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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Letters from the darkest hour

Nehru’s requests to JFK,the day before the Chinese unilateral ceasefire,show he knew what military support from the US would imply.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
November 17, 2010 4:16:17 am

In the Rajya Sabha on that distant date,Sudhir Ghosh had also alleged that Jawagarlal Nehru had asked JF Kennedy for,among other things,a US aircraft-carrier to be stationed in the Bay of Bengal. But of this there is absolutely no mention in either of his two letters to JFK. What is eminently noteworthy,however,is that despite his exaggerated estimate of the Chinese objectives,Nehru was not at all oblivious of the kind of pressures that would be brought to bear on the US president against extending “comprehensive” military aid to India.

So he wrote: “The Chinese threat as it has developed involves not merely the survival of India,but the survival of free and independent Governments in the whole of this sub-Continent or in Asia. The domestic quarrels regarding small areas or territorial borders between the countries in this sub-Continent or in Asia have no relevance whatever in the context of the developing Chinese invasion. I would emphasise particularly that all the assistance or equipment given to us to meet our dire need will be used entirely for resistance against the Chinese. I have made this clear in a letter I sent to President Ayub Khan of Pakistan. I am asking our Ambassador to give you a copy of this letter.

“We are confident that your great country will in this hour of our trial help us in our fight for survival and for the survival of freedom and independence in this sub-Continent and rest of Asia. We on our part are determined to spare no effort until the threat posed by Chinese expansionist and aggressive militarism to freedom and independence is completely eliminated”.

It is perhaps needless to add that on November 20 the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and phased withdrawal. Consequently,the urgency behind Nehru’s correspondence with Kennedy disappeared. But,ironically,the reference to irrelevance of “domestic disputes over small areas or territorial borders between the countries in the sub-Continent” did not achieve the desired result. On the contrary,the US and Britain,represented by Averell Harriman and Duncan Sandys respectively (the latter more than the former),pressured India relentlessly to settle the Kashmir issue with Pakistan. The protracted but pointless six rounds of talks between Swaran Singh and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,adequately discussed in this column already,followed. A trickle of American military assistance did slowly flow into India but it did not amount to much and was,in any case,terminated during the 1965 India-Pakistan War.

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There is no point quoting those portions of Nehru’s first letter that were either repeated or updated in the second. However,something of significance it underscores merits attention. Saying that a month had elapsed since China’s “massive attack on India” Nehru added he thought he should inform Kennedy of further developments since “my last letter of October 29.”

He then went on to say: “There was a deceptive lull after the first Chinese offensive during which the Chinese mounted a serious propaganda offensive in the name three-point proposals,which shorn of their wrappings,actually constituted a demand for surrender on their terms. The Chinese tried,despite our rejection of these proposals,to get various Afro-Asian countries to intercede with various offers of mediation. After my clear and categorical statement in Parliament on 14 November rejecting the three-point proposal of Chou en-Lai,the Chinese who had made full preparations to put further military pressure on us,re-started their military offensive… Events have moved very fast and we are facing a grim situation in our struggle and in defending all that India stands for against an unscrupulous and powerful aggressor.”

Incidentally,after the ceasefire,President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt,Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandarnaike,Ghana’s leader Kwame Nkrumah and some others met and formulated some principles on the basis of which,they said,India and China could resume negotiations for settling the border issue. These came to be known as the Colombo Proposals because the non-aligned leaders had met in the Sri Lankan capital. India accepted the proposals; China rejected them out of hand. Thereafter,New Delhi declared that border talks with China could take place only on the basis of the Colombo Proposals,and this remained Indian policy until New Year’s Day,1968,when Indira Gandhi,as prime minister,announced that she was prepared to negotiate with the Chinese without any precondition. It took China more than two years to respond. On May Day 1970,Mao Zedong made it a point to smile at the then Indian Charge d’ Affairs in Beijing,Brajesh Mishra. China’s Chairman also said that there was no reason why India and China,both great countries,could not be friends. Nothing came of this,however,because soon enough the Bangladesh crisis,leading to the 1971 war,erupted. China supported the Yahya Khan regime in Pakistan to the hilt. Chou even said that India had picked up a rock it would “drop on its own feet.” It took another 10 years before border talks between the two countries could begin. They are still dragging on.

Back to the two letters,Nehru’s official biographer,S. Gopal,never admitted to having seen them. But he confidently asserted that the letters were drafted by the foreign secretary of the day,M. J. Desai. If true,this is rather strange. For Nehru always wrote his letters himself — sometimes drafting them for his subordinates to sign.

B. K. Nehru,a cousin of the prime minister and an outstanding civil servant who later became the closest thing we had to an elder statesman,was at that time ambassador to the US. He never made a secret of the fact that on receiving and reading the second letter,his impulse was to not deliver it. But realising that he was a civil servant and it was his bounden duty to obey his prime minister,he immediately headed for the White House. He never discussed the contents of the two letters with anyone but did tell me that he locked them up in the safe that only the ambassador could open. He knew not what his successor had done with the letters he must have seen.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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