1962 war still haunts India  

By Rekha Bhattacharjee

October 20, 2017 marked 55 years since the defining border conflict of 1962 ruptured India’s relations with China. The tragic memory of that military humiliation and the crippling of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru still haunt the country.

“The scar of 1962 runs through India’s heart,” a Chinese diplomat and scholar on India had said with genuine feeling, “and have not fully healed.”

Historical memories have a life of their own and the injured national psyche is not easy to repair. This has been reflected during the years of border negotiations with China. China and India in 1954 concluded a friendly “Panchsheel;” the five principles of ‘peaceful coexistence;’ under which India recognised Chinese rule in Tibet.

Prime Minister Nehru persistently backed China’s entry into the United Nations. His vision was for a cooperative global order and cordial relations with China were the cornerstone. He promoted this vision and trusted China with the ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ (Indians and Chinese are brothers)!

The Chinese aggression of 1962 put an end to India’s aspirations of becoming a great Asian power and of Nehru establishing himself as a world leader. In the annals of history, the 1962 war was a “Himalayan blunder!” China first claimed Ladakh, then crudely laid claim to the whole of the North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh province), although Chinese Premier Chou En Lai had affirmed to Nehru that the Chinese would respect the eastern boundary.

Defence Minister Krishna Menon decided to take action. The decision came while Nehru was in Colombo and Foreign Secretary M J Desai was in Washington, seeking US assistance against China. Without consulting parliament or the cabinet, Menon took the critical historical decision to launch Operation Leghorn, sending out written orders to forcibly throw out Chinese troops from the Thogla ridge. Nehru, Menon and the Indian army had conceived the Forward Policy, comprising a set of policy doctrines for territorial and border disputes, placing emphasis on securing control of disputed areas by invasion and annexation, or the creation of compliant buffer states.

The Chinese thought India would try to annex Tibet, soon after the Dalai Lama had been given asylum in India. The Indian leadership did not expect the Chinese use of force across the Himalayas. The Chinese crossed Bomdila, after which just 90 kilometres remained between them and Assam. There was no Indian army to prevent their progress – Tezpur in Assam was about to fall! General P N Thapar, then chief of the Indian army, informed Nehru of Tezpur’s imminent fall but, getting no response, immediately resigned, on November 9, 1962.

“Nehru made a mistake and a deadly one at that. History does not forgive anyone. It has not forgiven Krishna Menon or Nehru. For history, it was a Himalayan blunder,” said Mrinal Talukdar, a senior journalist from that era. For New Delhi, what mattered was Nehru’s “Forward policy,” while the army fighting the Chinese did not have enough troops, no roads, rations, warm clothing for the hills or ammunition. Nehru’s ‘forward policy’ had backfired, badly.

At midnight on November 20, China announced that the Chinese Frontier Guards would cease-fire along the Sino Indian border on November 21. Why did the Chinese leave? Apparently, because they had only wanted to teach India a lesson. ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ dissolved into aggression and distrust. For the Northeast, the scars of 1962 are still alive and painful. For India it crippled the Indian army, which took years to recover. Nehru never recovered from the 1962 war and died a broken man in 1964.

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