The Dalai Lama's War

August 24, 2011 Topic: DefenseHistoryIdeologyRising PowersPolitics Regions: ChinaIndia

The Dalai Lama's War

Mini Teaser: Nearly fifty years ago, India and China met in a brief, bloody border clash that would come to define—and destroy—the legendary Nehru. Was this the first step in an inevitable clash between two rising civilizations?

by Author(s): Ramachandra Guha

Meanwhile, a revolt broke out in Tibet. It was put down, and in March 1959 the Dalai Lama fled to India. That he was given refuge, and that Indian political parties rushed to his defense, enraged the Chinese. The war of words escalated. That autumn there were sporadic clashes between Indian and Chinese troops on the border.

Now, in a letter to his chief ministers, Nehru wrote that

Behind all this frontier trouble, there appears to me to be a basic problem of a strong and united Chinese State expansive and pushing out in various directions and full of pride in its growing strength. In Chinese history, this kind of thing has happened on several occasions. Communism as such is only an added element; the real reason should be found to lie deeper in history and in national characteristics. But it is true that never before have these two great countries, India and China, come face to face in some kind of a conflict. By virtue of their very size and their actual or potential strength, there is danger in this situation.

Nehru had thus begun to come around, at least in part, to the view articulated by Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950. The Chinese state was more nationalist than Communist. Still, he felt that there was no chance of a full-fledged war between the two countries. To protect India’s interests, Nehru now sanctioned a policy of “forward posts,” whereby detachments were camped in areas along the border claimed by both sides. This was a preemptive measure, designed to deter the Chinese from advancing beyond the McMahon Line. It was also provocative.

In July 1962, there were clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the western sector, followed, in September, by skirmishes in the east. The Chinese launched a major military strike in the third week of October. In the west, the Indians resisted stoutly; in the east, they were slaughtered. The Chinese swept through the Brahmaputra Valley, coming as far as the town of Tezpur in the state of Assam. The great city of Calcutta was in their sights. However, on November 22, the Chinese announced a unilateral cease-fire and withdrew from the areas they had occupied in the east. The territorial gains that they had made in the west before 1962, however, stand to this day.

How did Nehru get it so wrong?

INDIANS, THEN and now, have competing interpretations of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies vis-à-vis the Chinese. The first is empathetic. Nehruvians, Congress Party supporters and a large swathe of the middle-aged middle class hold Nehru to be a good and decent man betrayed by perfidious Communists.

This point of view finds literary illustration in a novel by Rukun Advani called Beethoven among the Cows. A chapter entitled “Nehru’s Children” is set in 1962, “the year the Chinese invaded India, a little before Nehru died of a broken heart.” The action, set in the northern Indian town of Lucknow (a town Nehru knew well, and visited often), takes place just before the war, when much saber rattling was going on. The people there were spouting couplets “shot through with Nehru’s Shelleyean idealism on the socialist Brotherhood of Man.” A slogan popular through the sixties, widely associated with the Indian prime minister if not actually composed by him, was “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” (Indians and Chinese are like brothers). This brotherhood, wrote Advani, was now being denied and violated by the duplicitous Chinese. Drawing on his childhood memories, the novelist composed four couplets. I will not attempt here a literal translation but content myself with the one-line summary of the writer, which is that these verses “asked the Chinese leaders to shake hands with Nehru, eat chowmein with him, and generally come to their senses.”

The second view, in stark contrast to the first, is contemptuous of Nehru. It sees him as a foolish and vain man who betrayed the nation by encouraging China in its aggressive designs on the sacred soil of India. This viewpoint is associated with ideologues of the Hindu Right, speaking for organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the 1960s, the RSS chief M. S. Golwalkar wrote witheringly that

the slogans and paper compromise like “peaceful co-existence” and “Panchsheel” [the five principles of peaceful co-existence advocated by Nehru] that our leaders are indulging in only serve as a camouflage for the self-seeking predatory countries of the world to pursue their own ulterior motives against our country. China, as we know, was most vociferous in its expression of faith in Panchsheel. China was extolled as our great neighbour and friend for the last two thousand years or more from the day it accepted Buddhism. Our leaders declared that they were determined to stick to China’s friendship “at all costs.” . . . How much it has cost us in terms of our national integrity and honour is all too well known.

And then there was Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the leading ideologue of the BJP’s mother party, the Jana Sangh. Week after week, Upadhyaya excoriated Nehru and his China policy in the pages of the RSS journal Organiser. When the first clashes broke out on the border in September 1959, Upadhyaya argued that “the present situation is the result of complacency on the part of the Prime Minister. It seems that he was reluctant to take any action till the situation became really grave.” Nehru was compared to the notoriously effete and incompetent nineteenth-century ruler of the north Indian chiefdom of Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah. “Only he [Nehru] knows when a crisis is not a crisis,” wrote Upadhyaya sarcastically, only Nehru knew “how to emit smoke without fire and how to arrest a conflagration in a Niagara of verbiage!”

The argument that India’s first prime minister was pusillanimous with regard to China was also articulated by an obsessive critic of all that Nehru stood for, the brilliant and maverick socialist thinker Ram Manohar Lohia. In a speech in Hyderabad in October 1959, Lohia asked Nehru and his government “to take back the territory the Chinese have captured by whatever means it thinks fit.” “Increase the country’s strength and might,” he thundered, “Then alone China’s challenge can be met.” When Chou En-lai visited Delhi in April 1960 and was met with a hostile demonstration organized by the Jana Sangh, Lohia said that “if any one deserves a black flag demonstration, it is no one else but Mr. Nehru for extending an invitation to an outright aggressor.”

The third view of Nehru’s attitude to Chinese claims and demands was perhaps the most interesting. Exuding pity rather than contempt, this held Nehru to be a naive man misled by malign advisers and by his own idealism. Responding to the border clashes in the second half of 1959, author and politician C. Rajagopalachari wrote several essays urging Nehru to abandon his long-held and deeply cherished policy of nonalignment. “Rajaji” had once been a colleague of Nehru, both in the Indian National Congress and in government. Now, however, he was a political rival, as the founder of the Swatantra Party.

Rajaji sympathized with Nehru’s desire to avoid full-scale war, which lay behind his reconciling attitude toward the Chinese. Nor had he any illusions about the Western powers, whose policies reflected a general unwillingness to accommodate the aspirations of the postcolonial world. Still, the border conflict had, he wrote in the last week of December 1959, called for “a complete revision of our attitude and activities in respect of foreign policy.” With China backed implicitly and explicitly by the Soviet Union, India had no alternative but to seek support from the Western powers. Rajaji found justification for a tilt to the West in a verse of the ancient Tamil classic, the Kural of Thiruvalluvar, which, in his translation, read; “You have no allies. You are faced with two enemies. Make it up with one of them and make of him a good ally.”

There were, of course, points of overlap between the positions articulated by Rajaji, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Lohia. This is not surprising, since all were opponents of Jawaharlal Nehru and the ruling Congress Party. However, there were also points of divergence. Rajaji more clearly recognized that India did not have the military might to combat, much less overcome, the Chinese. Hindu ideologues like Upadhyaya suggested that India’s deficiencies in this regard could be made up by a mobilization of militantly spiritual energy; socialists like Lohia thought that the gap could be filled by collective social action. Rajaji could see, however, that it was not merely a failure of nerve but of capacity, which could be remedied only through the forging of a new strategic alliance. And his is a view that may be enjoying a sort of afterlife, in the form of the argument, now quite common in the press and in policy circles in New Delhi, that India must actively pursue closer military and economic ties with the United States to thwart and combat an assertive China.

Image: Pullquote: A view now quite common in New Delhi is that India must actively pursue closer military and economic ties with the United States to thwart and combat an assertive China.Essay Types: Essay