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The long march to war

How political anger against Nehru over China built up in the years prior to 1962,as his meetings with Zhou failed?

Written by Inder Malhotra |
June 20, 2011 1:13:01 am

As the India-China crisis escalated,so did vehement criticism of Nehru. Dorothy Woodman,an eminent British politician and scholar of that time,has written that the prime minister was “loudly abused”. Critics demanded that he should fight the Chinese head-on,if necessary,by entering into “cooperative defence with other powers”,a euphemism for accepting foreign military aid. For the first time,Nehru found it impossible to lead public opinion — but also refused to be led by it.

Even considering any abandonment of nonalignment was unacceptable to him. “It is the surest sign of weakness to ask others to save us from external danger… (That) would jeopardise our freedom and shatter completely our place in the world”. He explained that his policy was to “settle matters peacefully,so far as possible,” just as it was also his “firm policy to fight,if necessary.”

By then Nehru clearly stood alone. So much so that on November 27,1959,he told the Lok Sabha: “If this House thinks that the way our government has carried on this particular work is not satisfactory,it is open to the House to choose more competent men… But if this prime minister has to face this challenge,then hold to him and help him,and don’t come in his way.”

Meanwhile,the exchange of angry notes between India and China and threatening Chinese activity along the border continued. But there was an important change. There was no repetition of the kind of bloodletting that had taken place at Kongka-La in October (‘How Chinese Challenge Erupted’,IE,May 23). Instead,the emphasis was on talks. In December 1959,Nehru declined Zhou’s sudden invitation,at a mere fortnight’s notice,to meet him either in Rangoon or Beijing. The suggested terms of discourse were exactly what Nehru had rejected already.

In early February 1960,however,India acquiesced to Zhou’s persistent plea for a summit meeting with Nehru,perhaps because of advice from then Soviet premier,Nikita Khrushchev,who stopped over in Delhi twice during his journey to Jakarta. The long-sought summit took place in the Indian capital from April 20 to 25. It was the last meeting between the two outstanding statesmen who had much in common — high intellect,sophistication,a grasp of history and a sensitivity to world issues — but had become “paired antagonists locked together”,in the words of Nehru’s official biographer,S. Gopal.

As expected,the talks were a total failure. But to avoid a complete breakdown the two PMs agreed that their officials should jointly examine all the evidence “in their possession with regard to the facts about boundary alignment and present a report; meanwhile both sides should make every effort to avoid friction and clashes on the border.” However,the two rival reports in one cover,when they came in November 1960,served no purpose. China did not even publish the volume.

Before and during the failed summit,bitter domestic discord raged in this country,at times theatrically. Nehru had to brush aside strident demands that there should be no welcome for Zhou throughout his stay. Despite the chill all courtesies were maintained. But on the demand for the exclusion from the negotiations of his protégé,the controversial Defence Minister Krishna Menon,Nehru had no option but to yield. However,when Menon did manage to have a pow-wow with Zhou,popular rage knew no bounds.

For his part,Nehru thought that it would be a good idea to expose the Chinese prime minister to the strong sentiment among senior Indian ministers. He therefore told him that some of his colleagues would call on him. Zhou insisted that he would call on them. His talks with Vice-President (later president) Radhakrishnan and Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant went off well. Those with Finance Minister Morarji Desai were a disaster.

On way to India,Zhou had stopped over in Burma (now Myanmar) and concluded a boundary agreement with Prime Minister U. Nu. In it he accepted the McMahon Line in relation to Burma but made Nu agree to the Chinese position that the entire border was “un-delimited” and was negotiated afresh — something China wanted India also to accept. Since the Zhou-Nu talks had been going on for years,as early as April 1957,Nu had informed Nehru that while conveying his acceptance of the McMahon Line as Burma’s northern border,Zhou had remarked that he would call it “traditional border” because any reference to the “so-called McMahon Line” would create “problems with India”. Before arriving in Rangoon Zhou had signed in Beijing a roughly identical border settlement with Nepal,too.

After the summit fell flat,Zhou flew to Kathmandu to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with the Himalayan kingdom. There he delivered a bitterly anti-India speech,virulently criticising Nehru. Even so,his drive to isolate India did not adequately register on this country.

The pious hope of avoiding “friction and clashes on the border” was a non-starter. While avoiding violence the Chinese had started intruding into vast lands of Ladakh,first in the Chip Chap valley and then further south to areas far beyond not only China’s 1956 Claim Line,but also the one they had drawn in 1960.

No wonder Nehru,in consultation with Menon,Army HQ and the ubiquitous intelligence chief,B.N. Mullik,directed that army posts be established as far as possible towards the border,but without clashing with the posts already established by the Chinese. What to do about these Chinese encroachments,he left to the future; but he felt confident that the establishment of Indian posts would restrain further Chinese incursions. Incongruously,this was called the Forward Policy. The Chinese exploited “the provocation”,and Britain’s Field-Marshal Lord Carver described it as “militarily nonsensical.”

And then something startling and unprecedented happened at a platoon-strong post at Galwan in Ladakh in July 1961. Unlike at Kongka-La (1959) the Chinese did not use force but menacingly besieged the post. Only when they withdrew a week later could the post be supplied by air. This was a significant landmark in the inexorable march towards the catastrophic Border War of 1962.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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