Guilty men of 1962: whitewashing won’t do
by Virendra Parekh on 08 Jan 2012 2 Comments

Atul Bhardwaj’s article on India’s China debacle “Why was Krishna Menon the foul guy of ’62?” is nothing but a card holder’s tirade against (whom else?) the rightists and the US to explain away the most humiliating episode in our post-independence history.

The perspective is warped, there are several lies and distortions and the lavish praise heaped on V.K. Krishna Menon is wholly underserved. This is not surprising. It is exactly what happens when history is sought to be re-written from a “progressive” (read ‘communist’- there is nothing progressive about communism) perspective. We know what that exercise has done to the teaching of Indian history in the last few decades.

Now a similar attempt is being made to absolve the guilty men of 1962: Mao, Nehru and Menon. The mischief has to be nipped in bud, before the poisonous weeds take roots. This was brought out in bold relief by some of the approving responses to Bharadwaj’s article from Vijayvaani’s readers.

Throughout Bhardwaj’s long and rambling ranting, we look in vain for answers to a simple question: what prompted China to invade India? The answer is equally simple: national aggrandizement through conquest. If there was any doubt about China’s ambitions and intentions, its invasion of Tibet soon after it went Red should clinch it.

Not that there were no alarm bells and notes of caution inside the country. Bhardwaj himself quotes two. “Lt Gen Nathu Singh Thakur (one of the senior most Indian military officers at independence) on 24 Oct. 1950 wrote to Army Headquarters, “Communist China’s complete success over the Kuomintang… their declared policy towards liberation of Tibet… clearly indicate the writing on the wall. The Communist menace is gradually spreading towards the borders of India.”

Sardar Patel, a far-sighted statesman and patriot par excellence, sounded a warning from his death bed. “Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include important parts of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also…While our Western and North-Western threat to security is still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the North and North-East. Thus for the first time after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate on two fronts simultaneously.”

Bhardwaj faults Sardar Patel for relying on British maps and geopolitical threat analysis to shape his territorial perception on India-China territorial dispute. Should Sardar have sought Chinese maps to frame his views? History has vindicated Sardar’s earthy commonsense in correctly reading China’s intentions. He was neither capitalist nor communist, but a realist who could read people, events and situations like an open book. He recognized Sheikh Abdullah as a dubious unreliable character like a chameleon or a weathercock. Jawaharlal royega…” was his prognosis on Article 370 (as also on the decision to take Jinnah’s ‘tribal’ war to the United Nations at the moment that the Indian Army was on the verge of clearing the intruders out). In contrast, Nehru regarded himself as a world class statesman, but events showed him up as having his head in the clouds and clouds in his head.   

Nehru and his protégé Menon willfully disregarded not only these warnings but also developments that should have opened his eyes. Nehru’s India was the first country to recognize the Communist government in China. Nehru pleaded Communist China’s case for UNO’s membership as a permanent (i.e. veto-wielding) member of the Security Council in place of Chiang-Kai-Shek’s Taiwan which called itself Nationalist China. China responded to all this show of goodwill by attacking and annexing Tibet.

Nehru’s handling of Tibet was as scandalously inept as his handling of J&K. Throughout her long history, India virtually had no border with China - it was Tibet all the way from Ladakh in the northwest to Arunachal in the east - barring of course, friendly countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. British India had signed in 1914 a treaty with Tibet as an independent country, formalizing the McMahon Line as the border between India and Tibet. British India had a right, inter alia, to maintain a diplomatic mission and a small garrison in Tibet.

India thus had a direct stake in the independence and stability of Tibet. Disappearance of Tibet as a buffer would bring an aggressive imperialist China right onto our doorstep. Yet, when China gobbled up Tibet, Nehru’s response was pathetic inaction. He lightly surrendered all the rights enjoyed by the British India in Tibet. The least he could have done was to make China recognize McMahon Line as India’s rightful border before recognizing Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. This wishy-washy reaction fuelled Chinese ambitions. As Bhardwaj informs us, an article in the Time on the 1962 war says, “Even the Chinese conquest of Tibet in 1951 had rung no alarm bells in New Delhi - and therein lies the real beginning of the present war.” Interestingly, Bhardwaj quotes all the right sources but draws wrong inferences each time.

“Driven by the realities of leading an infant state, Nehru felt that the best bulwark against communism was cooperation and not confrontation with China,” explains Bhardwaj. What he forgets is that in 1950, China also was an underdeveloped infant state. The hold of the Communist party on the mainland China was precarious. If India had taken a firm stand on Tibet, it would have made a lot of difference. Sensing India’s weakness, China tightened its grip on Tibet and hardened its stand on border dispute with India.

Bhardwaj indeed offers a new perspective when he says that “The main plank on which the foundation of future India-China conflict was erected was the fear generated by the arrival of communism in Asia and the prospects of ensuing red revolution in India.” But he does not explain why China behaved with India the way it did. He says that for their own reasons, neither Americans nor Russians wanted the two Asian countries to get on well. Maybe. But why did the Chinese oblige them, especially when India went out of its way to befriend China?

“This (1959) was also the year when Dalai Lama was brought on horseback and made to settle down in India,” writes Bhardwaj. By whom, we may ask. Bhardwaj suggests that it was American machinations that made Dalai Lama flee his motherland, and not the Chinese atrocities. This is a curious way of describing things, to say the least. It reminds us of what leftist historians call “advent of Islam in India’, making it sound as if Muslims came here as tourists or pilgrims.

Bhardwaj would have us believe that rightist conservative leaders in India wanted India to take an aggressively anti-China line, but Nehru and Menon valiantly and wisely thwarted their efforts. This is just ridiculous. After the death of Sardar Patel in December 1950, Nehru emerged as the undisputed and tallest leader not only in the Congress but in the whole country. Congress was not yet a family business that it became under Indira, but Nehru’s primacy among Congress leaders was never in doubt.

Nehru always retained the ministry of external affairs with himself and had the first and the last word on foreign policy, which he (quite wrongly) regarded as his domain of expertise. He must take the blame for all policy failures. It is no use blaming others. 

Bhardwaj cites Menon’s marathon speech at UN on J&K as an impressive patriotic exercise. Listeners might have viewed it as insufferable demagogy. Does India need an 8-hour speech to articulate its position on J&K? A terse statement outlining basic facts would have been more effective.

Few diplomats in the world have claimed credit for longish speeches. Diplomacy and statesmanship, one thought, was about few but meaningful words. Contrast Menon’s verbosity with Sardar Patel’s frugality with words. Soon after independence, some Akali leaders demanded 3% reservations for Sikhs in the central services. Sardar Patel said he agreed but added that the proposal would apply to the Army also. The Akali leaders saw through the implications and quietly dropped the idea. Qasim Rizvi, leader of Razakars from Nizam’s Hyderabad threatened that they would fight the Indian Union till the last drop of their blood. Sardar replied, after a meaningful pause, “If you want to commit suicide, how can I stop you?”

Bhardwaj seems to fault Mao more for eclipsing Menon’s political career than for attacking India. Even for that, the ultimate blame lies with US. Here is how. Krishna Menon, ‘a rising star in Indian politics’, was despised in Washington for his ‘unflinching faith in Non-Aligned Movement…He could have been easily eliminated but that could have led to the surge in strength of the forces that the USA wanted to curtail...Therefore, Menon was given the proverbial ‘long rope to hang’. In short, Chinese invasion of India was a result of US machinations to finish Menon politically!! How divorced one could be from reality!

Bhardwaj would have us believe that Menon was a political colossus and would have succeeded Nehru as PM but for the Chinese ‘perfidy’. He cites Menon’s electoral victories from Bombay in this context. Nothing can be further from truth.

In the early decades of independence, Congress dominated the political scene. It was the only party with all-India presence and grassroots organization up to village level. In people’s mind it was the party of Mahatma Gandhi which won the country independence. It was said that even a lamp post would get elected on Congress ticket. (Many candidates, no better than lamp post, were in fact elected.) If Menon was such a darling of the masses, one wonders why he could not find a safe place in his home state of Kerala. In the 1962 election, what is remarkable is not that Menon won, but the fact that a non-Congress candidate like Acharya Kriplani could pose such a serious  challenge to one of Nehru’s favourites that Nehru had to personally campaign for his friend and stake his personal prestige to get him elected.

Even without the Chinese debacle, Menon was never a serious candidate for succeeding Nehru. Menon had no political base of his own, his chief asset was his proximity to Nehru which would disappear with Nehru’s departure from the scene, the Syndicate would not back him and there were many stalwarts with freedom struggle credentials and mass base of their own.

Bhardwaj mindlessly repeats the charge, first leveled by American journalist Seymour Hersh and repeated by Vinod Mehta in his book, that Morarji Desai was an American mole in the Indian government who leaked vital cabinet decisions to Americans during the Bangladesh war in 1971. The charge is ludicrous because after the Congress split in 1969, Morarji Desai was no more than an Opposition MP, a persona non grata in government circles for Indira’s antipathy towards him and in no position to know government secrets.

Morarji’s friends in the US sued Hersh for defamation. Hersh could not provide any material to prove his allegations. Yet he went scot free because the plaintiffs could not establish intentional or willful defamation on his part as required under the American law on defamation. Actions can be seen, words can be read or heard, but intention or motivation is always a matter of inference. And inference is not evidence, not in a court of law.

Vinod Mehta repeated the same charge (of being an American mole in the union cabinet) against Yashwantrao Chavan, one of the tallest leaders from Maharashtra, on the front page of The Independent, English daily of the Times of India Group that Mehta then edited. There were angry protests all over Maharashtra, Mehta could produce no credible material to substantiate his charge and, soon, the Times Group had to close down that paper.

“The crushing defeat in a war with communist China not only nipped Menon in the bud but also ensured that in Indian perception the communists became traitors.” It is not perception, Mr. Bhardwaj, it is reality.

Indian leaders, political and military, never thought that China could attack India across Himalayas. They pooh-poohed reports that China was building a road through Indian territory in Aksai Chin. So when the Chinese came calling, Indian leaders were literally caught napping. True, the people and all parties sank their differences and in an unprecedented show of national unity backed the war effort like a rock. Women gave away their mangalsutras for the Defence Fund. Indian soldiers covered themselves with glory through acts of raw courage rooted in patriotism. Many preferred martyrdom to withdrawal.

Their death-defying valour, their patriotic fervour, alas, could not make up for poor leadership and lack of training for warfare in Himalayan terrain. Their cotton uniforms, ordinary boots and outdated rifles of WWII vintage were no match for the highly trained and well equipped Chinese legions. And “one the most intelligent strategist of independent India- VK Krishna Menon” and his mentor Nehru flatly turned down all suggestions to use air force to neutralise China’s superiority on ground. The war started and ended as China wanted it to be.

The dominant discourse in India rightly holds Mao, Nehru and Menon (in that order) as the guilty men of 1962. No amount of whitewashing will do.

The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai
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