October 20, 1962, is embedded in collective Indian memory as a day of national humiliation when Beijing “surprised” Delhi and Chinese troops launched what the then defence minister, VK Krishna Menon, described as “an aggressive war” over disputed territory in the Ladakh region and NEFA areas (now Arunachal Pradesh). At one point in the brief eight-day war, it seemed as if Assam was being abandoned by a bewildered, panic-stricken Delhi and many inadequacies in India’s higher defence management and military preparedness were laid bare.
Fifty-eight years later, there is a correspondence of events, wherein India and China are currently engaged in a tense military stand-off along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region and a large number of troops have been amassed by both nations. While 2020 is not 1962 and history may not quite repeat itself, some rhythms merit scrutiny for the strategically policy-relevant lessons of that war which Delhi has not learnt.
The current ground situation in Ladakh is brittle, but there is guarded optimism that quiet diplomacy is underway and that a modus vivendi may still be arrived at, especially with India having gained a tactical advantage on the southern banks of Pangong Tso. However, in whichever manner this military build-up is resolved, there is an irreversible change in the nature of the India-China bilateral relationship after the Indian Army lost precious lives in a violent attack by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in the Galwan Valley. In a recent conversation, external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, described the bilateral relationship as one that is now “profoundly disturbed”.
Could this exigency have been avoided or better managed? An objective review of the last 58 years would suggest that while Delhi was jolted out of the Jawaharlal Nehru-Krishna Menon make-believe framework that led to October 1962, the immediate response was tactical. The scapegoated army was re-organised at the senior level, and Prime Minister (PM) Nehru personally took over the defence portfolio for a brief period. But alas, the inadequacies in the higher defence management of the country were swept under the political carpet.
This inability or reluctance to comprehend the fine print of strategic geography, the lessons of history, the abiding relevance of credible military capability and the correlation of these strands to national security have led to a series of “surprises” that peak with an all too familiar post-crisis Delhi fumble. This was evident in October 1962 (Nehru), Kargil 1999 (AB Vajpayee), Mumbai 2008 (Manmohan Singh) and now Galwan 2020 (Narendra Modi).
In relation to China, a fundamental policy flaw over the last six decades-plus has been the make-believe frame of reference that the Indian political apex has chosen to inhabit. In 1962, the Nehru-Menon perception of the China issue was the assiduous creation of a simulacrum — where the imagined reality becomes “the reality” for its adherents. Nehru’s conviction about post-colonial Asian solidarity and Menon’s theological faith in the virtues of communism created a virtual “China issue” for a fledgling India. The received wisdom was that China, with Mao at the helm, could be managed by high politics and eloquent diplomacy at the United Nations.
The hard and unpalatable reality of the rubber hitting the road was visible in the ill-equipped, poorly-clad Indian soldier having to defend national sovereignty to the last man — as the Battle of Rezang La demonstrated. A huge political blunder and a grossly inadequate higher defence management were at the heart of the debacle, but it is moot if the right strategic lessons have been learnt by Raisina Hill.
After the historic Rajiv Gandhi visit to China in 1988, the post-Cold War period saw India and China engaging more robustly at the bilateral level and the PV Narasimha Rao to Manmohan Singh trajectory (1991-2014) was one of stabilising the relationship and enhancing the trade-economic engagement. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the foreign office were the lead players in shaping and implementing India’s China policy — from agreements about the LAC to the Dalai Lama, Taiwan and more. An element of wishful thinking permeated this China policy, which believed that a visible demonstration of Indian good faith to the one-China policy and respect for China’s core sensitivities would allow the LAC to recede into the background. As part of this “appeasement”, Delhi lived with the anomaly of Beijing supporting Pakistan in relation to terrorism and undermining India in international fora.
On the Modi watch, the China issue morphed into a problem over the Chumar intrusion (September 2014) and festered through the Depsang-Doklam-Galwan continuum. In retrospect, it is not evident that Nehru’s policy errors were rigorously internalised by the current dispensation. Hence, comprehensive national security capability in relation to China was a low priority and the political oxygen was focused on Pakistan with its domestic electoral subtext. The mistaken assumption (the new simulacrum?) appears to have been that high-level summit meetings and frequent bilateral meetings between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping would help resolve the very complex territorial dispute summarised as the three-letter LAC.
The reality of China’s intent in relation to India has tested the perspicacity of India’s higher defence gene-pool to make an objective and effective assessment of the Xi gameplan and arrive at policy options that are viable and sustainable in the long-run.
A post Covid-19 world is struggling to emerge and it may be prudent for the Modi government to do a Vajpayee a la Kargil and go back to the drawing board. The central objective would be to objectively comprehend the nature of the China challenge for India from October 1962 to 2020, beyond just the LAC impasse.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal