K.N. Raghavan, a civil servant, takes a relook at the 1962 war with China in his latest book

Somewhere deep in the Indian psyche there seems to be a quiet suspicion for China. The distrust is manifest when we think of anything Chinese; even in the glee when the United States scraped past China in the medals tally at the recently concluded Olympic Games.

The paranoia has historical origins. It can be traced back to the border war between the two nations in 1962; to the constant ‘stories’ that have been drummed into us through numerous history textbooks and people who wrote about how India was stabbed in the back.

This October marks the 50th year of this significant moment in India’s history. Dividing Lines: Contours Of India-China Conflict by K. N. Raghavan, who chucked a medical career for the Civil Services, is an international cricket umpire, and has a passion for history, attempts to link the chain of events that led to the war. The book looks at the war and India’s ignominious defeat objectively.

One sided?

“Jawaharlal Nehru was a childhood hero. As I read more, I found that the India-China war was perhaps the only blot in his otherwise illustrious political career. I realised that most writers looked at the issue rather uni-dimensionally. They were quick to arrive at the conclusion which was predictable – Chinese treachery on a gullible India,” says Raghavan, who is now Commissioner of Customs, Kochi.

Divided into 12 elaborate chapters ‘Dividing Lines,’ drawn heavily from books, articles, letters, speeches in the Parliament is a relook on the 1962 war. “Neville Maxwell’s India China War, has a strong bias against India. Hence, despite the many interesting facts it reveals you tend to take it with a pinch of salt. Dorothy Woodman’s Himalayan Frontiers views the whole issue only from the point of borders between the two nations. There have been books by army commanders and bureaucrats that have only looked at justification of their decisions and actions. They all lacked objectivity.”

For Raghavan the search was for unbiased facts from a maze of information. There were many facts that prodded the writer to look out for more. Most modern Indian historians have followed a simplistic line of China’s ‘treachery’. Nehru, for Raghavan, could not be reduced to one who blindly believed in others and allowed to be led by them. And, again, if China was the aggressor it is made out to be, the fact remains that it did not retain any piece of territory in the eastern sector where the war was fought nor did it attempt to commit further acts of aggression despite the Indian Army being in full retreat.

“What I found strange was that though we in India could never erase this incident from the collective unconscious of the nation, China seemed to have paid scant interest to it. In fact, there have been hardly any works on the topic from the Chinese side. Chinese historians have tried to play down the war as a clash along borders,” explains Raghavan.

John Garver’s analytical essay titled China’s Decision for War With India in 1962 was perhaps the first study on the conflict with the help of inputs received from China too. He says, “This gave you the Chinese side of the story, their concerns, worries that were important in the escalation of tensions along the borders ultimately leading to the war. I found that Graver’s analysis was objective and credible.”

What Raghavan arrives at in his work is a diplomatic failure on the Indian side and India’s hasty measures, like bringing out maps showing Aksai Chin within their boundaries in 1954 that created suspicion across the border. “The year 1959 was a crucial year for India in this context. No one has looked at some of the events that happened that year. The escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, and his asylum in India angered the Chinese. Nehru was reprimanded in Parliament when the Aksai Chin issue became public. And then there were minor clashes in the border regions.”

But perhaps the biggest failure was when India refused China’s proposal for talks to extend Panchsheel which was to lapse on June 2, 1962. “This was a chance for India to negotiate, reverse aggressive policies and restore a climate based on the Panchsheel. The agreement lapsed, India and China wound up the trade marts on both sides. Aksai Chin was an alternate route for China to Tibet. India’s stand meant that China was being cut off from Tibet, they saw it as an attempt to undermine their authority in Tibet.”

Raghavan deals in detail with the issue, the events that followed in India and China, the letters written by the leaders on the two sides, how India failed to see reason in a commander’s advice, agreement to discuss the issues, the pressure on Nehru in the Parliament, finally leading to the showdown.

The book has elaborate chapter summaries; definite subheads that help the reader navigate through relevant parts of this significant history, there are maps, references from where the writer has culled material. Fifty years have gone by. Excuses have been given for the military faux pas. Both nations still make claims and counter claims on the borders and occupied territories. Nehru, V. K. Krishna Menon and Lt Gen. B. N. Kaul, in charge of the Indian army in the eastern sector have been much maligned. The report submitted by the Henderson-Brooks commission that investigated the lapses is still a state secret.

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