The India-China war of 1962 and its political after-life

India-China relations require a fundamental reset and a new scholarly book provides a useful, if indirect, contribution to how we think about the relationship.

Shivshankar Menon,
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Jawaharlal Nehru Interacting with Army personnel at NEFA in 1962. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

Amit Das Gupta and Lorenz Lüthi’s The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives is a most topical and useful book for two reasons: For one, it revisits a topic that has been relatively neglected in recent Indian scholarship using archival and other material that have become available in the last two decades. With access to (some) Chinese and to Russian/Soviet archives, and to the archives and memoirs of actors in other states, it is now possible to widen the lens from speculation about Indian and Chinese motives, and to attempt a clearer picture of what led to the war, its international context and its aftermath.

The other reason is that it helps us to understand better how such a brief and limited conflict, in the military sense, had such immense political and other consequences.

As we know, the political after-life of the conflict, and its continuing effect on Indian thinking and behaviour, has only now begun to be studied and analysed. By getting an international group of younger scholars to examine various aspects of the war and its effects, the editors have done us and scholarship on the war a great service. Coming when India-China relations are in flux and require a fundamental reset – indeed when world politics itself is undergoing a fundamental reset – this is a useful, if indirect, contribution to how we think about India-China’s relationship, which arguably could be the one that most affects our nation’s success in transforming itself.

The strengths of the book lie in the objective manner in which it deals with the international context of the war and the role not just of the super-powers but also of the other non-aligned countries. The chapters based on material in the Soviet and Yugoslav archives – on what became the Colombo Plan proposals – are fascinating in the candid, not always flattering, portrait of Indian diplomacy, of the Nehru government’s attempt to remain non-aligned when forced to seek military help from the West, Soviet hesitations before deciding to continue MiG-21 supplies to India and the almost universal belief that India had isolated herself in the years before the war by being “non-aligned among the non-aligned”. It was Egypt and Yugoslavia who pulled India’s diplomatic chestnuts out of the fire.

The other strength of the book is Part III, which deals with the political consequences of the war in India: with the institutionalisation of emergency provisions in the constitution that we now take for granted (which were imposed by governments on India for over 17 years); in the effect on the communist movement in India (probably by hastening its decline); in the shameful treatment of long-term residents of Chinese origin – many of them Indian citizens (who were interned, expropriated, mistreated and deported (the interned were only released in 1967. Even then, government deemed them aliens, expropriated their property, and denied them their rights, deporting many of them); and, on the memory of 1962 in India fifty years later (which remains painful but shallow). Each of these essays raises interesting questions and topics that are worth exploring in more detail. For instance, was China’s decision to go to war the final nail in the prospects of communist revolution in India by posing a choice between nation and revolution and provoking the three-way split of the Communist Party of India, a party that was the second largest party in the 1951 parliament?

Like any edited volume of essays, quality varies through the book. While it is good on the international context and effects, and reasonable on the internal political links in India, it is less satisfactory if you are seeking explanations for the choices that India and China made in the run-up to the war.

Chapter 3 by Dai Chaowu, for instance, essentially hews to the official Chinese portrait of China’s policy – innocent, well intentioned, forced by an adamant India. It fails to explain the roots of Chinese behaviour, some of which, such as the extreme sensitivity to lost control in Tibet, are now evident from other sources.

Which brings me to what I think is the core weakness of this and most other recent commentary on 1962. The editors speak of the “almost complete lack of the war’s influence on Chinese domestic and foreign policy” in their introduction. This may be what China wishes you to think. But in fact, this is to allow the greater shadow of subsequent events like the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to mask the significance of the Chinese decision to go to war with India for internal Chinese politics – indeed for the balance and power struggle within the Chinese leadership after the disastrous Great Leap Forward (GLF) and famine – and in marking the first steps in Mao’s seizure of power and revenge on Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping that culminated in the Cultural Revolution.

India’s policy and the war was the key used by Mao in August 1962 and the Lushan plenum to make his radicalism the accepted line in Chinese foreign policy. (Eric Hyer on pg. 86, also pg.147, mention but do not fully explore this.)

By replacing Wang Jiaxiang as head of the party’s international liaison department (ILD) with Kang Sheng, Mao took the first steps to encircling his opponents in the party. In essence Wang’s line, which was practiced as policy 1960-61, recommended flexibility/san-he towards the Soviet Union, India and the USA, and a reduction/yi-shao in support to revolutionary causes abroad. Wang had argued for a strategic foreign policy that distinguished between waging revolution and governing a country. If China only championed revolution it would weaken her own development and obscure her peaceful foreign policy. With Wang gone, san-he-yi-shao stood discredited. 

Mao’s next step was bringing the PLA under his control, and here too the 1962 war was useful to him. As we now know from memoirs (Wang Jiaxiang’s widow, Yeh Jianying and others have written in their memoirs; Chen Yi’s “trial” and posters against Zhou in Beida in May-July 1967), Cultural Revolution big character posters and other sources, the two-line struggle in the party between Mao and those trying to bring some normalcy and relief after the GLF and famine were both sharp and consequential for the distribution of power in the leadership and the future course of China’s internal politics. I would even say that if Mao had not got his way on war with India – either by India agreeing to Zhou’s 1960 offer, or by a more determined opposition in the politburo, or through the US’s and Soviet clarity in response to Chinese feelers before the war – the Cultural Revolution may have been averted or not taken the form it did. Of course, we will never really know, but I say this to highlight that there is a great deal of evidence to suggest the war did have both domestic and foreign policy significance for China as well.

War with India in 1962 killed many birds with one stone for Mao. It furthered several of his political goals: it stopped the territorial jostling with India on the ground; it distracted attention from the calamitous domestic situation he had caused; it damaged the irritating domestic and foreign policy of the Indian bourgeoisie and Nehru; it weakened the Soviet position in the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute; it thwarted US machinations that he saw in Tibet and Taiwan; and, it sought (unsuccessfully) to replace the non-aligned movement with a China-led Afro-Asian bloc. But I suspect that far more significant than all these external factors was the fact that it was the beginning of his taking back control of the party.

What Mao did not foresee was that as a result of his decision to go to war, “Sino-Indian relations were damaged beyond repair for the foreseeable future, while the influence of the two superpowers had become a game-changer for future developments”. Neither of these outcomes was in China’s interest when she was taking on the two superpowers simultaneously. One can only conclude that Mao’s domestic agenda overrode international or foreign policy considerations, and that Zhou went along (as usual). Mao had told the politburo that the effect of the war on India-China relations would last 30 years after which it would be forgotten. Fifty years after the war, that is still not the case for the public mind in India.

The political uses of historical memory

The other major contribution of the book is that it raises the question of historical memory, of how we remember major historical events, and of the political and other uses that memory is put to.

The 1962 War is really an iconic/textbook example of this phenomenon and deserves to be studied in much greater detail. Jabin Jacob’s chapter is a beginning at addressing this problem of the lingering effects of political memory, how we construct it, its uses and abuses. The 1962 war is a prime example of a case worth studying because our memory of 1962 still affects Indian attitudes and responses to China and sets the political context for the Indian government’s China policy.

Why does it still do so? Because we have internalised a narrative or story of the war that is powerful and lasting. It has changes, significant moments and endings – as Kahneman says, our remembering selves construct or order experience/memory. It is a story of betrayal and defeat with an unsatisfactory end that needs to be re-written. It is a strong narrative, deeply felt by Indians. I can think of no other way to explain the relative lack of serious academic work in India on 1962 for so many years.

This narrative would not matter if it did not also inhibit us from considering changes in our stance and new responses when circumstances change. In other words, it limits our objectivity and flexibility in our dealings with China.

We have internalised a narrative or story of the war that is powerful and lasting. It is a story of betrayal and defeat with an unsatisfactory end that needs to be re-written. I can think of no other way to explain the relative lack of serious academic work in India on 1962 for so many years.

As an example, consider this: As China’s capabilities on the border have grown and her hold on Tibet has strengthened, she has taken three different positions on the boundary settlement question. First, seeking adjustments in Aksai Chin (before 1959); second, seeking her preferred line in the west with acceptance of the MacMahon Line in the east (1960-1982); third, demanding her line in the west and major Indian concessions in the east, including Tawang (since 1985).

India, on the other hand, maintains a public official position that is basically the same as in the 1950s, with the addition in 1988 that minor adjustments might be possible. And yet, there is no question that the actual correlation of forces on the border is today actually more balanced than it was in the ’50s or in subsequent decades. The factor inhibiting a consequential evolution of our stance seems to be the strength of the narrative that we have constructed and use in our discussion of the boundary and border with China, about Chinese behaviour, and about our faith in ourselves, all of which start with the 1962 war.

I find it revealing to consider the evolution – over their careers – of the China policy and views of those, like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who were among Jawaharlal Nehru’s most severe critics in the 1959-62 run up to the war. From a severe critic of Nehru’s engagement with China, Vajpayee became the one whose pioneering visit as foreign minister in 1979 marked the first steps towards normalcy, and, like his 2003 visit as prime minister, opened up India’s options. Such is the power of responsibility and greater knowledge to change set narratives and convictions in politics. On the Chinese side, Deng Xiaoping also seems to have undergone a similar process in the evolution of his thinking on India, judging from what we know of his views and statements in the ’50s and ’60s compared to those in the ’80s.

All this is a rather long-winded way of saying that we need more scholarship on 1962, and on China in general, if we are to bring our narrative on China in line with objective reality. And this is where Gupta and Lüthi’s new book, which I would strongly recommend, comes in. I hope that it is only the beginning of more rigorous, primary source-based research on the contemporary history of India-China relations.

Shivshankar Menon was India’s national security adviser till 2014.

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