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An Expert Explains: China’s revisionism on 1962

Amid the Galwan standoff, the Chinese have claimed their 1962 aggression was a 'counter attack'. This is not borne out of facts of logic — but the opportunities India lost to settle the border issue are well documented.

India, India latest news, China latest news, India China, India China conflict, Never Attack; Never Invade Another Country, 1962 War, Zhang Xiaokang, UNCLOS agreement, India China border, Galwan valley, Sino-Indian border, Tibet, UNGA, JL Nehru, Chinese communist party, Tibet agreement, Ladakh-Aksai Chin border, indian express explained, indian expressIndian troops near Pangong lake in Ladakh during the 1962 war with China. (Express Archive)

The Chinese website Guancha has published an 8,000-word revised history of the 1962 War after six decades to justify the propaganda line of “Never Attack; Never Invade Another Country”, and to present China as a peace-loving nation. The story, written by Zhang Xiaokang, daughter of the former military commander in Tibet General Zhang Gouhua, comes in the wake of the conflict in the western sector in the Galwan valley.

In recent years, China has evoked strong reactions from major countries for its claims on superpower status through the aggressive use of economic and military sinews — with the UK on Hong Kong, with Australia on trade, with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China sea, with the US on its projection of military power, and with Southeast Asian countries over control of the South China Sea despite the verdict of the world court under the UNCLOS agreement. The recent attempts by China to stir up trouble on the India-China border in the Galwan river valley has added to the worries of not only India but the international community generally.

History on its head

One can understand Madam Zhang’s desire to glorify her father, but to portray the 1962 War as a “self-defence counter attack” is a poor attempt to make history stand on its head.

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There is a contradiction in her story. A “counter attack” does not allow the attacked country the luxury of elaborate planning over a long period, as she herself points out quoting Mao:

“Over the years we have taken many measures to seek a peaceful solution to the Sino-Indian border problem, but India has refused to do so and deliberately provoked an armed conflict which has become more and more intense. Since Nehru must fight, we have no choice but to go along with it.”

She recalls that Mao had called a meeting of his political and military brass and asked them, “perhaps if we counterattack, the border can be settled and a peaceful resolution of the border issue can be achieved?”, and Gen Zhang Guohua had assured him, “yes we can, please rest assured, Chairman, we can definitely win”.

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The Expert

A S Bhasin is a retired Director, Historical Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. In 2018, he published a 5-volume documentary study of India-China Relations, 1947-2000. His book, Nehru, Tibet and China (Penguin Viking) was published in June 2021

Facing an attack, the attacked party counterattacks with whatever force is available, win or lose. It cannot wait for a leisurely meeting to be called by the head of the government and plan for a counterattack after getting an assurance of victory.

In this context, a 2019 article by Chaowu Dai, distinguished professor at Yunnan University and director of the YNU Institute for Indian Studies in Kunming, China, is more honest. He has little hesitation in admitting that from 1960 to October 1962, judging that India was unwilling to negotiate a solution, China “made preparations for deployment of its military”, creating interlocking positions “for long-term armed coexistence on the border issue ultimately proceeding to the border conflict”. (‘China’s Strategy for Sino-Indian Boundary Disputes, 1950-1962’, Asian Perspective, Johns Hopkins University Press) This statement is nearest to the truth.

Analysing the circumstances, one has to see if India was actually prepared for an attack.

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On September 8, 1962, Nehru left for London to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference. He returned on October 2, after visiting Paris, Lagos and Accra, and then left for Colombo on October 12, returning to New Delhi on October 16. Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon was in New York from September 17-30 for the UNGA session. On October 2, the Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen B M Kaul, was holidaying in Kashmir.

No country that is preparing for an attack would allow its Prime Minister or senior generals responsible for war planning to be away from its capital.

Nehru’s mistakes

The culprit was an avoidable statement of the Prime Minister to journalists on October 12 while leaving for Colombo that “he had instructed the Army to clear the Indian territory of Chinese intrusions and the date had been left to the army to decide”.

He was perhaps referring to a decision taken in the Defence Ministry to clear the recent intrusion in the Kemong Division of NEFA, a limited action. People’s Daily, the Chinese communist party mouthpiece, taking advantage of Nehru’s remarks, said on October 14, “so it seems Nehru had made up his mind to attack China on an even bigger scale”.

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The above unfortunate statement of Nehru has been used by Madam Zhang to fabricate the theory of “self-defence counter attack”. While we can fault the Chinese for this fabrication, India cannot escape blame for not being serious in settling the border question, despite repeated Chinese pleas. Whatever the Indian stand, it had certain fissures that do not stand scrutiny.

Prime Minister Nehru, in explaining his reluctance to discuss the border question, had said in Rajya Sabha on December 8, 1959, that since we’re “sure of our borders the question was why invite discussions about a thing on which we had no doubt”.

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Even this statement had problems. The western border, which created the major dispute, was “undefined” in the Survey of India maps that India inherited in 1947, and which were later reprinted. Similarly, Nehru was not unaware that China in the past had never accepted the McMahon Line in the eastern sector, the outcome of the Simla Convention of 1914, and it was unlikely to accept it — and yet insisted this was non-negotiable.

Opportunities lost

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In 1954, at the time of talks on Tibet, India had taken the stand that the border question would not be discussed. An opportunity to settle the border was allowed to slip. After the Tibet Agreement was signed on April 29, 1954, Nehru ordered in July that a line should be drawn to demarcate the Ladakh-Aksai Chin border, which would not be open for discussion — ignoring that this was an international border, and required consultations and agreement of the other stakeholder.

Having changed the status of the border unilaterally, he created a vacuum by not establishing a check post, or even unfurling a flag.

The area was neglected to the extent that India was unaware that China had constructed a 120-km highway through it. In his letter of January 23, 1959, the Chinese Premier had suggested talks since, as he said, historically no agreement on the boundary had ever been concluded, and the absence of formal delimitation created discrepancies which often led to “minor border incidents which are probably difficult to avoid”.

On March 22, Nehru noted that the sector from the trijunction of the Nepal, India, and Tibet boundary up to Ladakh (Ladakh-Aksai Chin sector) was traditional and known by custom, usage, by the application of the principle of watershed and old revenue records and maps, etc. These facts are important inputs when negotiating an agreement, but by themselves could not constitute an agreement.

Despite suffering from doubts, Nehru insisted in Rajya Sabha on December 9, 1959 that India should hold its position, hoping that “lapse of time and events would confirm it, and by the time challenge came, we would be in a much stronger position to face it”. There was an opportunity to clear the doubts at the summit talks in April 1960, but that too was allowed to slip because India insisted on China accepting its maximalist position — not realising that in a dispute, both sides have to make compromises to come to a settlement.

Even after the 1960 talks, China tried to bring India to the negotiable table many times, but Nehru’s rigidity did not help. Yet he did accept in Parliament the undemarcated status of the border.

China continued to insist on the need for a well-defined demarcation of borders on scientific lines. Unfortunately, India remained in denial. The result was 1962.

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First published on: 21-02-2022 at 04:00 IST
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