IT HAS BEEN 60 YEARS since China’s People’s Liberation Army opened with a barrage of fire on Indian border troops, heralding what would end as a humiliating Indian defeat. But the rumble from that Himalayan gunfire continues to reverberate to this day. At the core of the continuing debate lies the question: was India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s naïveté and mismanagement the principal reason behind the debacle? It is no mere academic debate. As India and China stand eyeball to eyeball today on the roof of the world preparing for another battle, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lays the blame squarely on its main political opponent, the Congress Party led by Nehru’s descendants.
Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, The Fractured Himalaya at last provides a clear answer. The book will certainly not end political controversy, but the minutely detailed account of the critical 13 years leading to the 1962 war provides as convincing an answer as documents can. Driven by wrong assumptions about China, Nehru ignored early signs of trouble and then, paralyzed by hardened public opinion and political opposition, failed to strike a deal.
Rao, who served as India’s ambassador to China and the country’s foreign secretary — effectively No. 2 in the foreign-policy establishment — brings impressive credentials to this account. She has buttressed her personal experience dealing with China with impressive archival research she conducted after retiring from the foreign ministry. The result is a definitive account of the critical post-independence years that played out like a Greek tragedy, leading its flawed hero Nehru inexorably towards a failure that eventually killed him. A renaissance man who emerged as a leading Indian national figure by the side of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru saw himself as a champion of Asian nationalism. He was a proud comrade-in-arms of another great Asian civilization throwing off the colonial yoke. Even though he was conscious of the possibility of rivalry with China — he told a journalist in 1952: “The basic challenge in Southeast Asia is between India and China. That challenge runs across the spine of Asia” — Nehru, an idealist, still doggedly argued for communist China’s admission to the United Nations. He even rebuffed a 1950 American proposal to drop recognition of Nationalist China from the UN Security Council to give the seat to India.
In the post-independence euphoria about a rising Asia, Nehru could not imagine a territorial conflict with China and paid no heed to the subtle signs of a brewing dispute over the border. He interpreted Chinese silence over the McMahon Line as China’s acceptance. The line was drawn at the Simla Conference (1913-14) among China, Britain and Tibet. As Rao writes, “Nehru had suspended disbelief when he took Zhou [Enlai] at his word when the latter told him during their meetings from 1954 onwards that China had not had the time to revise boundary alignments shown in old maps or that China intended to accept the McMahon Line as a reality after consulting with the Tibetan authorities. Nehru’s illusions would be shattered as 1959 ran its course and in the years that followed. The experience would destroy him.”
Nehru ignored intelligence reports of Chinese roadbuilding in Ladakh, in the western sector, that India considered to be its territory but over which it had made no formal claim until 1954. It was only in 1958, when the China Pictorial magazine published a map showing large tracts of Indian territory as being within China, that Nehru thought of taking it up with Beijing. Zhou Enlai denied having accepted the McMahon Line as the border, repudiated Indian claims on Ladakh and called for maintaining the status quo. The Indian public and critics of communist China, already outraged by the Chinese military occupation of Tibet, howled in protest. On the ground, though, despite claiming Ladakh being Indian, Nehru did nothing to establish its claim, far less to defend itself.
A period of hectic negotiation ensued with an increasingly embattled Nehru seeking to prevent deterioration of relations with China while reassuring the Indian public and opposition that he stood firm in defense of India. Deep down, the author suggests, Nehru believed a negotiated solution was possible. In 1960, Zhou Enlai and his negotiating team arrived in Delhi on three aircraft to explore a barter deal. China would accept Indian control of the North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh, based on the McMahon Line in exchange for India agreeing to Chinese occupation of Ladakh through which it had built a road linking Tibet to Xinjiang.
But it was too late. A public that has been fed the slogan Hindi-Chini bhai bhai (Indians and Chinese brothers) was incensed by what it viewed as Chinese betrayal and influenced by incessant opposition attacks on Nehru for his weak China policy was in no mood to accept surrendering Ladakh to China.
Rao quotes a senior Indian diplomat close to Nehru lamenting the prime minister’s inability to do what was needed.
Nehru “did not assert himself vis-à-vis Parliament and vis-à-vis what we regard as public opinion. Members of Parliament or some of them took a heroic posture, that not an inch of our territory should be surrendered and that sort of thing. But we lacked the wherewithal to back up such demands…If at that time, Panditji [Nehru] had put his foot down, we could have had a fair solution of our frontier problem with China.”
A further complication was added in 1960 when, in an unrelated case, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that any transfer of territory would require approval of a two-thirds majority in Parliament and at least half of the 14 state legislatures — a near impossibility for ceding an inch of land to China.
That failure to reach a compromise led within a couple of years to large-scale bloodshed and provides the historical context for the latest bout of fighting in the Galwan Valley in 2020. In short, the Himalayan border has emerged once again as a major global flashpoint.
Politicians of the current dispensation will never forgive Nehru, but how will history judge him? Rao concludes that “Nehru emerges from this story as flawed, but flawed in a heroic sense: faltering, eclipsed and stooped at the end of our story, wrestling with his own internal demons as the relationship with China disintegrated in full sight, with damage done to Indian national interests and prestige.” But she also notes the failure of Nehru’s close associates to point to his errors and the context in which he operated. She reminds us “Every decision is born of a context, a surrounding set of circumstances, often complex. Simplification is not an answer.”
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