Declassified Documents Reveal How War with China Remade India's Military

Indian T-72 tank. Flickr/Creative Commons/Jaskirat Singh Bawa

After the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nehru dropped benign internationalism for a robust military revival of the Indian state.

India recently commemorated its founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 127th birth anniversary at a time when Nehru’s legacy is bitterly contested in the popular and academic domain in India, especially when contrasted with current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy. Spending much of the 1950s leavened by the solace of democracy, coupled with the benign spirited internationalism of Asianism and peace, the kindling fires of the Cold War remained a phantasmagoria for Nehru. A vast array of interconnected triggers imagined, then fabricated, in the mainspring of strategic board rooms of Washington and Kremlin shaped this era of ultimatums and show downs. The unintended accumulation of frontier fencing among Asian nations, accentuated by their simultaneous discovery of civilizational accents, initially shrouded the Cold War meta-doctrines of containment and encirclement. The contemporary era alchemy of modern industrial national strategy of war and diplomacy was still in the foundries of the newly independent India. The beginning by India was bold in intent with the Nehruvian order seeing India embracing the Cold War mined world with open arms. In hindsight, critics have cited lack of strategic due diligence as a hallmark of this era of Indian leadership. Nehru’s national interest assessments for India were contrarian at inception to the trending logic of balance of power theory of international politics. Like a wall of Doppler waves, PLA soldiers walking into Indian territory altered the military balance requirements in South Asia. The war emergency phase from October 1962 marked the beginning of Cold War drafts reaching New Delhi.

What do new declassified Cold War era documents tell us new about Nehru’s hour of trial — the 1962 Sino-Indian War? Much has been written about Nehru’s acts of strategic omission and commission compelled by the illusions of ideology he held. How did Nehru react to this “dark hour” in 1962? What concrete actions did he take and did this war change Nehru’s thinking on India’s role in the Cold War?

Nehru’s term was one of fluctuating fortunes. He echoed a global discourse on decolonization abroad that was very much part of constructing national identity at home, where his popularity sustained his vital engagements abroad. The international capital earned by Nehru was effaced in one shattering blow when the People’s Liberation Army marshalled brazenly deep into the Indian territories. The fundamental assumptions of Nehruvian statecraft reveal the limitations of abstract principles being applied to concrete strategic choices. Ideas were not understood for their intended and unintended consequences. Nehru does not appear to have assessed Cold War realities and remained rooted within the national independence struggle, seeking to establish a bloodless global revolution (“colour revolution”) led by the developing world.

In an instant, “helter-skeltered” Nehru opened talks with both the principal military powers to secure India’s immediate defense requirements. Washington was his first and perhaps his only preference. The twelve squadrons of fighter aircrafts requested of President Kennedy is enough to show that Nehru thought that the very integrity of India was endangered. A deeply vulnerable Nehru had called up Admiral Earl Mountbatten in the third week of the Sino-Indian war to seek his opinion on how far the Chinese would go into India. Nehru’s Cabinet Ministers were convinced that the Chinese would penetrate further afield, but Mountbatten told Nehru that the Chinese had come too far and would go back. One of the main issues in any account of the Sino-Indian conflict is the lack of use of air power by either side. History has shown that restraint by India’s leadership, strategists and military planners had mixed results for Indian security interests in the Cold War era.

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