Nehru Succumbed to the “Temptation” of “Military Weakness”
Excerpt from SuperEconomies on India-China relationship during Nehru’s tenure.
In the earliest days of Indian independence, relations between the two countries were chummy. Nehru, who was infatuated with what he called ‘the other great country of Asia’, became one of the first leaders to recognise Communist China as a sovereign nation after the 1949 revolution. In fact, the relationship in those days was colloquially characterized as ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’, or ‘Indians and Chinese are brothers’. Despite US pressure, Nehru refused to implicate China as the aggressor in the Korean War. And when China overran Tibet in 1950, he essentially accepted Beijing’s claims as legitimate. In the 1954 Panchsheel agreement, India somewhat paradoxically agreed to recognize Tibet as part of China if Beijing would honor Tibet’s autonomy. Ever idealistic, Nehru seemed to have something of a blind spot when it came to China; he considered the two countries kindred spirits, the guardians of similarly proud and ancient traditions. ‘[A] variety of circumstances pull India and China toward each other, in spite of differences of forms of government,’ he wrote to his chief ministers in 1952. ‘This is the long pull of geography and history and, if I may add, of the future.’ He believed that the impenetrable Himalayas made a Chinese invasion extremely unlikely, and that in any case ‘there was no particular reason why China should think of aggression in this direction,’ he wrote. ‘There is a definite feeling of friendliness towards India in China.’
Doubts about China began to plague Nehru by 1956 when the Dalai Lama, visiting India with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, broke away from his delegation long enough to tell Nehru that conditions were so rough in Tibet that he wanted to escape to India. The prime minister talked him out of it. But two years later, Beijing denied Nehru permission to visit Tibet. Around the same time, the Chinese were discovered building a road between Tibet and Xinjiang through Indian-controlled Aksai Chin, territory that soon began appearing on Chinese maps as part of China. Nehru’s faith in the Chinese began to falter; according to the diary of G. Parthasarathi, India’s ambassador to China at that time, the prime minister said he didn’t ‘trust the Chinese one bit’ and found them ‘arrogant, devious, hypocritical and thoroughly unreliable’. Tensions between the two countries escalated in March 1959, after a Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule sent the Dalai Lama fleeing to Dharamsala, where the Indian government granted him and his followers asylum. That infuriated the Chinese, and the two sides skirmished along the border. Nehru established ‘forward posts’ in the contested areas, though he continued to believe that all-out war was unlikely; he didn’t think the Chinese would risk provoking the involvement of the reigning Superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. When Zhou Enlai traveled to New Delhi in 1960 to propose a settlement for the disputed territory, Nehru refused. The Indian public and press were fed up with China’s incursions, and urged their prime minister not to make any concessions.
Sporadic boundary clashes erupted into full-blown war in October 1962. Though opinions are divided over who actually started it, the outcome is indisputable: after four weeks of fighting, Chinese forces had seized control of parts of Ladakh, including Aksai Chin—which they hold to this day. India’s troops, poorly trained and ill-equipped for the climate and terrain, fought hard but couldn’t compete with the better-organized Chinese, who nevertheless beat a hasty retreat just as America began rallying to India’s defense. The defeat, quick and bloody, deeply wounded the Indian psyche. ‘People have not been able to move on from the idea of the 1962 loss, which was humiliating and made clear that China was a much larger power,’ said Indian journalist Suhasini Haidar. It helped establish Nehru’s reputation as—depending on one’s view—naïve, arrogant, or hopelessly out of touch. He later confessed his error in judgment, admitting that he had succumbed to the ‘temptation’ of ‘military weakness’; his government had neglected to build the high-altitude infrastructure necessary to support the army, leaving them wholly unprepared. ‘Nehru thought it was just a game, where you go sit close to the border and say, “This is ours, this is yours,”’ said FirstPost editor R Jagannathan. ‘Nehru was caught up by his own sense of history: ‘I am the natural leader of the third world, and you can’t seriously be threatening me.’ [He] thought his moral right was bigger than the problems on the ground. If he wanted to make a stand on what he thought was right, he should have first built the army to defend that.’
More than fifty years later, the 1962 war still haunts India and colours its view of China. ‘There is an absolutely unmistakable myth that the Chinese stabbed us in the back [in 1962],’ said Alka Acharya, the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. ‘That has taken an inveterate hold on the Indian imagination, which translates into, “You can’t trust the Chinese”.’ Since then, India has been extremely sensitive to slights or provocations from China—such as when Beijing detonated a nuclear device in 1964, accelerating India’s investment in its own nuclear programme, which culminated in a test ten years later.
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