Book Excerpt: Media’s Role in the India-China War and the 'Real’ Threat to Ties

During the recent Ladakh stand-off, there was no dearth of online comments smacking of visceral hatred of China.

6 min read

(Extracted with permission from Shastri Ramachandaran's book Beyond Binaries: The World Of India and China, published by the Institute of Objective Studies. Paragraph breaks have been added for readers’ convenience).

In October 2012, at a function to release a series of five titles on China edited by the distinguished diplomat K Raghunath, who had retired as Foreign Secretary and served as ambassador to China, NSA Shivshankar Menon had a dig at the Indian media. He referred to how the media in China had treated the 50th anniversary of the 1962 India-China war and compared it with the "outpouring” in the media in India; and, far from providing any clarity of the issues involved, the “outpouring” blurred the boundaries between facts, history and fiction, between conjecture and scholarship and between reporting and opinion, making one wonder what motives drive the Indian media in its "coverage” of China and India-China relations.

During the recent Ladakh stand-off, there was no dearth of online comments smacking of visceral hatred of China, the Chinese, and anyone in India who did not hate China as much as these "nationalist” netizens.

In one comment, the phrase "the Mandarin-speaking” prefixed to NSA Menon was infused with such venom as to make it appear an abuse. Readers who interpreted this comment to mean that learning Mandarin was a betrayal of India’s national and security interests may be forgiven.

Media’s Role in Exacerbating India-China Tensions

What triggered the stand-off is no longer a secret. More pertinent here is: Why did the media, now as on past occasions, get involved in ratcheting up tensions on the border issue with China? Why were the media pushing for conflict, if not a military confrontation? What interests motivated, if not dictated, such media involvement? Was the media’s aggressiveness a cover for its ignorance, indifference, and inability to provide fair, accurate, informed, and credible coverage? These are a few of the many questions that arose then.

One other instance, which would still make news, that comes to mind happened in December 2011 when AG Noorani’s book India-China Boundary Problem: 1846–1947 History and Diplomacy was released by none other than Vice-President Hamid Ansari. There appeared only brief, innocuous reports of the function. The conspicuous omission of any reference to the contents of the book had given rise to suspicions which persist to this day. The book was being released during the week of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India.

Barring one report in The Sunday Times of India, the book, which asserts on the basis of research and archival evidence that it was Nehru’s stubbornness which led to India’s war with China in 1962, has not received the coverage it deserves in the Indian media.

How Nehru’s Order for New Boundary Line Upset Relations

Noorani, an expert on legal and constitutional issues, known for his study of the boundary issue, records that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru "shut the door to negotiations on the (India-China) boundary on July 1, 1954”. Nehru’s refusal to negotiate and the 1960 rebuff to Chou En-lai when he was visiting and appeared ready to settle the issue – may well have sowed the seeds of the 1962 India-China war.

The important and explicit directive, from Nehru, in a 17-para memorandum, cited by Noorani in his book, says: "Both as flowing from our policy and as a consequence of our Agreement with China, this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody. There may be very minor points of discussion. Even these should not be raised by us.”

Noorani says that, "India unilaterally revised its official map. The legend 'boundary undefined’ in the western (Kashmir) and middle sectors (Uttar Pradesh) in the official maps of 1948 and 1950 were dropped in the new map of 1954. A firm clear line was shown instead.” He observes that "Nehru’s directive of July 1, 1954 was apparently in pursuance of a decision taken on March 24, 1953 to formulate a new line for the boundary.”

It was a fateful decision. Old maps were burnt. One former Foreign Secretary told this writer how, as a junior official, he himself was obliged to participate in "this fatuous exercise.”

The book mentions that new maps were printed showing Northern and North Eastern frontiers without any reference to any line. Nehru also wanted that these maps should be sent to embassies abroad and introduced to the public generally and be used in schools and colleges.

Describing as "historically untrue”, every one of the statements of Nehru in his letter to Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai on March 22, 1959, Noorani states that as late as 1950, Indian maps showed the boundary as undefined. The unpublished archival material in Chapter 12 titled ‘Aftermath’, quotes extensively from the 17-page memo and says a “divided Cabinet, an irresponsible opposition, an uninformed press and a restive Parliament, all fed on bad history held Nehru hostage.”


India-China Reconciliation Could Have Solved Many Issues

There is a sense of déjà vu when one reads about “…an irresponsible opposition, an uninformed press and a restive Parliament, all fed on bad history…”, especially in the context of China, India-China relations and the boundary issue.

Till date, the book has not been debated as a hot topic in the Indian media, not even by those given to habitual abuse, slander and smearing of Nehru.

India and China joining hands to pursue a conflict-free path to mutually beneficial economic development would mean growth with equity for over 2.8 billion people on the planet. The two Asian powers could be game changers for recasting the world’s politico-economic order and reforming international institutions including the United Nations.

Although many scholars have worked on poverty and poverty alleviation policies and programmes in India and China, there is hardly any mention of these efforts in the media even in passing. Nor does the media focus on the common problems faced by India and China, chief among which is poverty; and, how their poverty obstructs the two countries from realising their full potential.

For it is only India and China together that can end the economic disparity in Asia and lead the world towards the much-talked about but now forgotten Asian Century.

In baiting and pillorying China and thwarting India-China cooperation, Indian media seems to be more a player than an observer and recorder of events and developments.

Is India a ‘Threat’ to China?

Many developments in China and in the India-China relationship have not been reported or written about in perspective in Indian media. And these are chapters of bilateral relations replete with lessons for those in government, media, academics and policymaking. However, the media refuses to be "distracted” by such news, perhaps, because it does not fit in with its market and ideological orientation.

Questions I am often asked because of the time I spent working and travelling in China is: When will China attack India? Is India a threat to China or is China a threat to India?

There is no one in India, China or any other country who can with any authority answer the first question. To the second, there is no short or clear-cut answer.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army cannot but see India as a threat. Today’s China has no ideological enemies. The US and China are G2, the world’s most important and consequential relationship which neither wants to breakdown. Except for the occasional rough pages, US and China are on the same page.

The US is China’s economic partner, competitor and rival for all the noises they make against each other occasionally. Japan, like other US allies, such as the Philippines, for example, poses a challenge at sea. China has resolved territorial (land) disputes with all its neighbours, except India. Thus, in many ways, the very rationale for the PLA staying in battle-ready shape is India – because of the unresolved border dispute.

However, the PLA being always battle-ready against Indian forces does not necessarily mean that war is imminent or inevitable. Nor does it follow that China is assuming war-like postures driven by the pro-PLA elements in the Party and government, and that the “strident”, “hawkish” anti-India articles in the “nationalistic” Global Times are warnings of a looming military threat – as reductionist theory goes in India.

Although the Chinese leadership applauded Prime Minister Singh when he spoke in Beijing in 2008 about India and China as the driving powers of the Asian Century in the making, the Chinese believe in the saying that there can be only one tiger on a mountain.

China is a rising power and will not let any force stand in the way of what it perceives to be its destined rise as a global power. It is the world’s No. 2 economy, and racing to topple the US from the No. 1 spot. The question is whether China’s rise would be peaceful. In history, rarely has the rise of any power been peaceful.

In an era of war, when military conflict cannot be ruled out between countries with nuclear weapons, it is hard to foresee how the competing ambitions of India and China for stability, peace and security in Asia would play out. Unless China establishes its supremacy in Asia, it cannot aspire to prevail at the top of the global order.

And, the one obstacle to its supremacy and dominance in Asia is India. More than India, none of the western powers are ever likely to accept the rise of China.

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