External Western country pressures on Chinese leaders like Mao to Dilute the newly formed India as a county’s standing on the economic stability cycle which was suppose to start good within India at that time ” .. these were the only 2 Sole reasons for the both Wars done with India at that time and bigger one was 1962 Sino-india which we still consider as a “Weaponisation war ” done by weaponization countries as external exerted pressure on China -India at that time .

  7. Why Mao attacked India in 1962 ?
    It is obvious that Mao was Han-Racist who thought that Hans sobs superior to everyone else. A person like that does not need any reason to attack. You should state the obvious instead of trying to give long explanations.

  8. A well written and thought provoking article! Sino-Indo relations were quite cordial in the mid 1950’s, when the “Panchsheel” was signed, marked by slogans such as “Hindi -Chini bhai bhai”i.e., Indians and Chinese are brothers. The relations nose dived because of Nehru’s folly of providing asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959. It appears, THIS was the main reason for the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. Relations between the two countries can never be normalised as long as the Tibetan government in exile continues to function from inside India. Till date it is difficult to fathom Nehru’s mind which made him commit such an inexcusable blunder resulting in an intractable conflict with a neighbour three time its size!

  9. It is great article but the bottom line was Mr. Nehru was not prepared. His Communist defense minister never thought that India can be attacked from north. Even the school books prepared by the commi impressed NCERT were teaching Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai and in geography lessons kids were taught that Himalaya was the natural wall of defense! The domestic compulsion of China has not reduced, the aim of reducing Chinese population is the reason for the next war with India. Two benefits are there – in the war reduce population is the guarantee and opportunity to gain some more land mass to settle Chinese people . Tibet is the great example of grabbing land mass changing demography.

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