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Excerpted with permission from The Fractured Himalaya: India, Tibet, China 1949-62, published by Penguin.
What propelled Nehru’s vision of China? He saw China as this emergent nation ready to shake off the clutter of backwardness and foreign subjugation and the shackles of the past; a potential best friend and a geo-civilizational ‘equal’ to India. For Nehru, India and China could together be that mid-twentieth century definition of an independent force in world politics, unhitched to east or west. India, Nehru held, would bring China to the global stage so that it would become a responsible stakeholder in world politics. It was a lofty aspiration, and India would feel betrayed when she saw her goodwill as inadequately reciprocated—even spurned—by China, as the relationship unravelled.
There were weaknesses, oversights born of haphazard, ad hoc and careless policymaking during the period covered in this history. There is no intention to apportion blame for such shortcomings because the exercise of critiquing India’s China policy in those early years and the role of Prime Minister Nehru, particularly, has persisted for years now. It is considered de rigueur to fault Nehru for all his ‘wrong’ decisions on China policy, overlooking that hindsight is never 20/20 and that it is essential to better understand the circumstances in which he made those decisions for which we fault him today. Decisions by leaders are made in real time, and not by scholars in retrospect as the historian Srinath Raghavan notes. One must visualize the circumstances in which Nehru was placed. The luxury of simplified hindsight, as we often use it, blinds us. The lessons of history are useful only if they help us overcome that visual incapacity and understand not only those aspects on which a blinding bright light tends to shine typically but also the rest of the picture that exists in the shadows.
India’s collective memory coheres around imaging of the conflict with China as a betrayal by the country’s largest neighbour, the failure and misplaced trust in China of Jawaharlal Nehru, the role of his Defence Minister in the military debacle surrounding the conflict, the gallantry of the men who fought the Chinese as well as the hubris and strategic errors in what post-mortems of the conflict of 1962 called ‘the higher direction of war’ by senior Indian military commanders. Where national honour is at stake, emotions run high. The national humiliation resulting from the 1962 conflict with China haunts the national consciousness. China continues to be the adversary (a term that is synonymous with enemy, after the Galwan Valley killings of June 2020) whose alignment with Pakistan and whose now-established economic and military resurgence are seen as posing a clear and present danger to India’s national security and sovereignty.
Stories cut across maps and this story is no exception. Map lines are complex and convoluted because they involve contested domains and histories, competitive statecraft and token expressions of coexistence. The events post-1950 in Tibet had profound implications for the Himalayan frontier zones of India. The moves that the Indian government would make in the determination of frontier and foreign policy towards China were a complex fusion of lofty aspirations about lasting concord between two Asian giants and, at a granular level, an entrenched determination to safeguard borders and territories that were non-negotiable and not open to barter. In those early years of these first encounters between two newly-minted independent nations, the border zones along their shared frontiers were still the scenes of many crossings, seasonal migrations and were braided together by closely-linked trading communities. India’s connections with Xinjiang and Tibet were still a living bond, though soon to be weakened and slowly severed by the entry of Communist China into both regions.
Nehru worried about Chinese expansionism but it was a suspicion that did not speak its name. He was no strategist but more like Isaiah Berlin’s ‘fox’—the one ‘who knows many things’ but finds it difficult to deduce the core meaning of any one of them, fully. In recalling Nehru, one is reminded of Lloyd George: ‘He thought he knew more history than they (the experts) knew. He decides by inspiration.’ For their part, the bureaucrats who assisted him did not seek to influence his thinking—perhaps this is a failing that can be attributed to many in the bureaucratic tribe, the tradition of not contradicting their Caesar.
Given the sense of unease that always lurked beneath the surface in New Delhi (and even in Nehru’s mind) about China’s predilection for expansionism, should Nehru’s policy toward India’s northern neighbour have been calibrated differently? As proof of this unease, he told an Indian delegation to China in 1952 that ‘we must not let China have the upper hand. Else we start on the slippery path’, adding that ‘the basic challenge in Southeast Asia is between India and China. That challenge runs across the spine of Asia.’
Should he have trusted this basic instinct and de- emphasized an extravagance of friendship and amity, focusing more on the linkage of the Tibetan question with India’s northern boundaries and the securitization of frontiers? Should his policy have concentrated on improving infrastructure, enhancing intelligence-gathering, and improving ties with democracies like the United States? The answer to all these is a qualified yes. One day China would mock Nehru’s dreams. But partial hindsight, like nationalism, is an unsafe historian. Every decision is born of a context, a surrounding set of circumstances, often complex. Simplification is not an answer.
Nirupama Rao is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China.