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

Such was Nehru’s thesis—that India was the stumbling block to China’s global ambitions. With the border war, Beijing hoped to thrust India into the U.S. camp, thereby restoring the clear, sharp boundaries that once separated the Russian bloc of nations from the American one.

Behind the border dispute, then, lay the respective national aspirations of the two countries. Now, in 2011, with surging growth rates and sixty years of independent development behind them, China and India seek great-power status. In the 1950s, however, they sought something apparently less ambitious but which, in the context of their recent colonial histories, was as important; namely respect in the eyes of the world comparable with their size, the antiquity of their civilizations and the distinctiveness of their revolutions.

THERE IS a noticeable asymmetry in the ways in which the war of 1962, which was the culmination of all these disputes, is viewed in the two countries that fought it. The Indian sense of humiliation, so visible in some circles even five decades later, is not matched by a comparable triumphalism in China. This may be because they fought far bloodier wars against the Japanese and within their own borders. At any rate, while histories of modern India devote pages and pages to the conflict (my own India after Gandhi has two chapters on the subject), histories of modern China (such as those written by British journalist Jonathan Fenby, former Yale professor Jonathan Spence and others) devote to it a few paragraphs, at most. Likewise, the conflict with India merits barely a passing reference in biographies of Mao or Chou, whereas the war with China plays a dominant part in biographies of Nehru.

In 1961, when relations between the two countries had more or less broken down, India withdrew its ambassador to Beijing. China did likewise. For fifteen years, the two countries ran skeletal offices in each other’s capital. Finally, in 1976, full diplomatic relations were resumed. In the same year, Mao Tse-tung died.

Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, ever the pragmatist, wished to overcome the baggage of 1962 and to set relations between India and China on a new footing. In the early 1980s, he invited Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to visit. Serving diplomats were sympathetic, but Mrs. Gandhi’s foreign-policy adviser—who had been the last ambassador in Beijing before the war—rejected the proposal, saying the Chinese could never be trusted. “They killed her father,” were the words he used when the gist of Deng’s invitation was conveyed to him.

After Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, took over as prime minister of India, the invitation was renewed. In December 1988, he visited China, the first Indian leader of any substance to do so in more than thirty years. He had a ninety-minute meeting with Deng, who is said to have told him, “You are the young. You are the future.”

In a public speech in Beijing, Rajiv Gandhi remarked that

It is now time to look beyond the past. It is now time to look forward to the future. It is now time to restore the relationship between our countries to a level commensurate with the contribution which our civilizations have made to the world, to a level commensurate with the centuries of friendship between our countries, to a level commensurate with the contribution which today we must together make to the building of a new world order. Between us, we represent a third of humanity. There is much we can do together.

The sentiments were Nehruvian, and indeed the speech was most likely drafted by two scholars who had watched Nehru firsthand. However, Rajiv Gandhi’s hopefulness was called into question by some Indian commentators. In the Statesman, one journalist noted that the territorial disputes between the two countries remained unresolved. He chastised “the myth-makers, the political pundits, the fashionable fellow-travellers, [and] the fervent promoters of Pan-Asianism” for “working overtime to build up the case for friendship in disregard to the border.”

This skepticism was also expressed in a letter to the Hindu from K. Vedamurthy, who had been a close associate of Nehru’s colleague-turned-critic, Rajaji. He recalled the debacle of 1962 and noted that the Chinese had seamlessly moved from being pro-Soviet to being pro-American when it suited them. “We in India,” wrote Vedamurthy,

should not be once again caught in any euphoria of the kind in which we were when Pandit Nehru returned to Delhi from his apparent triumph in the Bandung Conference [of non-aligned nations] of the ’50s. By all means let us repair our relations . . . but let us also remember that what governs international relations is the enlightened self-interest of the countries concerned and not any ideology. . . . Eternal vigilance, as always, remains the price of liberty.

Three years after Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing, the Indian economy opened itself up to the world. At first, the growing international trade was chiefly with the West and the Middle East. Slowly, Chinese goods began to enter the Indian market—and vice versa.

In 2003, another Indian prime minister visited Beijing. This was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As a young, right-wing, pro-American member of parliament in the late 1950s, he had regularly attacked Jawaharlal Nehru for being too trusting of the Chinese. Now, Vajpayee signed a document accepting that Tibet was an integral part of China.

Two years later, Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao came to India. He chose first to go to Bangalore, the center of the software industry, traveling later to the political capital. Seconding (or perhaps explaining) the sequence, the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi said in a press conference that “the ‘B’ of business is more important than the ‘B’ of boundary.”

The most recent figures estimate annual trade between China and India at $60 billion, up from zero in the 1990s. India exports iron ore and cotton, and imports heavy machinery and electronics. Indian software and pharmaceutical firms seek a share of the Chinese market; Chinese companies think that they are best placed to build the highways, bridges and ports that India so urgently requires.

Still, despite the steady increase in trade, and the rhetoric that sometimes accompanies it, boundary disputes have not vanished. Every now and then, Chinese newspapers claim the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh to be their territory. In 2009, when the Dalai Lama sought to visit the ancient Buddhist monastery in Tawang­—which lies deep inside Arunachal—Beijing demanded that the government of India stop him. New Delhi declined to interfere; the Dalai Lama, it said, was a spiritual leader who was going on a spiritual pilgrimage.

On the Indian side, suspicions linger about Chinese intentions. Among the Hindu right wing and some sections of the military, there is talk of Chinese attempts to construct a “string of pearls” to encircle India by building and controlling ports in Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. China’s consistent support to Pakistan (long a haven for terrorists who have regularly attacked India) is also a sore point in the relationship.

Beijing and New Delhi are not the deadly enemies they were between 1959 and 1962; nor are they the close and intimate friends that, back in the 1940s and early 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru had hoped they would be. The border dispute remains unresolved; and so it will be for some time. After denouncing the McMahon Line for so long, the Chinese cannot suddenly turn around and accept it; while any significant concessions from India will have to be discussed in parliament, to be subjected to, and rejected by, an always-contentious opposition. Meanwhile, the presence of a large and vocal Tibetan community in India still irks the Chinese; as does the steady popularity the Dalai Lama enjoys within India and across the world.

The year 2011, then, looks awfully similar to 1951 or 1961. Such is the argument of the historian, based (he thinks) on a detached, dispassionate analysis of both evidence and context. Alas, the conventional wisdom will most likely remain impervious to his work. Citizens and ideologues shall continue to personalize the political conflict, seeing it principally through the lens of what Jawaharlal Nehru did or did not do, or is believed to have done and not done, with regard to China—some empathetic, some pitying and some contemptuous.

I shall end this essay with a verdict that was offered by H. V. Kamath, a civil-servant-turned-freedom-fighter, who served several terms in parliament and was jailed both during British rule and during Indira Gandhi’s emergency period. In a book entitled Last Days of Jawaharlal Nehru, published in 1977, Kamath took his readers back to a parliament session in September 1963, when he saw “an old man, looking frail and fatigued, with a marked stoop in his gait, coming down the gangway opposite with slow, faltering steps, and clutching the backrests of benches for support as he descended.” The man was Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister of India, as he had been for the past sixteen years.

As Kamath watched “the bent retreating figure,” a cluster of memories came to his mind. Was this the same man who, while studying at the Presidency College in Madras, Kamath had seen “sprightly, slim and erect” speaking at the Congress session of 1927 in that city? The same man who, when Kamath visited him in Allahabad ten years later, had “jumped two steps at a time, with me emulating him, as I followed him upstairs from his office room on the ground floor to his study and library above”? The same man who, when they were both members of the Constituent Assembly of India, during one session “impulsively ran from his front seat and literally dragged a recalcitrant member from the podium rebuking him audibly”? The same man on whom the nationalist poetess, Sarojini Naidu, had “affectionately conferred the sobriquet ‘Jack-in-the-box’—a compliment to his restless agility of body and mind”?

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