The aphorism ‘No nation has friends, only interests’ and its variations were attributed to the former French President, Charles de Gaulle and the English Statesman Lord Palmerston. Some believe it predates even these politicians. An article in Time Magazine (May 9, 1955) obliquely attributes it to the English Statesman. For now the authorship of the aphorism is not the issue but whether Indian politicians were / are wise enough to pursue the course defined by it. Surprisingly, India’s foreign policy from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru has functioned at complete variance from the wisdom the aphorism advocates. Another interesting feature is that although Indian Prime Ministers in general seem to have a penchant for the foreign ministry, probably because it helps them to frequently fly abroad and rub shoulders with other world leaders, Nehru never let go of the foreign affairs portfolio. He was his Foreign Minister throughout his tenure as Prime Minster from September 2 1946. He relinquished both the posts only when he died on May 27 1964. The following article was originally published in South Asian Idea (SAISA), the official website of the South Asian Institute of Strategic Affairs as, ‘What is Foreign Office Up To?’
Does the Indian government have a strategy to counter the latest Chinese incursion deep into Indian territory on April 15? If it does, it is shrouded in mystery and obfuscation. The first reports indicated that the Chinese penetrated ten kilometres inside from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and pitched tents. The government finally admitted that they intruded nineteen kilometres. (Dr.!) Salman Khurshid, the dermatologist heading the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) described it as a spot of acne on the India-China relations! Such expressions appear colourful in sophomore essays or university debates. However Khurshid is neither a sophomore nor was he writing an essay for a college magazine.
The recent incursion is not the first (more than 200 Chinese incursions into Indian territory have been reported since 2008) but what made it disturbing was, this time around the Chinese did not indulge in a niggling in-and-out inroad but seemed to have come to stay put. Equally disturbing is the Indian response which seems to be following the disastrous course of the 1962 script.
One would like to forget what happened in 1962 but for the indelible scar that the humiliating defeat left on India’s collective psyche. There were varying versions of what went wrong. There was an extreme view projected by the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) which overtly functioned as the Chinese fifth column. The left wing Chinese sympathizers in the academia and their fellow travellers in the media did their bit to cloud the picture. Several generals of the defeated army added to the cacophony by offering self-serving apologias.
Then there are accounts of foreign journalists like Neville Maxwell (1970. India’s China War). An Australian national born in London and educated in Canada, Maxwell was The Times’ foreign correspondent in Washington for three years, before being posted to New Delhi as the paper’s South Asia correspondent. Though extensively researched, the book appears to have been written to absolve Britain of any responsibility for the mess it left behind. In an article he wrote for Rediff in 2002, Maxwell observed that ‘[t]hrough the early 1950’s Nehru’s covertly expansionist policy had been implemented by armed border police…’ (Remembering a War).
Even his worst enemies would not have credited Nehru with an expansionist mindset. Quite the reverse; he was hugely enamoured of China and its culture and wanted its friendship not enmity. (The CIA documents mentioned below confirm this.) He meekly acquiesced when the Chinese usurped Tibet, although Sardar Patel warned him years earlier, about Chinese ambitions over it. Patel foresaw that the disappearance of a buffer state between India and China would only fuel the latter’s expansionist ambitions further. The Chinese proved Patel right. In 1956-57 they quietly built a road to Aksai Chin and occupied it. It was a monumental failure of the Indian intelligence but the Indian government came to know of it only in 1958 according to secret CIA documents declassified in 2007.
Isn’t 2013 a poignant parallel? With all the technology and spy satellites that are available to them, the Indian intelligence agencies (again) failed to notice the Chinese creeping in till they pitched their tents nineteen kilometres inside India. That is not all. There are ground reports that the Chinese have been nibbling at Indian territories for years and altering the contours of the borders.
Nehru first denied the Chinese incursions into Indian territories (as Khurshid now seeks to minimize it) and when it was no longer tenable to do so informed parliament that the Indian army was asked to ‘throw the Chinese out’. The Chinese fifth column in the Indian polity latched on to that phrase and claimed that it hurt the Chinese pride and in a way triggered the war. After the war, the Indians were left with only shame, not pride! There is no dearth of Chinese sympathizers even today. Academics of the JNU variety argue in television debates that the incursions occur because of differing perceptions about the border. They never pause to ponder why, because of similar differing perceptions Indian troops do not wander into China? Isn’t it precisely because, it is not a settled and demarcated border it is called the ‘Line of Actual Control’ and not an international border?
Maxwell had access to the ‘Henderson Brookes-Bhagat Report’, an Operations Review of the debacle, commissioned by Gen. J. N. Chaudhuri, who became the army Chief after the war. The report is still classified and not available to the Indian public. Nehru revealed more about the Indian army’s capabilities to the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai (trained in military and intelligence matters) by taking him on a conducted tour of Indian ordnance factories than the Henderson Brookes-Bhagat report conceals from the Indian public.
Maxwell and others opine that the Indian army was forced to take on a more superior army in terms of training and equipment. But the war was probably lost in the minds of the generals much before it was on the ground. There is the old saying that ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton!’ (It may be an uncorroborated version but a veteran of the war whom this writer met in a train journey said that the Chinese were not as well equipped as it was made out to be. They carried one rifle for four to six soldiers.) The generals hoped till the end that Nehru would somehow find a diplomatic solution to the vexed border problem. He failed them and they failed him.
Haven’t the Americans met their Waterloo in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan in spite of their vastly superior arms and equipment? Therefore the inferior quality of arms and equipment was not a valid argument for the defeat in 1962. Similarly, China’s numerical superiority of arms and equipment is not a valid argument for inaction in 2013. The rule is to be able to stare the enemy in the face. As an emerging economy and aspiring world power, China has as much at stake as India.
There was a view that Nehru’s overweening ambition to win a Nobel peace prize was at the back many of his political decisions which resulted in disastrous consequences. One hopes the present leadership would not consider trading off national interests for some elusive personal monument for itself! The nation will not approve it. Therefore Salman Khurshid should keep the nation informed about his game plan for securing the safety and integrity of the nation. More importantly the nation would like to have an assurance from the Defence Minister that his armed forces are fully capable of securing the nation’s safety, security and integrity.