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Secret letters from Nehru to Kennedy in 1962 asked for the US air force to defend Eastern India from China

Written by Inder Malhotra |
November 15, 2010 5:54:38 am

Forty-eight years have elapsed since the Black November of 1962,when took place the brief but brutal border war with China in the high Himalayas. As is clear,in retrospect,it was a relatively limited clash of arms — that unfortunately turned into a traumatic military debacle and political disaster for us. So,why recall those days and scratch the wounds that have nearly healed?

The reason is the sudden and unexpected availability of two “Eyes Only” letters Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to President John F. Kennedy of the United States informing him that the war situation was “desperate” and asking for “more comprehensive” US military aid,especially in the form of air power “if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India.”

To the best of my knowledge,the first public mention of these two letters was made in the Rajya Sabha by a member of that House,Sudhir Ghosh,in 1965. The then Prime Minister,Lal Bahadur Shastri,had flatly denied the existence of such letters,stating that he had conducted a thorough search of the prime minister’s secretariat,as it was then called,and the ministry of external affairs. For its part,the United States,after a lapse of some years,accepted that these letters were received but absolutely refused to reveal them. In the 1980s,copies of these letters were duly placed in the US National Archives,the JFK Library in Boston,the LBJ Library in Austin,Texas and some other places. But every line of each letter was so heavily inked out that no technology could help decipher it. Thousands of applicants seeking access to the “blacked-out” documents under the much older,and far more effective,American version of India’s Right to Information Act were courteously told that “at the request of the Government of India” the letters would not be made public.

Imagine my surprise therefore,when soon after arriving in Washington this time around,I had easy access to these “forbidden” epistles. What surprised me even more is that the copies of these letters have been around for nearly four years — but,as far as I know,haven’t yet been published anywhere. One reason may be that interest in the 1962 war has waned. Another,that only the JFK Library has declassified the Nehru letters; the White House and the State Department haven’t.

Let me also confess that for many days I agonised whether I should publish the letters at all,and give the habitual Nehru-haters,of whom there are quite a few in India,another opportunity to malign the iconic prime minister who was the architect of India’s secular democracy and its modernisation. But deep thought dictated that history must never be censored.

Just to publish the text of the two letters one after the other would serve no useful purpose. For the context is essential to comprehend their content and texture.

Moreover,the second letter,sent “within a few hours of the first”,is vastly more important. In this,Nehru informed Kennedy that during the short interval,“the situation in NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency,now called Arunachal Pradesh) Command has deteriorated still further. Bomdila has fallen and the retreating forces from Sela have been trapped between the Sela Ridge and Bomdila. A serious threat has developed to our Digboi oilfields in Assam. With the advance of the Chinese in massive strength,the entire Brahmaputra Valley is seriously threatened and unless something is done immediately to stem the tide,the whole of Assam,Tripura,Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands.”

“The Chinese have poised massive forces”,he added,“(also) in Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan and another invasion from that direction appears imminent… In Ladakh,as I have said in my earlier communication,Chushul is under heavy attack and the shelling of the airfield at Chushul has already commenced. We have also noticed increasing air activity by the Chinese air force. (In the earlier letter,Nehru had said that after Chushul there was “nothing to stop the Chinese till they reach Leh,the headquarters of the Ladakh province of Kashmir.”)

After pointing out that hitherto he had “restricted our requests to essential equipment” and thanking the US for the assistance “so readily given”,Nehru went on: “We did not ask for more comprehensive assistance,particularly air assistance,because of wider implications… in the global context and we did not want to embarrass our friends.” The next five lines state what has been indicated above: “The situation that has developed is,however,desperate. We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India. Any delay in this assistance reaching us will result in nothing short of a catastrophe for our country”.

Remarkably,Nehru’s request for comprehensive aid,especially “immediate support to strengthen our air arm sufficiently to stem the tide of the Chinese advance” goes into minute details,and is prefaced by the statement: “We have repeatedly felt the need to use our air arm in support of our land forces but have been unable to do so because in the present state… we have no defence against retaliatory action by the Chinese.” In this context his specific demands are for: “[A minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters” and a “modern radar cover (which) we don’t have.” Nehru added that US air force personnel “will have to man these fighters and radar installations while our personnel are being trained.”

More significantly,he spelled out that US fighter and transport aircraft “manned by US personnel will be used for the present to protect our cities and installations from Chinese attacks and to maintain our communications… and if this is possible… to assist the Indian Air Force in air battles with the Chinese air force over Indian areas where air action by the IAF against Chinese communication lines,supplies and troop concentrations may lead to counter air action by the Chinese. Any air action to be taken against the Chinese beyond the limits of our country,e.g. in Tibet,will be taken by the IAF planes manned by Indian personnel.”

To be concluded

The author is a Delhi-based political commentator

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