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Updated: October 15, 2012 20:44 IST

1962: a different war story

Sonika Gupta
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Chennai: 24/07/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: Dividing Lines, contours of India-China Conflict. Author: K.N. Raghavan.
Chennai: 24/07/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: Dividing Lines, contours of India-China Conflict. Author: K.N. Raghavan.

The India-China war of 1962 continues to occupy a place of importance in the minds of researchers and analysts examining the nature and future direction of Sino-Indian relations. In this vein, Raghavan attempts a reassessment of the 1962 conflict. This year being the 50th anniversary of the war makes this book that much more topical.

As the author claims, sufficient time has now passed for us to attempt an objective engagement with the events and policies that led up to the armed conflict between India and China. However, one of the basic requirements of any such engagement would be access to archival material about the policy making process in the 1950s and early 1960s. As it stands today, despite a long debate on the issue, no government at the Centre has deemed it fit to make this material available to the public. In the lack of this, the author has chosen to work largely with already published scholarly works and memoirs of key Indian players to reconstruct the events. The two non-Indian works extensively quoted are expectedly, Neville Maxwell, India’s China War and Dorothy Woodman’s Himalayan Frontiers . Of the Indian memoirs, again predictably, B. M. Kaul’s The Untold Story B. N. Mullick’s My Years with Nehru , J.P. Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder and D.K. Palit’s War in the High Himalayas among others serve as the mainstay of the author’s sources.

The author is of the view that these memoirs are more in the nature of a defense of actions of individual decision-makers of the time. Dividing Lines is an attempt to critically examine the claims made in these memoirs and establish credible scenarios within which the decision-making process operated during Prime Minster Nehru’s time. The book establishes the context of the boundary issue between India and China from the British times in the context of the great power politics of the early 20th century up to the Indian independence and the following years.

The discussion of the ‘forward policy’ by India, which Maxwell has squarely blamed for inciting the conflict, is obviously of the most crucial interest in the book. The author takes the view that India’s stance in implementing the forward policy was not aggressive but rather cautionary with the objective of forcing the Chinese to the negotiating table. The entire forward policy was based on the understanding that China would not want to get into an armed conflict with India over the boundary issue.

Cogent reconstruction

Raghavan accepts that Nehru’s understanding of Chinese action was based on the intelligence reports as well his own assessment of the international situation and does not examine this crucial assumption beyond this. In fact, the author isolates that reinterpretation of the forward policy by the Army top brass as one of the major reason’s for inciting a Chinese attack. The author is also scathing in his criticism of the Army Headquarters for not heeding the advice of field commanders in hastily implementing the forward policy. Lt. Gen B. M. Kaul’s close relationship with Defence Minister Krishna Menon comes in for some harsh criticism. While in and of itself, this material is not new, the retelling is important as it pulls together strands form the political and military decision-making arena to make a cogent reconstruction. The author does not mince words in charting the interpersonal relations between decision-makers as the context in which some decisions that later proved costly for India were taken.

While being rather gentle in his assessment of Nehru’s role in the conflict, the author does point out that Nehru was overly sensitive to domestic political criticism and did not sufficiently explore the negotiating option. Instead, he took decisions to avoid criticism at home rather than take the optimal decisions with a view to averting a crisis. Again, while the Chinese offers of negotiation are a matter of historical record, the author’s reconstruction should dispel some of the long-standing view that India was essentially stabbed in the back by China. Regrettably, even as the current policy-making environment stand significantly transformed looking at the India-China relationship in a much broader context, the public perception of China continues to be fed with the post-1962 mistrust of China. This mistrust was systematically worked by successive governments into the official and non-official discourse on China and almost became a matter of policy through the 1970s to early 1990s. The Chinese economic growth and the cornering of certain markets by Chinese goods in India had contributed to this mistrust. Add to this the relevant concerns about the increasing Chinese military modernisation; all these factors together have prevented any critical view of the burgeoning India-China relationship that can sufficiently distance itself from this ‘mistrust’ and at the same time provide a credible perception of threat from China.

What the book does most persuasively is call for making available for public scrutiny the information on the 1962 war that by moral and democratic right belongs in the public realm.

DIVIDING LINES — Contours of India-China Conflict. K.N. Raghavan; Platinum Press, Trade Centre, Level 1, Bandra, Kurla Complex, Bandra (E), Mumbai-400051. Rs. 225.

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