Lessons for today’s India from the 1962 Chinese invasion

The Art of War


Jawaharlal Nehru blundered when it came to China. There are serious lessons to be learnt from him — especially today.


Review by Brahma Chellaney

The Hindustan Times, September 21, 2008



Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again? Lessons the Chinese Taught Pandit Nehru But Which We Still Refuse to Learn

Arun Shourie

Rs. 395, Pages 214


India and China are both adept at playing with numbers. While China invented the abacus, India conceived the binary and the decimal systems. But India, having forsaken the Kautilyan principles, has proven no match to China’s Sun Tzu-style statecraft. As a result, India has found itself repeatedly betrayed. Indeed, it wasn’t geography but guns — the sudden occupation of the traditional buffer, Tibet, soon after the communists seized power in Beijing — that made China India’s neighbour. Jawaharlal Nehru later admitted he didn’t anticipate the swiftness of the Chinese takeover of Tibet because he had been “led to believe by the Chinese foreign office that the Chinese would settle the future of Tibet in a peaceful manner”.

            Shourie’s well-researched, powerfully written book — his 24th in an extraordinary career that has spanned academics, journalism and politics — relies on Nehru’s letters, speeches, notes and other correspondence to bring out the significance, in Nehru’s own words, of the events from the 1950-51 fall of Tibet to China’s 1962 invasion. The author then draws 31 lessons from those developments for today’s India.

After all, there are important parallels, as Shourie points out, between the situation pre-1962 and the situation now. Border talks are regressing, Chinese claims on Indian territories are becoming publicly assertive, Chinese cross-border incursions are rising, and India’s China policy is becoming feckless. Indeed, what stands out in the history of Sino-Indian disputes is that India has always been on the defensive against a country that first moved its frontiers hundreds of miles south by annexing Tibet, then furtively nibbled at Indian territories before waging open war, and now lays claims to additional Indian territories. By contrast, on neuralgic subjects like Tibet, Beijing’s public language still matches the crudeness and callousness with which it sought in 1962, in Premier Zhou Enlai’s words, to “teach India a lesson”.

India’s crushing rout in 1962 hastened the death of Nehru, “a fervent patriot,” according to Shourie, who “misled himself and thereby brought severe trauma upon the country, a country that he loved and served with such ardour”. The defeat transformed Nehru from a world statesman to a beaten, shattered politician.


            A classic example of Nehru’s self-delusion cited by the author is the following note he wrote on July 9, 1949, to the country’s top career diplomat: “Whatever may be the ultimate fate of Tibet in relation to China, I think there is practically no chance of any military danger to India arising from any change in Tibet.  Geographically, this is very difficult and practically it would be a foolish adventure.  If India is to be influenced or an attempt made to bring pressure on her, Tibet is not the route for it.  I do not think there is any necessity for our defence ministry, or any part of it, to consider possible military repercussions on the India-Tibetan frontier.  The event is remote and may not arise at all”.


            What Nehru naively saw as a “foolish adventure” was mounted within months by China. What Nehru asserted was geographically impracticable became a geopolitical reality that has impacted on Indian security like no other development since the 20th century.


            Right up to 1949, Nehru kept referring to the “Tibetan government” and to Tibet and India as “our two countries”. But no sooner had China begun gobbling up Tibet than Nehru’s stance changed. He started advising Tibetan representatives, as Shourie brings out, to go to Beijing and plead for autonomy. By 1954, through the infamous “Panchsheel Agreement”, Nehru had not only surrendered India’s extra-territorial rights in Tibet but also recognized “the Tibet region of China” — without securing any quid pro quo, such as the Chinese acceptance of the McMahon Line.

From Nehru’s grudging acceptance of Chinese suzerainty to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s blithe acceptance of full Chinese sovereignty, India has incrementally shed its main card — Tibet — and thereby allowed the aggressor state to shift the spotlight from its annexation of Tibet and Aksai Chin to its newly assertive claims on Arunachal Pradesh. The irony is that by laying claims to additional Indian territories on the basis of their purported ties to Tibet, China blatantly plays the Tibet card against India, going to the extent of citing the birth in Tawang of one of the earlier Dalai Lamas, a politico-religious institution it has systematically sought to destroy. Yet India remains coy to play the Tibet card against China.

The sum effect of failing to use Tibet as a bargaining chip has been that India first lost Aksai Chin, then more territory in 1962 and now is seeking to fend off Chinese claims to Arunachal Pradesh. And as Shourie reminds his readers, India has still to grasp that the Chinese modus operandi of promising a peaceful settlement and then employing force to change facts on the ground is an old practice. The lessons he paints — from not running policy on hope to ensuring peace by building capability to defend peace — are words of warning no leadership ought to ignore.

Shourie’s book is a call for a down-the-earth Indian policy which, without pushing any panic buttons, begins to build better Himalayan security and countervailing leverage to ensure that China’s growing power does not slide into arrogance and renewed aggression. After all, China’s dramatic rise as a world power in just one generation under authoritarian rule represents the first direct challenge to liberal democracy since the rise of fascism in the 1930s. But just as India has been battered by growing terrorism because of its location next to the global epicentre of terror, it could bear the brunt from its geographical proximity to an increasingly assertive China.

Brahma Chellaney is a political commentator



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