politics Reviews

‘The Fractured Himalaya: India, China, Tibet 1949-1962’ review: A march to estrangement

Nirupama Rao has written what will certainly be an authoritative text for a long time to come on India-Tibet-China interactions in the early years of the republic leading up to the war of 1962.

This is a scholarly work, infused with her long experience of the boundary question and of dealing with China in various capacities in the Ministry of External Affairs, as Ambassador to China, and as Foreign Secretary. She has buttressed her deep experience with original scholarship in the archives that are now open internationally to students of that period.

Stress factor

Rao makes her deep scholarship accessible for she writes clearly and makes the history flow. The Fractured Himalaya tells of the critical initial years when India and China tried, for the first time in history, to build a political relationship and, when the strains of that effort became too much, to manage the stresses and issues such as the boundary question which became public in 1959. Their failure was evident in the war of 1962, the resonances of which still play out in the relationship. The book reads like a tragedy, with tragically flawed heroic characters and an inexorable march to estrangement and war. Rao reminds us that opinions in the government of India were divided on responding to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and on how to approach the boundary question with China. These divisions were not just between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, but persisted, with most of those who had actually dealt with Tibet or China, like Sumal Sinha and K.P.S. Menon, or those of a more realist bent of mind like Girija Shankar Bajpai, advocating a boundary negotiation before recognising China’s occupation of Tibet in the 1954 Agreement. Sadly, Nehru went with K.M. Pannikar and Subimal Dutt’s advice not to raise the boundary question. Would raising the boundary question in 1954, stressing Tibet’s independent role in history, and withholding acceptance of the Chinese occupation have led to a better outcome? This is a ‘what-if’ question that cannot be answered with any certainty, but the book makes clear the complexity and contemporary context in which those decisions were taken. It is a pattern that is to be repeated through the decade, of missed opportunities, woolly thinking and misreading Chinese intentions, and the book describes this in admirable detail.

A tragedy foretold

Rao’s work has two great merits. It restores Tibet to the centrality and independent agency that it enjoyed in practice and deserves in any telling of this story. Rao’s own sympathies do not get in the way of her objectivity. She describes in detail India’s confusions when it was evident that Tibet would be occupied by the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army), and the desultory way in which India chose to protest and play her hand.

In some ways this was a tragedy foretold. While post-colonial India and China made the transition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to becoming modern Westphalian states, and were accepted as such by the rest of the world, the third nation with its own distinct state, political culture and civilisation, Tibet, could not make that transition. The consequences have been tragic, primarily for the Tibetan people and culture but also for India-China relations and the communities of what Rao calls the fractured Himalaya. Rao’s narration of how this played out through the long 1950s makes for depressing reading.

The other contribution that the book makes is to restore a sense of balance and objectivity to the evaluation of what went wrong in India’s China policy in the ’50s and early ’60s. It has been convenient for all concerned to blame Nehru for the war and the unsettled boundary with China. And Nehru, being Nehru, never publicly blamed anyone else for failures of policy. Today’s newly fashionable stance of putting all the onus on Nehru begs the question of what all the institutions of the government of India were doing and where they went wrong — the Intelligence Bureau, the Indian Army, Indian diplomats, the Ministry of Defence and others. While the prime minister does have ultimate responsibility, it does not serve us well or enable us to learn from history to only blame one person and not look into institutional and other actions and actors.

Cautionary tale

The book’s rich detail offers a variegated cast of characters and issues, and a cautionary sense of the limitations under which Indian policy makers operated. When Nehru asked about India’s military capabilities as China marched into Tibet in 1950-51, he was told by Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa that the Indian Army could, at best, push one brigade up to Gyantse for a month or two, but could not sustain it, stretched as it was with a war in Kashmir against Pakistan and with keeping the peace in a communally charged India after Partition. India had no military options and her response to China’s occupation of Tibet therefore had to be diplomatic and political. And there, as Rao tells us, India’s choices in the ’50s were suboptimal.

One only hopes that Rao will now apply her knowledge and scholarship to take this story forward to the decades after 1962 and bring it up to today. All in all this is a book for anyone with an interest in foreign policy, in India, Tibet and China, and with a sense of history. For it is only by studying our true history, not by telling fables or constructing narratives, that we will avoid the mistakes of the past.

The Fractured Himalaya: India, China, Tibet 1949-1962; Nirupama Rao, Penguin/ Viking, ₹999.

The reviewer is a former National Security Adviser and former Foreign Secretary.


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