In his article ‘Biting the bullet’, Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former aide to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, draws lessons from the build-up to the 1962 war and cautions Prime Minister Narendra Modi against repeating the “blunder” of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Kulkarni recalls Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s visit to India in April 1960, in the course of which he offered a “workable solution” on the border dispute that was threatening to derail India-China relations. Kulkarni writes: “Zhou offered, obviously with the approval of Chairman Mao, a ‘package deal’ for a final settlement — China would accept India’s control over today’s Arunachal Pradesh, which meant its de facto recognition of India’s jurisdiction up to the McMahon Line, if India accepted China’s control over Aksai Chin.”
Kulkarni quotes from a research paper by historian Srinath Raghavan to explain why Nehru rejected Zhou’s offer. Raghavan wrote, Kulkarni quotes: “Nehru was pushed to a position where his diplomatic manoeuvrability was severely curtailed. Henceforth he had to assess constantly what the political marketplace would bear and adopt only those policies that could be conceivably sold to the public.”
According to Kulkarni, Nehru himself voiced his fear: “If I give them (Chinese) that (Aksai Chin), I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India — I will not do it.” Kulkarni believes that Nehru “had the power and stature to convince the people to accept such a bargain in India’s vital long-term interest”, though “the media and Opposition leaders (including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who, subsequently as PM, changed his views on this matter) were stridently opposed to conceding any land to China”.
Had Nehru accepted Zhou’s compromise-based solution, Kulkarni argues, “India and China, after some negotiations, could have fixed the boundary permanently” and “prevented” the 1962 war. “There would have been no recurring face-offs along a disputed LAC of the kind we are witnessing even in 2020” since “China in 1960 had even hinted that, ‘as part of an overall settlement’, it would accept India’s sovereign claim on Jammu & Kashmir (minus Aksai Chin) vis-à-vis Pakistan,” he adds.
Kulkarni wonders if Prime Minister Modi, “without worrying about the ‘political marketplace’, and without relying on Trump or his successor to come to India’s aid, show the courage to swing the public opinion in favour of a compromise-dependent transformation of the LAC into a BAC (Boundary of Assured Control)”.