The Rediff Special/Wing Commander (retd) R V Parasnis
By and large Indians have always lacked an understanding of the concept of sovereignty. Therein lie the roots of our slavery by foreign rulers for over 1,000 years. These foreigners all came for plunder or trade, but stayed on to rule and earned the right to call themselves Indians. All the while the local kingdoms squabbled between themselves and myopically called for foreign help to overcome their adversaries.
The concept of sovereignty calls for a thorough understanding of national interests and goals; developing means (especially economic strength) and infrastructure to achieve them; fair and just rule of law; and military muscle along with a willingness to use it when necessary. Care also has to be taken to ensure that pragmatism and practicality prevail in all national policies, or else sovereignty can never be sustained.
The great Shivaji understood the concept of sovereignty perfectly well and was therefore able to create an empire out of nothing, surrounded by enemies on all sides. The British creation of 'protectorates' and 'buffer states' for the defence of India too developed because of this concept, and the lack of resources, especially manpower, with Great Britain to conquer, control, and administer every small or big state bordering India. Economically and administratively, it was not viable to expand the borders of the empire thoughtlessly over unproductive terrain.
The India-China-Tibet treaties of the British days were thus created according to the British defence concept to guard and expand their empire, and deliberately kept vague. The British had the military muscle to remain flexible in philosophy and enforce whatever they thought was best in their interests at any given time.
But after Independence, in spite of the British understanding with Tibet and the willingness of the Tibetan authorities to expand that understanding to let India help them keep their country safe from external aggression (they only had China to fear), we did nothing.
On the other hand, a year after the People's Republic of China was declared in 1949, the People's Liberation Army entered Tibet and made it a province of their country.
That is foresight and quick action. They acted when the time was ripe and before anyone else could react. They knew exactly what their country's goal was and secured it. Sadly, Tibet has become an abandoned land since, and its well-developed, proud culture is on the wane in full sight of the world due to deliberate design and effort, often accompanied with brutal repression.
Sardar Patel was constrained to state in writing to Nehru that the Tibetans had reposed their trust in and looked up to us to protect them, but we had let them down. India could have entered into a treaty with Tibet and taken over the defence - and, perhaps, foreign affairs -- of Tibet in return for expenses while the Communists under Mao Zedong were busy fighting the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, whose defeat appeared imminent. The US of those days would have given any amount of military aid to contain the Russia-China Communist axis, so obsessive with pathological hatred for Communism were they at the time.
That would certainly have created conditions for a serious confrontation with the Chinese in future, but with American help we could have prepared for that eventuality.
As for our leaders then, only Sardar Patel had some understanding of the concept of sovereignty. Nehru always displayed an abject lack of it. Examples are galore, right from the time of Partition.
- His refusal to accept the accession of the State of Jammu and Kashmir on September 19, 1947, when it was originally offered by Maharaja Hari Singh, a good five weeks before the invasion of his state by Pakistan. Had the accession been accepted then, the entire state would have been ours. The Pakistan of those days would never have dared attack India, so superior was our military strength on account of the division of the armed forces on religious lines.
- Later, Nehru practically surrendered our sovereignty when he invited Lord Louis Mountbatten, the governor general, to preside over and chair the meetings of his own Cabinet and the Cabinet Committee on Defence on matters regarding the accession and the military action after Pakistan invaded Jammu and Kashmir. Mountbatten, basically a servant of the British Crown, did his best to delay the decisions.
- Worse, as India started winning the war and liberating parts of north Kashmir, Nehru inexplicably (most likely under the strong influence of Mountbatten and his wife, who shaped much of his thinking in those days) declared a 'ceasefire' and stopped our victorious army dead in its tracks before it could liberate the entire state. He declared the ceasefire arbitrarily, without consulting his full Cabinet, the Constituent Assembly (as Parliament was then known), his military commanders, or the maharaja/prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
- Nehru was the architect of Article 370, with which he burdened India to placate a hurt Sheikh Abdullah.
The Chinese occupation of Tibet should have forced a reassessment of the threat to India. After they enforced their suzerainty on Tibet in 1951, the threat deserved greater attention. But when General K M Cariappa met Nehru to discuss the defence of the North East Frontier Agency, he was bluntly told to mind only Kashmir and Pakistan as his concerns for defence and leave China to the politicians and the diplomats.
As Lieutenant General S P P Thorat recounts in his autobiography 'From Reveille to Retreat', "When [in 1959] I, as GoC-in-C Eastern Command, met Menon in Delhi, I opened the subject [of defence against the Chinese] with him. In his usually sarcastic style he said that there would be no war between India and China and [if there was] he was quite capable of fighting it himself at the diplomatic level."
Nehru learnt no lessons from the war in Kashmir. Practicality always took a back seat in his mind, which was dominated by idealism. He went on emotionally in his rhetoric of 'Hindi Chini bhai bhai', all the while considering himself a superior international statesman and India an elder brother of China.
He was proudly going around as the unchallenged leader of the Third World. He failed to realise that the Chinese leaders had begun to resent his approach and his manner of dealing with them, that as per them China was the natural leader of the Third World, that the initial bond of personal friendship he had formed with the Chinese leaders was not strong enough to withstand this strain, and that personal relations can never score over vital national interests in any case. Countries fight wars when their vital interests are threatened. Nehru and Krishna Menon failed to understand this.
Nehru's rigidity on the border issue, his insistence on Chinese withdrawal before border talks could begin, his grant of political asylum to the Dalai Lama and permission to him to establish a Tibetan government-in-exile (an act that created conditions for a future invasion of Tibet by India or outside powers through India to restore the Dalai Lama's rule, if desired), the hostile Indian press on the question of the occupation of Tibet, and Nehru's increasingly aggressive statements on the border made the Chinese believe he had become a tool in the hands of the Anglo-American imperialists.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was maintaining a friendly posture, but he had practically begun to hate Nehru, as is clear from the text of his conversations with US President Richard Nixon in 1972, now made public. There were possibly some outward signs of this and some hints were dropped, but Nehru was blind to them. The Chinese, basically secretive in nature, were also not very open about their ill feelings.
The Chinese also knew that India was unprepared for a high-altitude war, and there was no imperial power behind her with any ready plan to enter Tibet. Since the Indian threat was unreal, punishing Nehru must have been the only, or a major, motive for their attacks.
Nehru continued with his blind love for socialism and an oppressed sister nation. Zhou and his generals were invited for many military functions like the passing out parade of the National Defence Academy, firepower demonstration/exercises by the army, and even visits to the various military establishments like the Defence Services Staff College and the College of Combat, Mhow. Zhou embraced the young cadets passing out then with affection, but had no qualms in butchering them when they were guarding our borders in 1962 as young officers.
The Chinese premier and his generals went all round India visiting our industrial and military establishments, observing, learning and preparing for an eventuality (or planning for a showdown?), while we enjoyed our reverie. The example of one firepower demonstration in 1956 arranged by none other than General B M Kaul stands out.
"The firepower demonstration went off admirably well. It had to; we had practised it for months. A Chinese general who was sitting next to General B M Kaul found it a bit too difficult to swallow and asked General Kaul whether it would be possible to achieve in actual battle conditions, the kind of concentration of fire then observed during the demonstration.
"Instead of answering that question directly, General Kaul went into the mechanics of strategy and tactics vis-à-vis firepower concentration. The Chinese military delegation on their return journey said to the Burmese in Rangoon that the senior officers of the Indian Army were 'chair-borne' soldiers," says Captain C L Datta, who was ADC to Presidents Rajendra Prasad and S Radhakrishnan, in his book With Two Presidents.
When Gen Kaul evacuated his forces from NEFA in 1962, the opposing Chinese general was the same one who had sat next to him during the demonstration and asked him that question!
Nehru took it upon himself to prop up China and take up their cause at every possible international forum, at times without even any specific request from them. But that earned him little or no gratitude.
- If China was a friendly country and its claim on Tibet was acceptable to us, where was the question of granting the Dalai Lama and his entourage asylum in India to establish and run a parallel government? We even posted a foreign ministry officer to Dharamsala to represent India in the durbar of the Dalai Lama. If we believed in the justness of the Chinese claim over Tibet, then the maximum we should have done was granted asylum to the Dalai Lama with a small entourage (not thousands of followers) on humanitarian grounds, but permitted no political activities.
Alternatively, we could have objected to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, albeit in soft, diplomatic language, insisted on retaining our mission in Lhasa as per the 1906 convention with Tibet and agreed to and ratified by China; protested when they forced Tibet to surrender its sovereignty and permitted it to maintain only regional self-governance in 1951, and in 1956 when they began to deny them self-governance, eventually forcing the Dalai Lama to flee. Granting political asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 would then have been justified. As a result, the Chinese would have certainly remained hostile to us on this point, but respected us for what we are.
Instead, in 1955, while relinquishing the rights and privileges India had enjoyed in Tibet from the times of Colonel Younghusband's expedition in 1904, Nehru declared: "Free India has no wish to continue with any imperialistic rights or privileges."
India as a nation itself was an imperialistic creation. India's borders, including the addition of the state of Greater Assam to the Union, were a British creation. If we rejected our rights in Tibet as an imperialistic creation, what rightful claim had we on the borders fixed in accordance with British expansionism? But without the military might to back it up, Nehru did exactly that.
India, under Nehru, was an antithesis of most of the theories he applied in governance. Taking advantage of the British imperial legacy when it suited us while otherwise denouncing it roundly, we managed to lose all the respect China had for us, to be replaced by contempt. Which made it easier for them to ambush and capture or kill our patrols and take punitive action against us in 1962.
In retrospect, it can be said that Nehru's greatness and his many sterling qualities eventually came to naught on account of his lack of understanding of the concept of sovereignty in general and national interest in particular. He failed to fix the national goal. His hatred of imperialism and love for democracy mixed with socialist leanings and the prime ministerial responsibility that demanded pragmatism and cold national interest left him confused and irresolute.
Nehru, therefore, knew not where our borders should be fixed, or why. Yet, after Independence, he went on to fix India's northern and northeastern borders, left undemarcated by the British, on his own, without consulting China, leave alone getting them to agree.
The principle he followed was arbitrary, perhaps not always unjustified or unfair, but possibly wrong in places, and certainly disputable in many places. That often led to vague and irrational diplomatic arguments during talks with China or postponement of negotiations. His vacillating mind didn't stand him well against energetic and radical leaders like Mao and Zhou, both of whom were very clear about the concept of sovereignty.
Part I: Lest we forget...
Concluding Part: 'You can scrap the army'