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

IN RETROSPECT, it is evident that in the years between the invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the war of 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru did make a series of miscalculations and errors in his dealings with China. By placing too much faith in officials who gave him wrong or foolish advice, or who executed the jobs assigned to them with carelessness or lack of foresight, Nehru created a strategically fraught environment. Two men in particular appear to have been unworthy of his trust: the intelligence officer B. N. Mullick, who advised Nehru to sanction the building of outposts along the border, ignoring the obvious Chinese reaction that would follow; and Krishna Menon, who as defense minister refused to properly arm the military, promoted incompetent generals and otherwise damaged the morale of the armed forces, creating an Indian force easily trounced. A second set of miscalculations was political, namely, Nehru’s ignorance or underestimation of the nationalist underpinnings of Chinese Communism and his taking on trust the professions of internationalism and Asian solidarity proffered by Chou En-lai and his ilk.

Nehru’s mistakes were considerable. But above all, the India-China clash of armies and national egos was structural—and inevitable. If Jawaharlal Nehru had not been prime minister, there would still have been a border dispute. And all other things remaining constant, India and China may still have gone to war had Jawaharlal Nehru never lived.

Indeed, a raft of factors provided the perfect foundation for a battle of the two emerging titans. Tibet had deep geostrategic value for both sides. China was intent on reclaiming an area—seen as having been wrongfully wrested from it by the British—that clearly increased its territorial footprint.

But for India, so long as it was semi-independent, Tibet served as a buffer state. Moreover, there were close and continuing connections between the two countries, reflected in active cross-border trade and regular visits of Hindu pilgrims to the holy mountain of Kailas.

The flight of the Dalai Lama into India in the spring of 1959 was simply the proximate cause of the war. That he was given refuge the Chinese government could perhaps accept; that he was treated as a honored visitor, and that a steady stream of influential Indians queued up to meet him, it could not abide.

Nehru could have perhaps been less trusting of the Chinese in the early 1950s. But he could scarcely have gone to war on the Tibetans’ behalf. India was newly independent; it was a poor and divided country. There was a clutch of domestic problems to attend to, among them the cultivation of a spirit of national unity, the promotion of economic development and the nurturing of democratic institutions. Bloody battle would have set back these efforts by decades; it would have led to political instability and economic privation.

And again, after the Dalai Lama fled to India, the balancing act became more delicate still. Nehru could scarcely hand him back to the Chinese. Nor could he keep him imprisoned and isolated. The exiled Tibetan leader had to be provided refuge consistent with his dignity and stature. In a democracy that encouraged debate, and in a culture that venerated spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama would attract visitors who would make public their admiration for him and their distaste for his persecutors. Nehru could hardly put a stop to this; nor, on the other hand, could he use the situation of the Dalai Lama to wag a threatening finger at the Chinese.

The open manifestation of support for the Tibetans and their leader, of course, was a natural by-product of India’s democratic system. The fact that China was a one-party state and India a multiparty democracy created a fundamental structural wedge between them. When, on his visit to New Delhi in 1960, Chou complained about the protection afforded to the Dalai Lama, a senior cabinet minister, Morarji Desai, compared his status to that of Karl Marx, whom the British had given sanctuary after he was exiled from his native Germany.

This, perhaps, was open to debate—and Desai was a skilled debater—but the fact that the two political regimes differed so radically had a powerful bearing on the dispute, its escalation and its intractability. Thus, when a group of anti-Communist protesters raised Free Tibet slogans and defaced a portrait of Mao outside the Chinese consulate in Mumbai, Beijing wrote to New Delhi that this was “a huge insult to the head of state of the People’s Republic of China and the respected and beloved leader of the Chinese people.”

In its reply, the Indian government accepted that the incident was “deplorable.” But it pointed out that

under the law in India processions cannot be banned so long as they are peaceful. . . . Not unoften they are held even near the Parliament House and the processionists indulge in all manner of slogans against high personages in India. Incidents have occurred in the past when portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the Prime Minister were taken out by irresponsible persons and treated in an insulting manner. Under the law and Constitution of India a great deal of latitude is allowed to the people so long as they do not indulge in actual violence.

After the first border clashes of 1959, Indian opposition MPs asked that the official correspondence between the two countries be placed in the public domain. The government conceded, whereupon the evidence of Chinese claims to territory further inflamed and angered public opinion. Chou then arrived in Delhi, with his offer of a quid pro quo. You overlook our transgressions in the west, said the Chinese leader, and we shall overlook your transgressions in the east.

In a dictatorship, such as China, a policy once decided upon by its top leaders did not require the endorsement or support of anyone else. In India, however, treaties with other nations had to be discussed and debated by parliament. In purely instrumental terms, Chou’s proposal was both pragmatic and practicable. But Nehru could not endorse or implement the agreement on his own; he had to discuss it with his colleagues in his party and government and, pending their acceptance, send it to the floor of the house. As it happened, knowledge of Chinese maps that made claims that clashed with India’s, of Indian soldiers killed by Chinese forces, of the persecution of supporters of the Dalai Lama—all this led to a rising tide of nationalist outrage inside and outside parliament. And with members of his own cabinet firmly opposed to a settlement, Nehru had no chance of seeing the agreement through.

Toward the end of 1959, after the first clashes on the border and the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India, Jawaharlal Nehru was interviewed by the American journalist Edgar Snow. In Snow’s recollection, Nehru told him that

the basic reason for the Sino-Indian dispute was that they were both “new nations,” in that both were newly independent and under dynamic nationalistic leaderships, and in a sense were “meeting” at their frontiers for the first time in history.

Hence it “was natural that a certain degree of conflict should be generated before they could stabilize their frontiers.”

Nehru was speaking here not as a politician—whether pragmatic or idealist—but as a student of history. In this more detached role, he could see that a clash of arms, and of the ideologies and aspirations behind it, was written into the logic of the respective and collective histories of India and China.

This is why Jawaharlal Nehru himself, soon after the events, came around to the thinking of critics like Rajaji, who saw the war in terms of great-power politics—with a Nehruvian twist, of course. In a fascinating, forgotten letter written to his chief ministers on December 22, 1962, Nehru admitted the lack of preparedness of the Indian Army and the lack of foresight of the political leadership in not building roads up to the border to carry supplies and munitions. But for him, the Chinese attack had to do not so much with the border dispute as with their larger desire to keep the Cold War going.

Between Russia and the United States, said Nehru, lay a large number of countries which, though weak in conventional military terms, had become symbols of his policy of “peaceful co-existence.” Nehru believed:

Both the United States of America and the Soviet Union have appreciated this. . . [but] there is one major exception, and that is China. . . . It believes in the inevitability of war and, therefore, does not want the tensions in the world to lessen. It dislikes non-alignment and it would much rather have a clear polarization of the different countries in the world.

China, claimed Nehru, was upset with “Russia’s softening down, in its opinion, in revolutionary ardor and its thinking of peace and peaceful co-existence.” And thus this difference of opinion led Russia to withdraw economic and technical support to China and even to offer aid to India. Nehru wrote that

If India could be humiliated and defeated and perhaps even driven into the other camp of the Western Powers, that would be the end of non-alignment for other countries also, and Russia’s policy would have been broken down.

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