Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Neighbours only since 1950

We need to at least get the ABCs of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute right

Neville Maxwell,author of India’s China War,resurfaced recently with an article spelling out the ABCs of the Sino-Indian confrontation (‘The Night of November 19’,IE,December 27,2010). Once again,he put the blame squarely on Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Forward Policy” for the armed clashes in 1962,which led to India’s painful humiliation and to Nehru’s domestic and international stature being irretrievably eroded.

There is no doubt that there was a serious misreading on the Indian side of Chinese intentions,in particular a failure to relate the events on the border to domestic political developments in China and the larger international situation. Evidence made available recently indicates that Mao,having reoccupied the front line of the leadership after having been weakened by the failure of the Great Leap Forward (1959-61),himself took the key decision,towards the end of August 1962,to launch a full-scale offensive against Indian border forces. The preoccupation of the US and the then-Soviet Union with the Cuban Missile Crisis may have also emboldened the Chinese leadership to target India,taking advantage of this window of opportunity.

A directive sent to the Chinese units on October 6 on behalf of Chairman Mao and the Central Military Commission stated: “If the Indian army attacks,hit back ruthlessly… if they attack,don’t just repulse them,hit back ruthlessly so that it hurts.” Later,another directive ordered Chinese units to “liquidate the invading Indian army” (Roderick MacFarquhar in The Origins of the Cultural Revolution,1997). Indian operations carried out till then were mostly in the nature of limited-scale probes and skirmishes with the Chinese border units. The Indian army had neither the troops nor the logistic capabilities to launch full-scale attacks,let alone an invasion. The Chinese were fully aware of this.

This background is important since it is also the judgment of several analysts that if Mao had not reasserted his leadership role at this time,there may not have been the kind of large-scale offensive that eventually took place.

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It is clear from the above directives that there was to be no “measured” or “proportionate” response,as claimed by Maxwell,but rather a deliberate and calculated offensive to defeat and decimate Indian military units comprehensively. The objectives went beyond the border issue and included retaliating against India for giving shelter to the Dalai Lama and demolishing India’s standing and reputation in the Third World.

Maxwell says that China had no alternative but to “get its retaliation in first” once Nehru had somewhat casually declared his intention to throw out the Chinese from areas claimed by India. It is clear from the phrase itself that the Chinese objective was a pre-emptive offensive rather than a counter-attack in response to any actual Indian operations,and Nehru’s ill-advised remarks provided a convenient peg to hang this on. The Indian failure was in continuing to believe that the earlier pattern of limited border skirmishes would continue and that they would not escalate into full-scale armed clashes. This failure should be acknowledged in all honesty and the country should never again have to face a situation of such total disconnect between its diplomatic posture and its military capabilities.

However,the focus on the immediate causes of the 1962 armed clashes should not obscure the larger issue of Sino-Indian boundary. There is also an ABC of the border issue that needs to be kept in plain sight as we struggle to evolve a strategy to manage India-China relations in a rapidly transforming international landscape.


A: India’s humiliation in 1962 does not diminish in any way the strength of India’s case concerning the India-China border. Nehru’s mistakes in handling the border dispute does not in any way negate the massive legal and historical evidence adduced by India in support of its claims. This can be readily accessed in the series of White Papers published by the Government of India on the subject. G.N. Rao’s The India-China Border: A Reappraisal also provides an excellent analysis.

B: Chinese claims in the western sector have no historical or legal basis. China’s traditional boundary,shown on its own maps,never extended south of the Kuenlun mountains. Aksai Chin never belonged to China. The eastern boundary between Ladakh and Western Tibet had also been fixed by treaty as far back as 1642.

C: There were no significant differences between India and Tibet concerning their traditional boundary and the McMahon Line only formalised what was already well known and recognised by people on both sides of the border. It is China’s unilateral and armed occupation of Tibet in 1950,which created,for the first time,a border between India and China. Incidentally,until 1985,the Chinese “package proposal” put forward by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982,would have legitimised the status quo — that is,India to accept Chinese occupation in the western sector,while China would acquiesce to the Indian alignment in the eastern sector,conforming to the McMahon Line,but without the offending label. It is only in 1985 that the Chinese side reinterpreted the “package proposal” to insist that the Indian side would have to make concessions in the east while the Chinese side could reciprocate with some unspecified corresponding concessions in the western sector.


In aiming for a just and reasonable border settlement with China,India will have to take into account current ground realities. A spirit of mutual understanding and some give-and-take on respective territorial claims is unavoidable. However,it is equally necessary for us to exorcise the ghosts of 1962 and dispel the scepticism that appears to have invaded our own perceptions about the strength of our claims on the border.

iThe writer is a former foreign secretary and now acting chairman,RIS,and senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

First published on: 12-01-2011 at 01:40:07 am
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