Natwar Singh recounts 1986 showdown with China

General Sundarji,then Army Chief,had suggested that India could take on both China and Pakistan,says Natwar Singh.

Written by Agencies | New Delhi | Published: February 8, 2009 4:04 pm

In the midst of the eyeball-to- eyeball confrontation between Chinese and Indian forces in Sumdorong Chu valley of Arunachal Pradesh in 1986,General K S Sundarji,then Army Chief,had dropped a bombshell by suggesting that India could take on both China in the east and Pakistan in the west,says former minister K Natwar Singh.

Sundarji buttressed his contention during a meeting in Room No 9 of Parliament House of the Political Affairs Committee presided over by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and attended by the civil and defence top brass,recalls Singh,who was the then Minister of State for External Affairs.

“The Army Chief made his presentation on Sumdorong Chu and also the western sector. He announced rather nonchalantly that India could take on both China in the east and Pakistan in the west,” writes Singh in his new book ‘My China Diary’.

Intervening in the discussion,India’s Ambassador to China K P S Menon,a seasoned diplomat,pointed out that this was deja vu,1962 in another guise,a reference to the Sino-India conflict.

Singh,who belongs to the 1953 Indian Foreign Service batch and has served in China,Pakistan and other countries,recounts that then Foreign Secretary A P Venkateswaran also met the same fate from the Army Chief.

At the meeting,P V Narasimha Rao,N D Tiwari,K C Pant and Buta Singh were all looking at the Prime Minister. Also present were Arun Singh,Minister of State for Defence.

Singh says he was surprised to hear the Army Chief’s observations as a military reverse in the east would bring down the government in spite of its huge majority in Parliament.

Singh,who was External Affairs Minister in the Manmohan Singh ministry,says he told Sundarji,”General,in 1962,we had Krishna Menon to sacrifice. In 1986,whom do we sacrifice,you or the Prime Minister?

In the latter part of 1986,it came to India’s notice that Chinese forces had built a helipad at Wandung in Sumdorong Chu valley.

India had reacted swiftly resulting in a week of tense moments before both sides mutually agreed to withdraw their forces inside their respective territories and create a no man’s land.

At the end of 1986,India granted statehood to Arunachal Pradesh,an area still claimed by China. The military movements in Tawang was seen by the Chinese as a provocation.

Both countries realised the danger of inadvertent conflict and after initial posturing,decided to de-escalate their deployments.

Singh offers new insights about the complexities of India-China relations in the 192-page book. He recounts his days as a diplomat in Beijing and writes about what transpired during Premier Chou En-lai’s ill-fated visit to India in 1960 as also about Rajiv Gandhi’s path-breaking visit to China in December,1988.

The former minister has also come out with interesting backroom anecdotes and diplomatic manoeuvrings.

Singh said he had wondered how Health Minister B Shankaranand had become part of the PM’s delegation. “When I went to brief him on China on the 18th in Delhi,all he talked was about the wicked Brahmins who surrounded the PM. Later,I

learnt that M L Fotedar had suggested his name”.

In a passing reference,Singh said Gandhi had told him that Shankaranand had been “rewarded” for his “help” in the Bofors Joint Parliamentary Committee over which he had presided.

“Rajiv (Gandhi) told me that he (Shankaranand) had been rewarded for his help in the Bofors JPC,” he said.

Singh heaped praise on Gandhi saying “the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru did not let the pressure of the past to derail the present”. Gandhi displayed “boldness,visionary and inspiring leadership. He was both audacious and prudent and endowed with an uncluttered,practical approach.

However,Singh also described Gandhi as an “impatient listener” not having an introspective mind and one who did not read books.

Singh gives glimpses of the tough negotiations during Gandhi’s China visit before the two sides agreed on setting up joint working groups to deal with the boundary question,economic relations as also trade and science and technology.

Chinese Premier Li Peng had pressed for inclusion of “mutual accommodation” in the communique but apprehending that this could imply conceding territory,Gandhi suggested “mutual acceptability” as an alternative formulation.

Singh said Sonia Gandhi,who was accompanying Rajiv,got an attack of asthma during the trip. “My inhaler is not working,” she told Singh who told her that he had left his inhaler at the guest house.

The high point of the visit was Gandhi’s meeting with top Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. “The Deng-Rajiv handshake lasted quite a while. It signalled that Deng wanted the Indian PM’s visit to succeed,” recalls Singh.

Narasimha Rao was “peeved” that Gandhi had not asked him to accompany him for his talks with Deng.

“I goofed,” Gandhi later told Singh but this was for not taking Foreign Secretary K P S Menon for the talks with Deng.

Natwar suggested that Gandhi should send for Menon and tell him the lapse was regrettable. Gandhi had described Rao as “negative,indecisive and uncommunicative”.

At one point,Singh says he suggested to Gandhi that Rao should be made a Governor and that the PM should take over MEA with two Ministers of State. Gandhi said he wanted to restructure MEA.

Singh recounts another meeting with Gandhi when the drank Coca-Cola. Gandhi then told him that the Coke people want to get back to India.

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