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Shadow of the Chinese dragon

‘Even today old-timers in places like Tawang and Bomdila recall giving shelter to ill-clad and shivering Indian army jawans who were being hunted down by the swarm of Chinese soldiers’

The shadow of the Chinese dragon had been hovering for long on Northeast India’s horizon before it suddenly fell upon and darkened the region in this fateful month 50 years ago. In fact, as early as in the conference at Simla in 1914 to demarcate the boundary of Tibet (between India and that nation being denoted as the McMahon Line), an agreement was signed only between imperial Britain and Tibetan representatives, with China not being a party to the decisions. The later invasion of Tibet and its annexation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a pointer to the reality that China was not, so to speak, in “agreement” with the agreement, as also the historic blunder committed by imperial Britain in not correctly gauging Chinese response or intentions.

Reams of paper are currently being squandered on a re-analysis of the reasons for the two nations going to war, the abject defeat of Indian troops and the seemingly inexplicable decision of China to unilaterally retreat even when it had the Northeast in the palm of its hand. There is, without doubt, a mysterious element to that retreat, especially considering that afterwards China placed on record its renewed claim on NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) as Chinese territory and even today issues only stapled visas to Arunachalis desiring to visit China!

A segment of the “patriotic” brigade of expert analysts in India continues to place the blame squarely on the Chinese for their betrayal of the tenets of Panchsheel and stabbing India in the back. But the truth is that both the countries are to blame. If China had concealed its intentions vis-à-vis Tibet, the Indian political, military and intelligence leadership failed to call the former’s bluff, leaving itself open to potential humiliation. Thus it would have been risible to watch the “patriotic” brigade rise to the defence of the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru had not the war itself been such a tragedy.

It may be recalled that prior to the hostilities, India was embarking on what then had been dubbed as the “forward policy,” that is setting up army posts in territory India considered as its own, sometimes even behind forward Chinese outposts. Begun in 1954, the policy had aroused protests and warnings from China, but neither Nehru nor the then defence minister Krishna Menon deemed it necessary to heed them. There was also a failure in the military intelligence-gathering machinery, which led the political leaders to believe that because of the support of the two superpowers, USSR and the US, that India enjoyed, China would not dare make its actions speak as loud as its words, and that the dispute could be settled at a political and diplomatic level. This perception induced Nehru to make his notorious public statement that he had “ordered the Indian army to throw the Chinese out”.

However, the vastly outnumbered Indian armed forces posted along the border were hardly in a position to do that! Inquiries conducted after India’s humiliating defeat startlingly reveal how inadequately prepared were our jawans to even take defensive action, let alone throw the Chinese out. The obsolete weaponry supplied to the jawans proved mostly useless in the frozen heights, as was the clothing inadequate to ward off the cold. Even today old-timers in places like Tawang and Bomdila recall giving shelter to ill-clad and shivering Indian army jawans who were being hunted down by the swarm of Chinese soldiers. Also, since Independence, there has been political interference in the army command. Nehru, as the benevolent dictator, got his way. The appointment of Lt Gen. B.N. Kaul, who had never commanded in the field, to head the Indian counter-offensive is one example of such interference.

Compounding the problems of the Indian army was the inadequacy of infrastructure — a direct result of the neglect, which the Northeast as a whole had been treated with since Independence. Linked as it was to the Indian mainland with a single metre-gauge railway track, the supply route through Assam to the forward outposts in the eastern Himalayas was cumbersome and fraught with delays. For instance, till that time the Brahmaputra remained the only major river in India not to be bridged. The result was that consignments had to be ferried across the vast river at Amingaon, adding considerably to delay and difficulty. While China had commenced building arterial supply roads, including the Xinxiang-Tibet road, in the mid 1950s, India did not have passable roads along its border with most supplies having to be delivered to the outposts by helicopters.

One also needs to bear in mind that though, seemingly, the India-China relationship till the late 1950s was in the bhai-bhai mode, with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visiting India and Nehru reciprocating by visiting China, there were too many irritants for genuine neighbourly relationships.

India, having achieved Independence after a long and arduous tussle, was determined to play her part as the leader of the third world and act as a role model for nations fighting imperialism and apartheid. Along with Nasser and Tito, Nehru aspired for a global role for India through the Non-Aligned Movement, which he helped found, as also a leading economic and political role in Asia. China, the rival claimant to the latter mantle, had simply bided its time to teach the “upstart” a lesson!

The last straw that broke the back of the bhai-bhai camel was, of course, India’s offering shelter to the fleeing Dalai Lama in 1959. Though the pretence of a desire for fraternal relationship was maintained for a jot longer, China took full advantage of the failure of Indian intelligence and Nehru’s idealistic myopia to further its military build-up across the McMahon line.

Then, on October 18, 1962, the dragon began breathing fire, attacking Indian defences on the NEFA border and a few days later carrying out engagements in the Ladakh sector. Such was the vehemence of the attack, the effectiveness of the surprise element and the unpreparedness of the Indian army that within a week Tawang had been taken and by November 18 the Chinese had captured Bomdila and were on the foothills of Assam.

It is not surprising that the same segment of the “patriotic” brigade of analysts in the “national” media, in its role as an apologist for Nehru, has declined to call the 1962 conflict a “war” between India and China, but terms it as nothing more than a “border skirmish”. They point out that the air force was not used by both sides and semblance of diplomatic relations had been retained. However, they ignore the fact that at least one-and-a-half thousand Indian jawans were killed, thousands were injured or went missing, surely a heavy price to pay for a mere “border skirmish!”

Equally significant were the political offshoots of the engagement and India’s humiliating defeat. It had been Chinese intentions to put India in its place, and this it effected, leaving not an iota of doubt in the global psyche. While China continued to march inexorably on towards its position as a “superpower”, India had to play second fiddle for quite a while before regaining some of its lost stature. Most important, the Sino-Indian conflict proved to be a huge shock to the people of the Northeast, with Nehru’s “farewell” speech proving to be disillusionment even for the nationalistic elements of the Assamese middle class. Indeed, the Sino-Indian conflict marks a definitive turning point in the history of this region, with the post-conflict scenario inducing a change of perception in the various communities in the Northeast, which gradually led to the imbroglio the region finds itself confronting today.

It would be self-deluding to downplay the 1962 war between India and China. Rather, India needs to learn from the lessons that conflict has to teach. The bones of contention between the two nations have not been removed and China continues to maintain its territorial claims. The annexation of Tibet has resulted in China wielding control over many head-sources of rivers, including the Brahmaputra. The Chinese intention of building dams on this river can have grave consequences for the people of the Northeast. No doubt, there have been goodwill visits as well as a surfeit of placating gestures on both sides, but then one must remember that the 1962 war took place in a similar bhai-bhai environment. The shadow of the dragon continues to hover over the Northeast, no matter what the compulsions of the moment are.